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Thursday, 09 June 2016


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In finance, most employees have personal trading accounts that they manage however they like. But when managing a client's money, the employee's duty is to obey the client's mandate.

Likewise for photographers.

However, in both cases, personal desires often seep into professional duties...

Photograph: The image captured at the moment the shutter is released. Develop the photo as it makes you happy. Modify color, contrast, tone, lighting, white balance, distortion, or crop it. The image is unchanged from what the camera acquired at the moment the shutter was released, it has only been rendered in some fashion that makes you happy.

Photoart: Same as above, but the acquired image is modified (i.e. manipulated using computer software such as photoshop) from the image the camera acquired at the moment the shutter was released. Now two images exist. The original image (photograph) and the modified image (photoart).

Note: Not sure if "photoart" is Mike's term or not, but it works for me.

Wonderful piece. Answers all the questions that I had in my own mind about this as an issue. Apart from perhaps your opinion on bracketing and blending sky and land to create the exact scene (not ott HDR) that the sensor might not have coped with otherwise at the time of making the exposure (even with filters), as opposed to using a different sky altogether as in your example..

i think that mechanical fidelity to the subject is called illustration. i think of combining multiple images captured as i think of someone sketching who observes the subject from different points of view and draws a faithful illustration. maybe i like a bit more idealism that helps the composition. do we demand that a drawing be limited to what we can see while looking through a small hole for a moment? or are we rewarded when the observer puts observations from several points of view together to create something that our senses are familiar with.

Mike, thank you for writing this post.

The paragraphs below were written yesterday as a comment for your latest Steve McCurry update. I didn't post it because I felt it was too angry and didn't fit with the measured tone of your posting, but given some of your comments above, I think it will fit just fine today:

I've always taken issue with the National Geographic code of fauxtojournalism. While the images in their magazine are often stunning and their stated policy on image manipulation seems reassuringly hardline, the simple fact is that the magazine often runs photoillustrations or staged tableaux without any kind of commentary, leading people to believe that they are slice-of-life photos.

The photos may be wonderful, and they may never have seen the inside of Photoshop, but photographing a plywood cutout of a person against the night sky so you can get a great silhouette against startrails is as far from an unmanipulated image as you can get. The same is true for much of the spectacular photography from Joe McNally--the man can light anything and he takes wonderful picture, but the lengths he goes to and the extent to which he creates the images whole cloth is ridiculous. I seem to recall that he had a story about how he had someone drive their car backwards at dusk so he could use front-curtain sync flash to expose the car AND get a streak of the car's rear lights against a blue hour sky. I've also heard him talk about how he has to light his outdoor portrait so they look like they were shot at sunrise or sunset because that's what the editors want.

When National G started running multi-image panoramas without stitching them, that was the last straw for me. I could deal with the hypocrisy of the aforementioned paragraphs (after all, National G hadn't been a serious magazine for at least two decades at that point), but refusing to stitch a panorama just so they could wrap their magazine in the cloak of photographic purity was too much for me.

This kind of discussion isn't unique to photography. It happens around all sorts of topics that inspire passion. It is particularly prevalent in politics and religion but I'll pass on those in favor of a mail list I used to belong to. It was a mail list for people who were enthralled with the Appalachian Trail, in particular, those who had or wanted to "thru-hike" it (as in all 2000+ miles in one season). There was a fair amount of discussion over what specifically constituted a "thru-hike. In fact there is no "official" rule (by the AT Trail Conference that oversees the trail) except that one hike the entire marked trail and doing it one one season isn't required since they only recognize "2000 milers", those who have hiked the whole trail regardless of how long it took to do it (some have taken decades).

In spite of the lack of specific rules by a governing authority, some purists try to set themselves up as that authority. At the end of my association with that list several such individuals hounded one young woman member of the list into an online confession and apology that her hike of the AT the prior summer was in fact not a "thru-hike" because she had by-passed a couple of short stretches for personal safety reasons, allowed by ATC 2000 miler rules but not the purist's.

No matter what we do in life there will be others who have expectations of our work that we do not entirely meet all the time. Is it legit to by-pass a stretch of trail that requires you to risk injury? Is it legit to eliminate things from your photo that detract from what you are trying to convey? I think it depends on the expectations of those passing judgment but often they are informal groups imposing their ideas via social pressure. It is not based on edicts from a governing body whose role is to define the rules.

FWIW I dropped out that mail list group in disgust over their treatment of the young lady who had come there for support and encouragement but ended up being shamed. Another faction of the list had the attitude HYOH, "hike your own hike", on the philosophy that ultimately hikes for one's own reasons and satisfaction and what others thought didn't matter. Perhaps we need a PYOP movement.

MIke, I just don't see the issue here; at least not in regard to most photography. I'd take exception when say a photojournalist says his photo was made in a war zone when it was actually staged in his backyard.

