John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Image Shaping


post processing editing a photo

With the invention of photography came a debate: is a photograph an accurate record of some real event, or is it an artistic interpretation? Now that photography is almost 200 years old, most people will agree that it can be both. Nevertheless, some of the controversies about manipulating an image – which some people call "editing" or “post-processing” - have been intense, especially in photojournalism where the professional’s job is capturing reality as accurately as possible.

Is it fake, or even deception?

Faking images can ruin your career, as it almost did to Arthur Rothstein, a documentary photographer for the Farm Security Administration during the American Dust Bowl era, who was accused of fraud because he moved a steer skull he found on a parched South Dakota pasture ten feet in order to compose a shot.

Fortunately, we photographers who aren’t photojournalists don’t have to worry about such controversies. We’re not going to cut and paste a Supreme Court Justice into a shot of a Pro-Life Rally, unless we do it as a joke. But we will experience more subtle manifestations of that century old debate, especially when we work in those gray areas between realism and artistic interpretation. How much should I enhance the color of her eyes, or that sunset? If I remove that telephone pole coming out of Aunt Martha’s head, why not also take that nasty looking mole off her cheek, or at least minimize how the side-lighting makes it look like Mount Everest.

Criticisms of such actions sometimes stem from a prejudice against image editing computer programs. Some would say it’s fake manipulation, not real photography.  Some photography contests won’t permit such post-processing. If the purpose of the contest is to test your skill in handling the camera, that’s one thing. But sometimes the restrictions are based on rather misguided or outdated notions of what “real” photography is.

The critics seem to forget that Ansel Adams spent hours in the darkroom fine-tuning his exposures. Or that digital cameras create a jpeg by running the raw data from the sensor through a proprietary algorithm of color, tonal, and sharpness adjustments. Technically speaking, isn’t that post-processing too?

Let's also not forget that black-and-white photography holds the award for the most traditional form of photography. Even many contemporary digital photographers convert their color shots to black-and-white. But that's not the way the world actually looks. Almost everyone sees it in color. So isn't black-and-white photography therefore a "manipulation" that fails to portray the world accurately?

A photo always "creates" reality

The truth of the matter is that there is no one reality to capture in an image. Photographers select a reality by shooting this particular scene, and not that one. They shape that reality by using different cameras, lens, filters, film, aperture and shutter speed settings, dark room and Photoshop techniques. Even the hardcore, objective photojournalist might wonder whether to kneel down to shoot that military leader, in order to enhance his size and prominence, or shoot him from above to make him look short. He might even add some high contrast versus soft focus post-processing to maximize either of those intentions.

Did you ever notice how people can appear very different depending on the light, the colors around them, the angle from which you are viewing them, and very subtle changes in their body language and facial expressions? Which is the “real” person? Which do you want to capture in a photograph, and what photographic tools and techniques, including post-processing, will help you do that? Worrying about whether your effort involves too much “manipulation” will not help you answer these questions.

Getting used to different realities

The eye adapts. What it considers normal or manipulated depends on what it’s used to. Work on a manipulated image long enough and it starts to look rather normal. If you look at a lot of surrealistic images and then switch to a realistic one, it will appear a little odd, maybe even unnaturally dull and lifeless.

You might even find that after doing a great deal of post-processing on an image, people react to it as if it is a "regular" photograph right out of the camera. Of course they can't see any distracting or extraneous elements that you might have removed, but they also may not recognize how much effort you put into tuning the tones, colors, sharpness, and depth of field. Try not to think of it as a lack of appreciation for your work. Instead, consider it a compliment. You succeeded in manipulating a shot while maintaining the perception of photo-realism.

In this media rich age of ours, when we are bombarded by highly processed images every where we look, most of are are getting quite used to all sorts of image manipulations. Along the wide spectrum of ways to manipulate an image, when does our perception of "real photograph" change to "maniuplated photograph." That zone of transition is blurry indeed..

The real issue: What do you want to say?

In the final analysis, we have no choice but to manipulate an image in some way, shape, or form, either inside the camera or out – the distinction is quite arbitrary. So if you like the manipulation, if it expresses something you want to say, if it serves that artistic construction of reality that we call “composition” – then ignore the critics and do it. Think of it instead as "shaping" an image.


Would you like to read or participate in a discussion about this article in flickr?

Psychological reactions to post-processing in photography - Jeremy Hargrave

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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche