Each and every one of us is looking for appreciation. Showing our images to friends and family, most of us hope for a nice comment or feedback. Professionals are even dependent on their clients’ excitement and recommendation. How far do you tweak your images to reach that?
Your Photographs Are Not Objective
In every image, there is a subjective touch. We depend on our camera, a certain perspective, a selection of subjects, and a photographic point of view. Every image is unique in the way that it describes reality and our artistic view on the subject matter.
It might seem, though, that even if we create our images based on a subjective concept, we can still be as honest as possible about it — or just try to impress others by delivering something supernatural. In a world of images, how can you still create something unique and new if you don’t alter reality just a little bit more?
How tolerant are you regarding this tweaking? Where do you stop? In this article, I’ll go from obvious to subtle to demonstrate that it’s really hard to be honest.
The Most Obvious: Retouching an Image
Just before I started writing this article, I saw a photograph on an online platform that made me cry. It was a landscape image, but the sky was replaced by a supernatural sunset that did not even fit the colors of the rest of the image. Neither was the direction of light close to what it should have been. It’s all fine with me. Photoshop is exciting, and just like photography, you have to make your mistakes to grow. The only problem is that claiming “this is how it felt when I was there” can’t always be an excuse.
In this case, it would hardly have been possible without some psychoactive substances. If you're caught, you’d better excuse yourself with: “This is how I thought I’d get attention.”
Of course, it’s all up to the artist, as long as the message is not affected. A few years back, Steve McCurry, one of the most famous photographers of our time, was caught with Photoshoped images. His assistants had made some mistakes while retouching one of his images, and it was found that many of his “documentary” images were a little beautified.
I’m Getting It Right in Camera
The good old claim of “getting it right in camera” to ensure the honesty of an image still hasn't died out. Yet, it’s invalid. Just like you push and pull the sliders of your raw file in Lightroom, your camera does the same for you when you create a JPEG. Film had to be developed in the darkroom (that’s probably why Lightroom is called that), and your digital sensor’s data has to be developed into an image on your screen.
Of course, there are ways to push the slider more than what you really think is good and honest. I personally love the Split Toning module, which makes me create an image beyond what I saw and felt. Does that matter when I want to create a beautiful image?
Camera Settings Don’t Reflect What You See
Processing the image always starts with appropriate camera settings. We can even make multiple exposures to make detail visible that the sensor cannot capture in one single shot. Our camera has less f-stops than the human eye. And the dynamic range of light covers far more f-stops than our eyes can see. So, isn’t an overcooked HDR realer than a single exposure? But is it also honest?
That’s a tough question, and we didn’t include filters and exposure time yet. Using an ND filter to soften a water surface or to blur the clouds is also not very honest. Yet, it’s often beautiful and stunning. After all, a still image is also never what we witness ourselves.
Creating a Story
It’s hard to detect and probably the most dangerous way to shift reality: false storytelling. An honest story includes the representation of the narrator's (i.e. photographer's) perception of an event. The story is told in his or her way, based on his or her experience and knowledge. It’ll never be an objective reality, but it can be a conscientiously acquired concept.
Unfortunately, there are many ways in which images can be used to create a whole new story. In 2014, the image of a four-year old boy who seemingly crossed the desert alone went viral on Twitter. It turned out that he was part of a bigger group, which one couldn’t see in the image. That’s a photograph used in an exaggerated context. The story itself is already cruel, because the child was indeed a refugee in the desert. Yet, the issue shows that people struggle getting attention for their cause and draw on alternative storytelling. Stories like these will harm the liability of photographs in the long run, though.
But what if a person does not consciously create a false image, but simply isn’t capable of understanding the situation? Especially in documentary photography and photojournalism, a photographer should always reflect on his or her work and understand his or her responsibility. The most obvious and dramatic image is often not the most honest.
Delivering the Expected
People tend to push the representation of reality further and further. Especially in the non-professional area, we are witnessing a boom of beautifying apps and filters. Ansel Adams’ images might have been stunning at his time; today, he’d need to adapt to the current possibilities. The more people push their images, the further we all push the line of what is acceptable.
On the other hand, we also use the current tools, tricks, and tweaks to create some stunning images that will catch people’s attention. We’ve got to go with the flow or fall behind. It’s the economy! But is there really no way out?
Will Honesty Become a Future Demand?
I have seen many photographers creating images as honestly and natural as possible, and in my opinion, they're the best! Especially in the world of overcooked images which we experience today, these images are outstanding. They work with emotion and don’t need supernatural saturation, perfect sharpness, or fancy filters. I admire their ability to gain attention just through original ideas and the eye for honest beauty. No special effects needed.
With computational photography becoming revolutionary in the smartphone industry, we have more and more people who can create high-quality images and flood the world with new and flashy developed images. A.I. and deepfakes can threaten our trust in media, too. The demand for down-to-earth, honest, and natural images might see a revival, though. Honesty is a very complicated issue and is hard to achieve. With so many fakes out there, it might be demanded soon. We never know what the future will bring, but the beauty of an image often lies beyond the in-the-face attention-seekers.