All photographs are manipulated in one way or another. Simply by choosing what to put in the frame and what to leave out manipulates what the viewer sees. If Ansel Adams chose to use a telephoto lens to make a picture of the Tetons so that a highway in the foreground was left out, so what?

I come down on the side of the need for viewer education here. Viewers need to look at all imagery, just like everything they read in the papers, as being potentially not a perfect truth.

But where do you draw the line between "normal" photographic practice and dishonest manipulation. I don't want to be guilty of reductio ad absurdum, here, but if I use an adjustment brush in Lightroom to emphasize an certain area of a photo, does the viewer need to know? Am I dishonest if I don't reveal that the photo was cropped from a much larger photo or that I reduced the blue luminance to "punch up" the sky a bit? Am I a "sniveling weasel" and just don't know it?

Thanks for a thought provoking (and slightly provoking) article.

I kind of think that in this whole issue, there's less than meets the eye. A couple years ago I saw heavily, heavily photoshopped landscapes in a show in Santa Monica, and I almost bought one, though they were quite expensive, because the woman's technique was fabulous and the images compelling. She actually took many separate photos and composited them into one Chinese-style vertical landscape. The key was, there was no pretense. The photos were nothing like "realistic," though they were made up of realistic fragments, and the artist was working toward something genuine.

The whole issue is not what you do with a camera, it's whether you tell the truth about what you're doing. It's really very simple.

[I need to kill my word-checker, and I don't know how to do it. It just changed "composited" into "composted" which would actually work in the sentence, but in a sarcastic, cynical way. As I was typing this sentence, it changed "changed" to "chanted." Now to read everything for a third time.]

I can always tell paintings that come from photographs.

Me too. And I would say that it's because paintings look like the world as we see it (more often than not), while photographs don't. Photographs look like photographs, because they're not a replica of reality.

I'm pretty much of the same opinion when it comes to the "combining negatives" thing, and I feel the same way about looking for "truths" in photographs.

A decade or so ago we saw a surge in "surreal" photoshopped images such as that now classic black & white one of a building growing out of a tree stump. They left me wanting. People around me would "ooo" and "aaah" and all I could think was "the only thing this 'photograph' tells me is that the person who made it is really good at Photoshop." An image like that was just a showcase for the technology, and it couldn't get out from behind it.

Personally, my conceit about photographic images is that I can see more in them than the photographer can put there.

As is so often the case, Mike, your commentary is applicable to much more than just photography. In the creation of any work of art —be it theatrical, musical, visual, or written— the final part of the creative process is done by the audience/listener/viewer/reader. There must be room for that final creative act or else the recipient is reduced to the status of consumer, rather than participant in the process.

This is the reason we 'find something new' in every return to a successful work of art: it stimulates us to a fresh act of creation each time we encounter it.

Among the many risks of 'staged' photographs that claim to be reportage is that they impose too much on the viewer. The photographer is telling us what we aught to think or feel about the subject, instead of requiring us (and trusting us) to create the meaningful story ourselves.

This really isn't a conversation about photography, this is a conversation about photojournalism.

Most photographs you look at, be it in print or in a museum, are staged. All advertising and lots of editorial, non-journalism, photographs are staged and lit to with in an inch of their life and then retouched or photoshopped to that final inch.

There has always been a fine line between phtojournalism and photo-illustration, where the photo illustration communicates an idea more efficiently to the reader/viewer and it's the photographer's job to give the photo editor (who is the ultimate arbitrator) what he or she wants.

I know street photographers who feel that even using a flash is an unnecessary and unethical distortion of reality and I know street photographers who ask their subjects to re-create what they were just doing a second ago, for the benefit of the camera. And neither is a photojournalist.

One rule of travel photography used to be "shoot above the garbage." Don't frame your shot with garbage in it, because the chromes will be printed full-frame. Is that ethical? To me, it seems the essence of photography- shoot only that you wish to show.

I've been doing this photography thing since I was six and I've never been more confused in my life about what's ethical and what isn't.

You description of the highly controlled photography reminds me of my reaction to hotel chains. Sometimes I appreciate them but I wouldn't want my house to look like that. I get the same feeling when looking at most car and motorcycle photography too.

My daughter took a digital art class in high school. She did well with this work, a poster where she was supposed to use alliteration (not sure if it's fully alliterative in the strictest sense).

It wasn't raining at the time, and my garage is erased, but she did hold an umbrella, wear a dress and boots, and stand like that. I took the shot following her instructions.

Wow, someone got up from the wrong side of the bed. You'd didn't mention all the manipulation that goes into creating a photography in the first place. Filters, focal length, and shutter speed all manipulate the result.
An aerial photo of a landscape is far different to what you see at eye level.
Is all the darkroom work that Ansel Adams performed the same as Photoshopping?
Is panning to be decried because it exaggerates a sense of speed?
Where does black & white fit? Most people see colour so how can a monochrome be true? Funny to think that colour was decried in a very similar fashion early in the last century.

