A Good Photograph: Manipulation or Skill?

I’ve decided to respond to Indcoup’s comment in a new post, so that this may be an open discussion for all to participate in. Regarding the photos I posted the other day, he said:

“I’m just getting into DSLR photography myself and am rapidly coming to the conclusion that to take good shots, you have to be a good image manipulator as well. Into photoshop, learn how to oversaturate colors and adjust levels and you can do wonders.

Not saying these are not great shots, but they don’t look natural to me. Cheers.”

I’m gonna have to disagree with you on this one, and only cause this is something I devote a lot of time and energy to.

You’re right that most photographers do manipulate the images to a certain extent – and often the degree of which is a personal preference or speaks to their particular style. Manipulation has been a topic of discussion for decades – the dodging and burning and other darkroom techniques have simply carried into the modern digital aspect of the craft. There most certainly is an art to using Photoshop effectively and with taste. I have huge books on the subject sitting on my shelf. Some people’s entire career revolves around post-production work with manipulation and ‘fixing’ photographs. In fact those photographers who shoot RAW generally have to use Photoshop as RAW files are not ready for use straight from the camera.

“To take good shots, you have to be a good image manipulator as well.”

It seems that’s like saying an amazing chef can only make succulent dishes depending upon the oven they’re using. The ability to take good photos depends on many factors, and manipulation has nothing to do with the art of ‘seeing’ a good photograph before the shutter opens. To be able to see a great shot before taking it is what results in a successful photograph. Let’s use some of these shots as examples:

The first photo: in my opinion, what makes this so engaging is the angle of the man’s head in relation to the flames, the texture of his beard in contrast to that of the flame, and the successful matching of colors with the cloth to the flame. The ability to capture these elements into a photo successfully could be attributed to luck, but I’d like to think not.

The second photo: the expression of the child’s face, the fact that he’s included the camels in the background to pull the story into the frame, and of course the extreme blue of the sky compliments the yellow clothing. Now granted, perhaps he’s bumped the blue up a bit, but I doubt you or I remember just how truly blue the sky can be in other lands that don’t suffer under a perpetual steel gray polluted sky. It may also be the result of using a polarizing filter. If you’re aware of the benefits of a polarizer, then I won’t digress any further. If you’d like me to speak more on this, I’m happy to.

Third: If this is one of those which you feel was manipulated, I’m sure you’re correct. We could pull Vikas into this topic and see if he’d like to reveal some secrets. If you ask me, I’d say he used a strong warming filter on his lens, or utilized a bit of a photo filter in Photoshop. However, in his defense, most professional photographers use filters in their landscapes and the use of one is an artistic decision. It’s not always to everyone’s taste though.

Fourth: a great photographer can capture a human expression – nothing that manipulation may offer or fix. This one also has the added benefit of the brilliant orange complimenting the blue in his eyes. The law of thirds was successfully broken in this case.


Fifth: definite use of a filter either physical or digital in my opinion. Effective? It’s all up to the viewer. Excessive? Perhaps. I just liked the “Jesus rays” in this one. 😉 The inclusion of the pyramid shaped structure in combination with the camels creates a scene which could equally be taken in India or Egypt.

Sixth: beautiful colors in this one. Something I like about this one is the even, yet natural lighting. It’s very difficult to work with lighting that fills in all the detail of her face, under the cloth, and yet does not blow out any part of the image. I don’t often use my flash while out taking pics – probably not a good habit, but as Lao-Ocean said, it can distract the subject and break the ‘moment’. I much prefer natural lighting.

Seventh: I just enjoyed the expression on his face and the position of his gaze in relation to the image. He appears deep in thought or meditation perhaps. Subjective statement of course on my part, but there was a serenity that was captured here.

In closing, I guess what struck me most about this series of photographs is that they have the ability to remain timeless. These scenes could easily have been representative of what was seen 500 years ago. While viewing them it’s forgotten that he took them with a state-of-the-art camera and a few lenses in the $1000+ range. They bring us back to a time which is otherwise only seen in paintings or through our mind’s eye when reading a novel. To me, they’re exceedingly natural in that fact.

One of the first ways I manipulated images when I first started was with brightness/contrast and hue/saturation. I can see many images in my early work where I completely ruined photos by bumping up the saturation, ramping up the contrast, and tried to make up for an otherwise bland photo by over-enhancing the colors and light of the image. I think a truly great photographer will be able to capture an image which won’t need much manipulation. The ability to consider the colors, expressions, background elements, textures, light and shadows, and tonal range are all aspects that are only gained with time and experience. I feel Vikas has presented us with some photos that do indeed meet these qualifications.

As always, these are simply my opinions, and if anyone would like to disagree or express a different opinion, I’m happy to hear other perspectives. Indcoup – I hope you realize I’m not ‘picking on you’, but rather have taken the opportunity to discuss something that I’m quite passionate about, and have received many questions regarding this in my own work.

