Photography – To Manipulate or Not To Manipulate?

Although I am aware that this is a question without a definitive answer I cannot resist to join the buzz that recently re-erupted after two renowned photographers lost their awards over what was deemed undue modifications of their images.

World Press Photo award winner Paolo Pellegrin (Magnum) and David Byrne, Landscape Photographer of the Year 2012, have both been stripped of their awards after it was pointed out to what extent they have manipulated their winning images. David Byrne even added clouds to his shot to make it more dramatic.

I spent most of my photography years (more than 30) shooting 35 mm slide films, so personally I tend to do everything to get it right in-camera because that’s what I am used to. With color slides there was not a lot you could do if you screwed up a shot.

On the other hand I am aware that image manipulation is as old as photography, the question is: how much is too much? I think it depends what the intention behind the photograph is. If an artist wants to make an appealing image I guess it’s all right to do what ever they want in post-processing. Only, they shouldn’t call it photograph then.

On the other hand, if a photographer uses his Photoshop skills to get an unfair advantage over others  in a competition, then it should be compared to Lance Armstrong winning the Tour de France.

Let’s face it, in the photography business nobody would be competitive without a certain amount of image enhancement. As an example let me show you a simple picture I took while working on my ‘Abandoned’ project about ghost villages in Bulgaria.

The first image is as shot, the RAW-file simply converted to JPEG without any manipulation:

as shot, no manipulation

With the exception of the sky which looks nicely saturated, the shot is rather bland and probably would not create a lot of attention. For most shots like this I use a circular polarizer, not only because of the blue sky, also to cut out unwanted reflections and reduce haze.

In photojournalism and documentary photography some people consider even a CP as an alteration of reality.

Next, the same image with some manipulations applied in Photoshop:

after post-processing

The image certainly looks better now, especially with the sky even more saturated. In addition I slightly enhanced the reds to bring out the bricks a little more, added contrast and a bit of sharpening.

As a last step, I transformed the image into black and white and played a bit with the color sliders to get a really dramatic look:

transformed into black & white

The same image, but does it still show reality? In my opinion, as long as I don’t claim the image was taken after the D-Day landing in the Normandy 1944 and add a few C-47’s flying overhead,  it is legitimate to enhance the impact a photograph creates by applying some wizardry of the digital age. (The building in the shot stands in a field near Breznik in Western Bulgaria)

What is still all right or what is too much depends on the circumstances and on the honesty of the photographer. Ultimately, the viewer/customer will decide where the limit is. In photojournalism, though, I completely agree with what Ken Kobre says in an interview: we have to refrain from any manipulation whatsoever because if we don’t it will hurt everybody’s credibility in the business.

(Updated: 13 March 2013)

As always, the reminder: All Images Copyright 2013 © by Johann Brandstätter/ JB Photography.