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Sunday, 12 August 2007


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Well, I capture on film, but I print digitally. So if ease of manipulation is the issue then what I do cannot be called photography. Yet most of my print could just as well have been made optically.

To me the distinction doesn't make any sense. A straight print from a digitally captured image may be a much better representation of reality than any done in B/W or using Velvia.

I think it much better if we reserve the word photography for the cases where we really try to capture what is in front of the lens. And reserve (digital) image for everything that has been manipulated.

Many years ago the company I work for introduced the Photo CD. I proudly showed our it during Photokina to a couple of photographers from the Amsterdam Police Dept. They looked at me, realised the implications of a digitized image and said "Thank you Gerard, no judge will ever believe our photographic evidence anymore". I do hope that photography is still allowed into courtrooms as evidence but it shows that a changing imaging technology made it very difficult to judge if the image can be used in finding "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." Your point "you can recover from the picture real evidence of what was in front of the lens during the time the picture was made." captures the essential difference between analog and digital images.

Maybe photography follows the developments in food and the way we eat. In the past you would eat what was produced localy during a particular season. Today we eat whatever we fancy whenever we want to, food is processed and changed beyond recognition, flavours and colours are added by manufacturers. Is it good or bad? It is neither and we must accept that things have changed (and will change even more in the future) but don't say that you "cooke a meal" when you place food in the microwave. I suggest that we call this "food processing" and use the term "cooking" only when you slice the onions yourself. And learn (not) to burn you fingers while handling the saucepan.


I understand what you are saying, but I don't understand why you are saying it. So, digital records like film if you use it that way, and it provides more flexibility to manipulate if you want to? Well, I say, in that case digital exceeds film as a medium. What you are noticing (with such an air of despondency) as you trawl images on the www is photographers expressing something closer to what they wanted to express all along, but were in the past restricted by film's limitations or comparative lack of ease or accessibility.

Your view amounts to a preference for film-and-darkroom because you can 'trust' more images to be unmanipulated by film photographers, and you value being given an insight to what was really there in front of the lens. That's really sad. A 'straight' photo is such a poor representation of what is in front of the lens, using it to get an insight into a real scene is like a man using a blow-up doll to get an insight into having an intimate relationship with a woman.

I read you as saying that, once the world becomes flooded, and jaded, by the slightly imaginary shots -- my favorite is the shark attacking the man hanging from the helicopter, which has been around here two or three times as 'amazing event'-- then the delight in the captured moment, the 'ongoing moment', as C-B is better translated, will go down the tubes.

But we can hardly recapture that innocence again anyway. The golden age is already gone.

On the other hand, the golden age is always already gone. There are, however, two consolations. First, any one of us can still capture the ongoing moment, and still put it out as such. I instance your shot of the back yard with your dog's wonky ears just in shot. Not the dog leaping the fence, but an ongoing moment all the same.

The other consolation is that we always have rules for both the making and the viewing of photos. The excitement over the news photographer who made the legs beneath the billboard disappear shows how much we still care about the rules for making photos. And the enjoyment we still get from the work of all kinds of art photographs, however they were made, still shows that we know how to view photos.

Seems like photography using this argument is actually just the negative (or raw file).

Anything further than that requires some sort of fuzzy line that divides photograph and image, and people move it based on their own personal bias.

Come to think of it, maybe polaroid is the only true modern photography. :)

Nothing to argure with here, Mike, though one could and, no doubt, some will if they have energy left from the last bout. But it seems to me, once you've striven to be as fair minded and balanced as you have in putting your case, it boils down to this: it's not so much that photography has changed (or that digital isn't the same medium, quite, that photography was), it's that changes in the use of the technology have altered how we look at photos.

So if I only use film and you look at amazing pictures on my web site, you'd assume their amazingness was created in PhotoShop rather than directly by the lens. So, if I'm correct, it's we who have been changed by the technology more than the medium itself (which is not to say, of course, that photographic images haven't changed also - but that it's the change in us that's more significant).


Anyway, "photography" simply means drawing with light; the technology used has no bearing on this meaning.

Change is the only constant.

Think about how the term food is understood. From raw meat from hunting animals to highly processed/refined supermarket products. They are both considered food and there isn't much effort put into distinguishing between them.

Manipulation existed on film so it shouldn't be the defining characteristic of digital regardless if it is uses or not.

There is no such thing as one truth. Not objectively. On a subjective layer there is something one could consider as a personal version of truth, and this can affect one very much emotionally. Nevertheless this is not about technology, be it silver halide chemistry or pixels made out of bits.

Taking Henry Wessel as an example: I do like his photographs, and i feel a certain amount of "truth" inside them. Is this because there was no exaggerated manipulation after pressing the shutter? Maybe, but to me there is something more important. I feel those pictures are true because Henry Wessel succeeded in projecting his subjective layer of sensing a situation to me! And i am totally aware that a second person not being Henry Wessel, standing right beneath him and having a camera too, would not have taken the same picture, let alone having it the same impact on me!

So the question to me is not if a picture was manipulated, but whether and to which amount it was manipulated before or after pressing the shutter. In both cases many ways of manipulation are conceivable. Paying people to do something in front of a camera or talking them into doing something or placing bisons on streets are just some of the more obvious ways. If we remember Henry Wessel and his anonymous neighbor photographer it gets clearer that there have to be more subtle ways, too. I'm rather sure this difference is not only for right exposure or other technical aspects, but for something happening deep inside the photographer just before the shutter is pressed.

This leads to the point where i totally disagree with Mike's post, who claims that it's not at all a matter of what he is so tired to hear of: "vision". To me there is no such thing as an objective reality, not one that comes to my mind being unfiltered by so many aspects that it would be total rubbish to regard it as something absolute and pure. It is about vision, and it is a lot more about personal vision than it is about technique.

Again, this is just my personal truth. ;-) (Hope my english isn't too bad and i haven't totally missed my point...)

I always thought that "photography" just meant "writing with light."

I pretty much agree with you Mike. I read the Erwin Puts article a few days ago but he doesn't express himself clearly. It read like a first draft that needed a lot of work so I didn't waste much time on it. Your piece is much better thought through & clearly expressed & I think the basic point is undeniable. I don't see why there should be any controversy, except it seems like a lot of digital/flickr people seem to be overly sensitive to anything that can be interpreted as a slight on the new imaging paradigm.

Well Mike, I wrote a brilliant defense of your argument, but when I tried to post it, it disappeared into the digital ether. Typical.

I remember your bear-print metaphor from your Photo Techniques days and wondered whether you still embraced it. I guess like you, I cannot be persuaded by the thousands who think otherwise that there hasn't been a fundamental paradigm shift in the transition from photography to digital imaging. I mean for crying out loud, didn't all those angel wings we saw in the first years of Photoshop signify something?

Great essay, Mike, very clear. I would like to point out that photography was not invented in France in 1839, it was invented in the U.S, in 1888, by the Kodak camera. Up until then, photography was used as another way of painting, and photographs aspired to look like paintings. It was the snapshot, made possible by the Kodak camera, that created a specifically photographic aesthetic, a photographic language. We are in a similar situation with digital images. We have the basic technology, but we don't have the language yet: most digital images we have try to look like photographs. So we have this feeling that we are not in Kansas anymore, but still we don't know where we are.

The latest blockbuster movies have little to do with an ingenious plot but all to do with outdoing the last set of special effects. It is about making the audiences go ooohhh and ahhhh for as long as possible. But at least we know it’s only an illusion.

Always striving for more is human nature and Photoshop was designed by humans, for humans and is a successful product because it fills that basic human need to do, show, present, what was never done before. It can even be said Photoshop is addictive. It can easily alter reality and that appears to be a basic human need.

It is wrong to present an altered image when the audience thinks it is unaltered. I don't bother to question if a full page ad showing George Bush hugging Castro waving an American flag is real. What I would be concerned about is going to a photo exhibition where the photographer manipulates all or some of the images (I am not talking exposure or color correction) but say nothing. That is dishonest and fraudulent. With fame and ego inflation now becoming the most sought after life achievement, dishonest image manipulation will only get more widespread and make photography a dilute art form. Digital makes this type of dishonesty easier to achieve but the intention was there long before film sales started to fall.


You are quite right Mike. Digital will subtly but clearly, and in the long run, change people’s conception of pictures and representation of the reality.

Once, a relative of mine refused to receive a photograph of her elderly sister because it showed the fine lines in the sister’s face. She would probably have appreciated a flattering painting instead, as many portraits were made before photography. Maybe portraiture in the future will tend more towards flattery again.

Is the sense that film is the "recording medium" in some regard perhaps also a historical accident? I suspect the potential for the photograph to be a record of what the lens saw has moved to the foreground and back at various points in the history of photography.

There is very little retouching that can be done, for instance, with direct positive processes like the Daguerreotype, Ambrotype, or Polaroid for that matter and part of the power of the Daguerreotype comes from the fact that the image we are seeing the unique first generation image that the lens saw.

Of course before the possibility of instantaneous exposure, the variables were where you stand, when you press the shutter, and how you arrange the scene. The occasional contemporary war photographer has been known to composite images in Photoshop to make a more dramatic illustration; Brady just dragged the bodies around on the battlefield.

Once the negative becomes part of the process, however, there is a long period in which manipulation becomes the norm, whether it is adding clouds to a landscape, negative composites like Rejlander's, or negative retouching, which is often quite visible in work as early as Julia Margaret Cameron, and which an absolute requirement of professional portraiture until the 1960s.

