Digital Manipulation in Photography

12.10.10 | Comment Below

Photography as an art form.
Is photography an art form? That can be debated, but I’m going to accept that most photography, perhaps with the notable exception of news journalism, is a form of art in the same league as painting, sculpture, collage, wood-carving, pottery, neon, jewelry-making, glass-blowing, tattoo-making, and others.

If we accept most photography as an art form, what distinguishes it from the other forms of art? One unique aspect of photography lies in its root words: photo = light, and graphy = writing; photography is writing with light. Light affects a photo-sensitive material or device (usually film or sensor), and this then forms an image (chemically on film and digitally on an electronic recording device and eventually on a computer screen). Both of these are often in turn translated to paper for easier viewing.

Another distinguishing aspect of photography is that it captures a moment, unlike any of the other art forms that don’t concern themselves with a specific moment in time. It is this aspect of photography that the general public understands and appreciates. It’s seen in photographs of family gatherings, children and students in school groups and annual yearbooks, formal portraits, wedding albums, and similar life events and markings of the passage of time. Painting may capture these events as well, but paintings don’t pretend to be an immediate depiction of a specific moment as does a photograph.

A final distinguishing aspect of photography is that, at least initially, it captures a moment in time in a realistic way. The object in front of the film or sensor reflects photons back to the photo-capturing device (nearly always a camera) in a manner that the initial image is a relatively true representation of that object (“relatively” because many things can distort the photons along their path to the film or sensor, and different films can react in different manners to these photons). Film and sensors do have limitations, in that they often can’t capture a broad range of light, and often the range of light being reflected back to the camera is beyond the capabilities of the film or sensor to record. In addition, sometimes light may fall on the film/sensor for several seconds, minutes, or even hours. When the exposure to light is extended in time, events such as movement of the subject are recorded over that period of time. The blur of a speeding car, the silky smoothness of a waterfall, and trails of stars across several hours of a nighttime sky are good examples of a moment that is long enough for the object being recorded to change during that “moment.” Despite these exceptions, photography can be distinguished from other art forms by its relatively realistic initial depiction of whatever was photographed. The exceptions that can be identified don’t wholly negate this particular characteristic of photography.

The decisive moment.
Henri Cartier-Bresson is famous for his photographs that capture the “decisive moment,” that moment when random actions intersect in a single instant to make a photograph that is aesthetically appealing, or that best expresses an emotion, or that embodies the spirit of the place or time. It’s the moment when a scene is at its photographic best, when the light is “just right” and when the compositional elements are “just right.” Cartier-Bresson said that photography is not like painting. He said there is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture — your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Cartier-Bresson said, “Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

While the decisive moment is often applied to people and the world involving humans, it can be applied to nature and landscape photography as well. Jack Dykinga, a notable large-format landscape photographer, has said that landscape sometimes is all about the decisive moment. It occurs when the light is at the right angle and intensity, when the clouds and wind are just right, and when the components of the environment are perfectly aligned or arranged aesthetically or as the archetypical representative of the subject being photographed.

Sometimes a capture of the decisive moment is a matter of luck, and other times it is the result of careful planning: knowing the season, consulting tide or lunar calendars, knowing where the sun will be at a particular time, looking at the weather forecast, and knowing the landscape from one or many previous visits to a place. Whether by luck or careful planning, it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I’ve often said that the key to getting a great photo is a matter of being there.

The death of the decisive moment.
The application of digital manipulation by some photographers is rendering the concept of the “decisive moment” obsolete. No longer do these photographers have to be at the right time and the right place. No longer does the light have to be “just right” or the compositional elements “just right.” No longer is careful planning necessary. No longer do natural objects such as the sun, moon, and clouds have to be in alignment at a decisive moment. Instead, any of the elements that contribute to a decisive moment can be created or altered to be a facsimile of the natural decisive moment.

Rather than directly experiencing the decisive moment with our eyes, we can imagine the decisive moment in our creative minds and use digital software to bring that imagination to life in an image that began with a camera but which owes its existence largely to a computer.

“But is it real?” That’s one of the first and most frequent questions I hear from the general public at art shows or other venues where photography is being displayed. In other words, the public is asking whether the beauty and uniqueness in the photograph is something that was seen and captured with the camera in a decisive moment, or rather if it is something that was created / enhanced with a computer.