[How is any of this knee-jerk reaction even relevant to the post? I'm saying think about it, decide what your own values are, and then be honest about what you're doing and what you've done. This comment doesn't even speak to that. --Mike]

I share some of your positions on this, but:
This whole discussion unfortunately runs us into the problems of "what is photogrpahy","Why take pictures?" and "what should the viewer expect when looking at pictures?". In operational terms, photography is a set of techniques for abstracting 2 or 3 dimensionally reflected light (usually objects) onto a (usually) 2 dimensional light sensitive medium, It has no creative, social, political or other meaning. However, the questions of why take pictures and what viewers should expect, have answers as variable as the number of photographers and of viewers. When a photo is presented (by photographer, editor or other) as a representation of the "real" world, that creates a social contract with the viewer such that most post exposure modification should be excluded. If presented as an "interpretation" of the world, then the contract is not the same. Similarly, a photo presented as an art object should create no expectation of real world relationship, whether the image is representational or abstract. The image is what it is. Like it, ignore it, or hate it as you with. This is why I think much of the angst re McCurry and others is largely a number of viewers thought there was a representational contract, which may not have existed. It depends on how he presented the images in his book. In much of what you say, I agree, but I think there needs to be clarlification re the different types of photography, and how their "social contracts" differ.

I have no issue with photographers who believe Photoshop and other software tools are essential to their artistic expression. They can do whatever they please. That doesn't mean I have to like (or dislike) the results. As best I can, I will try to judge each image on its merits.

Personally, I'd rather have viewers admire my ability to create compelling images without manipulations. (I'm not counting minor corrections such as color temperature, exposure, burning, dodging, etc.) It feels closer to real magic to me than being highly skilled at magic tricks.

What is image manipulation anyway?

I used to sell photographic prints in a tourist area locally. Some people would ask if I used Photoshop. If I replied yes, I was sure to not make a sale, so I just started saying that I make the photographs happens and let the printer do the rest.

Some people just think that what comes out of a camera is perfect and should not be altered in anyway. I remember having the same discussion in the film days: some would argue that as soon as the negative has been exposed all the work had been done.

You pinned it Mike. A thorny subject but I think you got it about as right as can be done.
Did not know about Bob Shell. That's quite the tidbit to drop into the middle of a paragraph.

Hi Mike,
I've just had the most wonderful morning, taking pictures of my kids dancing in the surf, watching their shadows jump, and their reflections in the wet sand shimmer, amazed at the fine patterns of specular highlights shift and flow - thinking of how far beyond the range of any sensor they are to capture - well, anyway, there was more to see, and more to take pictures of than anyone could do. It was wonderful, and gave me the hope that when I am an old man, I could look at my pictures and see my children dance again.

For that reason, I'm very sympathetic to your disinterest in photo manipulation. However, today also gave us some lovely seashells, which now that they are dry, their lovely subtle colors are veiled. So some staged photos are called for. Some water, a tripod, maybe a flash, will be wanted, and the photos will be taken later this week, or maybe next. Is this manipulation? I'm not sure. It wouldn't normally occur to me to light a fake sky backdrop, or set up a pile of sand, or 'shop in either. So, I'll do a "truthful" staged photo? A still life, right?

Finally, I love the theater, opera, and above all, animation. Costumes, sets, and illustrations thrill me. So, fiction, basically. I love it. I have so much respect for the people who make these things, and I want to make my own. To retouch a lot, or use a lot of lights, or any of those contols seems perfectly honest in it's intent.
Even here, my photographer perspective leaks through - my favorite genre of cosplayer photos is of cosplayers of extraordinary characters doing mundane things, like crossing a street, or talking on a cellphone. Have you ever seen the photo of Godzilla walking arm in arm with one of his attractive co stars, under an umbrella? E,g. https://www.flickr.com/photos/79744904@N03/9486304315

I'm perfectly happy to accept a lot of 'shoppery with cosplay photos - fans do go to a lot of effort to look like a character they like, and some of it is extraordinary. Special effects are called for here, I think. That said, I often can't help critiquing unnatural lighting, particularly when mixed with inartul lifting of shadows. I think you know what I mean - well illuminated faces, arms, and legs, that don't show any real modeling or roundness, and don't share any lighting direction cues with the environment. (Closely related to the unflattering flattening that comes from people using really long tele lenses for portraits.)

Anyway, I didn't mean to ramble so. But I've got your back ;)

This is why I love TOP. Thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

I was pretty interested to read the comment from the person who would lose a sale when people asked if he used Photoshop and he answered yes. There's a powerful attraction in the idea (ideal) of authenticity. Can I get away with saying I don't use Photoshop if I use GIMP instead? Only to remove dust and scratches from my scanned negatives, naturally. :-)

Has Magnum made any statement regarding 'this McCurry thing?' I couldn't find anything on their website, nor any mention of his name. Correction: One of his prints is included in their ongoing Square Print Sale. Curious, that.

