Do You Manipulate Your Images?

Hi Folks:

A few years ago photographer Alain Briot did an article for the Luminous Landscape titled, “Just Say Yes” as a way of answering this question.  The thing of it is, the answer is ‘yes’ for everyone, but a lot of people don’t seem to think so.  Thought I’d write a short (for me) blog post about it.  To begin with, we’d best get that word ‘manipulate‘ out of the way.  From Dictionary.com:

ma·nip·u·late

[muh-nip-yuh-leyt]
verb (used with object), -lat·ed, -lat·ing.

  1. to manage or influence skillfully, especially in an unfair manner: to manipulate people’s feelings.
  2. to handle, manage, or use, especially with skill, in some process of treatment or performance: to manipulate a large tractor.
  3. to adapt or change (accounts, figures, etc.) to suit one’s purpose or advantage.
  4. Medicine/Medical . to examine or treat by skillful use of the hands, as in palpation, reduction of dislocations, or changing the position of a fetus.

See, that’s not so bad.  If you asked the average photographer whether or not s/he is able to ‘handle, manage, or use‘ his or her camera, ‘especially with skill‘, I don’t think they’d take offense.  Still, somewhere along the way the idea of manipulating one’s images has taken a wrong turn.  There are a couple of reasons for this, I think.  One is the general idea that photographs (unlike paintings or drawings) represent ‘reality’.  If a photograph is seen not to represent some form of reality, people can take offense to this.  The other is that programs like Photoshop allow those with the skill to create graphic manipulations that have no bearing on ‘reality’ at all.

Leaving those gross forms of image manipulations aside, do you manipulate your images?  Yes.  Everyone does.  Let me explain.

To start with, when we point a camera at a subject we’re rendering a three-dimensional scene into a two-dimensional representation.  Now, we choose a lens (an amount of positive or negative magnification, among other things), we choose a point in the scene on which to focus (a camera to subject distance), and we choose a range of distances (depth of field) to be in focus.  Depending on the light and other factors, we set an ISO, a lens opening (f/stop) and a shutter speed to create a desired effect.  We also look through the viewfinder or at the LCD and we move the camera around to create a composition – including some subject matter in the frame and exluding others.  Before you press the shutter you’ve already contrived to create the scene you want and you haven’t yet made an exposure.  Have you put a filter on the lens or (intentionally) moved the camera during exposure?

If you’re using film, you choose the film you want that will give you a certain ‘look’.  Fuji Velvia and Kodak Tri-X Pan are two very different films, just as an example.  The chemicals and processing times for the film (among other things) contribute to the look of the final print, as does the paper and the printing process.

Okay, but this is a digital world and (almost) NOBODY shoots film anymore.  In fact, “I proudly display images right out of my camera!”  Right?  Well… not exactly.  See, every digital camera makes two types of images – RAW files and .jpg files.  I’m not going to cover this in any depth, but if you’re interested you can read our ‘Photography and Colour Management‘ post.  Some cameras don’t give you the option of working with the RAW images and only show you the .jpgs but all cameras make them.  In the digital world, this is where an image begins – with light hitting the camera’s digital sensor.  That information, collected and converted to digital 1s and 0s is the ‘raw’ image information from the sensor.  It’s the purest form of digital capture.  It’s also just information, not an image.  In order to actually see this information as an image you need to convert that information (I could use big words like linear demosaicing, but I won’t) into something that looks like a picture.  You need to assign a colour temperature (white balance), and you’ll want to make at least some basic contrast and sharpening adjustments.  Now, there are two ways to do this.  One is to take the raw files from the camera and import them into a ‘RAW converter’ software program like DxO, Lightroom/ ACR, Aperture, Capture One, ACDSee Pro or something similar.  In this way the photographer uses the processing power of his or her computer to customize the look of each image to the best of his or her ability.  This is definitely ‘image manipulation’, but mostly we call it ‘post-processing’.  I often wonder… why ‘post-processing’?  Isn’t that something you do ‘after‘ processing?  Anyway…

There are those who, for various reasons, choose not to use the RAW images from their camera.  These people choose, by intention or default, to use the ‘post-processing’ capabilities of the computer in the camera.  They may not think of it that way, but in the camera’s various menus the photographer sets a white balance, a sharpening level, and maybe uses one or more pre-baked ‘scene modes’.  This is also image manipulation, (aka post-processing) except that amount of user control or input is minimal and the results are standardized based on existing algorithms within the camera.  Each route has its place.  A lot of newer photographers wonder why the RAW image they’re looking at on their computer screen bears little resemblance to the little preview picture they saw and loved on the back of the camera.  The answer is because the preview image they saw was the post-processed .jpg image embedded inside the RAW file and not the RAW image data.

But what about stitched panoramas, tonemapped images, composites and ‘Photoshopped’ images?  Those are also image manipulations, some of them more overt than others.  They appeal to some people and not to others, but it’s a big world.  The bottom line is that the answer to “Do you manipulate your images?” is the same for everyone, for every image.  Just say ‘Yes’.

Update, March 2012.  Alain Briot has another installment in his series, titled ‘Artistic License‘.  Worth reading.

Now go out and make some photographs!

Hugs,
Mike.

P.S. You can find more of our photography and Lightroom tutorials here, and you can find a list of over 200 sites that have Lightroom tips, tutorials and videos here.

2 Replies to “Do You Manipulate Your Images?”

  1. Gilbert Ho

    Excellent points, I used to choose Kodak film over Fujifilm without realising it was a post-production decision. Although, digital post-production today allows so much more manipulation than was possible with film.

    1. wolfnowl Post author

      Hi Gilbert, and thanks so much for dropping by! I can sympathize; Kodachrome 25 was my favourite film of all time. I have used Provia, but Velvia was just 'too' saturated for my use. There is no question that digital work opens the doors wide, but the choice of how to use those tools still rests with us, the artists.

      Mike.

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