  • I think it’s a great topic of discussion because as a new photographer and someone who is not very tech savvy, I don’t even know HOW to manipulate photos, so sometimes I feel like I am missing out on the opportunity to “improve” my photos; on the other hand, I delete most of the photos I take and only keep ones that strike me in some way. I agree with your assessment of the photos and think that no amount of manipulation can make a bad picture truly good; it can, however, sometimes help improve a great capture,

  • I believe Photoshop/Aperture are the modern darkroom, the lightroom. The use of it is invevitable in the digital era. There must be a reason why it is called RAW, there’s a purpose to it, to gave uncompressed high quality image to the photographer.

    I guess I’m an Ansel Adam follower in this digital era, great picture always start from the time you release your shutter, and the work is not end here, there’s a development stage to get a final print 🙂

  • I agree that most photos needs “some” manipulations. Other times, you might get great pictures straight out of the camera. For me, Photoshop “levels” is a definite picture saver. I’ve looked at many pictures from old “analog” 35mm cameras, and thought, “this picture would be so much better if everybody’s faces weren’t so dark. Back then, you couldn’t do much about it. You either threw it away or lived with it. Now with digital cameras, I find that I don’t use flash that often. A flash is so intrusive, and I’d rather have a dark picture that I can lighten up later than to ruin future shots by announcing my presence with a flash.

    Btw, how about posting some thumbnails of the pictures along with your commentary. I found myself reading your commentary, scrolling back down to the previous post, scrolling up, and repeating 6 more times. Just a thought… 🙂

  • Brandon

    Preya – Absolutely. Proper adjustment of curves, levels, color balance, and sharpening are all tools that should be utilized if needed to bring the photo back to the way it was seen.

  • Brandon

    Hanindyo – Totally agree that PS is a necessary tool for digital photography. As I mentioned, when shooting RAW it’s absolutely necessary. Images taken in RAW will appear flat, desaturated, and quite dull – it is expected that the photographer will work with the images thereafter.

    Yes, Ansel Adams was a master in the darkroom as well, and so to those who say photoshop is ‘cheating’ I say they’re completely misunderstanding the point of photoshop (that’s not what Indcoup was saying, I’m speaking in general terms – it comes up very often on ‘net conversations).

  • Brandon

    Lao-Ocean – An interesting fact about dSLR photography is that quite often an image taken with a point and shoot will actually come out to be more ‘likable’ to an untrained eye. They often have settings which increase saturation, sharpness, and contrast straight from the camera. Often people will boast that their point and shoot takes better pics than an SLR. In many ways, it’s simply doing some of the photoshop work for them, but I’d much rather have the control of doing it myself, as once the camera works it’s magic, you cannot easily go back to what your eyes may have seen. Since you’ve recently stepped over to the dSLR side, did you notice anything like this? Have you found it easier or more difficult to achieve decent results with the XTi?

    Instead of using just levels, maybe you could try levels first to correct the white point and black points, and then use curves for much more control. I think they work very well together, but often levels is not enough on its own.

    I think what you said about flash photography is correct – to a certain extent. I don’t often use a flash while on the street as it tends to throw the moment off – to disturb, disrupt, or otherwise make my presence known. It’s a good practice to use one, especially to fill in the shadows a bit, but like you said it can be quite intrusive. However, there’s only so much that you can do with photoshop when lightening someone’s face. It can quickly look reddish, flat, and unnatural if too much (levels/curves/shadow-highlight) is used. (I speak from experience 😉 ) I’d highly recommend striving to get optimal lighting at the time it’s taken, not after unless absolutely necessary or unless it’s just a subtle amount.

    And yes, you’re totally right, I should have posted thumbnails at the time of posting. I’m sharp as a marble sometimes. 😉

  • Hi Brandon,

    hey no worries dude!

    sorry if i raised your blood pressure a bit!

    It’s an interesting topic and i guess there are a wide spectrum of views from computer savvy people who like photo manipulation to older traditionalists who prefer not to “mess around” with shots.

    Pictures 3 and 5 annoy me to be honest. Why try and distort reality so much? If the scene didn’t look like that why try and give the impression it did? And as this guy is such a great photographer why does he feel the need to resort to such tricks anyway?

    What I like about these shots is the incredible sharpness of the images.


  • Brandon

    Indcoup – not raised a bit; I enjoy a good discussion about photography – but with a subject that is participated in with so many users at such varying levels, there are always other ways of seeing things. Let’s see if Vikas would like to respond himself.

  • wicak

    i think there is a very thin and fine line between photography and pixel painting. Many a photographer has crossed that line so many times that they have forgotten when they are in the darkroom or creating a completely new picture. I myself am quite bored with highly oversaturated colors with a very weak POI (Point of Interest). So, to me, using software to complete the picture is ok, but not to take over completely. my 2c. cheers, wicak

  • Brandon,

    I think ‘a good eye’ of photographer IS different with an eye of digital artist. It’s about balance between technique in photography that can not been replace by any software with beauty of the way you’ve taking it.