Some photographers who engage in extensive digital manipulation argue they are producing art, their altered photographs are artistic expressions, and as such their photographic work is above the question of manipulation.

But as I’ve stated, photography is connected to reality in a way that other forms of art are not. Photography captures the moment, and its initial capture is an authentic representation of that moment.

For me personally, the uncertainties I experienced and medical treatments I received for cancer in the 1970s have made it impossible (thankfully) for me to take the beauty of the natural world for granted. Trying to capture the essence of a natural place through photography enhances my experience of being there. For me personally, the experience comes first, the photography comes second. A photograph must capture and represent the experience: that series of decisive moments I encounter when I’m on the trail, in the forest, walking through the desert, floating down the river, or sitting on the top of a mountain watching the sun and moon come and go.

However, it does not require a life-threatening illness to acquire an appreciation for experiences in the natural world and to value photography as a means of capturing decisive moments. Many landscape photographers share these values, as evidenced by their work and their words.

Consequences of digital manipulation.
Digital manipulation can be done to a degree and in a manner that makes the decisive moment irrelevant and that avoids the experience entirely. Those are two separate issues, and both are important in the discussion of digital manipulation of photographs.

When significant elements are not captured in a decisive moment but instead are created via computer software, the moment didn’t occur. The planning wasn’t necessary. The luck of being in the right place at the right time is immaterial. The authentic representation of the natural world is unimportant. It is these considerations that, in my mind, make the manipulated photograph less than the un-manipulated photograph, even if both photographs look identical. In other words, the process is just as important as the outcome. Whether the photograph “works” is not enough; the process of obtaining the photograph is part of that photograph.

I’ve been trying for more than five years to capture a nearly full-moon rising above Mount Rainier. From my particular vantage point, that happens only twice each year. Given western Washington’s notorious cloud cover in the spring and fall when these alignments of the moon and mountain occur, I have not yet been successful (although I came close once). However, I could create this photo digitally. I could take a photo of the mountain on a relatively clear evening just as the sun is setting, and then capture the moon on a different evening as it is rising above the horizon. I could then paste the moon into the photo of the mountain, and if I’m sufficiently skillful with my manipulation software, a viewer would have a very difficult task of detecting the composite photo.

However, in my mind, and in the minds of many other photographers as well as non-photographers, there is a difference between the two photos. One is an authentic capture of a decisive moment, while the other is not. One is the result of careful planning, while the other is not. One is the result of good fortune, while the other is not. One is the result of being at the right place at the right time, while the other is not.

Of great importance to me is the fact that one is the outcome of a significant experience in the natural world, while the other is not. One photo occurred as I was witnessing a rare event of a full moon rising above Mount Rainier on a cloudless evening, while the other photo occurred as I was sitting in front of a computer. That the photo “works” (i.e., is aesthetically pleasing, dramatic, strikingly beautiful, or has a “wow” factor) is not enough, or at least it’s not the whole story. A photo that was captured through the pain and long process often required for a wonderful photo will always, in my mind, be superior to the “same” photo (“same” being defined as looking similar on paper or the computer screen) that was created through digital manipulation. Creating a photograph is not the same as capturing a photograph.

At a point that’s sometimes hard to define, a manipulated photograph enters the realm of digital alterations and digital art. Digital alterations can be an interesting, challenging, and thought-provoking aspect of photography; I fully support it as a relatively new art form. While the division between the two realms is difficult to define, and despite the fact that much past and current landscape photography involves manipulation to a degree, I contend there is a difference between landscape photography and digital alterations. When the two are treated as equal via the attitude that art is art and all photography is simply artistic expression, then manipulated photography degrades the traditional realm of landscape photography. We know degradation is happening when the first question asked regarding an outstanding landscape photograph by members of the general public at a photography exhibit is, “Is it real?”

The only reason this question is asked is because we all know that some photographs were largely created in a computer, while other photographs were captured while experiencing a decisive moment in nature. In the minds of many, this is a significant difference.