Interesting that this piece is accompanied by a quote from Werner Herzog. Here there's more from the book "Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed":


At the link you'll find a quote wherein he talks of a film (he made? I think so) about an aeronautical engineer who pedalled an airship from Southampton to the Isle of Wight, a distance, according to Werner, of "about a hundred miles". Well, a dirigible, flying like a crow, would probably cover not much more than 11 miles. Even allowing for the fact that a dirigible would likely have to go a good bit further inland for take-off and landing, 100 miles is a hell of a stretch. In isolation, this example may look petty and could simply be a mistake but in the context of the tale (why put a distance on the journey? It would be amazing enough without it), it makes one wonder what other possible exaggerations he might be responsible for. As Herzog admits himself, he very much likes to invent - the book is a great read (his reminiscences about Fitzcarraldo are fantastic and worth buying the book for alone), but, well, in the end you might be getting a bit more Baron von Munchausen than Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Mike said: "Sometimes confronting ideas that you don't agree with can be as important to growth as finding those you agree with."

We should all be prepared to confront what we don't agree with - otherwise we are going down the road of tribalism, dogma and division (I think we got there already actually)

Have strong beliefs, lightly held. I can't remember who said that but it's not a bad "belief system"

If you don't like a photograph, you should spend some time trying to think why someone else would like it. I cant remember who said that either - here's a theme emerging here

That is all art appreciation of course, and not the creative urge - there you must stick to your guns

Mike you are beating to death this topic of reality capture/presentation. All forms of images are some form of interpretation from your image system to your lens to you POV and FOV.

I personally live in a world of commercial photography where reality is not even a consideration, it has to be much better than that.

Should you manage your images, you actually have no choice, you already have, based on so many things that you chose, like camera, lens, RAW converter or in camera jpeg settings, and on and on.

Drop it, images have always been a manipulated view of what we see, it's simply not possible to recreate what each one of us sees via a print or even VR image. We all see unique to yourself.

'It's only when you pretend, or claim, or let others assume, that you're doing one thing, while you are in fact doing something else, that problems come into the picture.

That kind of sums it up for me. There is a difference between drama, dramatized documentary and pure documentary.

If we were told something was a dramatized documentary but was in fact entirely fictitious, or a supposed documentary used actors in its eye-witness interviews and staged events for the camera, we would rightly feel deceived.

But we may also have been quite happy to watch a good drama.

Why is it any different in photography? Perhaps because we have not invented the terminology which would equate to 'dramatized documentary', which is kind of what Mr McCurry's image at the station, and a lot of those Cuban images, in fact were. And a whole heap of purported photojournalism too.

We tend to assume an image is either drama or documentary until we are told differently. We really shouldn't but we also have a right to know, one way or the other.

"Disclosure of a staged nature photograph is not a moral imperative for illustrative uses that do not imply direct journalistic representation of wild situations."
"The ethical litmus test is whether the meaning of an editorial photograph significantly changes when the facts of its creation are revealed. An excellent rule of thumb for all use of controlled situations and image manipulations in photos that purport to represent the natural world is for both photographers and editors never to do anything they would not feel comfortable having disclosed in a caption or by later investigation."

Quote from Galen Rowell.

An aside to your comment that you can always tell paintings that were made from photographs: Some artists are capable of "photographically accurate" draftsmanship. Check out the drawings and watercolors of John Ruskin. He generally drew from life (3D) but on at least one occasion he hired a Daguerreotypist to accompany him in his travels and some of his work may derive from those 2D images in whole or part. This your challenge... Go to http://tinyurl.com/h9x2r48 and see if you can tell with certainty which of his works may have had 2D origins.

I would also point you to David Hockney's book "Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters" in which he proposes that many of the old masters used a camera obscura to do the drawing that underlaid their paintings. He shows that drawing suddenly became more accurate with the invention of the camera obscura. Does that count as working from "flat"? I also know artists who insist on working from 3D but that is just a preference, like whether or not to use Photoshop or for that matter whether to print your own or just shoot JPGs and send them out to be printed.

For me the matter comes down to being honest. You photoshop an image? Fine. Just don't say that you don't.

However, this all may be a lost cause. I had an show opening for our local gallery walk night. I like to stand around and listen to comments people make. One photo had three different men tell their women companions that the photo was obviously photoshopped. I adjusted the brightness and output sharpening in Lightroom. The photo never saw Photoshop.

I even asked one oh so knowledgeable person why he thought the photo was manipulated. He said that because the photo only showed grasses reflected in a pond and nothing else that it had to be photoshopped. I asked if maybe it could be that the photo was taken on a foggy day, which made everything gray. He said, "No way."

You can't win.

Thanks to a link here a few days ago I discovered the work of Sam Abell. He describes himself as an editorial photographer, and was one for NG. But he's so much more than that with his fine sense of composition. He says he works in camera without photoshop. Amazing.

