Photo Manipulation: How much is too much?

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This topic contains 15 replies, has 6 voices, and was last updated by  Eliana Franzenburg 8 hours, 39 minutes ago.

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  • #25316

    Benjamin Holmes
    Moderator

    I was taking a look at some photos from a trip that I had taken this spring when I really started focusing on the editing I had done on one photo in paticular. (I’ll put the original and edited photos below) I use Affinity Photo to edit my photos, and one thing I like doing is being able to quickly hide a layer or multiple photo layers, masks, and color adjustments to see any changes I’ve done quickly, and specifically to see how my edited photo differs from the original photo.

    I’ll be honest here and say I love photo manipulation, and what I mean by photo manipulation is editing the pixels of a photo rather than the colors of a photo. I love going in and healing out things that don’t quite fit in or are intruding into my composition, putting in a blurs, or even enhancing portraits upon request. (It is amazing what you can do with some frequency separation!) As a graphic designer I do this all the time to make photos work better for projects that I’m working on, but as an amateur photographer, I always seem to wonder if photo manipulation is something that I should avoid doing on my own photos…

    I said all that to introduce my question for you all. How much photo manipulation is too much? In this paticular photo, I decided to go wild with editing out almost every imperfection I found in the landscape! I probably got carried away here, and as it is, I removed a lot of details from the original. I do like the edited photo more than the original, but I do wonder if there is a line that we as photographers can cross where we’ve edited a photo too much and it now looks unrealistic. Where do you see that line in your own photography? Do you think I crossed it in this photo? Do you have any thoughts on this subject? I’m interested in hearing from you!

    #25317

    Benjamin Holmes
    Moderator

    Here are the photos!

    Photos were too big (I keep forgetting 2048kg is exactly 2 MB and 2.1 MB won’t upload!), so it took me a second to downgrade their size…

    Attachments:
    #25326

    Dan Cope
    Participant

    I personally do not think that you “crossed the line” with your editing of this photo. I think you’ve made some great improvements that simply make it a more appealing picture to look at, but you have not made it look unnatural or unrealistic. This is a great topic for discussion and one I have pondered in my mind many times. Where we draw that “line” is going to vary from one individual to the next according to our particular goals and artistic expression. For the individual who only wants to portray a scene exactly as it was seen in person, there is going to be very little room for “photo manipulation”. On the other extreme there are individuals who simply have the idea of starting with a photo and turning it into whatever artistic design they perceive in their imagination. Unfortunately, most individuals that gravitate to that extreme are usually following the twisted thinking of the carnal mind and their “art” becomes at best unrealistic and at worst extremely vulgar. As Christians our goal is to glorify God in all we do and that of course includes photography. So when photo manipulation gets us to the point that we are no longer glorifying God, then it obviously becomes wrong. But I personally feel there is a lot of room for photo manipulation and artistic expression that falls easily within the realm of still bringing glory to God. In my photography, my goal is to portray a scene in a way that is pleasing to look at and displays God’s Creation in an attractive manner. In a sense “photo manipulation” begins when we set up a composition and begin taking shots of a scene. For example if you use “forced perspective” where you take a wide angle lens and get real close to your foreground subject to make it appear larger than it is, you are in a sense “manipulating” the scene. Have you ever been taking pictures when family and friends were with you and later when you show them your photos they say, “Well, I was there when you took that picture, but it didn’t look like that to me!” What have you done? You’ve taken a scene that was already beautiful, but you’ve created an attractive photo by “manipulating” the scene into an appealing composition. So in my mind, editing a photo is really no different. If I can remove some distractions or do something in post processing to further enhance the scene, then why not? As long as the photo is still realistic and portrays God’s Creation in a way that is attractive and natural looking. Recently I had the opportunity to take some photos in Badlands National Park. This sunset photo appealed to me for several reasons, but I was not totally happy with the composition. It seemed off balance and I decided that it would look better if the sun was on the left side of the photo instead of the right. So… time for some “photo manipulation”! I simply reversed the top portion of the photo to make what I feel is a much better composition. The photo appears more “balanced” and the predominant leading lines point toward the setting sun instead of away from it. Of course, there are those purists who would be appalled at the fact that the sunset is now “backwards” from what it was in person. But in my opinion, I took a composition that was lacking and improved it into something much better and made a photo that I find much more appealing to look at. It’s not bizarre and unrealistic. It’s not a different sunset from a different day and a different place. It’s the same beautiful scene that was in front of me that evening but I simply “corrected” my composition in post processing. And also, like you Benjamin, I took out a few little “distractions” that I though took away from the beauty of the scene. So personally, I love photo manipulation because it allows me to make improvements to a photo. But I absolutely hate photo manipulation when it is used to created bizarre and freaky images that portray a twisted concept of that which God created.

