Here's a bit of food for thought. I'd argue that there's a crucial distinction in post-processing between two type of decisions that, although similar superficially, spans a divide like opposite slopes of the same mountain. Namely, the difference between changes you make to make the picture more true to the scene the way it was, and changes you make to make the picture less like the original scene.
I would argue that most routine post-processing corrections are of the former type. We change density and exposure, color balance, local contrast and sharpness, perhaps correct image geometry, not to depart from reality but to represent it more closely.
I constantly do this. I have a mental visual memory of the scene and I try to make the picture look more like the scene. A lot of post-processing falls into this category. It's not deceptive at all—it's corrective.
Even one of the very few pictures I've deliberately "Photoshopped" falls into this category. (I wish I could find it to show you but I've looked and looked and can't come up with it.) I re-shot the moon and inserted into a different picture. But the reason was because the moon in the original picture was blown out and grossly overexposed. I put the "new" moon exactly where the moon actually was in the picture, the same size. So it wasn't embellishment, it was simply a technical means of getting the picture to look the way the scene looked.
Warts and all?
Next comes a category of corrections I'll call "transitory anomalies." I was a portrait photographer in D.C., and I've always argued that a certain amount of "correction" is necessary to match the way our brains process images of faces. We're very, very good at recognizing and reading human faces—the more so the more they look related to our own. But we "see" certain things and not others. For instance, our brains are very good at distinguishing persistent characteristics from transitory characteristics. We are great at reading subtleties that pertain to persistent recognition—and we overlook features we know are undependable as markers of recognition. It's as if the brain "throws those out." It knows they're not reliable. A piece of jewelry or a headband, the way a person's hair looks that day, a pimple, stubble on a male. By removing those things from a picture, or de-emphasizing them, I don't think we're necessarily violating the literalness of the picture—we're just making it conform more closely to the way the brain actually sees.
Same thing with little bits of trash in a landscape. They're not persistent, they're transitory.
Of course you perceive that the ice is getting thinner here. :-) How much trash to you get to remove before misrepresentation sets in? Judgment call.
Next in the litany come things that mimic errors. When I was a magazine editor I always evaluated the seriousness of errors and typos in the finished, printed magazine based on how likely the reader was to be able to recover the intended sense or meaning. A gap in a line is unsightly, but it doesn't impose on the reader's recovery of meaning. But a word that's grlsdgfb is more serious, especially if the missing or garbled word is needed to parse the sentence. There was a song long ago that used synth noises that at one point mimicked what telephones then sounded like. I thought that was a mistake even though it wasn't, because it always made me stop paying attention to the song and wonder if the phone was ringing.
An example of this: I remember a landscape I took where a few of the fallen leaves were turned a certain way to the light and looked like litter. I toned those down with the spotting brush even though they were accurately rendered by the camera. The reason was that they were actually leaves but they looked like something else.
To a certain extent I even think this is permissible when a visual element looks anomalous when frozen by camera perspective. If a person is standing behind another person, and the camera catches, say, just one finger poking out from the main subject's cheek, I think it's permissible to remove that. The reason is, again, to refer back to your brain's perception at the scene: you know there's a second person standing behind the first one a little ways back; both are moving, and visually they overlap. The details of how the images of the two people get confused is easily and effortlessly sorted by your brain. But the camera can catch a detail wrong, and the viewer of the picture doesn't have the whole perception to go on. So suddenly it looks glaringly odd.
An example of this is the famous "pole growing from someone's head" phenomenon. The classic example of that is John Paul Filo's photograph of the Kent State shooting that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1971:
The anomaly happens because the brain is so adept at sorting such confusion in real life, and much less so in photographs. (A more seasoned news photographer might have taken a quick juke to the left before pressing the shutter—it's a bit of a rookie mistake—but Filo was a 22-year-old student at the time, and of course the scene itself must have been extraordinarily upsetting.) This change would not be permissible in photojournalism today, but for all other kinds of photographs I think that when you weigh one kind of misrepresentation against another kind of misrepresentation—which, when post-processing, you often have to do—it makes sense to make changes like this.
Of course you perceive we are now merrily sliding on the slippery slope. We're now extremely close to making mere cosmetic changes, the kind that sanitize and idealize pictures and make them more pictorial and illustrative. You really have to judge just how far you want to go with this.
What was done to the rickshaw picture in the two representations of it we have goes way, way over the line, so that's clear. If this had been my photograph, apart from color balancing and getting the density and sharpness right I would have only made three changes. I would have removed the black line labeled 1; I would have knocked down the value of the apple cart at 2 a little bit, without moving or removing it, probably to about the same value as the shirt of the man standing behind it or just a little less; and I might have considered eliminating the little white square at 3, but I think I would probably have decided against that. (It's a bit like a typo that a reader can easily figure out...and the world in photographs is like that, a bit messy.) Of course it's not my picture so I'm not the one who gets to decide.