I agree with Gordon Lewis (above) on the amount of photoshop used in my own work. I work primarily in landscpes. I enhance some, remove minor distractions (not people!)and try to present what I saw in the shot. I don't add skies and buildings. Composition is most important to me.
The more I read I think maybe Steve has been caught living the myth and then fumbling in a coverup. Too bad.

I trust that somewhere in the back of your mind you have a vision of yourself tilting at a windmill their Don Quixote. The train in that staged photograph from the earlier post has long LONG ago left the station. Still I'm with you in spirit. Fight the good fight.

In case it has not been already mentioned I remind readers of your column that one of America's most iconic photographs - The raising of the flag at Iwo Jima - was staged or re-enacted from the original event and published as a news story.

Mike, you said it so well.

Do whatever you want, just be forthright about your methods and goals. Don't call yourself a journal-ist and then work like a fictional-ist.

Its not raining, people, that's just the media peeing on your leg.

In my opinion, there is a subtle but important difference between creating new worlds using digital image manipulation, and "fixing" and "amending" the existing world to make it fit your preconception of it. This latter case was illustrated by the pictures shown in the McCurry debate, and usually leads to boring pictures. The former case is not my cup of tea either, but can probably lead to interesting results.

I think we live in a time in which photography can no longer be assumed to be truly documentary in the journalistic sense that Mike is advocating: as an essentially unaltered presentation of “what was there, in front of the camera, when the shutter was pressed.” I think it is clear that digital photography today legitimately spans a range from substantially reliable documentation, to illustration, to outright fabrication

Before photography reproducible images were interpreted and presented to us by means of woodcut images, etchings, lithographs, and other print-like media. We did not have dependably faithful 2D representations of 3D reality. Draftsman and artists included and excluded elements of the views before them according to their skill or intent, interpreting and presenting images to the public without any guarantee of verisimilitude, whether in monochrome or color.

Photography introduced a new medium that greatly reduced (but did not eliminate) the scope for interpretation and "editing" of the reality before us. Many early photographers chafed at this limitation, attempting to retain the ability to render “reality” in more subjective and aesthetic ways; and many photographers have chafed under the limitations of film, chemical and darkroom photography ever since.

I think it is no longer possible or necessary to impose film-era limitations onto digital photography, or to decry the loss of a medium that had significantly less range for expression. Clearly there are contexts in which we expect photographs to faithfully render reality, as faithfully as it is possible for humans to do so. But we can no longer expect photographs to be any more reliable than journalistic accounts, which, we now understand, cannot be relied upon any more than digital photography. No single photo, and no single journalistic account can tell us the whole story. We need many such accounts, many such images, and from reliable sources too, before we can expect to trust what we are shown and told.

To my mind, photography has never been about reality alone. It has also been about idealism. About persuasion. About values. About ideas. About memory. And memory, we now know, is not about reality: it too is manufactured, idealized, edited and curated. Architectural photography idealizes buildings, hiding their flaws, highlighting specific design features the architect intended that the casual observer would never notice. It can also do more: make buildings look better than they really are. Most photography has similar agendas: landscape, nature, fashion, portraiture, wildlife, advertising, family photos (in which we are invariably smiling). All photography, it seems to me has an agenda . . . even journalism. The agendas are there implicitly and largely evident to the visually literate, and the removal of distracting elements, perspective adjustments, color toning, cropping, and other software-enabled techniques are just some of the ways we manipulate captured images for our given purposes.

Much of my photography is about memory: how I want to remember a person, a place an event. The feeling, the mood, the beauty. Or the ugliness. The courage. The pain. For such images I will delete distractions, minor flaws, just as I choose to ignore a friend’s faults in favor of the richness of the qualities I admire. I do not need to see every wrinkle in my wife’s face to know who she is, or to show her to you and the world as she appears to me. (Photos capture details we do not notice in everyday life, details we do not wish to be reminded of in perpetuity.) I want to preserve my memories, not just for myself, but to share them with the world or with the ones I love, to enrich their lives, to see for a moment what I have seen, and yes, to shape their memories by my presentation and record of their lives.

I will not comment on the Steve McCurry images other than to say that many of m the manipulated and staged images are more esthetically pleasing than the reality they claimed to portray, and that the manipulations go well beyond what any reasonable person would expect of a photojournalist. But I do not accept that the values of photojournalism must apply to all photography in any context, or that photographers with intentions other than faithful recording of actual events should be held to journalistic standards.

I will not accept the accusation that because of this my photography is somehow dishonest or lacking in integrity. I reserve the right to present to others the world as I see it and as how I choose to see it, to tell stories, whether they idealize or demonize, if I believe them to be true, to life, true to the reality of life as I understand it. Or, when I choose to, to faithfully record what was there, in front of the camera, when I pressed the shutter.