Photography's becoming a "recording medium" I think happens at a distinctly modern moment, when film becomes fast enough for instantaneous exposures, when Weegee and Arbus dare to publish unretouched images--the truly Naked City, when the f/64 group sets aside expressive techniques like gum printing and soft lenses (though it could be argued that they were replaced by other expressive techniques in the darkroom). Maybe for those of who grew up with photography in the second half of the Twentieth Century, photography was a recording medium and it seemed always to be so.

"But photograph is the only one that is a recording medium, the only one that doesn't interpose the human imagination between the impartial eye of the lens and the artifact at the end of the production process.."

2 thoughts/questions...

First: As long as I don't do any post processing, then its a photograph?

Second: If I do impose human imagination between the lens and the final chemical darkroom print, that's not a photograph?

Virtually every photograph you see in a newspaper, magazine or book if not taken digitally has been scanned digitally and sometimes manipulated before printing. So when does photography stop being photography? This whole argument can be summed up in single word HOGWASH!!!

Since "photography" is created with light, writing with light, there are only two requirements for photography to be alive and well: lens and light, like a pen and ink.

What occurs after, any manipulation, is, to me, irrelevant, since the original negative, or raw file, still exists. Perhaps a case could be made for the death of photography if digital photography only produced jpegs manipulated by the camera manufacturers.

Raw data is what is keeping digital photography alive.

It's 6 am now and I've just arrived home from some of the drinking and living. But I had a thought about the "lie".

When I see recognizably digital images I no longer pause to consider whether the images have been altered or enhanced (is a lie). Because I know what Photoshop is capable of my consciousness has installed a module which makes all photography not obviously of film inherently less impressive, less interesting, less satisfying and less significant. Maybe it's just a defensive mechanism because I don't like to be made the fool.

I do prefer the appearance of a film photograph so I will admit a certain degree of bias. But photography in a general, global consciousness sense to me is dead because I don't trust it anymore(seems like not even the PJs can get it right). And personally, I'm just not impressed with what someone can do with the Filter/Adjust menus in Photoshop. I don't find much to appreciate there. That is also not particularly creative or expressive which is commonly the excuse.

In another sense, however, photography in my world flourishes vibrantly, thanks to a number of good friends dedicated to shooting film along with myself. I don't need any more than that. So, just go ahead and try to tell me that the world exists beyond my silver gelatin bubble.

I think it is so impressive that you have patience to respond to the hysteria with such a thoughtful and intellectually stimulating piece. I am slightly surprised however that so few of your correspondents/commenters seemed to appreciate what Puts had to say (in his idiosyncratic way). This was a serious piece and worthy of respect whether one agrees with it all or not.

I think your argument, as presented, fails completely. The vast majority of what the world in general considers to be "photography" fails to fit your excessively tight definition. The only image making that passes your test would be slides and transparencies.

Any and all prints ever made involve too much judgement and adjustment to ever be included under your definition of "photography". Even every Ansel Adams and Edward Weston print fails as they were manipulated in the darkroom (mostly selective lightening and darkening of various areas through dodging and burning in). Most major photographic artists have manipulated the bulk of their images in this way. Other manipulations that have been relatively common, or extremely common, with chemical printing are cropping and perspective adjustment by tilting the negative carrier and/or easel. W. Eugene Smith frequently blew cigarette smoke in front of the enlarger lens to diffuse portions of his images as he held back light from other areas.

"Photography" is imaging with light, by definition. The fact that the first practical permanent images involved chemical processes, most relying on silver, doesn't mean in any way that the only recording medium has to be of a similar chemical nature.

All this hew and cry about digital imaging is similar to that about typography that arose with PostScript printers and Desktop Publishing a quarter of a century ago. New technology comes along and allows untrained and/or poorly skilled users to create what, previously, required greate expense and years of training and/or apprenticeship. The technical craft of digital imaging is a low hurdle compared to that of chemical imaging just as typesetting with a Mac and a LaserWriter was a low hurdle compared to previous electronic and metal typesetting methods.

This pattern of the introduction of a new technology reducing the average quality of output for a period after it introduction can be seen many places. Overall quality, both technical and artistic, of common print material has ebbed and flowed over the years with recent low points during the early desktop publishing days, for reasons noted above, and recently (typically seen where low res bitmaps are accepted for ads where sharp vector art was mandated in the past). It can also be seen in cinema, as any knowledgable person who has studied film knows. The introduction of sound, color film, wide-screen, fast films, and, to a lesser degree perhaps, CGI have all triggered a lowering of standards for a period of time after their introduction. True, there are the exceptional film that doesn't follow the rule, but in general the rule holds.

I am a scientist and amateur photographer. My area of expertise is spectroscopy, in which matter is probed using light. In terms of physically what is going on, a typical spectroscopy experiment is not that different from taking a photograph. In both cases, optics are employed to image photons onto a light sensitive detector. In the good old days, the detector of choice was a piece of film, but for the past 20 years or so, digital imagers like CCDs have essentially replaced film in our instruments. While the potential for data manipulation is certainly there, most would not call into question the objective reality of what we measure. I guess the peer review process keeps us honest (for the most part). Anyway, even though film is not used anymore, we still call what we do ‘spectroscopy’ and not ‘digital spectral imaging’ or some such. I suppose if there was a way to ‘fix’ the RAW data you would feel differently? And what about the scanned film images on flickr that contribute to the composite images you referred to?

It's a well-argued argument, but still wrong. There's nothing wrong with the term digital photography, and it is distinct from digital imaging. The important part of digital photography is still capturing light in a certain way using the mechanics of a camera. You can do digital imaging without a camera at all, just by sitting down at your computer.

This is not to mention that yes, film was faked all the time and yes, at least 99.9 percent of all digital pictures taken have not been edited in any truth-changing way.

"But photograph[y] is the only one that is a recording medium, the only one that doesn't interpose the human imagination between the impartial eye of the lens and the artifact at the end of the production process, which used to be the print."

Mike, I wonder if this isn't a case of wanting your cake and eating it too? It looks like you may be discounting the "Where you stand" part of Henry Wessel's model (which in the digital context, I don't believe will stand up to serious scrutiny) but also the notion that *all* art to one extent or another is a recording / reflection of (physical) reality and that the viewer has always been challenged to engage in an internal discussion & decision about exactly *how real* and in *what way* a representation exists. To confound notions related to aesthetic value with notions of 'truth' may represent the fog you talk about in this piece.

Why isn't a pencil a recording medium? Or a brush? I wonder if, as 'digital imaging' as opposed to 'photography' starts to get more traction, we won't be seeing the further evolving toward maturity of the enterprise? That is, as digital imagers (ugly term) take on full responsibility for their work as an imaginative endeavor and move away from increasing ambivalence about 'recording of physical reality.' When all is said (if not yet done), the richness of the real world doesn't exist 'out there', it is in the imaginative eye of the beholder; communicating that richness is the artist / beholder's main responsibility & challenge.

Wedding Imager, Portrait Imager, Landscape Imager, Street Imager, Imagejournalist, printed image, Digital Imager, Manipulate?

At the end of the day this discussion is a futile waste of brain power. Digital recording is not any different physically than film recording. The bits that are recorded are engendered by a physical process - photons are detected, which in turn generate a current that charges a well potential,which is converted to another charge encoding its binary representation. That recording is as faithful as any other recording of the same physical resolution. But all that is moot. Most photographs worth their salt are not faithful representations of reality. Look at Ansel Adams prints - none are what was there, all are what the master envisioned. So there you have it. To say that the digital manipulation of the honest original recording "negative" is more dishonest that the chemical (albeit harder) manipulation of negatives with masks, spotting, etc., is not valid in my opinion. This is a nostalgic argument that always comes to the fore when a new technology is introduced. The faithful practitioners of the old tech always say the new one is not as good, and that the old one was the real thing. Been there, seen that.

I like to think of film photography vs digital photography vs digital imaging.

All three can produce images that preserve varying degrees of verasimilitude, reality.

Even film photography at its most pure subverts reality - our eyes don't "see" like a lens "sees".

Even the choice of subject is a conscious and selective artistic decision.

The line between digital photography and digital imaging is plastic, it seems to me, and within the heart of each individual photographer.

At the end of the day, I think, this whole discussion becomes more about what makes a photographer, and not so much about his tools.

An intriguing topic that is understandably on many photographers' minds these days. Just what is a photograph and what isn't? Is the pursuit of "photography" really now just a subset of the larger field of imaging? I would submit that it always was. The often quoted derivation of the word photography is "to write with light". Writing with light is inherent to all imaging processes that record electromagnetic radiation seen by the human eye. Digital photography, electronic imaging, or whatever you want to call it, has not violated the basic underlying principals of writing with light simply because somewhere in the light gathering and rendering sequence we can now apply pixel acrobatics. Yet we do have a problem that needs further clarification, and it boils down in my opinion to the inherent truthfulness of the information content that the viewer is asked to interpret when looking at the final rendered version of the image.

There are many, many factors that affect this truthfulness including the fundamental physical limitations of the recording process. B&W is the classic case and point. B&W prints fail to disclose the color information in the original scene and in that glorious "failure" liberate us to interpret the luminous and tonal beauty of the spatial information content which has been rendered. Thus, our challenge in looking at rendered images is to evaluate the truthfulness of the image information content and therefore the meaning of what we have been shown in the rendered image.

