Photoshop, ethics and retouching debate

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Is Photoshop used too much in photography? Have we arrived to a point where we cannot trust any more photography as form of documentation? How important is to use a software to improve a photo? Is Photoshop an essential tool in the photography world? Was SLR photography so much better?

There are so many questions related to photography ethics and the debate on retouching is never ending. I am really interested to know what you think about it. But before that I would like to add some myths and facts that may change, or confirm, your present thinking.

Myth – You can change everything with digital photography, you could not with the old dear films

Some of you may be surprised but retouching photos was done also with films. It was always done since the photography existence. I found these two photos from the early 1900 where the background and foreground were actually changed.

The huge difference is that, if you are slightly skilled with Photoshop, it may take minutes to do that with digital photography and hours with films. I now ask myself if people accept more film manipulation because it takes more time, more skills and more money (dark room, etc) .

A "Fairy" photograph from 1917 from Cottingley, England by Elise Wright and Frances Griffiths

A “Fairy” photograph from 1917 from Cottingley, England by Elise Wright and Frances Griffiths

 

Daquilla Family Photograph by A. Werner and Sons

Daquilla Family Photograph by A. Werner and Sons

Myth – You do not need any software for post production

There are two ways to save your photos in the camera memory. You can select JPEG or RAW format (or both at the same time).

If you shoot JPEG, attributes as colour saturation, contrast, white balance (and several more) are applied to the image data during the in-camera processing, they are embedded in the file. The flexibility of any subsequent post-processing can be limited. On the positive side you can post the JPG photo straight away on your social environment and photo website. Something which is becoming quite common with the new cameras having Wi-Fi.

Unlike JPEG files, images recorded in RAW file format have a minimal in-camera processing. Attributes, as white balance, are not actually embedded in the photo, they are saved as an instruction that you can widely (and sometime wildly) alter with any software that converts RAW to  any other format (JPG, TIFF and many more)

The choice is your. Shooting in JPG you end up using the camera built-in software for post-production. In most cases it does a good work, however being automatic sometime it does not. As a matter of fact it is like having a small version of Photoshop built in your camera

Shooting in RAW requires an external software on you PC. It can be Photoshop, Lightroom or a software from another company which is not Adobe and there are so many around, even free.

Either ways you do need a software for post-production, either on PC or directly on your camera

Myth – With film photography you did not have so much manipulation as nowadays with digital

I tend to agree…..and disagree with it. As I said in the first Myth, with film photography, you would probably need more time and skills, beside money.

I would like to make another point here. In the time of film photography there was no internet. What is the connection you may ask?!?

If I need to make a change in Photoshop and I do not know how, I just google for instructions and, watching a youtube video, I learn the way in about 5 minutes. If I would not have internet, the full process would be so slow (books, calls to friends, etc) that it would take as long as it did take with films.

With internet you can now set up a dark room in very little time, you can learn how to post process, use different films, filters and much more. Today the process to learn film photography is so much smoother, you can see on youtube what other people have done, including mistakes, and you avoid wasting films (and money).

As a matter of example I would like to post this great photo of Brian Smith of the “Nudist Golf Series”. I bet that most of you, including myself the first time I saw it, are thinking that Brian has used a software to process this image and he has clearly hypersaturated the colours. Well, actually Brian used a film camera, cross-processing colour transparency films using colour negative chemistry. Complicated? The result is just great, the effect he wanted for Sport Illustrated. Many of the software packages in the market have cross-processing as a colour enhancing option, just 1 click.

"Nudist Golfers series" photographed by Brian Smith for Sports Illustrated

“Nudist Golfers series” photographed by Brian Smith for Sports Illustrated

Fact – Documentary and journalism photography should not have manipulation

Check the photo below. Narciso Contreras is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, a master. He lately felt ashamed of the changed he made. There was a video camera in the original photo and he decided to remove it. You may argue that he has not changed the dynamic. I remember much worst cases than this one, even with winners of famous photography prizes

In a photo taken, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013, a Syrian opposition fighter takes cover during an exchange of fire with government forces in Telata village, a frontline located at the top of a mountain in the Idlib province countryside of Syria. In the original image (top photo), a fellow journalist’s video camera is visible on the ground in the left corner of the frame. Narciso Contreras / AP

In a photo taken, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013, a Syrian opposition fighter takes cover during an exchange of fire with government forces in Telata village, a frontline located at the top of a mountain in the Idlib province countryside of Syria. In the original image (top photo), a fellow journalist’s video camera is visible on the ground in the left corner of the frame. Narciso Contreras / AP

Fact – with art photography everything is allowed

I personally see art photography as an art expression. Photography is used as the medium to create art. You can paint a beautiful landscape omitting a rubbish bin, why can’t you photoshop an image. Of course, if you document a city, we go back to the previous fact.

I have been to many opening nights of photography exhibitions. They are always a great inspiration. Check out the updated program for Australia here. I can hear quite often debates if that image, clearly belonging to the art photography category, has been manipulated, changed the colours, added contrast etc. I prefer to spend my time enjoying the photo as it is, as an expression of the artist. Has he/she changed the photo? If I like the end result, that’s great!

Myth – HDR photos are awful and overly manipulated

Many of my photos are HDR. I use this technique mostly on landscapes and sunset/sunrise. The main reason is that I love making photos facing the sun or with high contrast areas. I enjoy to have lots of details in my photo and I like the end result, although it is a lot of work. HDR photos are not overly manipulated by its nature. It is a decision of the photographer/artist to go other the limit, but there is no connection with HDR at all. Here below two photos, the first one using the HDR technique and the second one going over the limits with saturation and colours. I am sure that most of the people would have guessed that actually the second one was HDR

woodshed in the Kinchega National ParkMelbourne-Daily-Photo-Blog-Emu- Kinchega- Lake- Menindee- National Park- Outback- woolshed-Xmas2013_20131225_091

 

Let me know your thinking.

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Stefano Ferro
Stefano is a cycling, movie and life style photographer with a big love for landscape & travel photography. When in Melbourne, his hometown, you will see him cycling around at sunset or sunrise looking for the best spot for a photo of this beautiful city. It is quite amazing how much photography gear he can pack on his bike :o

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