I do not feel I need to preface my images with disclaimers about exactly what I did to make my pictures speak they way I want them to. I do not feel I need to proactively defend myself against those who hold to a narrower view of what photography should be. Let us learn to be visually literate, let us be clear about what photography means to us. And let us not judge others for seeing, or presenting, the world through images in a different fashion than we choose to do.

Any change I apply to one of my images must be applied to the whole image. No dodging and burning for me, though levels, color temperature etc are all fair game. Even using a split ND filter would be a breach of my rule. Cropping in post is fine with me. To each his own.

Kudos to Jim Bullard for pointing out the all too common self-appointed governing authority “SAGA” posturing. Everyone should decide for themselves what’s right for their work and declare that openly and proudly. Make & Own It “MOI”

Has anyone else noticed that the artist members of SAGA rarely make work? Judging must be very time-consuming… *wink*

IMO, using certain filters in front of one's lens to broaden a photographer's shooting options ("shooting envelop") at the time of capture, is not manipulation. For example: using circular polarizers to increase saturation or to get rid of unwanted reflections; ND filters to maximize aperture without highlight clipping; ND grads to reduce exposure range to within the camera's limitations. That said, filters can also be used aggressively to manipulate images, e.g., a multi-stop ND filter to achieve long exposures for capturing "movement" of flowing subjects such as water.

Some of these effects (ND grad, saturation, reducing exposure range) can be done "in post" digitally, with much less difficulty, cheaply, and more effectively. In fact some filters (e.g., UV-Haze) promise more than they can actually deliver (de-hazing). But being handy using filters to achieve an optical effect is much more satisfying than post-capture digital manipulation. I also feel less guilty if at all because optical illusions also occur naturally.

I made this exposure about 24 hours ago, and this is exported straight out of Lightroom with no manipulations particularly, maybe raising shadow values a bit:


It is far more removed from so called reality, more painterly, than images that I spend many hours photoshopping (adjusting local tonal values -- burning and dodging -- adjusting contrast and local contrast, etc) just because of the way the lens (Voigtlander Ultron 35 f1.7) behaved based on my choices.

One thing I like to do sometimes in very rare moments when I'm bored or when these images build up, just for fun, is to use images that I somehow like but that aren't going to work as photographs for one reason or another and run them through auto-painting or auto-watercolor type applications. I sometimes get things that are striking or beautiful, but I never like them as much as real photographs.

I learned Photoshop in the early 90s, and by the mid 90s I was adept and had access to a good scanner (for the time). I was giddy with the possibility. I could do anything! But what? I did a certain number of surreal compositions and "arty" things, but really they all sucked and my allegiance went to "real" photographs because I like them better and they are more powerful.

What those arty-manipulated or auto-painted images lack vs what I would call a real photograph is that sharp connection to a sense of real reality or the real "energy" of the situation. Those who know my work might thing it a little strange that I firmly say this, because about a third or half the work I show is infrared and pretty dreamy sometimes. But for that work to succeed in my book it also has to have a hard link to something real about the situation of the exposure.

In the early 80s I studied at the Maine Workshop with John Sexton who was working as Ansel Adams' assistant at the time. He showed us a series of prints from Ansel, from straight print through several work prints with different paper/developer combinations and with heavier burning/dodging applied. It was pretty jaw dropping how manipulated his images were. But of course, thanks to detail and clear vision, they had an extremely strong connection to the "real" situation, and no one would doubt they were "real photographs."

To me there is something ultimately powerful about "real" photographs, which to me means there is a direct root to some fidelity of the situation.

Mike: you've posted a thought provoking article which has engendered many comments with varying points of view. Given your point of view, I'm curious to know when you decide to tell the viewer that you have done X or Y to a photo.

The notion that we, the viewer, may see more than you, the photographer, put in is huge. It has deep philosophical consequences, including what you wrote here.


(Also, spot on etc, but then, you pretty much always are)

Brian De Palma in today's Wall Street Journal ...

His apt analysis of what’s wrong with today’s computer-generated action sequences: “They’re pre-visualized. They’ve got it all in their computers. So what are you going to get? Many visual clichés.”


For me, photography is about capturing the world as it is, not as we think it is or as we want it to be.

"Sometimes confronting ideas that you don't agree with can be as important to growth as finding those you agree with."

The ideal critic is one who writes well and with whom the reader can reliably agree or disagree. And thus I return regularly to TOP.

in summation, i think we all might agree, that in the context of this conversation, "honesty" is the the best policy, meaning that we would be well advised to be forthcoming about what we say we are doing and equally forthcoming about how we go about doing what we do . . . aside from that i think it becomes an endless conversation about preferences that some ham fisted-fisted thinkers seem to confuse with absolute truth . . . now, isn't there some sort of situation with global warming that might warrant our attention ?

