#722. Monday Quickie (14 May 2018) – In defense of digital manipulation

By pascaljappy | Monday Post

May 14

Is nothing sacred anymore? First a mention of stripping the Monday Post of its “regular” status. Then this sacrilegious title. And all in defense of a sinful photographic activity : digital manipulation.


The mind, it boggleth, Light Bearer.


The puritan attitude of many juries and critics of photography has always been a source of irritation to me (minor irritation, more like a itch). Because photography is the recording of a scene rather than a from-scratch rendering on a piece of canvas, it somehow has to be truthful and editing-free. I don’t have time in this Monday Quickie to enumerate all the reasons for which this feels absurd to me, but here are some of the major ones :

  • Photography is the recording of a scene. Good photography is the interpretation of a scene, using a camera.
  • Many high-end cameras produce very dull RAW files that need massaging to be presentable. Strait out of bed, Marilyn was just Norma Jeanne.
  • B&W rules. Sadly, the world is in colour.
  • Competitions don’t always bring out the best in us. Let’s not always play by the book.
  • Our world is spiraling into a sad politically correctness that only helps better hide the animals lurking within.

Nothing I haven’t already written on this blog, but it was all brought back to life by this PetaPixel article : How to Edit Photos like Steve McCurry: The Art of Removing Distractions.


Ajar (no jam) – Banksy


The article essentially presents examples of harmless editing and reasons for doing so (for those unaware of Steve McCurry’s bad rap for digital editing, the article also points you to a recap). In a nutshell, the elimination of visual distractions in order to come closer to fine art photography. From the conclusion : “Removing distractions is one of the best ways to keep the attention on your subject, and polish an image to fine art status.”

The interesting thing is that while I agree with the premise entirely (Removing distractions is one of the best ways to keep the attention on your subject), the edits show in the article are not those I would have performed myself. A polished look is one thing, but a story is far more important. My rule would be : edit the photograph so as to tell the story that reflects your perception of the scene. Imperfections and distractions might actually come in handy for that.




So what does that mean ?

To each his de profundis mentis own, that’s what it means. Editing would be cheating if it led from one reality to a universally accepted ideal. It don’t. It merely reflects the personal preferences of an author. Not even Recep Tayyip Trumputin has been bold enough (yet) to attempt to wipe away our personal mental preferences. Are we (the photographic community) going to self-inject the kallocaine and self-inflict that mutilation to our creativity ?

Digital Manipulation Rules, OK !


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  • Jens says:

    Manipulation rules from the moment you select your subject, chose a perspective, frame it and press the button.

  • Steve says:

    Pascal, I’m with you. The “just record the scene as it is” community make a profound basic, but incorrect assumption – that there is some sort of objective reality “out there”. It’s all bollox, innit? We apply our preferred presets, conscious and unconscious, to all the data we receive from our senses, presets built by biology, culture, parenting, the list is endless. What about the colour blind? The manipulation starts long before we even pick up the camera. The idea that we should somehow decide on a point that is “real” and call it a day is just plain dumb. And needlessly restrictive creatively. I enjoy the, “what happens if I do this?” with my camera and software. Most of it turns out to be yuk! But occasionally something interesting happens and I can explore for a while. I guess I’m just naturally curious.

    • pascaljappy says:

      All bllox, t’is 😉 Exploration is part of learning and, to me at least, 90% of the fun. Maybe we’re in the wrong hobby, maybe photography ain’t meant to be fun 😉

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    How can I possibly comply with the requirements of the critics? Let me see – at the moment, I have 4 cameras (or is it 5) – I think they have about 9 or 10 lenses between them – oops, no, it’s about a dozen – then there are various “filters” (some of which do things to change light, others to reduce some part of the light, and others just protect the lenses). Which camera to select? – and which lens do I plug into it? Do I use auto? – manual? – aperture priority? – shutter priority? Am I allowed or denied the right to use a tripod, or any form of artificial lighting? Or reflectors?

    Oh Gawd! I suppose the thought police will be after me all over again, when I pull the memory cards out of the camera and transfer all the files to the computer. Am I allowed to use RAW files, or must I use the JPEGs instead? And which post processing system am I allowed to use? – which functions on it can I apply to my images?

