#738. Monday Post (18 June 2018) – More on digital manipulation, Bruckner and Bitcoin !

By pascaljappy | Monday Post

Jun 18

In the absence of comment-worthy photographic news, this Monday Post turns into yet another exposition of my favourite photographic biases: all photographs are lies, photography is utterly subjective, just let’s allow digital manipulation in the photo world. In exposing this to the world, I feel a little like the little creature below.



You needn’t read the rest, now that I have spoilt the ending. But, for those with time on their hands, I’d like to elaborate a little further than in this initial article. First of all, here’s the enemy I’m fighting, that concept that, just because the camera is an objective tool, users are expected to depict reality as it is (exhibit A). A corollary of which is to perform all of the work prior to using it, and very little in PP.

To me, this is wrong on so many levels that the post has to present non-photographic arguments alongside more conventional ones.

  • Let’s start traditional. Exhibit A is hetesy. Heresy in blatant contraction to Ansel Adams’ wonderful idea that the negative is the score while the print is the performance in the concert hall. Are we supposed to conclude that John Elliot Gardiner is the only authorised conductor of baroque music because he has it played on period instruments. And that Sergiu Celibidache and Wilhelm Furtwangler were both worthless because they took different paths to interpreting Bruckner ?
  • Then, there is the fact that the camera weilders who perform huge amounts of work before the shot (outside a studio) tend to be cinematographers and artists such as Gregory Crewdson, ie those who fabricate their reality most. Even Andreas Gursky, known for his large-format work on formal arrangement of scenes encountered (rather than fabricated) relies heavily on digital manipulation to “to edit and enhance his pictures, as well as for the purpose of increasing the apparent scope of his subject in terms of size”.
  • And, finally, may I ask “what is reality” ? What too many competitions are doing is promoting photographs that will appeal to the greatest number rather than celebrate original thought and worldviews. They might as well surrender immediately to Instagram as no prize they have to offer can compete with the ultimate ego cocaine fix that is wide scale social recognition. So, seriously, what is reality? Obi-Wan has told us our eyes deceive us and Neo confirms that abundantly, but beyond spirituality-infused Sci-Fi, if you and I both travel to a refugee camp, will we see that same thing? Will our photographs be the same? Only in workshops do photographs of the many (the students) resemble the photographs of the one (the teacher). Reality is an illusion, not just in Star Wars and Yoga texts but in our every day life.


Some see the brand, others see the gold, others see the scratches, others see the price, others see the tourbillon, some see the odd seconds hand, … no two photographers will want to process it in the same manner.


Coco Channel objected to short skirts. “Who on Earth would want to see an ugly articulation?” (speaking of the knee). Some react in the same way to seing the innards of a watch, as if holding the guts of a dead fish. Others will feel an almost fetishist attraction to the tourbillon in this Jeager-LeCoultre.

Yes, there are many photographers who have produced masterpieces without resorting to post processing. But (1) they are a small minority and (2) requiring this of all togs is similar to requiring all students to be good at maths and physics (the so-called important topics without which you have no academic future in many countries). Are juries and critics just bullying competitors because they were bullied academically into thinking that their topic is an inferior one ? If so, time to grow up, maybe ?

At least, making it clear that photographs must be editing free has a simple elegant clarity to it. But more often, we are expected to draw a fuzzy line between acceptable manipulation and unacceptable manipulation. Let’s follow that road. I’m guessing tonal manipulations are allowed, because the great masters of old (read film-era, the dichotomy is that simplistic in the mind of many critics of manipulation) all did it. Do you think this is exactly what Eilean Donan looked like when I visited? (Seconds later aliens flew in and it was only through the intervention the Avengers that’s I’m able to write this today). All this image received is tonal editing and yet it is far less realistic that if I’d only cloned out the flag and pole.



This, by the way, is how the scene was recorded by my camera. Dust spots, underexposure, colour cast and all.



So, where do we draw the line ? Here’s how I understand it.

  • Tonal editing is OK because it absolutely preserves the truth of the situation. Well, in a world where content matters more than form, I guess … But isn’t that super sad in an artistic pursuit ?
  • Spotting is already dodgy. Right on that 3 mile wide no man’s land that no one on Earth can define properly but so many feel free to use to dogmatically reject the work of others. There’s a spot in the clouds on the right. To be an honest and thorough photographer, maybe I should clean my sensor before every shot. But I’m not so I used the cloning tool in CaptureOne instead.