Mike speaks of the image rendered by the lens as a fundamental underlying aspect of truthfulness in the rendered image. My personal definition of photography follows a similar thought. I divide images into three categories; photographs, photo illustrations, and illustrations (i.e., paintings and drawings). For me, the final image form that distinguishes a true photograph from a photo illustration is that the final image reproduction must be the product of a single contiguous exposure to light. It can be a very long exposure or it can be an extremely short exposure (often leading to large interpretive differences compared to what a human lens-brain process would have observed), but it has to be contiguous. When we start combining exposures, combining images, adding or subtracting elements, etc., we violate the contiguous exposure rule and we end up with a photo illustration not a photograph. Its that simple for me, but now try to apply my definition and you can see that it has some interesting ramifications even with regard to what have historically been called true photographs.

Edgerton's "Milk drop" image is by my definition a photograph, the resultant product of a single very short burst of stroboscopic light. In contrast, Edgerton's image of golfer Dennis Schute is a photo illustration because it relied on mulitple bursts of light to catch the golfer's swing in multiple positions. The final result is beautifully interpretive and revealing as a photo illustration, but it is not a true photograph by my definition.

Try applying my contiguous exposure rule to other examples that Mike and others have shown, and I think you will find it pretty well sorts these images into categories I call photographs versus categories I call photo illustrations. Digital or chemical methods of imaging are irrelevant to my definition of photography although no doubt it is much easier in the digital age to end up with a photo illustration than ever before!


Greetings. It seems that within the issue there is a historical perspective which effects ones' view. What if film photography had been invented after digital? Wouldn't we say, ah, interesting approach, but with capturing a limited range of light and at such low resolution, isn't this just art? I mean they use _chemicals_, for heaven's sake! We should identify this new form of media as not photography, but chemical imaging.

My art history has always been lacking, but my understanding of painting was that impressionism and non-realistic renderings of scenes became popular after photography started to grow in popularity. The old medium for recording a scene was displaced by a new more efficient, more accurate medium. This allowed, maybe forced, painting to grow in different directions. To explore different methods of expression. Photographers now have that option to be painters, if they so choose.

So, while we agree [hopefully all of us] that most dichotomies aren't but extremes of a continuum, the simple fact that pictures held fast on film need a further step of digitising before manipulation becomes "easy" makes a Nikon F6 a photographic instrument and a Nikon D2x something else, something non-photographic?

Whatever peculiar definition of 'photography' does one need to come up with this: '"Photography" has in that sense become a generic word that has outpaced its etymology [...]'? I mentioned the etymology before - others mentioned the historical debates of what is and what is not photography [aperture vs. shutter priority, program vs. manual, TTL vs. handheld meter and so on] - and I do not quite see how digital capture dvices changed that except in some meaningless details. curiously most current sensor arrays work very similar to film, which also captures monochrome only.

Personally I use 'digital imaging' quite often as an umbrelly to catch photography, scanning, manipulation with software, creation with software but never synonymous with 'photography using a digital camera'. Just because the manipulation of letters is much easier and more flexible with a modern word processor does not mean it isn't 'writing'. A very similar discussion, BTW, lead when computers took over from electrical typewriters, which had been supplanting manual typewriters, again just a replacement of pen/pencil*, which in turn replaced quills ... What about Johannes Gensfleisch's movable type, symbolic [i.e. Greek, Latin] instead of representational [Egyptian, Chinese] alphabets?

sorry, I just do not see how mere technology alone changes underlying structures; that's answering a question on principles with details.

*The only true Times crossword [or sudoko] solver is one using a fountain pen, not a pencil!

Digital or chemical, I agree with Wessel: Photography is about capturing. By default, the lens-sensor combo or lens-film combo, gives you a recorded image of something outside the camera. That you can, after, manipulate the resulting image is secondary, and, as you said, does not belong exclusively to the digital technology: chemical technology, lab work, also allowed manipulation, alteration, falsification. So, as long as we use cameras provided with a lens and a sensor, we still are within the realm of Photography. The danger is when digital manipulation may start to happen in camera (we are getting there very fast), so maybe we will soon get past the capturing paradigm to the already in camera altering-reality image making. But for the most part of the user population, Photography will remain the way of recording reality into images that now is, because most people is alien to post-processing technologies like photo editing software. The hundreds of millions of snapshooters will keep Photography safe and sound where it always has been: down-to-earth real.

Well as the NRA is fond of saying "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" or something to that effect. Digital and analog mediums are neutral on the subject of manipulation. It's the photographer's decision to alter in some way small (cropping, dodging, contrast) or large (retouching and compositing)the image. I don't see how you can define the art of photography by the ease in which an image recorded can be altered.

This essay is one of the best you've ever written. I'm not sure you've convinced me that sweating over this issue is worth more than a thimble full of mule piss, mostly because there has been no reliable "truth" in photography since 1980 (if there ever was), but I love the almost physical sensation of thought that I get from reading such a serious, eloquent consideration.

What's happening here is very similar to what's happened in movies since CGI; it's the integration of the technical with the creative in a way that is positively alien to all that came before. I can't help thinking that "direct impression" vs. "easily manipulable" is really no different than "candid" or "staged" in straight film photography. Was that couple caught in the act or was the kiss part of the set up? If the end result is an image of emotional power, does it even matter?

Does this mean the only true photograph is a Polaroid?

While I appreciate the soul searching and the pangs of guilt involving the transition from film to digital, it is all BS and that is not a personal attack of any kind it is merely my truth.

Besides being a photographer, I am also a radiographer. Similar arguments have been made from the perspective of the Radiologists I have worked with. The resolution is not the same, the image can be manipulated, The inherent look of the image is different. Does the x-ray show the same detail? Yes. Does the image reveal more through it's manipulation? Yes. Can pathology be hidden or masked by not using the correct exposure techniques? Yes, but it is more forgiving than silver halide.

Now I am not saying that radiography is directly comparable to photography but the similarities are more than trivial.

Of course the essential argument being made is that of truth. And truth as with many things is in the mind of the beholder. The truth of a lens is subjective as well. Perspective, angle, zoom, contrast, shutter speed, aperture, camera, and lens all detract from the truth. The light is reinterpreted by the lens and the entire imaging chain thereafter, including the type of film that is used.

Does the introduction of a digital sensor into the imaging chain change the game? Of course, it is still the same game but the inexorable pull of technology has changed the rules.

As to the Microsoft product, that is not an issue of the honesty and truth of the photograph but of the photographer.

Mike: it seems as if you have given this a lot of deep thought. But, I've gotta go etymological on ya here: photography=drawing with light. Photography is not a medium. Film is a medium. Oil paint is a medium. Pigment ink is a medium. Photography, by contrast, is a family of processes all geared towards fixing an image formed by light. Some of those processes are easier to manipulate than others (e.g. digital imaging vs. an 8x10 sheet of Tri-X). Photography's "truth claims" have always been a red herring; and one I believe enabled by those who originally saw it as the mechanically superior successor to painting and drawing. The rest of us just find it mentally taxing to walk around with skepticism about those truth claims fixed in our heads. Lazy lazy us. Photography cannot be dead because it is a process that people engage in every time they click a shutter -- regardless of the method by which the image is fixed. When people stop that activity and primarily go back to painting and drawing as a way to represent their visual realities - then photography will be dead.

Ben Marks

In my experience, the distinction (although it may be a slightly different one than the one Mike is making) seems more clear-cut and accepted among casual picture-takers and former amateurs than among photo geeks. I presume one reason is because casual shooters had little or no involvement in the processing or printing of their filmed images, let alone their manipulation, while their digital images are readily accessible for any use they can dream up, any number of times.

The topic comes up frequently because I still use film even for snapshots, which these days is a conspicuous anomaly in most circles and something of a conversation starter. As one acquaintance put it, somewhat wistfully: he used to take photographs, but now he takes "images" with a digicam.

What he and others mean is that they use this tool most often to capture raw material for web sites, blogs, newletters, desktop wallpaper, CD's and other projects, for business and for pleasure. They also use it, like their film cameras of yore, to take souvenir snapshots. Rarely, it may be used to capture carefully and expressively composed and exposed photographs, but that use seems much farther from its usual purpose than it was for their film cameras.

I believe it's more of a cultural perception, then one of media or manipulation ease !
André Rouillé, who was cited, speaks more of the relationship with time then with manipulation!
The fact that today's digital images (wether film or ccd issued) moves much more quickly around the world then in the Times/Life/NG era, the sheer quantity of pictures that is "shared" for all to see, shifts the photograph to a mere snapshot.

Recording the "truth" was one of the main current of photography (well apart from Man Ray and al), and the esthetics came slowly for a fringe of the main stream.
Today, nobody cares about "truth", neither in art (it was never really there), nor in recording events, nor even in politics!

The still image behind the lens is the resume of the "you tube" recording... Neither are really real, just a fiction to hide the everyday world... In a sort of "Second Life" scheme, with surnatural colors, hyper-sharpening, and super wide angle viewpoint !

Is it really important ? Conceptual art in photography exists and will evolve... Phone camera's snapshots will hold the time of a memory card, family heirlooms crumbles under the sheer number of pictures...

Each generation has it's fantasies and new habits!
In some countries, writers like to write with a pen (and ink), in others they used a typewriter and a word processor today... So what ? The quality of their writings isn't changed... Or is it ?

In a time when most are used to videos as a mean to record "reality", the "still" image, sometimes called photography, has still a long way to go, whatever the supporting media...

I use a LF camera which allows for film plane/lens movements (unlike 35mm or DSLR formats). So what the lens "sees" is subject to "in camera" manipulation (increased DOF, perspective correction). That said, I have to agree with Mike that the digital aspect does push the art/craft of photography more into the realm of potential fantasy. I like the HCB's "definitive moment" being recorded on an unyielding medium like film. As Mike says it makes the image more believable and, for me, more enjoyable.