    Oh bugger – forgot to ask – do I have to use a 30 second exposure and get a waterfall that looks like custard is being poured over the Niagara Falls? – or a 2000th of a second, to freeze the falling water in midair, so it actually LOOKS like a waterfall? – which is manipulation and which isn’t? This is turning perverted – I’m getting the uncomfortable feeling that manipulation begins in the womb. Or maybe even earlier! [BLUSH!]

    Is HDR allowed? – or stackshots in Macro? – can I eliminate the people from the scene (without resorting to firearms), by multiple exposures & merger? – how can I possibly create a panorama, any longer, if these rules are to be enforced? HELP!

    This stuff gives me headaches.

    I have a much better idea. I’ll do as I damn well please, and to hell with the people who generate these opinions about everyone and everything. They should all be in old folks’ homes, or playing croquet or lawn bowls, or ANYTHING that keeps them out of sight and out of mind.

    PS – I think Pascal floated this idea just to bait me, and see if I reacted !!!!

    • pascaljappy says:

      You leave me no choice but to call the thought police ! And to write a follow up, which I will tomorrow 🙂

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      Flowing or falling water…
      1/2000s , 30s , NOoo!
      Neither looks like water. (To me.)

      Perhaps a moderate 1/50s or 1/200s ?
      You can see the droplets…
      You can see they move…
      Just my two pennies worth…

      ( Well, that water bated me.. 🙂 )

  • Bruno Chalifour says:

    As we all know there is manipulation and manipulation. The question is when do you call a photograph a photograph and when is it manipulated enough to call it something else which does not have a single word for it so let us say photography-based image. There are differences that photojournalism ought to respect and that professional ethical journalists do respect (there is also a difference between fact.news and “fake”news. Same difference. Trying to stay on either bank of the conversation “purists”/conservationists/ (and not “puritan” by the way) and “open”/”modernists”/olease no defintion guys ;o) What amuses me is that these types or debates are far from being new and “modern” and they are just, most of the time, just a waste of time. Just do what you want your photography to be, let the public, your friend, neighbor, clientele, decide what they think it is (inform them so that they can have informed views). The fact remains there are many different types of photography, what makes it tricky is its relationship to an “objective” visual world. The same is valid for writing. There are factual writing (your camera manual), journalism, essays, novels, and poetry… what define them is their relationship with “facts”/information from which can based an “informed” opinion, then we have interpreted facts that reflect their producers’ opinions more and more as they take “liberties” or lie with facts (taking liberties means your audience is aware of your “opinion”/”manipulation” ; lie… your audiences is not aware of what they are reading/looking at). There is a difference and there are degrees between these two poles difference of the production of information and meaning. For everybody’s sake it should be acknowledged. Virtual reality is ok but it clearly says it is virtual, to which I personally prefer the relationship I entertain with reality (‘realationship! ;o). The non-virtual one whatever it may be… at least we know it is different from what we call “virtual”. Beaudrillard and his hyper-real is an interesting reading in deed but none the less I know when I am eating a “real” apple from my “real” apple-tree. The same goes for photography I guess. Live and let live, calling names is just that (and by the way all the more “fake” news when we do not use the right words and provide an erroneous information to other who think they are dealing with reliable information, “puritans” included! All the best…

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hear hear. All those comments have opened up new thoughts and I will follow up with a second article tomorrow.

      Relationship is indeed the master keyword here. I called it connection in past posts but we mean the same thing. People lose sight of what matters and see only the surface.

      Beaudrillard … interesting, thanks. Will have a read of that if possible. In a different line of thought, Magritte comes to mind as well.

    • Steffen says:

      I like the term “interpreted photography” then.

  • Bruno Chalifour says:

    To the reader of the text above, be informed, I should have proofread my text but did not have the time for it. Which does not mean I was being “creative” with it, just sloppy and ignoring quality for the sake of expediency (not ignorance on my part unfortunately, as reading the published text confirmed). My sincere apologies… as I valued my time over yours. [a lesson to be extrapolated should anyone wish to do so…]

  • Cliff Whittaker says:

    Cheers for Pete Guaron. I couldn’t have said it better myself so I won’t try. Thank you.

