Photographic Manipulation – ‘Too Much is Never Enough?’

If you have viewed some of the other posts on this site, you will see that I am more than happy to use extensive manipulation and post-processing on my photographs. But many people do not feel the same way about this, preferring a style of photograph that has not undergone such extensive alterations.

In this post, I want to have a discussion about the use of pre-processing and post-processing techniques used to alter photos and why you may or may not choose to use them.

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An example of a photograph which has undergone extensive post-processing turning it from a sunny day into a dark, stormy one.

Pure Photography

I don’t know if there is an exact term to define photos which have not undergone any alteration, but use I will just use the term ‘Pure Photography’ to describe it here. Certainly when I started out taking photos many of my images were unaltered, or had minimal alterations applied. However, I have subsequently embraced just about any technique I can get my hands on to manipulate and alter the photos.

Below is an example of of a photograph which hasn’t undergone any manipulation. No filters or such were used on the camera and there is no post-processing applied. Although the image is ok, I would prefer to edit it to bring out some of the dark shadow areas and maybe remove the obtrusive vehicle in the shot.

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As I said, I know a lot of people like to minimise the use of these techniques, so why would they wish to do this. Here are a few suggestions as to why.

Don’t Like the Results

Once you have seen enough photos you can more easily tell which photos have been heavily processed. Although software like Lightroom and Photoshop are very advanced, extensive use of them on an image usually can be quite obvious. In addition, using pre-processing gadgets such as filters and strobes is often noticeable too. Thus, this processed style of image may not be to everyone’s artistic preference.

Cultivate a Unique Artistic Style

Most well known artists, regardless of the medium, will usually have a distinctive artistic style unique to them. If this style you are trying to cultivate relies on unaltered photographs, then you will not want to be performing heavy processing on them.

Lack of Skills – Knowledge

This is probably the biggest reason people don’t heavily process their photos and it was certainly why I didn’t when I started out. I just didn’t have the skills and knowledge to produce the results I wanted. Packages such as Lightroom and Photoshop have a vast scope and you not only have to learn the technicalities of how to use the umpteem features within them, but you also need to have the artistic knowledge to know what artistic effects you want to create with them and why. This is the same if you are using filters, flash guns etc during the capture stage. If you don’t have knowledge and experience of how to use them to create the effect you want, you will probably shy away from them.

Snobbery

This can be an unfortunate side effect of people lacking processing skills and knowledge, and I hold my hands up and admit I have been guilty of this in the past. I think deep down most people will have been guilty of it at some point. You disregard these heavily processed photos as being ‘overdone’ or ‘over-processed’ or ‘dishonest’ when actually you really like them. What you don’t like is your own inability to create images as good as this. I think as you develop your skills and cultivate your own artistic style this disappears, it certainly did for me. It would be unfortunate if individuals stuck to this style of pure photography just through snobbery because they were unwilling to learn new techniques.

Now, as I have said, I will fully embrace any technique which alters the photo. Whether that’s using an array of gadgets at the time of capture or using heavy post-processing afterwards, so obviously I am going to be biased towards this. However, when talking about pure, un-manipulated photography the biggest argument against this that I can find is quite simply that it doesn’t really exist. Why? Here are a few reasons listed below

The Camera Doesn’t Capture what our Eye Sees

Our eyes interpret light differently to a camera’s sensor. Our eyes can handle a far wider dynamic range of light than a camera can. If you want to test this, take a photo of something which has a significant light difference in it. Now look at the photo, and look at the scene with your eyes, they are much different. The photo will have much stronger contrast.

Here is an example below. The sky is brighter and the shadow areas are considerably darker than I saw it with my eyes.

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Camera Settings

Different camera settings will alter on how the photo appears. A high ISO value will add noise to your image that isn’t seen by the eye. Altering the aperture and thus the depth of field will change what is in focus in the shot. Again this is may not be how it is seen by the eye. Even using varying shutter speeds can produce blurring that the eye doesn’t pick up.

The image below was taken handheld. The ISO so image detail is lost through noise. It is also slightly blurred as the shutter speed was too slow.

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The Lens is Different to our Eye

Different lens at different settings bend and alter the image. They render the image differently depending on the quality of the glass within them. Is one lens right or wrong? No, they just perform differently.

The photo below was taken with a 10mm ultra wide angle lens. Notice the significant barrel distortion which renders the straight vertical lines as curved.

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Displaying the Captured Photo

When the light hits the camera’s sensor the data is stored in RAW format. RAW files cannot be displayed, they first have to be converted internally to a format that can. During this conversion white balance settings have to be applied which alter the colours of the image. Will these colours be rendered exactly as you see them. Probably not.