Like Louis L'Amour's Old West stories you've constructed a lyrical lament for something that existed, at most, only exceptionally. Photography's veracity was always interpretive. Wessel's observation regarding the photographer's sole two choices (which I think he quoted from HCB) still leave the photographer plenty of free range for interpretative, yet unmodified, "faithful recordings". For example tiny "microgestures" --the position of an eye pupil, slight head tilts, hand positions, hip angles, et.al.-- make enormous differences in how a photograph is interpreted. Many contemporary, and former, photographers use such characteristics to create images designed to induce reactions as precisely as a prescription drug. Whether such images are recoded on film or on an electronic memory device is largely irrelevant.

Photography has never been, and will never be, the sober honest witness that you (and Putts) mourn. Yes, it has been called upon to testify under oath many times. But that's hardly a guarantee against perjury. Truth and facts are the domain of science and mathematics, and even these are fields perpetually in developmental progress. Anything else, particularly any endeavor that could find itself categorized as "art", is strictly in the realm of human imagination and interpretive expression.

Forget it. Move along. Take / make / bake the images that you enjoy. Leave "truth" to politicians.


Since "photograph" (coined by Sir John Herschel in 1839) means, essentially, "to write with light", does the material upon which said light is writing really make a difference? Jeff Wall uses, as far as I can recall, an 8x10 film camera (or is it even bigger?). Are his pictures therefore more real than, say, Michael Reichmann's? Or yours? Or mine?

Or, is it the "immediacy" that seems to lend some extra note of authenticity? Well, doesn't the very notion of "the decisive moment" imply that some moments are more "immediate" and "authentic" than others? By choosing when to trip the shutter, isn't the photographer manipulating the image as it's being made?

As for reserving "image" for everything that's been manipulated, well, there go all the photographs in the world. Well, other than those caught on transparency (hmmm, who knew that term would take on this slightly new meaning in the digital age?) film. Anybody ever print a negative straight? No dodging? No burning? None? No careful choosing of paper grade to bring out the best in the negative? Glossy vs. matte?

And, by the by, just how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Since you raise the misnomer issue: photography means 'writing with light'. It does not say anything about capturing the writing using chemical or electronic means (or any other).
True photography is therefore limited to camera obscura kind of things projecting text, not images.[*]
What you call photography should be called 'chemical imaging' or, maybe, difficult-to-manipulate-image-capture.
As you may have gathered I do not share any of your concerns on this issue.
*] my greek is very hazy, it may be that graphe` means also painting. So I'll give you images if you insist.

I am with Philip in what I take as an artificially overloaded matter; it reminds me - well, please take it with the humour needed, I know quite well, that there is lot more substance in your reasonings - about the analogue versus digital-audio-discussions claiming that numbers per se cannot create "natural" sounds. Listening (out of) thousands of LPs as well as CDs by adequate gear and looking to photos of any technical origin I learned that if you take and use digital "right" the essence of music on the one and the essence of photography on the other hand are both readily there with digital as well. Lichtbild (light capture) is the German term for photo, and the starting point for photography is captured light, on sensor or film equally. Starting point for digital imagery is not necessarily light, just pixels created in a graphic program. There is no need to mix that up, especially from a romantically misleading "good times gone"-perspective blaiming digital to corrupt photography as a means of authentical expression, just because the methods to manipulate photos became more easy to use. It is in our hands to preserve the special appearance of light designed expression in the photos we create. Those photographers transforming what we all see - be it by "manipulation"- into fotos showing what they imagine when looking at those same things are the most inspiring ones for me.
Best regards
Hans-Jürgen Hertz-Eichenrode


Must we have a lens to create photography? What about Rayograms and the like? As far as I am concerned, the (deliberate) act of suntanning your own body, with or without strategically placed texture masking, is a photograph - it's just the the action of light on photosensitive material, after all. The fixing process has not been perfected yet, but the image usually lasts long enough to impress some people.

A hardy "amen" from this malcontented curmudgeon!

Is it possible to image digitally with a photographic sense of vision? Jeez, I hope so! I just bought my first digital camera after nearly 35 years of photography. In my pursuit of knowledge about using this new contraption, all I get is the forumspeak clamor for manipulation, correction and "fixing". The new breed of photographer is in search of The Perfect Image. If it takes contrivance to achieve this perfection, that's just another step in the new process.

Dammit, HCB had sprocket hole marks on some of his pictures, ferchrissake! Eggleston, Shore and Meyerowitz have color pictures with washed out skies! Eliot Porter's colors were not always natural. So what! Photography is not about perfection and precision. Photography is about vision.

Leaving aside the more subtle and ambiguous issues of definitions, if it's veracity you're after, digital is the inarguable "winner". (I say this as a film shooter, not as a knee-jerk defender of digital.) You can fake film, simply make whatever composite you want and re-shoot it, and you've got "proof" of its authenticity.

With digital, the camera can produce a digital signature for an image that can be verified with products like the Canon DVK-E2 and Nikon's Image Authentication Software. If a single bit is different than the camera recorded it, the verification fails.

Nice posts! Even though I disagree, they've got me thinking. I have a couple thoughts here.

Your distinction is more about behavior than technology. The behavior that matches your pure definition of "photography" can be achieved with either film or digital. You might raise fewer objections if you use terminology to that end.

No matter how much logical reasoning you bring to bear on this subject, the natural forces of language are working against you. The word "photography" has gained a meaning which you don't like, but it's prominent enough that you're simply tilting at windmills.

You seem to feel strongly that there needs to be a distinction between what you're calling "photography" and "digital imaging." Rather than trying to fight a losing battle against the definition of "photography", you would be better off adding words to make that distinction in contexts where it matters.

I wonder if something like "descriptive photography" vs "expressive photography" would make sense.


You seem to be drawing a distinction between pre-exposure scene manipulation and that which is done during post-processing. I'm not sure I understand the differences, as both have the ability to recreate reality in the vision of the photographer, irregardless of their methodologies. Either of the two animal images used as examples could have easily been a contrived situation, and I would wager a significant amount of money the leaping dog photo was, in fact, a "planned" photo (although I have no evidence other than my gut feeling).

But....so what? Do accusations of body repositioning devalue the Civil War work of Matthew Brady? Does the knowledge that some National Geographic photographers routinely control their subjects and scenes make their work any less influential? Why would it be any different if these "fakes" were done post capture?

That all said, I understand what you are saying, I just don't happen to agree.

I think it's this simple: it doesn't matter whether you capture the picture on film or on a sensor, it's what you do with that picture after it's been taken. There is so much discussion because it is easier now than it was before, to manipulate images. That goes for a scanned negative as well as for a digital photograph straight out of the camera.

My name is Roy and once I was a photographer.

But then I started to scan my slides because I found it easy and rewarding to make prints digitally.

And then I purchased an early digital SLR and abandoned film because it was easier than scanning slides and gave better results.

Now I shoot the same stuff, perhaps better stuff, but I'm no longer a photographer, I'm a digital imager.

I hope that brief tale serves as a warning for anyone thinking of buying a scanner or (gasp!) a digital camera. It is so easy to devolve from photography to imaging.

I've been following this discourse with some interest, relating as it does to an unease I've felt ever since switching to digital imaging.

There is no doubt in my mind we have lost something akin to 'innocence', and with it a purity of artistic conscience, since embracing the digital medium. By we, I mean both photographer and audience. By innocence, I refer to that, usually implicit, shared understanding of the unmanipulated image. Today's audience approaches the photograph, and by extension the photographer, with suspicion and cynicism, if not expecting, then certainly on the lookout for, dishonesty.

For my part, photography was always about the interface of art and reportage. The art was in the habit and cultivation of looking and seeing. The reportage lay in the practical skills of camera and lens control, to record, to the best of one's ability, what the eye and heart and mind saw. In this lies an integrity, what I referred to as a purity of artistic conscience.

The digital photographer, however, is in a twilight world of endless temptation. Never mind 40 days and 40 nights, there is no limit to the voice whispering in our ear, 'just a little tweak more'. Soon, neither what our eye sees, nor what our skill captures, can satisfy. We are lost in a world of digital manipulation, without rules or boundaries, and always that voice, 'just a little tweak more'.

And we don't have to tell anybody we've given in to temptation. After all, we know how good a photographer we really are. All we're really doing is helping everyone else see it too.

So here we are. Nobody knows for sure what we're looking at any more, in an image, sometimes not even the photographer. And that's a problem, because a photograph, in truth, is about an instant of captured time, and because a photograph, in truth, depends for its validation upon the faith placed in it by photographer and audience.

And we've lost the faith.

The one thing we all need, all the time, is more thinking about who we are and what we are doing.

The unexamined life may not be worth living, but then again it may be. Just ask everyone in the world. You will be stared at, ignored, sworn at, and even punched in the honker, and then everyone will eventually go back to whatever it was that they were doing, and for most everyone it will be just doing stuff. Without thinking about it.

OK, nuff there.

What really matters is that the unedited story makes no movie. It isn't enough to set up a camera and turn it on. You have to get in there and poke at the ideas, prod the participants, stretch, bend, fold, spindle and mutate the results, and then you have a movie. And it may still suck, but it still takes a lot of effort to make a crappy movie. Effort makes the difference. Without it there's nothing at all.

Movies don't come out of the camera, and neither do single still pictures. We still seem to be doing some tail chasing around the little flower bed in the back yard. The one with a sign that says on one side "Photography = Record" and on the other side says "Picture = Art".