On being different through digital manipulation.
I don’t understand how one can take a relatively mundane, everyday shot of a landscape and jazz it up by adding a single, odd color to the sky (say, purple or green), thereby creating something very unusual, and suddenly that mundane photo becomes a striking, outstanding, or exceptional manipulated photo that receives high praise from some viewers. Similarly, photographs of intertidal rocks covered with bright, neon-green algae on the shadow side of a sun that is resting on the horizon often receive praises of “great color!” It’s as if we have become jaded with “regular” landscape photography, as if the real world has become so common that it’s boring, and only by making this “regular” landscape something that it isn’t can we once again become interested in it.

I think that’s sad. There are many aesthetically interesting views of nature and natural objects as they really exist. Sometimes it’s a challenge to find them and to frame them in an interesting way, but that’s one of the joys of photography. Taking a shortcut by simply creating something that doesn’t really exist and has therefore not been seen before and letting that be the criteria by which to judge the value of an image misses, in my opinion, the point and value of landscape photography.

Being different is not the same as being good, despite what may be a person’s jaded interest in the natural world. Really good landscape photography captures the decisive moment…. that moment when composition, light, and subject all come together. It’s difficult, and it’s rare. Do we really think we can create decisive moments at will simply by pushing software slider? In my opinion, all we end up with is a caricature of a landscape.

Finding the balance.
Nearly all digital photographs require further processing. If they were captured as jpegs, then the camera has already done a lot of the processing. If they were captured as RAW files, then processing and sharpening are required with software.

Knowing where to draw the line regarding the degree of processing is terribly difficult, especially if a photographer is posting a photo for public viewing and feedback. We seem to have the notion that if a little bit is good, then more will be even that much better. And when “more” is so easy to do (just push a slider, or just enter a new number in the saturation level), it’s even more tempting to apply.

But just because we can doesn’t mean that we should. Finding the balance in digital processing when so much is so easy is key in this new age of using computers in the workflow of bringing information contained in a camera’s sensor or in a scanned image to a printed photograph.

New language is needed.
Often, our language does not keep pace with the way in which our culture and technology change. This has happened in photography. What we need now is a new or expanded concept regarding photography. We simply have not incorporated into our language appropriate concepts that relate to what we see in photographs that have come into being by very different processes. Digital manipulation offers vastly more and different capabilities than traditional darkroom manipulation. This means that digital processing cannot be characterized merely as the “digital darkroom,” implying that digital manipulation is no different than what photographers in previous decades did in their chemically based darkrooms.

What is being produced when a photograph is significantly manipulated is not a photograph but rather digital art or computer art. It may have started with a regular photograph, but at some point it enters a very new realm, one that is so new that there hasn’t yet developed commonly accepted language and standards. However, the lack of language and standards does not prevent me from recognizing that a photograph that relies primarily on a computer for its existence is not the same as a photograph that relies primarily on a camera for its existence.

Photography is an old word being used to describe something new. It isn’t the right word for this new, computer-based process, and we have not found the right words to define and describe it. This is where much of the controversy regarding digital manipulation arises. The word “photography” now means something different to different people. If we had a new language, one that incorporates this new form of photography and this new form of art, much of the current controversy would disappear. But the evolution of new language can be a difficult process, especially when technological change in photography has been rapid and when some of these changes can minimally be likened to traditional darkroom practices of the past (dodging, burning, alteration of tones, changing development routines, etc.).

It’s also difficult to develop a new language when many photographers don’t see a need for a new language. For those photographers, all that matters is the outcome, or whether the image “works.” To them, the concept of the decisive moment is irrelevant, and the idea of experiencing that which is photographed is unimportant. When these photographers remark on a manipulated photograph, a photograph that has come into being through the computer, by saying “nice shot,” they are in error. They really should be saying, “Nice computer skills,” or, at the very least, “Nice shot and nice computer skills.” However, that language and that attitude have not yet developed, and the question, “Is it real?” continues to be asked. As a result, traditional landscape photography based on capturing decisive moments is suffering from these false look-alikes of digitally manipulated images because they can’t be trusted to be real representation of an actual experience.


“A photograph is not created by a photographer. What he does is just to open a little window and capture it. The world then writes itself on the film. The act of the photographer is closer to reading than it is to writing. They are the readers of the world.”
Ferdinando Scianna, Magnum photographer

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