Castle Tioram panorama, Scotland – Samsung Galaxy S9, so we’re safe.


  • Panoramas ? Hmmm given the mathematics involved in the stitching of individual frames, a lot of foreground-background relative strength can be added or removed by the software. So, maybe panoramas made on the fly using smartphones are OK but not those assembled in camera ? Sounds stupid but, given how many of the multitude of post-processing popping up every month have turned their backs to the oh-so-desirable feature of stitching, I’d say that’s a pretty widespread view in the industry. Sad.
  • Removing small distractions. Over the line for most people. Adding objects even more so. While the first can be understood as a desire to clean up an image and only frowned upon “because you should have been more careful”, the latter is clearly understood as an intention to manipulate the meaning of the image. Once again, I don’t think the situation is a clear-cut as that. In the scene below, a homeless person is watching a protest organised by a profession that most of France feels is over-priviledged. It could have made for a very powerful photograph had I been willing to stick my smartphone in the homeless woman’s face and aim for the crowd. I wasn’t. Would it be ethically worse to digitally edit that photograph to make the homeless person more prominent than to show her no respect and shove a camera up her nostrils ? So were do you draw the line ? (I draw the line in thinking the photograph isn’t needed to prove the situation existed. I can write about it and people can read about it).


It goes on and becomes more and more interesting the further up the editing scale you move. I used to work with Daniel, a very talented 3D artist. Get this : he’d pay models and photograph them naked, then dressed them up virtually and surrounded them with exquisite invented scenery. The models loved the photographs so much that they ended up sending naked pictures of themselves for free so that he could continue creating more imagery (they were pros and, for him, too expensive for repeat sessions). In that final scenario, there was no photography involved in Daniel’s work. Initially, there was. The final images looked identical. Where do you draw the line ?

Like pretty much any topic you care to think about in today’s world, it’s all about TRUST !

If you’re willing to pull the thread to its very end, all of this amounts to a simple matter of trust. We live in a super high trust society. But we think we live in a low trust society. Not a day goes by that you don’t make 100 life-threatening situations without even thinking about it because the trust built into the fabric of our society is so incredibly advanced. When someone gets killed at a malfunctioning traffic lights, it’s a one in a 100 million chance and makes TV. Traffic lights and our response to them are trust mechanisms that allow us to travel. When your captain tells you about your flight, there is no mention of”hopefully, we’ll get there safe” because planes are super-super high-trust vehicles and companies operating them are super super high trust companies (in spite of what the TV says). Your bank, hate it as you might, is a super super high trust establishment. The food you eat isn’t poisoned. It’s often poison, but that’s 100% your choice (sugar, caffeine, salt, pesticides, hormones …) not a defect or misconduct.


A photograph of nothing, still heavily edited


Bitcoin, on the other hand, is a currency based entirely on lack of trust. It’s a based on buggy software, for one thing. But, mostly, the underlying blockchain (while a brilliant a useful idea) hinges on replacing the trust we place in ourselves and in institutions by trust in an algorithm. Is that the world you want to herald ? If not, then trust photographers will do the right thing. If someone cheats, no one died, no biggie. Their loss, really.

Besides, we have an eye for truth. Most extreme editing is going to look ridiculous. If you’re organising a competition, why not explain why you aspire to see non edited photographs and let the photographer decide what to do and explain it in his/her submission. The jury can then judge the photograph and the process.

So, all in all, I can’t think of a single good reason to forbid digital editing in photographs and there are tons of pretty obvious bad ones. It’s really a matter of trust respect and being willing to investigate a situation properly rather than rely on a bureaucratic rule that cannot be put into application in a fair and deterministic way.

Or am I missing something ?