So, I don't have much to say about this except to reply to this overall sentiment:

'I think we live in a time in which photography can no longer be assumed to be truly documentary in the journalistic sense that Mike is advocating: as an essentially unaltered presentation of “what was there, in front of the camera, when the shutter was pressed.” '

I don't think we ever lived in a time when this assumption could be made. The credibility of a photograph was always tied to the person taking it or the organization distributing it, not to the photograph itself. It's now easier to "lie" in various complicated ways, but photographs have never told the literal truth unless you were very careful their context and very honest about what was in them and not in them.

It's not true that the Iwo Jima flag-raising photo was staged. Look it up.

Some types of Photography carry with them the obligation of objectivity - to witness, to document what the photographer saw.
There is an implicit promise to the viewer that you can rely on this to form your own opinion. Here is what happened -to my best ability to show it.
It is a high and important calling that comports well with Photography's singular ability to describe.
We as viewers have a right to expect accurate description of events that took place before the photographer's lens in those situations.

But photography's capabilities are very broad and encompass may forms where it's plasticity is it's primary virtue. Those forms are equally valid.
As you accurately described, 'It's only when you pretend, or claim, or let others assume, that you're doing one thing, while you are in fact doing something else, that problems come into the picture.

That's called lying or deception by omission and should not be tolerated. But neither does it make the use of manipulation anything other than 'just another artistic choice' in many other photographic styles.
There is no moral superiority of straight photography over manipulated photography outside of the disciplines that require it.

Outside of those places where objectivity is required it is simply a choice. (An extremely valid one with a rich history, but still a choice)
Several other commenters have eloquently described how purism or classicism can become exclusionary.
I think we need to guard against that as well, and remember (as you have said before) -it's a big house with many rooms.

While I am personally not a big user of Photoshop ( I do make stitched panoramas ) , Photoshoshop has extended the range of what is possible under photography's umbrella.
It is sad (in my opinion) for such a powerful tool to be seen a a negative.
All new tools that bring new capabilities get used to excess until we figure them out. Exploring limits is how we learn.

Additionally, many photographers have diverse interests, and as photography and photoshop expand the range of what is possible, and our own tastes evolve over time, it will be increasingly hard to make blanket statements of what techniques we use or don't use. We just need to remember that not all techniques are appropriate for all kinds of photography.
Then be honest with ourselves and our viewers.

Getting here very late as usual these days. Man very thoughtful comments already posted, also as usual.

"Should You Manipulate Your Images?"
If you are paid to faithfully report news you should not manipulate the content of your images at all. Tonality is another matter, as it's almost an essential category of "manipulation" for many publications.

Everyone else -- which probably accounts for well over 95% of camera owners -- should follow their own "belief system". If certifying a scene to be 100% genuine is what makes you happiest, by all means follow your rails. At the other end of the scale if extensive digital manipulation and compositing is what gives you great happiness go crazy!

But, whether you're a amateur hobbyist or a full-time truly committed artist, I don't think you should feel the requirement to testify as to how you created your images. Leave it as part of the mystique of your work. (BTW, I know of no top art world photographer who talks much about how they produce their works. Some couldn't even if they wanted to.)

As for myself, I'd estimate that 80%-90% of my images are presented largely as-shot. But I do not feel confined to journalistic integrity in any way. For me, photography is more about seeing than it is about what I saw.

I enjoyed reading and feel that you have explained your viewpoint well. I, too, expect that the degree of manipulation in a picture is disclosed either explicitly or is implicit from the context. It does, however, create many challenges: I wouldn't expect advertising photographs to be strictly realistic, but even after looking at a large number of photos it's hard to tell the degree of manipulation and the prevalence of subtly manipulated photos alters our expectations for how people, things and photos should look like. It's not good to have our views of reality altered.

While I'm no expert on the topic, I'm starting to believe that single manipulated or staged photos such as those of McCurry are not usually harmful for our expectations regarding the subject, but being constantly offered such manipulations is. After disclosure of McCurry's staged platform photo, there exists a doubt that the whole series of pictures discloses not what travel is actually like, but what McCurry's view of travel is. Admittedly, framing and editing already does that to an extent, but this takes it all much further. Thus, expectations are altered when it is revealed that the situation depicted in the picture was not what was implied and viewers like me are left somewhat disappointed and cynical.

I must add that I also feel that studio photography is mostly boring: the natural world is a product of several overlapping processes putting all kinds of things in the frame, while the studio only has what the photographers happened to bring that particular day. Thus, the full staging rarely becomes nuanced enough to be interesting.


I enjoyed this article. It helps that I agree, if course, but it it coherently articulated.

I concluded some years ago that I want my prints to be faithful, in some meaningful way, to the projected image from the lens. This means no adding or removing of objects. It probably means no geometry correction, although fuji won't let me turn that off. I found I am uncomfortable with extreme tonal manipulation as well - I turned a perfectly ordinary beach into a raging storm scene, to popular effect, but I was left unhappy with the (dishonest) manipulation of image and viewer.

