What Is Photo Manipulation? Digital Image Manipulation & Photo Editing

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In the digital age, photo manipulation seems absolutely everyday, yet it is a commonly misunderstood and misrepresented topic. This article outlines the types of photo manipulation, its uses, and what precisely it means for an image to be photo manipulated.

The Medium of Photo Manipulation

Virtually any image format can be manipulated, though some image formats are certainly more popular for purposes of photo manipulation. Most digital cameras as their default shoot JPGs, making it probably the most used format for the subsequent photo manipulation. However, many photographers prefer to shoot in RAW format if they plan on manipulating the image, due to the higher quality.

While this article will focus on the manipulation of digital photos, photo manipulation has been a part of photography since its very genesis. In the dark room, many a political photograph was doctored through a very time intensive process. The digital age brought digital cameras and digital cameras have the advantage of creating, well, digital images.

Of course, the sophistication of today’s photo manipulation techniques may also be applied to old film negatives, once appropriately scanned.

Photo “Editing” versus “Manipulation”

Of course, many people don’t think of what they do as photo manipulation, rather, as photo editing. While any change to a photo technically qualifies as photo manipulation, this is a common distinction to make.

Photo “editing” generally consists of smaller changes that do not change the image in any fundamental way. Virtually all digital photographers partake in this sort of photo manipulation, from removing red eye to adjusting curves to playing with color balances. Sometimes, it’s that the photographer made a mistake composing the shot and the manipulation is just to fix it, to straighten a crooked horizon or to lighten an underexposed photograph. Others, it’s to increase the aesthetic qualities of a photo, to saturate the colors of a sunset or to remove a distracting branch from a skyscape. No intention to deceive, only to please.

Where precisely this crosses over into what is more popularly considered photo “manipulation” is a subjective line, one that varies greatly by photographer. Generally speaking, photo manipulation is when you have conglomerations of multiple photos, or if the photo has been changed beyond reasonable recognition.

Photo manipulation is done for a number of purposes. More infamously, it is for political or sensational purposes. Notorious examples of this vary from a “blacker” version of OJ Simpson’s mugshot to Soviets erasing political figures from photographs once they fell out of favor. Indeed, the first known case of photo manipulation is one of Abraham Lincoln made to look a bit more trim.

However, photo manipulation is also an art form in its own right. Fire spirits, literal lionfish, a little boy fishing on a crescent moon, all are examples of high amounts of photo manipulation as fine art. Beautiful and foreign images may be created from the familiar, and the techniques involved in doing so require every bit as much skill as photography proper.

Manipulation With What?

The tools for photo manipulation are many; here’s an overview of what’s available.

Older film-based cameras had many dark room techniques for manipulating photos, involving actual physical changes to the negative. Everything from acids to pins were utilized in what was often a time consuming process. To this day, even, there are people who swear by this process, relishing in the intimacy with the image that the dark room provides.

But back to the digital age. With today’s sophisticated digital cameras, there is a substantial amount of manipulation that happens even as the shutter whirs, from automatic red eye removal to contrast adjustments to color filters. Some deep-diving into your individual camera manual is required to see how many such features are available on your camera—and how many are default without you even knowing it.

After the image is downloaded onto a computer, the options are numerous. The software varies from expensive professional options such as the famous Photoshop (hence “photoshopping”) and affordable photo editing programs to free, open source programs such as GIMP. The possibilities are endless, and the sophistication and ease of image manipulation increases by the day for average users.

Check out this article for trends in how photo manipulation is changing photography.