The photo below was taken just after sunrise so the sunlight was quite yellow coloured. However, the camera’s automatic white balance has rendered this colour as white pushing all the other colours towards blue.

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So, these are just a few reasons why there is no such thing as pure photography. There is an inevitable level of alteration which takes place just during the shooting process anyway. The light that enters the lens, and the subsequent photo which is produced are not the same.

Different Types of Alteration

Now whether you accept this argument or not, there are many different levels of alterations you can do an image over and above the ones mentioned above, and some people will use these, some people wont.

Pre-Shot Manipulation

This is using things that alter the light going into the camera. This can be things like filters which alter the light as it enters the lens, or things like flashes and strobes which alter the light within the scene.

The shot below was taken with a strong hard grad filter on the lens. It has helped equalize the contrast between the sky and foreground. The effect may look slightly unreal but I prefer it to a similar shot which was taken without the filter (far below)

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Post-Processing

This is software based manipulation on the captured image. I have tried to separate these into different categories.

Basic Alteration – Cropping and rotating and any other alterations which don’t change the exposure, colour and suchlike.

Image Alteration – Changing exposure levels, colour balance etc. These changes alter the image sometimes significantly but you still are working with the basic image you captured.

Compositing / Sand Blasting – Significant image alteration where multiple images are combined or where parts of the image are removed.

Below is a before and after of a shot that has had a lot of post-processing applied. It’s been cropped, rotated, distorted, a new sky has been added, and the colours and exposure have been drastically altered.

How far you wish to go is up to you but I don’t see any limits. I know some people like to set limits on these things, such as only using natural light, or not sticking on parts of other images. This can be because you want to create an individual style but it may often be because of the snobbery issue mentioned above. To me, if you are willing to use basic alteration techniques why not just use everything that is available to you to help achieve your desired result. To me, it’s like playing the piano with one finger when ten are available.

Real vs Unreal

As I said earlier, these alteration techniques usually leave a trace to the trained eye. How much of a trace depends on the level of alteration applied and the skill of the person applying it. This can create images that somehow appear unreal especially to the trained eye. But does this really matter? Don’t get me wrong I have done some post-processing jobs that I now look back on a wince they look so bad. However, that would never stop me using these techniques, I would just have to try harder and learn not to make the same mistakes again.

Here are a few examples of images where I may have overcooked the post-processing.

Even if these images do appear unreal, this doesn’t mean they can’t be interesting images in themselves. Moreover, maybe people actually like to be fooled into believing that things they know look unrealistic actually are real. Fantasy is usually better than reality to most.

The image below has undergone extensive post-processing making it appear almost super real to the point of fantasy. However, is that necessarily a bad thing?

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In addition to this, you often find that photos which haven’t undergone significant alteration can look unreal and manipulated anyway just because of the conditions and the composition of the scene. This is amplified by the fact that the camera doesn’t capture what the eye sees. Below is an example of this.

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So to me, I don’t mind if they look unreal, as long as the end result is a pleasing image which is really what photography is all about for me.

Embrace a World of Infinite Possibility

I don’t wish to continue this ramble much longer so hopefully I have managed to put forward a convincing argument for using any and all alteration techniques available to you. But just to drive the point home here are a few more reasons.

Create Mood / Atmosphere

You can alter the mood and atmosphere of a photo to anything you like. You make a cold scene feel warm, a sunny day look like a storm, and you can also enhance the existing mood and atmosphere within an image.

The image below has been post-processed to enhance the brooding, almost mystical mood of the image.

Correct Problems

You can add and remove parts of the photo to tailor to your own preferences. E.g. you want to create a historic looking image but there is a car parked in the scene. No problem, just edit it out.

The photo below of the old, historic village had a huge, yellow grit bin in it. Honest!

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Forge a Unique Style

With such a diverse range of tools available to you you can pretty much create anything and thus you can forge your own unique artistic style which could be hampered without using these.

My current preference is for creating dark, stormy scenes from sunny photos. I couldn’t even attempt to do this without using extensive post-processing.

Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere

You can make something out of nothing which increases flexibility of when and where you shoot. Like me, many do not have the time or resources to travel to spectacular sites all the time and sit around waiting for the ideal lighting conditions.

The photo below was taken in awful, foggy conditions giving a flat, boring image. A few tweaks in post-processing and it looks more like Mordor.

Conclusion

I hope I have been able to convey why I am happy to apply such extensive altertions to my photos. At the end of the day, it really is just a personal preference what you use and how you wish to take and process your photos. But to me, the variety of alteration tools available and the infinite possibilities that they can create is just like a big candy box and I just cant keep my fingers out.

I will leave you with a small gallery of a few more shots which have been heavily altered.

Thanks for Reading,

Neil

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