Well, yesterday I stopped and photographed a couple of dirt shadows of leaves on asphalt, sort of modern transient fossils, where a little dust had collected under leaves on new clean black pavement, and then the leaves had whisked away, leaving only leaf-shaped dust prints. To me this was art, without I went and took a pichur even. I dunna care a bunch, laddie, whether it comes from me or not, but I am tickled by the life force, whether it acts for me, through me, or altogether on its own and leaves behind a wee dollop of dirt for me to inspect.

"Off with her head!" the Queen of Hearts said. "Off with his head!" the Queen of Hearts said. And so on and on and on. And some lift swords and others take sticks and together they meet to hammer and bleed. Whatever.

For me photography is an activity during which a machine eats light and poops images. And that's about it. The possibility of arguing about anything ain't reason enough for me to leap out of bed in the morning. Ever.

I like tools. I like taking a box and going somewhere and pointing it at things and playing with what the box poops out. I like discovery. I like pictures. I can draw a little but it's so very much like sticking needles into my eyes that I don't do it, mostly. Too much (painful) effort. And I'm color blind enough that any attempt at painting is only an exercise in complete befuddlement. ("OK, WHICH one is red again?") A camera gives me photographs and I can make them into pictures, even color pictures. That's way cool.

Yeah, so if "'Photography' in my view should stand for optical-mechanical-chemical processes where the action of light is the main agent and the record is the direct result of the action of the cause, like a bearprint is the impression of the bear, in E.H. Gombrich's memorable phrase," then I don't see the difference between a latent image on a piece of film and a latent image in a lattice of miniature circuits. Not at all. Not even one little, tiny bit. They are both optical and mechanical, and chemical and electronic. It's all mixed up together, down in between those atoms and electrons and molecules and things we can represent only by abstruse and complicated mathematical equations.

That's what I call photography too, but maybe I don't have a fine enough point on my head to decide with authority that one thing is photography and another thing just like it isn't also photography. I just call it photography now and I'm happier that way. These days it's easier to grab a camera that doesn't need film and go out to generate a lot of photographic poop. I bring it back and see if any of it can fertilize my own private garden, and if it can, well, hey, I've got a picture or two.

Life changes. Things get better and worse at the same time. I'm older than I used to be and I spend a lot of time hurting all over and yet I never want to stop trying to figure things out.

It's always a good process. Healthy and enlightening. Invigorating. That's why they call it a sanity check. You stop for a little bit and wonder just what in the hell you are up to and if it's worth it and whether the hell it makes any sense whatsoever, and mostly, yes, it does, and that's good. But you have to check, and make sure that everyone else is on board too.

I call it all photography and I don't care much what kind of box I carry in my hands as long as I can make it produce occasional bits of joy and wonder and beauty, and share them now and then. After enough thinking and intelligence and sensitivity and effort on my part. And it's a crap shoot either way, cuz I'm not really scary good, but I try.

That's all I got to say. Thank you very much.

Dear Mike,

I understand the point you're trying to convey, but I think you've missed its import. Which, in the total of photography, is insignificant. 99.9% (conservatively) of digital photographs are indistinguishable from film photographs in intent, accuracy and similitude (not just verisimilitude). They are what they've been since some party-pooper gave the hoi polloi rollfilm and declared "you push the button, we do the rest." They're the premier folk art form of the 20th century and the primary way people keep record of their lives.

Of the (pushing) teraphotos made each year, hardly any of them are anything more nor less than that. Nothing's changed but the capture device and medium.

So, "digital photography" is just the right term. In time, it will simply be "photography," the same way "electronic computer" became "computer" and "touch tone phone" became "phone." And we'll refer to "film photography" the way we say "human computer" and "dial phone" (and maybe, soon, "landline phone").

But for the 0.1% of photos you're addressing? The serious personal-expression/art/meant-to-have-import stuff that those of us here enjoy doing? Even there, it's a minor note. The power of unmanipulated photography to startle is a wonderful thing, but very few photos are of that nature, even in that 0.1%.

Wessel's observation is so far off the mark that I ignored it the first time it came up. Laurie Edison and I thoroughly deconstructed and demolished it in our Collaborations series ( http://ctein.com/collaborations.htm ). Every photo is "realistic photography" in the extreme. Some of the works (e.g., http://ctein.com/collab03.htm ) are essentially indistinguishable in real space/time. It's artistic space where they diverge.

You're right in the point you make about the continuum. Digital workings let one push manipulation much more easily and further from similitude. It is such a substantial quantitative change that it verges on the qualitative (there, I believe, lies your truly important point). But it arises only in the minority extreme cases, and as yet there's little evidence it will become mainstream ("could" isn't the same as "will").

pax / Ctein

An interesting discussion - when blogging I'm always confused what to call a photograph and what to call an image for the very reasons of this debate.

That said, I think we have to return to why we take the pictures in the first place. If we want to document something, such as news, we rely on the integrity of the photographer and the editorial staff to make as few changes as possible to the captured scene. Most honorable organizations have very strict rules for that reason. If on the other side we want to express ourselves, or convey an emotion - both on the part of the photographer expressing himself and his perspective, and on the part of the viewer who is resonating and projecting his own emotions - then it's really about the final content of the image, not through how many steps and techniques that final content was arrived at. Digital is a great medium because it opens up so many more creative ways to assemble highly tuned expressions.

Nowehre is this more obvious than in black & white landscape photography. Early on black & white is all that was available through technical limitations. Today we can (and do) create more stunning black & white photos that were taken as full color exposures and then carefully edited into black & white.

So the debate shouldn't be what we call what, or whether digital has been good/bad - it really is about different groups establishing the standards of expressions, being clear about stating them, and then executing them with high integrity. That leaves a clear and unmistakable protocol between producer and consumer.

Everyone expects news and documentary photography to be authentic to the scene. Quite a few folks will expect landscape and street photography to be minimally edited (or pure). Most other forms are wide open to creative posing and editing.

Is this any different that when I type a response in rather than put pen to paper? It's still a form of communication. While this posting got people to think a bitit was a sneaky way to increase hits to your site over a topic better suited years before. I'd rather be photographing.

To me, here the basic questions are: what image manipulation is relevant to photography as art? Do we still see photo as record of reality or just as picture like painting?

If a photo taken by a camera has been manipulated (or altered, enhanced) that partially or totally differ from that part of the world it captured, is it still a photograph? Is a picture that pieced up perfectly by various parts from different parts of the world a photograph?

I would say that digital imaging is a relatively new type of art, is related but different from photography. You may not need a camera for digital imaging.

Just my two cents.

Well, sigh.
I'm thinking about it.
I just do not see this whole thing as
a Gap in the ability to conceptually reorder an image.

BTW, a reminder: A Polaroid can be manipulated also by
sqooshing a blunt stylus around on it while it is developing.
This creates interestingly weird distortions and "abstractions"
that may, or may not, constitute Conceptual Re-ordering.

By choosing to define a photograph as a direct impression of light onto a surface (or a direct impression therefrom), you are making an artistic statement more than a technical one. You are saying that in your opinion, mechanical/analog reproduction is more artistic, more true to the history of the medium, and in some sense inalienably "more" than a digital record of light on a sensor, which then goes through electronic and human algorithms before the image reaches the viewer. I don't have a problem with what you're saying. Therefore I think we should call "photography" as you see it "mechanical photographic imaging" and the latter category should be called "digital photo imaging." Just take the graph out of it...

Another way to look at it is that we're at a point of convergence between the photorealistic and the impressionistic. And if I were a pro, I'd probably think of myself in the image production business. "What's your workflow?" That seems an eminently more productive question to ask these days than "What's your medium?"

Of course it is all photography. It is the light from a subject rendered as a 2D image.

And the assertion, that 'digital' marks the real break with authenticity, blurs once you think whether the woman in the autochrome you showed a while back would look the same if shot by Avedon with an 8x10?

All the best,


"..photograph is the only one that is a recording medium, the only one that doesn't interpose the human imagination between the impartial eye of the lens and the artifact at the end of the production process, which used to be the print."
Sorry Mike, but you can't be serious about that? So the works of Brassaï, HBC, Chim, Kertesz and you-name-them are created totally without any element of human imagination?
I have always been of the impression, that the most important piece of photographic equipment is what sits aproximately 10 cm. behind the camera - any camera, that is, be it plates, film, digital or whatever.
I can follow your argument as long, as digital captures can be more easily manipulated in post-processing than film. This, in combination with the ease with which photos can be shared in digital form - and recombined in various, collective processes - certainly has some significance for how we wil use and perceive the photographic medium in the future.
But your argument goes totally astray from aproximately where you make the statement that "the only thing that gives either photograph its power is that, for better or worse, we really do believe that the pretext of each picture is authentic".
No Mike: some types of pictures relies on an implicit agreement between the photographer and the wiever, that what we see is authentic. But others don't - a lot of art photography rely on staging and scenography for its impact. Furthermore, authenticity is not a very straightforward concept in the context of photography...
What I'm trying to say is, that even though I respect your effort to clarify the concepts, I think the end result is much too simplistic.

I think digital puts "photograpy" more in line with writing. Basically, writers can be artists, writers can be reporters of fact and writers can be both.

No one thinks that writing was more truthful when it was done with pen and paper, or typewriters as opposed to a word processor on a modern computer (someone could more easily make alterations in the age of digital writing).

