I've chosen a topic to blog about that will undoubtedly take some time to cover, it's the age old debate of "how much manipulation/Photoshopping should a photo have" before it becomes a lie? It's an interesting topic and one that I briefly covered in the blog entry titled "Is Photography Art" back in January of 2010.
Being totally honest, the topic, or more correctly the attitude of some people towards the topic, downright annoys the hell out of me. Nothing annoys me more than a self proclaimed "expert" telling the artist/photographer the photo is not good in a "technical" sense because it broke the rule of thirds, or your shadows are too dark or you shot directly into the sun.
Ignore them, they are all wrong. Yes, there are some rules which are age old in photography and they serve a useful purpose. But they are a guide, not a strict set of laws to be adhered to even if it stops you from shooting that artistic shot you see in your mind.
James "Frank" Hurley was criticised as far back as WW1 and WW2 for his "manipulation" and staging of his images. So what? The man is arguably one of our greatest shutterbugs, he didn't draw these images, they happened and he shot them. How he presents them finally, is the complete choice of the artist, Hurley himself.
What is staged or manipulated anyway? Who can say or know for sure? Let me give you an example with the following photograph.
At first glance I would suggest most people who looked at this photo would say it has been "Photoshopped" using one of the watercolour style filters, giving it that soft hand-painted appearance.
I would also suggest you'd be completely incorrect.
The only manipulated aspect of this photograph is the conversion from colour to black and white. Yes, there is a very soft hand-painted aspect to this shot, but that was how it was shot, straight to the camera and it was a most deliberate decision. Let me explain.
I shot this early one morning in Sydney Park, next to St Peters railway station.
Shutter speed was selected at 1/20, I wanted softness, blur and a sign of movement. I also used the panning technique, I was trying to pan not just the lady as the moving subject, but the grass and trees in the background. Hopefully the final shot would suggest movement in a soft non harsh way, but also the never ending movement of nature and all that is around us everyday.
The point is, this image was "manipulated" if you like, by my decisions on the camera settings. Ironically, my technique here would not be looked down upon for "over Photoshopping" by the "experts" because it's not Photoshopped. However, would one of these experts know that, or would they assume it was affected strongly by Adobe filters and dismiss the shot's validity based on their incorrect assumption?
Starting to see the hypocrisy displayed by experts?
For me, if the above photo was taken as a normal sharp photo and then had a paint style filter added, I would have no issue with that at all. Surely it is the result that is important for the artist and also the viewer? The photographer of the 21st century has a tool kit available to him/her for photographing their own art. There is no limitation on those tools in my opinion.
Let me give you another example, in this instance I decided to heavily Photoshop a picture in order to present not just what I saw at the time, but what I felt. Check the following picture.
This was taken on a warm spring night in Newtown in Sydney's Inner West. There was a full moon, a comforting Spring smell in the air, and most certainly a feeling of "magic" that only a full moon can provide. There were soft white clouds, but they had very strong lines in them despite their softness and they were moving ever so slowly.
I didn't want a tack sharp picture of a full moon in an urban scene with perfect reproduction of the colours. I needed to get the movement of the clouds into my shot, likewise the movement of the moon and it's surrounding clouds. Okay, that's easy, shoot on a shutter speed slow enough to blur their movement.
Cool, thanks for the advice. One more small problem, I "feel" warm taking this shot, it's spring and it also feels slightly surreal or magical out here tonight, now what do I do?
Okay, I made a decision to change the White Balance setting to reflect the colours of the bricks and window lights inaccurately, tending towards an orange feel.
So far we have a fair bit of "manipulation" and all on the basis of the camera settings. I opened this shot in Photoshop and played with the hue and saturation, I wanted it to look and feel not quite real, a little fantasy like if you will. Contrast was also altered until I got a look that made me think "yes, that's how it felt". I got the TV antennas in the shot to express the presence of nearby people and their lives, I got the moon, the clouds, the warm window lights. I got the shot I wanted.
So, in my opinion you can use a combination of manipulation effects from the camera itself through to Photoshop, if it gives you, the artist, the best opportunity to duplicate exactly what you saw, felt and imagined when you took the shot.
Sadly sometimes in life true creativity or daring to think differently is so frowned upon because some stodgy old fool insists you "stick to the rules" and not buck the "traditional" system.
To hell with them I say. I have never and never will attempt to suppress someone's creativity simply because they do things differently. In fact I would do the opposite and encourage them to break, bend and twist every conventional rule they can find in an effort to push the boundaries of their art even further. To me, that is the very essence of art.
I'll leave you with two final shots. The one of the runner running down the hill is particularly interesting in regards the manipulation debate. The rays of light coming out from behind our runner and the sun look so bold and defined that you'd swear they were added with some sort of illumination or lighting filter. Not so, not even slightly Photoshopped. It was totally due to the way I shot the sun and positioned myself. Shooting into the sun can be very rewarding if you're trying to create a very specific shot.
The dog shot I liked, it almost suggests a dog on the attack. However the deliberate blur masks the fact he was a very happy dog running back to his owner, who had just thrown the retrieved squishy ball for the dog. That soggy ball was now squashed and firmly entrenched in the dog's mouth. However the thought of a dog just being frozen with a ball in his mouth did nothing for me as a photographer. The thought of presenting him as on the attack in a local park appealed to me.
To sum up, how much manipulation is too much is a stupid question in my opinion. It is entirely up to the artist. You can decide.