So I have a simple approach and my pictures aren't impressive. However, I'm happy with them and what I'm making. This seems to contrast with the rush for manipulation and compositing of images the print magazines promote. My view is sympathetic to that expressed by David Hurn.

I have no issue with other practice, but I do think that it needs to be honestly articulated. Even now, when the 'photographic contact's appears almost completely broken down. Personally, I'd rather the manipulates pictures were called photo derived or photoart.

And, just for the record, Steve MaC's website described him as a photojournalist. This, and his declaration in the Ted talk were misleading and dishonest. A shame, but there it goes. (We've all lied at some point and in some context I suspect.)


More than ever, your call for a new name is needed. Photographers looking at much of what they see online and on gallery walls suffer from the same emotional hit as a regular teenage girl looking at retouched models in magazines. There is no disclaimer. These images and these models are being presented as the real thing.

In most cases, a photographer that has shot in a similar genre can detect the "offness" in much of this work. Every year I make it through the galleries in Carmel, CA. This past year the big sell was that the images were shot on film. NO digital. NO photoshop. And when you looked at the images you knew it was almost certainly complete BS. I know what Velvia looks like. It was greatly saturated and vibrant relative to its peers, but what I'm looking at is not Velvia - it's scanned Velvia with a great deal of uncredited augmentation. There might be some great natural images there, but I've lost trust in all of them.

Now the photojournalism fraud has come to a head with McCurry and it becomes more difficult to believe images that seem unbelievable.

I remember helping my cousin find a wedding photographer years ago. We went to a bridal show and I was very impressed with photographer after photographer. Beautiful images of beautiful people in great locations. I was so impressed and began to second-guess my own skills. But then I began to look more closely. The testimonials often included a terrible picture of the bride and groom. Bad images of not so good-looking people in not so great locations. It suddenly dawned on me. These "sample albums" were loaded with images from staged "wedding" pictures from "wedding classes" at photography schools. Paid models, beautiful set, professionally posed - each student steps in for a few minutes. That's not a wedding! You're pictures aren't going to look like that!

Shoot whatever you want. Manipulate as much as you want. But be honest about what you are showing. I do own a couple large McCurry books. The images are beautiful. But they aren't what I thought they were. Those images are absolutely amazing if he "found" them. If he set them up with models and fake props, they are just nicely produced pictures in exotic locations.

I had to laugh when I read about that photographer that combined foreground and skies from different places and "horrified (you) then and still does". He really didn't invent anything !

A couple weeks ago, I happened to see an exhibition at the Paris Museum of Modern Arts about photography, called Pandora's box. I was stunned to see that not only Gustave Le Gray (one of the fathers of photography, 1820-1884 !) had realized he could expose differently the skies and composite them on the final picture to avoid burning them out, but that he also combined skies and foregrounds that didn't belong to each other. There were three examples side by side of his photographs. Different places, but the very same clouds.

Goes to show that the art of manipulation in photography is almost as old as photography itself !

[Well, I wouldn't be so quick to draw global conclusions based on superficial understandings of a few facts. Early orthochromatic emulsions weren't able to record the subject brightness range of many landscapes, with the result that, when photographers first began moving outdoors, plates exposed for the ground would have skies so grossly overexposed that failure of the reciprocity law would kick in and render the skies mottled and grotesque. A few practitioners, Le Gray prominent among them, did learn to combine images even though it was difficult and time-consuming (Baltimore photographer Aubrey Bodine was a later example of a pictorialist who combined negatives to get more dramatic skies). Many others simply masked out the skies so they appeared the color of the "paper white" of the albumen printing papers, a sort of eggshell pale tan in most cases. If you look at many early albumen landscapes you'll see similar featureless "white" skies.

Here's an example, by Francis Frith:


This doesn't necessarily justify all subsequent manipulation just because it's similar. It was the solution of a technical problem to make the pictures presentable--which is what the vast majority of film photographers used darkroom controls for and which most of us use Photoshop and other editing programs for right now. There's nothing noble about simply accepting and preserving the result the equipment and materials give you "straight," especially when that unmodified result contains gross and obvious errors. As the photographer you continue to manage your image first by correcting it to match your subjective impression of the scene, and further (if you want to) to create the expressive interpretation you're interested in. All of this has to do with your intention as the photographer, and should be done not stupidly but with thoughtfulness and full cognizance of the many issues that pertain relevant to your intended viewers and the accepted conventions of the mode or tradition in which you're working.

In most cases the "corrected skies" of the 19th century are immediately detectable by educated viewers and don't constitute deception or misrepresentation, even if from a documentary standpoint they might still be a fraud. --Mike]

I am reminded of an interview with one of the male leads from the Coen brothers' Fargo. (William H Macy, I am fairly certain.)

He stated that when he first got the part, he asked if he should read the original police files. He was greeted with amusement.

Just because a work begins: "This is a true story"...

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