But if we know that a line was crossed here, knowing where the line was is a more delicate matter.
But really, aren't all post-processing decisions like that? It's just like "going heavy on the sliders." It's easy to overdo any effect, not just "cleanup and removal." You can overdo cropping, or saturation, or contrast; in the same way, you can go overboard with cleaning up elements that are "distracting." Until, perhaps, you find yourself making wholesale changes in the look and the meaning of the photograph. In which case it has become a photo-illustration.
Where that line is is different for each of us—and it's our work, so we get to decide. But I think this idea of "more true to the scene" vs. "less true to the scene"—correcting the "mindless" camera image vs. tampering heavy-handedly with what you know full well was actually there—is an important distinction, and one that you might want to keep in mind to help guide your decisions.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Bill Shannon: "What I see in the original rickshaw image is four riders packed onto the back seat of the bike and the driver working hard to move them through the rain storm. This is probably his livelihood. To me the lie in the 'fixed' version, amongst other things, is that the two surviving riders are postured for a tight fit but there is only a phony blank space behind them and a missing glimpse of the fourth person.The exertion of the driver has lost its reason."
Jim Richardson: "I find quite interesting just how ham-handed the printer was in the use of the potassium ferricyanide in the 'straight' version of John Filo's Kent State picture. The neckerchief, the paving behind and around the woman student, the pants of the victim, and a few other places were hit pretty heavy with the bleach. To my eye (having been printing in much the same way in that era) the bleaching was meant to overcome the clutter, part of which came from the unfortunately positioned pole. I'm just wanting to point out in what ways the 'straight' print isn't totally straight either. But this manipulation is clear to be seen, while the rickshaw cloning is really meant to deceive. Intent matters.
"Also, if these are true crops of the various versions of the print, then it is interesting that the man on the left was cropped out, for much the same reason as McCurry's technician cloned out the third man on the rickshaw—because he's looking at the camera, which betrayed the photographer's presence. I find this to be a kind of fetish among us photojournalists, the wished-for fiction that we weren't really there, not actually part of the events of that day. We manufacture the myth of the disembodied observer, a myth that weighs heavy on us, in order to distance ourselves from involvement in the event."
[Jim, like Steve McCurry, is a National Geographic photographer. —Ed.]
Gordon Lewis: "I find it fascinating how flexible so many of the commenters are about the difference between truth and fiction in photography. Writing seems so much more clearcut by comparison. One is either writing a work of fiction or non-fiction. This doesn't necessary mean that works of non-fiction are 100% factual—human beings do, after all, differ on what constitutes fact vs. interpretation—but if the author claims a book is non-fiction then he or she has to be careful not to make --it up.
"McCurry, in my opinion, ventured too far into the Hollywood writing conceit of creating something 'based on a true story.' In other words, 'This is not what really happened, but in our opinion it makes for a much more marketable story.'"
[Gordon is a former Hollywood writer. —Ed.]
David L.: "For photojournalism I think nothing should be retouched or omitted. The pole in the Kent State photo is an example of a detail that can help triangulate the exact location. If the pole is removed, that could put doubt into the process. No Parking signs, advertising, etc. all should be preserved. 32 cents per gallon gasoline signs in old photos reveal the time period. Background menus and prices in photos also place the photo's era. For personal and private photos, no rules apply."
Tom Halfhill (B.S. Journalism, Kent State, 1977): "Although removing the background pole from John Filo's Kent State photo would be forbidden under today's photojournalism rules, it might be argued that removing it actually improves the photo's veracity—because, as Mike says, it's corrective. Those of us who have seen the retouched version a zillion times know that the girl is screaming over a dead body. But someone viewing the photo for the very first time might think she is screaming because her head has been impaled by a spear or rod. Only upon a closer look might a new viewer see the prone body. And even then, the viewer might still wonder if the girl has been hit by something, too. Try looking at the photo again with a fresh eye, and not with a photographer's eye. The first thing you notice is a screaming girl with something sticking out of her head!"
Bob Rosinsky: "I've had more than a few conversations with photo journalists about Filo's photograph. The consensus is that the the picture should not have been retouched. Sure, a more experienced photographer would have framed the scene differently. But the photo was not taken by a seasoned photographer. It was taken by a kid—a peer of the victim. It's luck that the young photographer was there and it's to his credit that he had the composure to take the picture. Photojournalism need not be aesthetically pleasing."
chris_scl: "This animated GIF I made out of your screenshots shows that many more objects were cloned, muted or even colorized in the rickshaw picture."