A problem with pre-digital photography is that people assigned s "truthfulness" to photographs. All you have to do is look at the past work by "Madison Avenue" advertising firms to understand that "chemical" photography does not hold any greater veracity than digital photography.

What digital has done is lowered the cost of manipulating images. Now I can do what Fortune 500 companies did regularly.

What is in our best interest, as a free society, is to make everyone skeptical of photographs - both digital and chemical. We should put the burden on the photographer/publisher to demonstrate the integrity of their work.

Sorry, I dropped the ball on the writer vs. photographer analogy.

Basically, when people read accounts of an event in a newspaper, they weigh the integrity of the account based upon the source of the account (or the end publisher of the account - say The New York Times). When people see a photograph in a publication, they assume its "truthfulness" even though they may not value the written account in the same publication.

The ease of modification of digital and the realization of such capabilities by the general public, places photojournalism on the same footing as written journalism.

Similarly, when I choose to purchase a portfolio from a photographer, I now would look at it in the same vein as I would purchasing a written biography. My judgement of the integrity of the work is wrapped in my judgement of the integrity of the "author".

In my personal opinion, the world would have been better served if people had been more skeptical of photography in the past.

Mike, whereas you once were a photographer, are you now a digital imager? Are you selling photographs or digital images -- or some of each?

Mike--Thanks for a well-considered essay. I think all E Puts wanted to do was offer food for thought. Digital processes have changed photography. The degree to which that affects us will vary from person to person, but is worth considering.

A more interesting question might be: Why does this simple recognition strike some as requiring immediate refutation, and bring still others to such a frenzy that they want to kill or at least maim the messenger?


Sorry, but it's a lot fancy talk that just boils down to the Film Vs. Digital debate. Which, in turn boils down to (for lack of a more appropriate term) "proffesionals" and "artists" feeling threatened by the presence of digital.

Most of the arguments or positions mentioned in the post are easily picked apart, or subjective enough to be.. well, subjective.

I appreciate those who came before me, and had all the time to learn the intricacies of the traditional process. I strive to one day have equivalent knowledge to be able to produce images of that caliber. The process is still there, only the tools have changed (and the intent to manipulate is still there, always has been- always will be).
And I still see the "crap in, crap out" button in CS3. When that happens, the artistic elite (or however one categorizes them) will have a reason to complain (maybe). But for now, there's still a fair amount of craft involved in creating breathtaking, compelling and award winning images ;)

Despite my disagreement, I enjoyed the post as it made me think. One of the reasons I lurk around here, thanks!

Photographers! Oh how tortured we are. Can we interpret what we see or are we confined to reality? And whose reality?

And now this.

I've just visited Merriam-Webster online.
Main Entry: pho·tog·ra·phy
Pronunciation: \fə-ˈtä-grə-fē\
Function: noun
Date: 1839

: the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface (as film or a CCD chip)

Radiant energy and light on a sensitive surface. Hum, who would have thought...

And from now on, I'm purging my library of any books that I cannot be assured were hand written. Word proccessing and spell checking are simply denaturing the art of writing.

Can photography survive the teething of digital image-making? Digital photography (or imagining or whatever) is new. It is undergoing some pretty severe traumas as it attempts to mature. In the process, it may self-destruct and take the entire scope of photography with it. Or it may grow up to be just another branch of the same photographic tree. At this point, it is entirely in the hands of those who practice it. Do they want to continue and help evolve the photographic process or do they intend to be a separate process without any previous foundation? I hope the majority will remember and understand the roots of the photographic family tree. Trying to build without a foundation makes for a bleak future indeed.

Riddle me this, Mr. Johnston: What is any of this supposed to mean to those of us who joined the game via the digital route? Should we go back to film? Or maybe practice imitatation through limitation? (Acting as if our DSLR was just a digital version of its film counterpart.)

I for one, have bought into the idea of photograpy as seen through the "lens" of film, so I have a DSLR, but I use a normal prime lens and print only B&W. Where am I to place this pursuit in the photography vs. digital imaging debate, and how can I use it to make better pictures?

There have always been two approaches to photography. One were the image was paramount and what you used or how you got there was of little interest. The other elevated process to the same level as what it produced. For those wrapped up in process using an enlarger rather then making contact prints, using film rather then some more arcane process, using digital instead of film, using a roll film camera instead of a 8x10 view camera (-you can pick your process) irreparably compromised or lent credence to the image. As if somehow the process and secret knowledge of it lends creditability to the final image. It's the Alchemists school of photography and is very popular especially with male hobbyists.

For me I could care less if you used a camera phone, pin hole camera, grabbed a still from a video stream or made a contact print from a 20x24 banquet camera negative on to paper you coated yourself . If you created something worth looking at it really doesn't matter how you got there and it all falls under the umbrella of photography.

Some fine discussion on an eternal question. I learned in a wet darkroom, though I don't miss it.

Before I release the shutter of my 35mm film camera, reality is distorted by film choice; Tri-X distorts reality, as does Velvia 50. I don't see in B&W, nor do the highly saturated colors of Velvia really exist. Reality is distorted and manipulated by lens choice; at 10mm, there is one image, and at 105mm, there is another.

Journalisms vaunted truth is filtered through picture editors; thus the mean look on Hillary or the goofy look on G.W. Bush, after it has been filtered through the picture maker, who waited for the goofy look.

The saint of the darkroom, A. Adams' prints change dramatically from early to late. Which is the real?

PFUI, the "image" is important, not how you got there. If this is really about film vs digital, don't worry filmies. About 600 years ago, oil paint superseded egg tempera, but lo, there are still those who prefer and use that ancient and venerable medium of painting. I know, I'm one of them. But I'll keep my digital cameras, as well.

"I‘ve finally figured out what‘s wrong with photography. It‘s a one—eyed man looking through a little ‘ole. Now, how much reality can there be in that?" David Hockney

"Cameras are just boxes for transporting appearances... What is not so simple is to grasp the nature of the appearances which the camera transports. Are they a construction, a man made cultural artifact, or are they, like a footprint in the sand, a trace 'naturally' left by something that has passed? The answer is, both" John Berger.

either kind of photography, at the different ends of the spectrum, isn't essentially about how things really are, but only about how they appear to be - appearances. After that, it's merely a matter of degree.

Well, Mike, right in the nail. Fantastic text. Thanks for your essay.
Maybe now all of us could take the "vs": It shouldn't be digital vs analogic, but digital, analogic,or digital and analogic, which it is my own choice.
I prefer to shoot B&W in film, but there's also some interesting things to consider:
Four years ago I was a "newborn" shooter,after a 35 years "sabbatical", shooting exclusively digital. Now in my fourth digital camera, I accidentally tryed a friend's Olympus OM-1. I liked the small camera, small lenses, the quality of construction and materials. I found that in most situations I preferred to
focus manually, my own focusing, not the computer's ideas about it.
I enjoyed the simplicity of concentrate just in aperture, speed, focus, composition. Simple, direct, right hand holding the camera, index finger in the shutter, left doing focus, aperture and speed , quickly, without taking my eyes from the visor,or my hands from their original position holding the camera.
One extra stop in usable low speed, thanks to the cloth shutter, two if shooting with the mirror locked.
A huge, full frame, 97% visor... Fantastic to compose the shot.
Up to 3200 ISO, selecting 1600 in the speed dial,underexposing one stop in the needle push-processing the Delta 400,or using Delta 3200, both with some graining, yes, but found grain much more likeable than digital noise.
Simple, elegant. I like the straightfroward approach.It's like driving a stick shift Porshe in a country road:The pleasure of pure, straighforward control. I was sold.
Erwin Puts is right, yes. It is a very different workflow.
I respect Mr. Puts as one the most knowledgeable optical consultants in the world, and respect him also as a man which is German, is based in Netherlands, writes so well in English, and quotes in French. This makes him an example, as an educated person, and as a human being that is interested to understand other cultures different from his own.
Back to equipment,my Canon 400D(XTi) plus Sigma 18-50 f2.8, the sharpest lens I've experimented in my life, (photodo.com testers wrote exactly the same
thing about this magnifiscent lens), plus battery grip (a necessity to balance the small camera, almost without grip with a 500 grams lens)just scares people in the streets... Not the OM-1, which looks like grandad's camera... Not bad for street, decisive moment shooting. The OM1 is smaller, lighter, easier to take everywhere daily.I got hooked. I still shoot more with my digital camera, but now film is definitely part of my life.
It also changed my digital shooting: Someway, my results with the 400D(XTi) became better. The "back to basics" approach made my captures, digital or film, better.
I've bought my own OM1n, a 28mm, a 50mm, a 85mm and a 135 mm, for a pittance. Well maintained, this equipment will become more valuable with time. Not bad at all...
It's all about choices...Vive la différence!

To paraphrase another saying: "Photographs do not lie, people do". I think you should proceed your thinking to intent and context, which is what matters here.

Lastly, it will be interesting to whether the public will find repeated photographic 'lying' acceptable or get used to the fact that a photograph may very well be a fabrication.

Hello Mr. Johnston,

I think I got the point of your essay, but, one tool user to another, I sort of wish you hadn't used the Chalk Farm photo to exemplify it. If I have a wealth of carpenter friends, and I go to the vantage overlooking the bay...

Good grief, such a lot of wounded egos! And such a lot of people grafting their prejudices on top of what Mike actually said.

Physically, a negative or a slide is a direct record of the light that struck the recording material at the time of exposure. Molecules have been immutably changed. A physical event has occurred.

