Images have always been manipulated. Understanding and embracing this can make you a better photographer, argues Matt Golowczynski
Image by Matt Golowczynski
If you’ve ever developed your own film and printed your images in a darkroom, you’ll no doubt be aware of the degree of control you can exert over the final result.
The developer you use, the length of exposure on the paper, the paper itself – these are the ways in which things like exposure, contrast and acutance are determined. And this is before you introduce additional techniques, which can mask, crop or highlight selected parts of an image.
Indeed, from the very moment you choose what film to use, you’ve already made some decision as to how you want your images to turn out. There’s a good reason why Adobe chose to name its Raw format "Digital Negative" (DNG): the Raw file from a digital camera is no more a finished result than the negative from a roll of film.
Images have never been a perfect reflection of the world around us. Take the earliest portrait lenses, for example, which were characterised by strong vignetting and softness at their peripheries. Despite these effects, no-one would realistically consider images taken with these lenses to be untruthful – no doubt partly because many would consider the effects to be complimentary to the subject.
Modern cameras and lenses are also imperfect instruments. They may do a much better job of reproducing a scene than the equipment of years gone by, but they still have limitations. The photographer who understands and works appropriately around these limitations is so much better off for it.
Many photographers would no doubt be interested to know the extent to which iconic images were manipulated to get them to their finished state. The markings that accompany famous prints from the darkrooms give us an idea of exactly how a photographer would go about improving their image after the initial exposure onto paper.
Commonly this may have been left to someone more skilled with printing than the photographer themselves, in the same way that today’s fashion photographer may have an army of retouchers behind them. In any case, whether you're developing film, adjusting Raws or relying on JPEGs, processing is an inescapable part of the photographic process.
Image by Hannah Wei
Perhaps it’s because printing in a darkroom is a physical process – one that involves working in dark conditions, monitoring temperatures, choosing materials and a degree of trial and error – that it’s seen as more artistically acceptable than moving a few sliders in a piece of software. The limitations of these physical adjustments meant that they were harder to abuse, and software is available to far many more people than would ever be inclined to learn how to print in a darkroom.
Nevertheless, these darkroom processes would too be classed as manipulation, albeit a different sort to what we’re used to today. We have far greater control over processing than ever, and this is where the problem lies. It’s not the manipulation of images that most people object to, more a general inability to know when to stop.
Someone who is skilled with a camera is not necessarily adept with Photoshop. Be it a portrait with inexplicably glowing, flawless skin, or the oversaturated skies and seas used to advertise holidays, there are far too many examples of bad processing around (and many amusing blogs as testament to this).
Those who do not habitually process images may have perfectly valid reasons for not doing so besides simply attempting to get it right in camera. For some it may be a simple rejection of the additional time and effort that post-processing requires. Yet, the fact that many photographers opt to shoot in Raw format for the sake of image quality means that they accept that there is only so much they can get right in camera.
Image by Jeff Sheldon
The standard of JPEGs produced by modern cameras is certainly impressive, and perfectly fine for everyday use, but these files are limited by design. Raw files are intentionally far more malleable; if you can use software to tease out a little more detail from their highlights, fix a little distortion or clone away a few stray hairs from a portrait, you’re in no way a worse photographer because of it. Indeed, all of this simply makes you a more capable one.
By trying to get this right using the camera’s controls alone, you automatically accept the camera’s limitations and place more faith in the camera rather than yourself to get it right. A camera’s LCD screen is not the best guide for critical adjustments, falling far short of what a calibrated monitor in a controlled environment can offer.
None of this should excuse sloppy technique, of course. If, for example, you haven't taken the time to properly compose your image then you only have yourself to blame when you can't achieve the symmetry and balance you want in post-processing. Furthermore, capturing a split-second moment is something that often requires forethought, pre-focusing and careful timing.
By understanding the limitations of your equipment, and by knowing how much further you can take things yourself, you stand to improve your technique. If close scrutiny of your images reveals a lens to be mis-focusing, you can take steps to correct this in-camera. Or, if your processing tends to give rise to noisy shadow areas, you may opt to bracket images or use exposure compensation in more difficult conditions. Such things can be much harder to appreciate without looking closely at images on a larger display.
Ultimately, someone or something has to process your images, so it may as well be you. The engineers that decided how a camera would respond what it sees did not know exactly how much shadow detail you wanted under that rock, or just how vibrant you wanted the blues in the landscape colour mode to be. Only you do. By embracing image editing you can recognise that it is not only a valuable way to understand and circumvent the limitations of your equipment but, more importantly, a further way to continue the storytelling process of your images.
About the Author
Matt Golowczynski is a London-based photographer and technical journalist who has written for a range of print and online magazines. For more information and to see more of his work visit his website.
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