On exhibitions I get a lot of questions about photo manipulation. Some people seem to have this idea that it’s better if the photo is not manipulated – that it’s more real and represents the truth better if it’s straight out of the camera. For me personally, reality as captured by a camera cannot really match the real thing and so isn’t enough. I approach photography like an art form similar to how a painter would. Essentially, all my photos are manipulated. Even the ones that look completely natural and unaltered has been worked on to some degree. I don’t hide this fact and therefor people seem to be able to accept it. Photoshop aside, photography has never been about portraying the world exactly as it is. Conventional photography tools and techniques has always been used to favor the subject in one way or the other. Lighting, exposure, cropping, angles, depth of field, developing, dodging and burning etc. are examples of this. Any photographer who doesn’t use these kind of techniques to his advantage will most likely end up taking ”bad” photos.
The moment you cheat for the sake of beauty, you know you are an artist.
However, just because I’m very skilled at Photoshop doesn’t mean I shouldn’t aspire to being a great photographer as well. Getting it right in the camera is still very important. Applying great photoshop skills to a bad photo creates a lesser result than applying it to a great photo. But for me, taking the photo is only half the process. Developing the photo is the second half, like it used to be in the old dark room days. Photoshop is just a new improved digital dark room.
There are however many situations where it’s not ok to manipulate your photos. Press coverage is a good example. You cannot use Photoshop to put more people into a an image of a demonstration just to make it look more impressive that it actually was. You can’t put more blood on a face, or even increase the color of the blood, just to sell more copies of a news magazine. That would be unethical. A press photographer should aspire to take great photos while still portraying the situation as truthfully as possible. I even know of some agencies that only accept raw files or the file must never have been though Photoshop. An artist does not have any of these limitations however so be careful not to confuse the two professions.
Another situation where you cannot manipulate your photos is when you enter certain competitions. There was a big stink in the media here in Sweden where the winner of a prestigious wild life competition had composited an animal image found online into a background image he had taken. He was confronted with this in forums online and eventually had to admit to cheating. The very heart of such a competition is to manage to get close enough to these shy animals so it is very clear to everybody why this cheat created so much aggression.
There are some gray zones as well. Removing a impurities from the skin of a portrait photo will probably just be appreciated by the subject but when you start to remove scars and making drastic structural changes to the body and face you start to remove the personality of the person. Apply restraint and common sense here. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should!
As long as you make it perfectly clear to everybody what you are and how you work there won’t be any problems, you are free to do as you wish.
No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.
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