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  • Cliff Whittaker says:

    I finished with this topic a few years ago. I’m no longer approached about it or asked about it. When I started digital photography in 2005 I was finally able to do things with my photographs that I had always wanted to do but couldn’t in the darkroom. I took some pointed criticism at our gallery from several local “names” in photography until I had had enough. Then I told them this: I make pictures with the hope of creating art, not forensic records. These are my pictures and my art and I will do anything I want with them as long as it pleases ME. I really don’t give a rat’s @$$ what you think about it. That pretty well ended the discussion and I was never again asked to join the “friends of photography”.
    But I do draw a personal line of acceptance/exclusion in “manipulation”. My feeling is that if it is noticeable then I will mentally reject that photograph. If it is manipulated to hell and back with Audie Murphy and I can’t tell it then it is fine with me. :))

    • pascaljappy says:

      That’s it nailed in one word: noticeable. If the editing becomes obvious, all is lost (unless that was the point, for some strange reason). Other than that, it’s all fair play to me, provided we are honest about editing rather than trying to hide it.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    This article is all about personal preferences, I think, Pascal.

    And with it comes one of my favourites – people who have that ghastly social disease “opinion-itis”! πŸ™‚ Someone introduced me to a cure for that disease, last week – it’s call “having a point of view”, instead of an “opinion” – which then leads on to a sensible, pleasant, generally fruitful and – in particular – adult conversation or discussion, instead of a blazing argument over practically-nothing-at-all.

    That of course is what you’re doing – seeking a sensible adult discussion, instead of the usual catalogue of opinions that wouldn’t change even if the four horsemen of the Apocalypse rode up and joined in the fight.

    If I am right in thinking that you would like to know what we think on the issues you raise, that’s easy. I don’t have an opinion – except that nobody else should have one, either. We all go to the devil on our own terms. It’s like asking the little old lady what she thought about homosexuality, and her answer was simply “I don’t care what they do, as long as they don’t do it on the street and frighten the horses”. So if someone else wants to make Dali-esque stretch marks in a photo – DO it – and don’t go round belligerently asking everyone else to agree, because that’s a denial of THEIR right to grab hold of a program that’s being released within a month, which enables you to alter perspectives – dunno how that’ll work, but if it does, we’ll only need one lens and the program can turn the result into anything from ultra-wide angle to super telephoto! Or anything else they want to get up to – like the 5,000 frames I took a while back to create some stackshots that were almost more realistic than the real thing itself.

    Bitcoin is another thing altogether. One, it’s non-existent. It’s simply like that paper stuff they used to put in a game of Monopoly, called “Monopoly money”. Outside the square it’s just a delusion. The fascinating thing is, people use REAL money to buy this non-existent junk, because there’s a whole machine out there making them BELIEVE in it – believe they can trade it – give up their jobs, and become Uber-rich, like Zuckerburg and the rest of them. A Ponzi scheme on a scale I’ve never before witnessed. And to my astonishment, there doesn’t appear to be a government in the world that’s considering putting an end to this nonsense. Heaps of the promoters – I won’t say all of them, I haven’t met any of them, so I can’t be that nasty about it all – but I’ve read enough to know that what this sentence will eventually say is quite correct – heaps of them are simply fraudulent – get in, train the mugs out there to send their cash in to buy some bitcoins, and once you have enough, disappear. Easiest game in the world – nothing new about it. Bitcoin exchanges all over the place are freezing up or vanishing like that, all the time – the only thing that isn’t changing is the fact that the fools are falling over themselves in their headlong rush to hand over their money. Some win – some of the bitcoin exchanges are actually honest, to my complete amazement – it seems there finally IS something new under the sun, after all. πŸ™‚ If you want any advice from me on Bitcoins, it’s simple – DON’T. Otherwise, you are quite likely to find you would have made more money washing dishes in a McDonalds burger joint.

    If you’re asking about my photograph – so far the only time I’ve ever merged images was in stackshots or panoramas – I’ve yet to change the sky, although I have an accumulation of sky shots I could use to do it – and since I abandoned LR and started using mainly Capture One Pro, there’s been a substantial reduction in both the type and the amount of post processing that my photos (or I) require. In fact, what little there is, is mostly repeating the same settings, rather than manipulating a particular image. And DxO ViewPoint, where I straighten up the verticals in most (not all) shots that have strong verticals. But even 60 years ago, I had a mini-laboratory of B&W or colour dies and fine tipped brushes, for retouching – and a battery of shapes on sticks, for dodging during the enlargement process.