Now consider the digital sensor: light strikes the photosites and triggers an electric current to flow (so far so good) but, and here is the crucial difference, this current does not cause a direct and permanent physical change in the recording medium. Instead, it is interpreted by various software algorithms and the result is a stream of voltage fluctuations which do not directly equate to the light that struck the sensor. Only by the ingenuity of the computer algorithm can this stream of voltages be interpreted as an image. In this sense, a digital image has no existence outside of the context used to create it. However, an image recorded on film is an intrinsic and immutable record of the event being recorded.

Mike's argument makes such perfect sense that I cannot understand why so many people fail to grasp it.

Only am amateur, and a very naive one at that, could claim that analog photography is intrinsically more real or credible or trustworthy than digital. Professionals who are aware of the vast number of ways (albeit costly and requiring high skill levels) in which it has been possible for many decades to manipulate photographs out of all recognition will simply laugh at such a suggestion. Check out the work of someone like Melvin Sokolsky for examples of this. The only guarantee of truth and authenticity in a photograph is the integrity of the people who made it!

Mike, to your Update point about terminology:

You may have taken that up from Erwin as a springboard but it was you using 'etymology' - and wrongly I might add. You were clearly thinking about the last 200 years of history of the specific application of the term 'photography', which has only a passing refrence to the word's etymology.

I would have answered that earlier but I was out taking photographs with a Nikon D2x. And I intend to take photos with digital devices in the future, see if pictures are among them and try to enhance them until they are images.

I'm afraid you're wrong about this. (See Julian's post above.) Light doesn't "write" anything on a digital sensor--it doesn't change the sensor. Light on a sensor is just the first signal in a series of signals that have to be interpreted and relayed many times before you end up with your image. A negative is "written" (created) by light.


Is image that your lens/film(sensor) saw is more important for you than image that your eyes/brain saw?
Images receive HEAVY post-processing in your brain. We have different brains & living experience, so post-processing varies.
1) You may want to see & record objective reality, that you can't see & remember using your eyes/brain.
2) You may want to show others your vision of the world & record your vision for yourself.
3) You may want to go beyond your vision & manipulate reality even more.

B&W photo is a heavy analog/digital processing of reality. We can imagine how B&W photo will look like using our past experience but we cannot see in B&W. So if you do dodge/burn/other manipulation in B&W - it's #3, if you don't it's mostly #1 & partly #3.
Your experience may vary.

To paraphrase Mick Jagger, "I know it's only digital imaging, but I like it, like it, yes I do!"

I shoot mostly traditional (film & glass plates)& some digital. Here is the difference that I notice - in digital I work in a world that was created by Canon & Adobe. They have defined what is possible & what things look like & I have to learn how to work within that. In analogue photography I work with materials that are closer to the physical world & have an immense range of choice. The cameras, films, developers offer a wide range of combinations.

Also there is something significant about how film records the light. It's like a hand going into the earth & scooping up dirt. The film or plate physically takes the light energy & holds onto it. In my digital camera the light is read by a sensor & is then processed by the Canon software into bits. Of course many people like how Canon interprets the light energy, however I feel the inherent limitation. I don't want to live in a world where my visual choices are so pre-defined by one or two companies.

Traditional processes are magic & I use them because I love working with them. Digital is OK. It has its uses but it doesn't excite me.

The issue of post capture manipulation is a bit of a red herring I think, but I'm amazed by some of the gay abandon with which people are flinging around the statistics ("99.9% of digi pics are not touched up", etc). I see a lot of digipix by regular folks & there is a lot of post going on. Pumping up the colour, deleting elements they don't like. I'd say it's more like 30% being touched up at least. For many people the digital capture is just the first step on the way to the spectacular image they desire. This is now seen as a normal part of photography & has been learned from 'how to' articles based on projects done by advertising photogs as well as some art photographers.

The one thing I notice in discussions like this is that the digital peole always seem to be really defensive & determined to show that digital is the same as analogue. Please spare me the dictionary definitions & specious arguments about how film is also open to manipulation. There is a big difference between shooting analogue & digital & I think what it comes down to is that in one the light is physically captured whereas in the other it is sensed & then processed.


It's clear you do a lot of thinking about photography and express your thoughts in a very clear way.

However, whatever your view on the film v digital issue, photography remains a visual art and not a written one.

You're attempting to dissect photography using the left half of your brain when it's the right half that's important to photographers.

I seem to remember you saying a while back that you'd reached a kind of crossroads with your photography.

Perhaps you just need to photograph more and debate less?


Thanks for writing this thought provoking post, I had thought of doing something similar on my blog but I'm not sure I could put it as well as you have.
I'd like to pick up on a couple of points in the comments section:

" Digital recording is not any different physically than film recording. The bits that are recorded are engendered by a physical process - photons are detected, which in turn generate a current that charges a well potential, which is converted to another charge encoding its binary representation. That recording is as faithful as any other recording of the same physical resolution".

I would love that to be an actual representation of what happens when you take a digital image, indeed the two mediums would be similar. Unfortunately the average 12mp sensor only has about 4 million pixels resolution, most of the pixels are generated by mathematical algorithms in computer software couple with the fact that the sensor itself sees no colour, just photons.
Colour is arrived at by interpreting though a colour mosaic array normally a Bayer type.


"Raw data is what is keeping digital photography alive".

Raw data is just post computer interpretation, raws are actually really B&W (or levels) and a Bayer ring descriptor for colour interpretation. The raw decoder used has a huge effect on the accuracy and interpretation of that data.

Every time I read a thread like this, I want to see a series of photographs taken by each poster, along with another series taken by other photographers whom he admires. We need this as a frame of reference because our aesthetic sensibilities lead us in different directions, and it should be obvious that we will each favor the approach that will help us realize our goals. If you like dark, heavily saturated, vignetted landscapes, you're more likely to welcome each new feature offered in the latest version of Photoshop compared to someone who does street work. (yes, I know you could switch the genres and make the same argument.)

I don't know how to say this, except bluntly . . . . most of you really should go back and reread both Erwin's and Mike's articles again. Both authors are already clearly aware of the arguments that most of you are making.

It's simple, really. The available software can make alterations less obvious, they are seductive because some of those adjustments must be applied as part of even the most basic post-processing, and the results are able to be published on the web for millions to see where some of the cheesiest stuff is admired by or deceives a disappointingly large number of viewers. It was always so, perhaps, but the rest of us get slapped in the face with this stuff as we go looking for inspirational work that we think has more integrity.

Oops . . there's that preference thing again.

Mike and Julian,

In a CCD, an electronic state change occurs in the semiconductor material when light strikes it.

In film, an electronic state change occurs in a molecule (silver-halide) when light strikes it.

In digital, the state change is detected by other electronic elements, interpreted and recorded on elctronic media.

In film, chemicals are used to remove the ionic halide (and de-ionize the silver) and un-exposed silver-halide. The image is the negative of the silver left behind.

Prior to that second step - in both film and digital - there is NO image.

So writing upon a blackboard or with an Etch-a-Sketch isn't writing either? It's only writing when it is persistent, ruling out any volatile medium or writing tool? What about fountain pen on paper - you can erase even that with a normal ink eraser?

If the final result is a "print", the difference between digital and analog escapes me. Emulsion recipes or computer algorithms, your eyes and mind or mine. The formulations for new Tri-X were probably aided by computers.

Transparencies are objects unto themselves, though subject to many variables, i.e. lens choice, iso, equipment used, etc., whereas the negative is just a step in a lengthy process. It may have integrity as an object, but I don't view it as the "finished" object.

As a theological discussion about what we "call" what we may or may not be doing, this has been fun, though there is a certain "Luddite" quality to it. As to computers, where is the line? Does a computer designed lens alter reality? Do "cooties" from computers affect our brains? AHHHHHH!!!!!!!

For artistic purposes, why does it matter if the photograph is dead-accurate to the real world? A photograph is not a precise scientific test, it's a creation arising out of an interaction of the photographer and the scene.

Does it really matter- at all- if that Bison was photoshopped in or not? The actual image is the same, and how it came to be so doesn't matter to the viewer.

There's thousands of novels, prima facie creations of the imagination, but people get "lost in a book" easily, forgetting that it is fantasy- if it is good. And there's plenty of books based on reality, but with distortions. Guess what? Even when the label "fiction" or "based on" slapped on something, people still believe what it says.

The same thing applies to photography- if it's good, people believe it.

Say I take a photograph with a woman wearing a green dress, and I change it to blue because it matches the sky or otherwise suits some expressive aesthetic purpose. What's wrong with that? If it better conveys the mood/concept/whatever I was trying to do when I pressed the shutter, then how is that any less of a photograph?

So I think I found your digital film Mike:

(Rod Sainty was not able to post his comment and asked me to post this for him. --MJ)

Mike, you said that so well. Congratulations.

I, too, love the real world and the many exciting and strange things and moments and images that can be discovered in it if we are willing to look. And out of it as well: I am still enthralled with the Apollo voyages to the moon. I consider myself an explorer of the world. Imaginary adventures and images just don't interest me. Photography has a strong and undeniable association with the documentary tradition; this gives it its power. So when I come to an image nowadays, I want to know whether it was taken digitally or on film because I can invest more interest in an image that I know represented what was in front on the lens. With digital there’s that doubt, borne of all the many manipulations that we’ve all seen. Sure there’s photographs of an abstract or purely artistic nature for which the medium doesn’t matter and for which the artist might equally have chosen another medium. But if the image purports to represent a moment of nature, or of humanity, then changing the content either by software or substantive darkroom tricks is undeniably spoiling the trust of our medium. Why all the knee-jerk reactions, all the hot-headedness by the pro-digital people to this and the earlier post? Regards,Rod.


