Let’s talk about the relationship between the photographer and reality. The modern photography workflow is highly interwoven with Photoshop. Even though there are competing photo editing software applications, the editing of photos is often referred to as being ‘photoshopped’. Photoshop has become the ‘Kleenex’ of facial tissues, a ubiquitous name in the era of digital photography. The term ‘photoshopped’ has also developed a negative stigma, let’s explore this more.
Alteration of images is one area of intense debate. One group typically takes the photojournalist side and believes that photography should remain an accurate representation of the objective reality that surrounds us. They believe that photos should never be altered for any reason. On the other side of the debate are the art photographers who consider a photograph a collection of colors and shapes that can and should be manipulated to express their inner artistic vision.
From an ethical perspective one would expect little to no alteration in a photo illustrating a news story from a major news/journalism agency. These agencies are, after all, chartered with recording and relaying the truth. So I see the argument clearly from the photojournalist side and agree with it. I do think the photojournalists should strive to reduce the amount of post process photo manipulation.
With that said, is photography ever really an accurate representation of reality? Let’s consider the following: The process of photography is freezing a thin slice of time, through an optical lens system that can create an unnaturally wide or narrow fields of view, distortions, vignetting, etc. The light entering the camera is recorded in tiny pixels (or silver grains if you still shoot film). A three dimensional image is projected onto a two dimensional plane. The most significant photo manipulation occurs before the shutter is even released on the camera. The photographer selects and ‘crops’ the world around them thru the viewfinder which is a function of which lenses they attach and what aperture they shoot at. In this way even the most hardcore photojournalist is continuously selecting a small slice of the reality they are surrounded by. They are capturing it in a select way, from a specific viewpoint that they control. Exposure and perspective is controlled to capture details the photographer wants to express and an effort is made to suppress parts of the image that the photographer feels are not applicable. So is photography really a representation of objective reality? Even the most praised photojournalists are only presenting their view of reality. Their specific view is what makes them a prized photojournalist.
On the other hand what are the limits of photographic manipulation? I would say that there really are none. Artists throughout history have constantly pushed the boundaries of what is normal and acceptable as art, it is no different here in this debate. Photoshop has created a new art medium, digital image processing allows you to manipulate images in a much more advanced and radical ways than the analog darkroom could ever imagine. The general public has a good level of sophistication and some ability to differentiate between a manipulated image and reality. Photography that is clearly edited is generally accepted as ‘artwork’ much like a painting. It becomes more interesting when the viewer cannot determine if the photo has been manipulated or not.
As for where I stand in this debate, I tend to walk the middle road with a leaning towards the artistic. I alter my photos to adjust lighting to my own artistic vision. I almost never digitally remove (clone out) actual elements/objects from my photographs, I prefer to do that before I take the shot by simply changing the camera perspective. I like to take multiple exposures to record as much dynamic range as possible. Your eyes can see a much wider range of light than a modern digital camera. I like to have as much detail from the scene as possible when post processing my images. You can read more about this in my article What is HDR photography.
At the time of this writing almost 2 billion photos taken and shared on the internet each day. This number will only increase. Everyone wants their photos seen and liked, that is a lot of competition for eyeballs! I would say that there is space in this giant arena for any type of photography/art imaginable.