    If anyone out there is trying to tell you they don’t post process or retouch, it’d probably be about as truthful as a gorgeous blonde aged over 40 trying to tell you that her hair was all natural and she never used any makeup. Yeah, honey – by the way, my name’s Hugh Heffner – how would you like to have dinner with me, at my house, tonight? πŸ™‚

    PS – Ansell Adams was famous for the effort he put into “manipulation” during the printing process. Isn’t there a saying that the last honest man on earth was nailed to the cross, with a sign saying INRI over his head?

    • pascaljappy says:

      I like that point of view/opinion dichotomy. In architecture and management there is a similar one between recipe and plan. As I discuss elsewhere in these comments, it’s a similar story (in this instance) as what vs how. On the one hand something open to personal interpretation, on the other something stubborn and unyielding. In a creative hobby, my guess is we’re better off with the former.

      Ansel Adams was also known for changing his … point of view … on the printing of his own negatives over time. Strict rules would have forbidden that. “Now, there Mr Adams, be reasonable. You printed that on Grade 2 glossy 30 years ago, we can’t have you using Grade 3 satin today. That wouldn’t be acceptable” πŸ˜‰

  • NMc says:

    I think you lost me with the bitcoin analogy. Bitcoin is for doing unlawful things, avoiding tax, running drugs/arms, laundering money and funding terrorism, trust is not involved anonymity is. It is the product/service for sale, yes they allow it to be used for lawful activity as well but that is not what makes it survive. If someone gets your bank pass word and login they risk getting caught withdrawing cash or leaving a digital trail. If someone gets you bitcoin details you have no chance of any recovery.

    Just curious how is Daniel classifying his work? Painting, modelling, photography or perhaps digital art?

    Anyway similar to what I wrote previously, if you are trying to hide something or are just avoiding letting people know what you have done then you look like you are admitting that the work is somehow flawed possibly even fraudulent. It takes a lot of work to establish trust/respect, however only a small omission of truth is required to lose it.
    Regards Noel

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Noel,

      Trust is central to our lives, so that’s what all of this revolves around. A photographer being deceitful is breaking trust and should be excluded from trust-based circles such as competitions and forums. But I also think photographers should be trusted to do the right thing, by default. It’s better to have the occasional liar than to set rules that stifle creativity.

      Bitcoin? Well, it’s based on a technical foundation called blockchain that basically says : “humans shouldn’t be trusted. Banks shouldn’t be trusted. The middle man shouldn’t be trusted. Instead, trust an algorithm”. That is a flawed basis to work on as we should always trust humans by default. In every place where trust is protected and promoted, civilisation flourishes. Blockchain proposes to replace this trust in institutions (however imperfect) with trust in a system which is theoretically flawless but terribly compromised in the real world and so vastly inefficient it is burning up energy faster than entire countries.

      I was just referring to Bitcoin because, to me at least, enforcing rules that use as their premise the fact that photographers cannot be trusted, is just as bad as anything Bitcoin has done.

      All the best,

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    “It’s really a matter of trust respect and being willing to investigate a situation properly rather than rely on a bureaucratic rule that cannot be put into application in a fair and deterministic way.”

    Agreed, but…
    There will, I think, always be both “art photos” and “reality photos” in any photo competition.
    Now, how to judge? Any (except possibly an expertise) audience would demand stronger rulings for
    “reality photos”, or?
    – – –

    Yes, it is about trust.
    And it is also about people, a feather and five hens.
    But people in the audience find trust or lose trust for different reasons, and lost trust takes a long time to find again.

    And there is this fuzzy borderline you mention, Pascal.
    A Swedish wildlife photographer faced a scandal for faking photos of animals in captivity for wildlife photos.
    ( His reason? He was originally very successful and soon demand far exceeded his production … he made one fake, and then just had to go on..)

    The images – I play safe by avoiding the word “photo” here, were well made and realistic.
    Then, so what?
    If you have seen (e.g.) a wolf in a certain place but couldn’t make a photo and take a similar zoo photo and clone it into your environment photo, how big is the lie, really? (And I don’t mean the lie about the process but the lie about the wolf.)

    BUT, captive animals often show a very different body language, so I guess there may have been some seriously false information there!

    Now, I believe the real reason for the size of the scandal was, that people having imagined him toiling in the wilderness – and dreamed themselves there – simply felt cheated!

    Or consider just removing a distraction.
    If the photo illustrates an article, then there is no room for a comment on that removal, or such a comment will be simply forgotten. And when rumors get about about this photographer removing things (think: H. C. Andersen, one feather -> five hens), many will start wondering how much, or even “if”, his/hers photos show reality.