    Attachments:
    #25329

    Benjamin Holmes
    Moderator

    Interesting thoughts Dan. I never really thought how choosing your angle and composition “manipulates” the end photo…

    One area of manipulation that I think would be a good thing to discuss is Portrait manipulation. Everyone wants a flattering photo of themselves taken on their “good side”, but how comfortable should we be with going in and further manipulating facial features, hair, skin textures, ect? I’ve never had any problems with cleaning up some acne or bags from under my eyes from a late night, but I’m never quite sure when to stop… I’ve ended up with some photos that look so unlike the person I’ve just started over! (As I said, I really enjoy photo editing, so I can tend to “lose myself” in my work!)

    #25363

    Austin Vinar
    Participant

    Interesting conversation here. I think that if you do serious image manipulation, it should be clearly stated anywhere the picture is shown what was done to it. Dan, your picture is great. But if you were to, for example, post it somewhere, I think it might be good to at least call it a digital composite so people know it is not the way it was when you saw it. I may be a type of purest, but I would tend to think that our job as photographers is to show things the way they really were. Not the way we wished they had been.

    #25368

    Dan Cope
    Participant

    Thanks Austin! I guess the “value” of any given photo is in the appeal that it has to the individual viewer. I find value in a photo that is both beautiful and natural looking. In this case, I find the manipulated image with the reversed sky more attractive so in my mind it’s a better and “more valuable” photo. Perhaps to others the “value” has more to do with knowing that the photo is as close as possible to being exactly as it was seen in person. As a self described “type of purist” do you find this photo less appealing and less valuable now that you know the sky was reversed?

    #25369

    Dan Cope
    Participant

    Benjamin, I agree with what you’ve said about portrait manipulation. I don’t have a problem with removing acne or “eye bags” etc. but when a person’s portrait no longer looks like themselves, I think the manipulation has gone too far. People like to have “glamor shots” taken that make them look more beautiful than what they really are (or at least that’s the goal LOL). But don’t you think that God is more pleased for us to look the way He made us and not the way we might wish we looked? So now I’ve used Austin’s argument about landscape manipulation and applied it to portrait manipulation! 🙂 So should there be a difference in how we approach the two?

    #25407

    Austin Vinar
    Participant

    I would say that it takes away from the photo a little. I have no problem with healing out a few defects, (or flies on a deer) but when it comes to sewing images together I never really feel comfortable sharing them publicly because it is not real life. I do believe that there is a place for digital composites. For example, to show the difference between species for ID help. But I think it should be plainly stated what it is so people know.
    Here are two pictures that I took. The one of the two goldfinches is a digital composite of two shots. The other is a natural shot. I would much quicker share the natural one as I feel the digital composite could ruin my reputation.

    Attachments:
    #25411

    Benjamin Holmes
    Moderator

    On one hand I do agree with you Austin. When we meld images together, we should say that it is a digital composite, because it is no longer a “natural” image. For instance, I looked at your goldfinch image without knowing it was the digital composite (short term memory issues…), and it instantly screamed CGI to me. That has more to do with the lighting, special type of luminance noise, and detailing on the feathers, but just knowing that this paticular image is a photo composite does indeed make me value it less than your natural photo.

    There is a line I would draw, however. There is a big difference, to me at least, between taking two photos and blending them and manipulating an original photo in any amount.

    Personally I find that it is very hard to make composites appear life-like, and therefore they always appear “fake” to me. I’ve seen some really amazing composites that you wouldn’t guess were “fake”, but even in those cases, I usually prefer the original photos to the melded image. My feelings on direct manipulation on a single image, however, are vastly different. My philosophy on photo manipulation in general is that there always should be a good reason you are editing anything. It is possible I’m biased as a graphic designer, but when I see some manipulation, I don’t have a single problem with that, provided that it is done very well, the finished image is improved by that manipulation, and I can find a sufficient reason for the editing. If these boxes are “ticked”, I value that edited photo just as much as the original, if not more.

    To give an example, James posted on the Lenspiration Blog back in November of 2016 on some editing that he did on some family portraits. In these photos, he had to fix up the background by adding in some extra cloth using healing tools and removing wrinkles. He did a great job on the cloth, and becasue tI can see why you would want to do that, and the photo looks much better for what he did, I value the finished photo more than the originals. You can look at what I’m talking about here: https://lenspiration.com/2016/11/simple-edits-go-a-long-way/

    #25412

    Jinny Schober
    Participant

    Interesting conversation. I have to say, I do like pictures better when they are natural, but I don’t have a problem with the idea of trying to make our pictures look nicer, whether it is merging some pics together, or editing them to make them look nicer. Getting our pictures to look nice is one of our goals, and photo manipulation is a tool to help with that. To me blending pictures together and manipulating them are fairly similar, because you are slightly altering the way they look either way, with merging pictures together, you are using the same scene but stacking it, but when you are manipulating a picture you are slightly changing the content. And again I don’t have a problem with manipulating pics, or stacking them when it is necessary (even though when I figure out how 😐 , I probably won’t stack them very much). I am more appealed to a natural pic, but using some of the modern tools to improve our pic isn’t bad.