  • Bill Langford says:

    Even National Geo. got into hot water for moving the pyramids. NOT acceptable for journalism. MM in the center of Playboy, and all else is fair game. Simple.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Wow, they did that ? It doesn’t bother me, but it does stagger me that they thought they could get away with not revealing that they had. Never understimate the intelligence of your readers. Recent meme, but timeless truth.

  • Rudi says:

    I have no issues with minor manipulation as long as the integrity of the image remains as such, warts an all…bit of straightening, crop, bit of contrast…all ok for me.
    Yadda yadda here he goes again..after 40 years of print and pre press etc etc yadda yadda boooooring get off your soap box Rudi…I have seen images as part of articles for both glamour and record that bear little resemblance to the reality because it’s been photoshopped to death…half the models I would not recognize but hey, that’s what the consumer wants…who needs consumers…oh wait we do, they pay..

    • pascaljappy says:

      Yes, they pay. And it’s a rare company indeed who tells customers what they need rather than follow sheepishly. Apple stands out, there are probably others but not many. What I find shocking is that some of those models are made to look so skinny they would have to be seriously ill to look like that in real life. So it’s not OK to remove a lamp post from a competition entry but it’s OK to promote anorexia for money ? Hmmm …

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Until the anorexia issue gets so bad that it becomes an international health scandal, and some – not all – fashion magazines start refusing to publish photos projecting such an image of “female beauty”. Sadly, anorexia is a heavy price for an aspiring young model to pay for her career successes – because it can cause the body’s metabolism to shut down in irreparable ways, causing a [shortened] lifetime of chronic poor health.
        At best, it represents a triumph of “opinion” over common sense. But as Rudi says, money rules, OK?
        No it’s not OK – but fighting it means you have to be prepared to be sidelined. I had a similar experience a while back – some foreign investors took control of the board of a company I was involved with, and shortly afterwards informed me that my services were no longer required – their reason being that they took exception to me suggesting that they were expected to comply with Australia’s laws regulating corporations and their executives.
        It seems it’s the same wherever you go, these days – photographers face it like anybody else. So I’m no longer waiting for virtue to triumph over evil – I just kick evil where it hurts and keep going.

  • NMc says:

    To be fair to the competitions and the judges; their competition- their rules.
    If you want different rules, look for a competition with rules you agree with. It is a bit like rocking up for a game of soccer and your team demanding that the off-side rule be changed to your liking.

    Increasingly when I read “processed to taste” it seems to read “processed to my taste and if you have a problem with that then you are welcome go elsewhere” 😉 .

    As with the previous discussion about composite photographs, just state what you have done if you are in an environment that takes these things seriously, simples!

    Regards Noel

    • pascaljappy says:

      Exactly : “just state what you have done if you are in an environment that takes these hings seriously”.

      It’s not really about competitions. There are more serious issues in competitions than the “no editing rules” anyway. It’s merely the fact that they reflect a worldview according to which photographs should somehow be an honest reflection of reality rather than a personal creation. I’ll write a follow up to this to explain my feelings in greater detail.

      Cheers, Pascal

  • Adam Bonn says:

    Image manipulation certainly isn’t new… from the victorians scratching out double chins on plate glass negatives or painting in parts that didn’t get exposed properly

    Many cameras (especially Fujifilm) offer a few/many different colour and black and white modes, so which is real, Panasonic’s natural mode, or Fujifilm’s Astia? Which is real, Adobe standard or camera manufacturer embedded?

    All BW photography is in real life manipulation

    It’s all down to personl taste really.. cloning out dust spots that are on your sensor is manipulating an image back to reality, cloning out those distant birds that look like dust spots is altering reality… it’s all about the same amount of work in post

    Using split toning to create that golden sun rise light that you actually slept through probably isn’t the most deceitful thing that’s ever happened, photoshopping in the millennium falcon flying past the eiffel tower might be pushing your luck…

    Someone recently won (and was subsequently disqualified from) a nature photo competition, for using a stuffed ant eater…. That’s cheating… but not photographically… probably should of entered it into taxidermist monthly instead though…

    I think that a photo just has to be what you say it is… a photo itself always stops being real a nanosecond after the shutter closes (or about a week if you’re an M9 shooter)

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