    Suppose the photographer does both reportage and art photography? (The hyaenas are starting to howl..)

    ( I’ve recently seen a couple of articles on the i’net about that, the discussed removals were to my mind mostly of negligible importance but were taken very seriously.
    Though a couple of images deserved, I think, discussion; in one e.g. a boy had been edited out of a running crowd because the context was harder to see otherwise, but if HE saw the photo he would probably have been hurt.)
    – – –

    And the more important question, which you also mention, Pascal – how, and why did the photographer choose this or that angle or perspective, and what did THAT (intentionally) exclude or exaggerate –
    is almost never considered!

    And that is an often discussed problem in journalism – why then so seldom in photography?

    Perhaps because images hit us more emotionally, while text or talk invite more to critical analysis?
    – – –

    [ Btw., isn’t removing a dust spot only reducing a camera artifact, like noise reduction or sharpening?

    Perhaps a really dusty sensor can mimic rain – or removes it when the spots are cloned out? πŸ™‚ ]

    • pascaljappy says:

      Interesting, Kristian. This raises so many questions.

      Our craving for the spectacular, rather than the real.
      The difficulty for photographers to make a good living.
      Our fear of falling after reaching summits.

      I agree with you that the line is very fuzzy. In those circumstances, what good management (and the Army) does, and what I believe competition organisers should do, is state intent rather than rules.

      Intent is all about *what* we want to achieve. Rules are all about *how* we want to achieve that. To me, a photo competition should be all about the *what* and never about the *how*. The *what* is very different in photojournalism and in art photography. It’s up to the photographer accepting the challenge to figure out the *how*.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        “The *what* is very different in photojournalism and in art photography.”

        Exactly, and also in, say, more descriptive photos and in more abstract photos.
        And both are likely to appear in the same competition, no matter how the theme is written. So how to judge?

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Ah, Biskit DOES feel at home and trusts it.
    (First photo.)

    Just wait till he/she begins finding secret hiding places – a table tennis ball or the equivalent of a crumpled cigarette package used to find our cats.
    (Second photo)
    – – –

    I find forests even easier to give a sinister look…
    (Photo 4 & 5)
    – – –

    [ My favourite cat stories:
    Kipling, The Cat That Walked by Himself, from Just so Stories.
    Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.]

    • pascaljappy says:

      Oh boy, a kitten is entropy wrapped in fur …

      It gives us plenty of giggles … and plenty of broken stuff to replace πŸ˜‰

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        So Long as Biskit doesn’t feel laughed at, that can make a cat cross for a long time (as you probably know, πŸ™‚ ).

        ( And I’ve seen grown cats lightly jumping up on high fully laid tables without touching anything.)

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Have cats replaced bicycles on DS? If you Google DS the first page lists various sites that couple bicycles to DS, and even a page of photos of (mostly) bicycles, for DS. After my brother died, mum “inherited” his cat and later, both she and I got one – but I’m more a dog man (in fact, the locals here call me “the dog man” behind my back!) I wouldn’t go as far as Jame Thurber (“I am not a cat man, but a dog man, and all felines can tell this at a glance – a sharp, vindictive glance.”), but spending half a lifetime with big dogs does alter one’s perspective.

      Pascal, one of the attractions of being an amateur photographer is that you can do as you please – you don’t have to satisfy “other people’s opinions” (or “points of view”). There’s a freedom of expression – just as a 3-year old at the beach can throw off all his/her clothes, splash around in the water, and happily play there, without the adult burdens of inhibitions, social mores, acceptance & acceptability, and so on. And a freedom to explore – no clients to satisfy, no “rules of the competition” to satisfy, no audience to satisfy. Just “do it” – and with digital that has been given a supercharger! Think outside the square? – il va sans dire. And candid, street & available light photography encourage this – encourage a fresh approach, encourage originality – encourage people to develop “the eye”, so they can spot things worthy of a “photograph”, and develop enhanced skills at composition.

      • pascaljappy says:

        Ah, well … our resident cyclist has taken a regrettable leave of absence and we have just been given a kitten. Hence the recent change of fetishism on DS. That and me having no time to go out into the world to make ‘real’ photographs.

        It’ll change, eventually πŸ˜‰

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