    #25413

    Jinny Schober
    Participant

    I do like the idea of manipulating better than stacking tho. 🙂

    #25461

    Austin Vinar
    Participant

    I think it also depends on who you are. Some people are going to be good with more manipulation than others. Just because I don’t like image manipulation much doesn’t mean you can’t like it. =) If it is a tool you like to use, then use it! Each photographer has to develop there own style, and this is likely part of that style.
    Posted is an example of how I like my editing to work. RAW on the left, edited on the right. Realize though, that not all of my pics turn out this way and some even need a little manipulating to look good. This is a good conversation for me, thanks to all who have given input!

    Attachments:
    #25648

    James Staddon
    Keymaster

    Interesting discussion…

    My thought is that anyone can be as creative as they want with photo manipulation as long as they stay within the boundaries of Biblical morality; and since these boundaries are so wide, there is plenty of space for thousands of years of human preference to thrive within it.

    For instance:

    • Is there anything morally wrong with removing a stick from the water in an image of a waterfall? As far as I know from my interpretation of what I know to be revealed from God to humankind, no (at least in every case that I can think of). (There may be people out there who feel that it is morally wrong, but I don’t know of anyone.) Now, within this ethical realm, Benjamin may have a preference (the strength of which could vary over time) that is more or less accepted by the rest of the world. His standard of preference may be constructed by any number of past or current perspectives or stimuli, but it is nonetheless a preference.

    • Is moving the sun from one side of the image to the other morally wrong? I wouldn’t say so. However, it is my preference not to do that because I feel it messes with the integrity of reality. That actually, truly could never happen. It trivializes the challenge of in-camera composition. And this is my preference.

    • Is merging two pictures of gold finches together morally wrong? As far as I know, no. But I am in the “preference camp” that would suggest this sort of manipulation is “going too far.” It could have actually, truly happened naturally, but again, it trivializes the challenge of capturing the impressiveness of such a moment in truth in-camera. But again, this is my preference.

    • The same could be stated about HDR or photo blending in landscape photography. While pushing the edge of “reality”, it’s not morally wrong and falls within the realm of what my preferences find to be visually pleasing.

    • Now, what happens if I decide to merge those two pictures of gold finches together and tell the world that the photo was NOT manipulated? It is now obvious that a moral boundary has been crossed, though the actual fact of photo manipulation wasn’t the cause of that transgression.

    • However, I think there is something deeper to merging totally different photos. Let’s say I do not say anything at all about the manipulation of the gold finches picture when I post it for the public to see. If a viewer is accustomed to seeing non-manipulated images in general than they will most generally think the picture is non-manipulated, and will thus come to the false conclusion that the photographer is a better photographer than he actually is. While there is no moral transgression in this (if it was not intended by the photographer), it does account for the decrease in the appeal of the image once the viewer finds out that it actually was manipulated. Thus, I think it is up to the photographer to let his viewers know whether or not a photo has been manipulated in order to protect his reputation or the validity of his other, non-manipulated photos. There are no moral obligations that require me to say this though, as we live in a world of more manipulated images than I think we realize. It may be, before too long, that most viewers will naturally assume all images they are seeing are manipulated, and thus it would be the preference of the photographer to mark their non-manipulated images as such. 🙂

    • So now, to briefly consider portrait photography, is there a point where a moral boundary is crossed when removing blemishes? From my perspective, it would have everything to do with how that image is intended to be used. It should be noted that people naturally tend to imitate the things that they like when they see it, so when dealing with pictures of people or their faces, there is potential for harm to the viewers who try to do things physically that could only be done on a computer. This is the sort of thing you might want to take into consideration as you develop your preference. However, I would think that in most situations there is nothing morally wrong with removing blemishes from peoples faces (or completely transform them into a superhero, for that matter….though superheros are a discussion for another topic 🙂 ).

    #25649

    Austin Vinar
    Participant

    Thanks, @jamesstaddon, that clears up a few questions I had.

    #25663

    Dan Cope
    Participant

    I think a major thing that comes into play is what our individual goals and aspirations are as a photographer. If photography is a profession or the means of livelihood for a person, they’re going to be more concerned about establishing and maintaining a certain reputation. If, on the other hand, photography is simply a hobby to enjoy then it’s probably not going to matter as much about building a reputation as a photographer. This is the category I fall into. My interest in photography at this point is to go out and enjoy the beauty of Gods creation and do my best to find compositions that I like and I can enjoy looking at later. I find enjoyment in using Lightroom and Photoshop to improve and enhance those images. So for me flipping the sun from one side of the photo to another is simply a part of that enjoyment that I get from creating a picture that I like! Sure, I wish I would have done better with the composition while I was there but since I didn’t, I enjoy taking what I did get and “manipulating” it into something that I like even better. But, having said all that, I also realize that the greatest enjoyment comes from nailing the composition and lighting in the field and creating a beautiful image with very little editing and post processing! So I have to say this conversation has motivated me to work harder at being a good photographer as opposed to a good “manipulator” 🙂

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