At What Point Is Digital Manipulation No Longer Photography?

With increasingly complex automation, turnkey editing has become easier than ever, and the line between photography and digital art is blurrier than ever. So, at what point does an image stop being a photo and become something else? This interesting video essay examines the topic and offers some insight. 

Coming to you from aows, this great video essay discusses the topic of manipulation in photography and where the line between photography and digital art is. Personally, I think it is a bit of an unnecessary argument (for the most part). Sure, for cases or genres in which a certain level of faithfulness to reality is expected (such as photojournalism), there should be established standards. But when it comes to personal work, we all have our own philosophies, and to prescribe them to the work of others has always seemed a bit silly to me. After all, photography (or whatever it is you are doing involving images) is a creative pursuit, and whatever you enjoy doing is your prerogative. After all, at the end of the day, our images are supposed to be about our artistic vision; there is no hard and fast rule that dictates bounds within which they must remain. Check out the video above for the full rundown. 

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11 Comments

Celso Mollo's picture

Couldn't agree more.

Eric Segarra's picture

Hard to find that fine line between art and documentary, fact-driven photography. What's more, cameras are less than perfect, and corrections of some sort will always be necessary for a vast number of captures. Then it becomes a question of how much is enough. Add the fact that we hear about so many cases of manipulation through "staged" photos by photojournalists, and the whole issue becomes more complex. Software, after all, is not the only way to manipulate a photo and the visual message it conveys.

Sam Sims's picture

I tend to adjust the exposure if it needs it, the contrast, the colours and possibly a bit of dodge and burn, the software equivalent of anyway. All of this is digital manipulation but it is merely creating a look I like that enhances a photo taken with a camera that doesn't see the world like our eyes do. Any other digital tinkering beyond this simply doesn't interest me.

David Pavlich's picture

Alex said, "After all, photography (or whatever it is you are doing involving images) is a creative pursuit, and whatever you enjoy doing is your prerogative. After all, at the end of the day, our images are supposed to be about our artistic vision; there is no hard and fast rule that dictates bounds within which they must remain" and I agree. Leaving out paid shoots where the client gives you what the end results are to be, and good photojournalism which should be as close to reality as can be, what someone shoots and processes is up to them. If it's what they like, then it's good.

Mark Gardner's picture

Good points, and agree completely. I do go a step further, sometimes changing spatial relationships, distorting part of the image, and even adding new elements. But it's a lot of work to make look good, so don't do it often.

There is a famous photo of former U.S. President George W. Bush holding and looking at a book upside down. He was in a school classroom reading to kids. His detractors had a field day with this photo. But it did not show what those viewers thought it did. It wasn't reality. He had just been handed the book, upside down by chance, and just been told about the 9/11 attack (I think that was it, but some momentous event none the less), and had turned to look at the book.

So it's also important to consider the context of the viewer. Bush's detractors and others didn't necessarily know or care about the back story. So they had a different interpretation of reality. But if reality can be interpreted in a photograph, can a photograph really show reality?

Personally, I think all the hand-wringing over what is photography, a photograph, etc. is not far from arguing over the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. I call what I make images, or more recently, borrowing from David Hockney, just pictures.

Kirk Darling's picture

I agree with you, Mark Gardner. I'd present another point. If the image does not represent the common interpretation of the event as would have been testified by anyone attending the event, is it ethical to display that illustration as its own "truth?"

00rob00 Rob00Rob's picture

Can't be bothered. Try my best to get it looking right right out of the camera. It makes no sense to me having such great tools that are capable of doing far more than we care to conceive to rely heavily on post productions effects and editing. Granted if that's ones motif then Yea sure but I just can't bother with editing to death something, nowadays I'm more looking at making JPG out of camera shine

Lee Christiansen's picture

I guess it all depends on perspective.

I tend to not think of my work as photographs, but as pictures that started from a photographic process. Because at the end of the day, when we look at something, we are just looking at a picture.

And no matter how hard we try, that picture isn't real life. For a start it is 2D, but it is also just a single moment that may or may not tell the true story. And if we're looking for total honesty, then we'd better never "pose" a model ever again - just let them sit and press the button.

So I'll take great pride in getting things as correct as I can at capture, (within the crude limitations of 1/3 stop accuracy and questionable colour options when we press the button), but after that I don't mind a little tweaking of pixels.

For my headshot and portrait work, it is rare to have someone come in with skin as they'd like to be portrayed. And often, despite careful coaching, I may not always get their body posture correct and certainly their hair is going to be troublesome. Maybe the makeup isn't quite as god as they'd have preferred.... So I'll spend time in post to alter pixels because it aids my creative process at capture.

For commercial work of course the client just wants it to look good. If they could have a CGI image that looked convincing I think I'd be out of a job. So within the bounds of what is ethical and legal, I'll nuke any pixel that doesn't do what I want.

With my personal work in street photography, I take a halfway stance. I want to portray the world faithfully, but my honest representation is telling the story. So if there are small details that don't change the narrative, then I'll remove them or change them. But the main thrust is to leave the narrative alone.

For me, "photography" is a wider term than the process of pressing the shutter button. It can be just that, and that's fine. But it can also be the start of a longer journey that brings in other crafts and skills, without it losing its membership to the photography family of images.

Patrick Kelly's picture

I am an amateur who loves taking photographs. I do not love sitting in front of a computer creating graphic art but I value the work of those who do. A young man posted a picture that was lovely. He said he spent eight hours creating the picture from three photographs. He wasn't real clear on who took the three photographs but the results were lovely. But, not a photograph.

For me, removing items in a photo does not alter the photo enough to stop it from being a photo. Adding items does.

I'll agree that where the line falls is a personal decision but denying there is a line if false. I would also add that for photojournalist, any alteration is false and if it's done to promote a political position it's disgusting.

Kirk Darling's picture

What if the picture doesn't actually represent the truth that any of the eye witnesses would have reported?

Never Mind's picture

Not sure why people see it so complex. Photography = drawing using photons (light), by definition. Whatever one does in the field is obviously done using light. Either long or short exposures, with filters, with modification of the place or without.

When postprocessing, either in camera or in a computer, it's up to you if you want to show what you captured using light, or you want to show what you drew with your hands, or both. Both drawing and painting are arts that require complex but different skills.

As an artist, do you want to show how good you are painting with light, or do you want to show how good you are at drawing? Both are arts. You choose what defines you. Just don't lie to your viewers and enjoy your art.