Rod Sainty


[email protected]

Mike: For what it's worth: Webster's includes "to introduce (information) into the storage device or medium of a computer" in the definition of "write". Perhaps 'light' isn't being 'written' on the sensor itself--but it is being written in a persistent form. I'm surprised that this is where you would draw the line. I can hear my mom say "Don't get technical!" I really don't see how digital capture is much less true or photographic. If you stick to 'light-writing' or 'capture' as your definition of photography, any post-capture image alterations (especially those with creative intent) fail that test. Over time though the activity of "photography" has come to include post-processing. I suppose that one might consider use of a negative and enlarger more 'photographic' in nature (since there is yet again light and capture/writing), than a 100% digital post-processing workflow, but this seems like splitting hairs. The name of the hobby may or may not change, and it will or will not change with or without me.

Might a little Shakespeare be appropriate?
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet"

The end crowns all, and that old common arbritator, Time, will one day end it.

Dear Folks,

This slavishly literal adherence to a Latinate neologism? C'mon, "writing with light" was not meant to be a prescription, it's just a name.

If you insist that terminology's roots be precisely adhered to, you need to start calling "television" and "video" something else, unless they're silent films (can you say "audio-visual"?) And that "phonograph" some of you used to have? Not really, unless you'd also call a page reader a 'typewriter.' They ain't been "phonographs" for 99% of end users for a century.

If you're gonna demand photography conform to your interpretation of Latin, then demand that all such Latinate derivatives be used properly.

pedantically yours,


Great article and comments. I've done mostly unmemorable photography in the film days, then after a 10-year hiatus went digital, and now people tell me my photographs have improved greatly.
While I tend to take a middle ground in the arguments, I believe that one of the things that helped me improve is the ability to slightly "tweak" the digital picture afterwards to more closely conform to what I thought I _saw_ at the time I took the picture... shadow detail, color saturation, whatever. It's a natural extension of cropping a print to leave out some irrelevant detail not noticed at the time.
And after a few years of learning the ins and outs of that process (and of the camera) I find my pictures now need fewer and subtler corrections, and more and more need none.

Is digital better than film or vice versa? I don't think that question is a pertinant one. Why you ask? Because of the image creators intent. Notice I said image creator not photographer. In this day and age you have image creators that are photographers, photojournalists, fine art photographers, digital illustrators, etc......... They all have different intents, but they all use photography in some way. It's in this that the problems arise. Most are unaware of the different intentions. People should look at an image only for what the creator has intended it to be viewed as.
The fine art photographer may try to represent his "feeling" of a landscape by burning in the sky darker than what was actually there. His/Her intent is not to "record reality", but merely to try to communicate how he felt about the scene through the use of the photograph.

A photojournalist if they are doing news and not "documentary" should try to provide as accurate an account of an event as possible. Here is where "truth" in photography is most critical. You don't want to mislead the public into thinking something fictional, because your intent is to "cover actual news events" things that have happened in the world.

A digital illustrator uses photography in a way to illustrate ideas or concepts. These images can be completely manipulated or "setup" because the intent is not to show you something "that exists in the real world physically" but usually to call attention to aspects of the world and life that are intangible.

The best way to ever resovle this issue is to realize the different intentions. Should a digital illustration be judged by the same criteria as a news photo, I don't think so. Basically choose the right tool for you, for the image you want to create.

I understand your (mine and many others) view that manipulation of the picture taken is a lie. What I disagree on is the fact that how you create this lie makes a difference.
Why manipulating the original in Photoshop is more of a lie than retouching the negative ? Or doing double exposer in the dark-room ?
The only difference is how easy it is to lie.

By the way, this photo manipulation program as many others is part of computer science branch usually called Computational Photography.
It has many legitimate usages, and many useful functions. The examples I liked were undoing the effects of fish-eye lens (or 360 deg lens) and the ability to create great group photos from several pictures of the group. One is useful in security and sensors applications and the other for event photography.

Dear Mike & Julian,

Further elaborating on what Jeff most correctly said ...

Both silver halide and CCDs (or CMOS arrays) create "latent images." In both cases, it's a meta-stable redistribution of electrons. In fact, in CCD's the physical change is considerably more substantial than in film.

Immutable? Durable? C'mon. The latent images in both classes of devices aren't anything close to immutable. Film's latent image starts changing measurably in days, altering the resultant photograph. It's small but observable. The latent image in common CCDs is only usable over a time frame measured in minutes to hours, vs modern films' years. But it wasn't always that way. Think wet plates. Highly nondurable latent images! So, not photography????

In practical cameras, we choose to read the CCD's physical redistribution of electrons as a signal and re-use them. But one *could* "develop" the sensors themselves, even to produce a durable physical change (there exist lab techniques, used for analyzing chip characteristics). Yeah, impractical and expensive ... kinda like wet plates. Thank the gods we didn't have to go that route.

(Suddenly I'm struck with a steampunk vision of pre-Victorian photographers loading large CCD's into their view cameras and rushing the exposed plates into the light-tight tent for image retrieval before it starts to fade.)

Further, the photograph that we develop out of exposed film is only a modest subset of the latent image (except under most extraordinary circumstances). More or less standard processing produces what we consider to be a 'normal' photograph. Which is 99+% of them. The other 1% we mess around with, substantially altering how that invisible and unstable silver halide latent image gets converted into an actual 'photograph' on film.

Same's true for the digital process.

Have you renamed your 'phonograph' yet? (Yeah, I know-- it's now a turntable [grin]).

pax / Ctein

For me, photography is the process of *taking* photographs -- everything else can be generically described as post-processing and encompasses an artistic area as broad as painting or sculpture. The use of Photography in the commercial, artistic, and recreational worlds will produce drastically different products, as with any form of art.

Both those who paint with oil on canvas, and those who paint with latex on the side of your house are called 'Painters'. Their craft is described as 'Painting', but what they produce with their painting skills does not alter the fact that they are both painters. If you enjoy looking at the painted canvas or the new color on the house, then the painter has done his job.

Whether you're in a darkroom or in Photoshop -- you can choose to edit a film or digital image to the point of making it unrecognizable from the original -- the source doesn't matter -- the only thing you can't alter (and still truthfully call it what it is) is the original negative; and this holds true for digital or film. So to me, the 'art' of photography ends there and the 'art' of editing follows. Call the final product whatever you want -- I don't care as long as somebody enjoys looking at it. Once you've composed your shot and clicked the shutter the photographer's job is done (he has provided the RAW material -- the pallette, if you will), and the editor's job begins -- and in the commercial world that is often not the same person.

As a wedding photographer I know this can literally be the case. I cull through my shots and send the best few hundred to Pictage and pay someone I don't even know to alter my photos in a style that happens to be fashionable at the time -- my job as a photographer is can be finished when I upload the negatives. The obvious moral to my story is that ol' Uncle Bob at the wedding could not have produced the same negatives even if I handed him all my gear and gave him a full technical discourse on its operation. Uncle Bob can't take pictures like me. He can't see images compose before his eyes in real time the way I can. He can't anticipate the burst of laughter from the wedding party that will make a brilliant image, much less compose and shoot it in the half-second it will occur. Photography is the hunting and gathering. Editing is preparing a meal from what the photographer has brought home -- depending on the quality of the catch, either a tasty meal may be prepared if you've got a perfectly timed shot of the bouquet toss, or you could end up with a plate full of slop if all you've got to work with is a shot of the backs of people's heads.

Give me some oils and a canvas, teach me how the colors mix together and how to use a brush. Set me up on the finest easel and surround me with every tool I could ask for, and I'll give you a plate full of slop because I'm not a painter.
The tools do not make the artist, and that couldn't be more obvious than in today's world of photography.

99.999% of photos on the web are crap, and this can get boring to troll through, and maybe even cause resentment towards the ubiquity of the digital camera; however I believe an opposite reaction is more appropriate: I see this as confirmation that not just anyone can take a good picture. Go to the WPJA site and look through some of the latest award winners, then go to flickr and search on 'wedding'. See a difference? Strip away all elements of color correction, contrast, sharpening, etc., and you will *still* see a difference.

Don't hate the player, hate the game. I can't get past the fact that most pieces written on this subject are always written by someone with a passion for, and a history of, using film. Like a bunch of magicians pissed off because everyone knows how to do their trick. Get a new trick. Back in the day, the process of developing was too complicated and expensive for just anyone to do. An old schooler might say this constraint is what caused photography to maintain a higher standard of quality ("put more thought into your capture, etc...). In my opinion, the only affect this had on the art of photography was made it less available to people; and therefore limited the growth of photography as an art form. Now cameras are as ubiquitous as a paint brush, but you don't see the fine-art painters running around saying "The wide-spread availability of paint and brushes is ruining our craft." Instead, the fine-art painter will hand you a brush and some paint and say "Good luck trying to paint as good as me."

If you are judging your photograph against the most perfectly cropped, color corrected, sharpened piece of poo you find on the net and find yourself frustrated by the fact that an 11 year old just edited his piece of poo perfectly, remember, it's still just a piece of poo. Change the basis for your judgement of good photography and you won't be so upset. Editing is easy -- that's a given at this point. Choose to no longer judge a photographer's skills based on the results of editing because at that point you're judging the post-processing artist, not the photographer. See past the editing and judge his composition, his ability to see things other people can't, his timing! A fine capture can easily be ruined by bad editing, but a crappy snapshot can never be salvaged by the finest of PS filters -- this seems obvious to me.

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