How Has Photo Manipulation Changed Photography?

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Photo manipulation is everyday to today’s tech savvy photographers. So very everyday, in fact, that we don’t even think about how photo manipulation is changing the photography world, for better—or for worse. Here’s an overview of the changing attitudes, practices and trends involved with photo manipulation.

From Film…

Don’t think for a moment that photo manipulation is anything new; as long as there have been photos, there has been photo manipulation. In the beginning, photo manipulation was mostly used for political reasons—from removing an unsavory figure from a photograph, to adding in champagne bottles to imply drunkenness to moving a famous figurehead to a trimmer body. For some chilly examples, check out this timeline of famous photo manipulations, from Abraham Lincoln to Mao Tse-Tung and onwards.

Still, photo manipulation with film cameras is very time intensive and requires a lot of skill. It wasn’t even commonly known that photos could be manipulated, precisely because they were manipulated so rarely. As a result, photographs were trusted as truth beyond doubt—though evidently without good reason.

…To Digital

Digital cameras are everywhere, from the webcam sitting above the screen you read from to the camera phone in your pocket to the one you take out for a photo shoot. Not only are they becoming cheaper, so anyone can buy and use them, but also more sophisticated: today’s throwaway point and shoots were yesterday’s latest new things.

In addition, more and more basic photo editing is available on the software of the digital camera itself. Custom color filters can completely change the mood of a picture, and contrast adjustment and white balance allow for a little tweaking before it even makes the image to the computer. People don’t even consider the amount of manipulation an image is actually receiving within their camera as the shutter whirrs: it’s all standard.

Photo editing software is not only becoming more sophisticated, but also easier to use—and to get. While at first only expensive programs like Photoshop were considered good enough for professional photo editing techniques—hence the popular slang to photoshop or photoshoppingfree programs such as GIMP are quickly proving to be a powerful alternative for any computer user, regardless of their economic status or skills. This has resulted in an explosion of photo manipulation across the internet, regardless of the type of photographer, be they amateur or professional, landscape shots or MySpace profile pics.

To boot, all of these trends seem set to continue for a long time yet. We are far from reaching any sort of ceiling on either the cheapness and quality of digital cameras, or the sophistication of our image editing software.

So What?

Is all of this a good or a bad thing?

Traditionalists argue that, as a result of all this photo manipulation nonsense, photography has lost its purity. Images are endlessly tweaked and prodded at until they no longer true to the original. Models appear inhumanly beautiful only because of extreme photo manipulations to their merely human proportions. Politicians made to appear healthier for the sake of an election. Guns are added in to pictures of protests for a little yellow journalism, celebrities made to look a little bit pregnant to make those tabloids sell. Photography can no longer be trusted as truth

Yet as already established, manipulation always has been a part of photography to one degree or another anyway—and not just after the image has been taken. The framing and composition of an image manipulates how the viewer perceives the subject, just as making an image lighter or darker by adjusting exposure or ISO, or deliberately leaving things out of focus. Indeed, mastering such techniques to achieve different effects has long been viewed as a sign of the skill of a photographer. The image itself may not be manipulated, but how the viewer will perceive the subject is.

Philosophically speaking, then what’s the difference between manipulating the perceptions of the viewer with the camera and off of it? Where does photography end and manipulation begin? Perhaps people no longer quite trust an image to be the real deal, but should they ever have? Should that expectation even exist?

That’s not to say there’s no honesty in today’s photography and photo manipulation, however. For journalistic purposes, many groups have established guidelines that focus heavily on when photo manipulation is appropriate—and more often, when it’s not. For example, the NPPA—the National Press Photographers Association—has published a code of ethics for its members to follow, including requirements as to keeping the veracity of the moment they are capturing with their lens.

Many popular art sites, for example Deviant Art, include separate categories for photo manipulation and photography. Many photographers are happy to report the degree of manipulation that their photos receive, if not the particular techniques they used to achieve those effects—those skills, after all, are often prided as part of the photographer’s particular style, just as with the rest of the techniques that go into making a good image.

Photo manipulation is no longer about deceiving a viewer; the negative connotation attached to it is longer extant. Photo manipulation has become an art in its own right. Some of the most beautiful and thought-provoking images on the internet are photo manipulations. Just because an image is manipulated does not mean that it is a lie: rather, it has merely become just another image, to admire, or to ponder.