    A very interesting discussion but of course, one done to death on various forums worldwide. Have also responded to these points earlier and am happy to respond to them again.

    Lets first see what Image Manipulations were done in the past, prior to the advent of the digital era and how these were accomplished.

    Before computers, photo manipulation was done by retouching with ink, double-exposure, dodging/burning, piecing photos or negatives together in the darkroom or scratching Polaroids. Photo manipulation is as old as photography itself; the idea of a photo having inherent verisimilitude is a social construct. Manipulation has been used to deceive or persuade viewers, or for improved story-telling and self-expression. As early as the American Civil War photographs were published as engravings based on more than one negative.

    Joseph Stalin was reported to have retouched photos for propaganda purposes. On May 5, 1920 his predecessor Lenin held a speech for Soviet troops that Leon Trotsky attended. Stalin had Trotsky retouched out of a photograph showing Trotsky in attendance. Nikolai Yezhov, an NKVD leader photographed alongside Stalin in at least one photograph, was shot in 1940 and subsequently edited out of the photograph.

    The pioneer among journalists distorting photographic images for news value was Bernarr Macfadden and his composograph in the mid-1920s. A notable case of a controversial photo manipulation was a 1982 National Geographic cover in which editors photographically moved two Egyptian pyramids closer together so that they would fit on a vertical cover. This case triggered a debate about the appropriateness of photo manipulation in journalism; the argument against manipulation was that the magazine depicted something that did not exist, and presented it as fact. There were several cases since the National Geographic case of questionable photo manipulation, including editing a photo of Cher on the cover of Redbook to change her smile and her dress. Another example occurred in early 2005, when Martha Stewart’s release from prison was featured on the cover of Newsweek; her face was placed on a slimmer woman’s body to suggest that she will have lost weight while in prison.
    Another famous instance of controversy over photo manipulation, this time concerning race, arose in the summer of 1994. After O.J. Simpson was arrested for allegedly murdering his wife and her friend, multiple publications carried his mugshot. Notably, Time published an edition featuring an altered mugshot, darkening his skin and reducing the size of the prisoner ID number. This appeared on newsstands right next to an unaltered picture by Newsweek.

    Now one can argue ad-infintum as to what constitutes an acceptable level of Image Manipulation and that needs to be defined by the photographer. There will be a line which the photographer will or will not cross and that is an individual belief/value which also works towards defining the photographic style of that particular individual. Prior to taking a photograph, I know in my mind what the the final print will look like, whether it involves the use of saturation/levels/curves, etc and this output is usually always predifined in my subconsiousness. There are a lot of differences between what we see and what the camera captures. Post Processing addresses the difference between our visual apparatus – our eyes and brain – and the camera’s image-capture apparatus – the lens, filters, camera, film or sensor- apparatus. The differences between the two are not only notable, they are also damaging to the reality we see because the camera introduces numerous changes to this reality. In order to create an image that matches what we saw, we not only have to become aware of what this damage is, we also need to learn how we can fix this damage. Only then will we be able to create an image that not only “matches what we saw” but also, and most importantly, expresses how we felt when we took the photograph. Only then will we be able to create an image that represents what our eyes and brain saw and not just what the camera captured, an image which is not only a factual record of what was in front of the camera, but also (IMPORTANTLY) a visual expression of our emotional response to the scene we photographed. For me personally, a photograph is an extension of my eye, how I visualize the scene and how I saw it. It’s my interpretation of the visual spectacle that I behold and my version of it. To help me towards this end, I always shoot in RAW because it results in the highest quality image a given sensor can deliver, the camera captures Raw data in a single channel file. This Raw data needs to be converted into a specific color space in order to create a photograph. This is done through the use of a Raw converter. The goal of the Raw converter is both technical and artistic. On the technical side the Raw converter is responsible for converting the color gamut and dynamic range of the scene photographed into the color space chosen by the photographer. On the artistic side the Raw converter offers the opportunity for the artist to modify the conversion settings to match his original vision for the photograph. The fact that, through digital capture and processing, the photographer has nearly complete control over color and contrast is something that radically changes how we approach the color and contrast changes introduced by films, lenses and digital sensors. Instead of seeing these changes as ineluctable, we now have it in our control to modify these changes so that the resulting image, the final print, matches what we saw rather than what the camera captured. Rather than being limited by what the film could capture and the lab could process and print, we are now limited by our imagination, our inspiration and our vision for the image. In this new world, it is frequent that the photographer, and not the equipment, is the limiting factor.

    This is, in my estimate, is one of the most profound changes introduced by digital photography. Prior to that, choosing a specific film, camera and lens meant also choosing a specific color range, color contrast and image contrast for the photograph. Today, choosing a specific film, lens or digital sensor, is only a point of departure, a decision far more neutral (if there can be such a thing in photography) than it was in the days of film-photography. So much so that, among photographers who continue to use film, Velvia, with its high color and scene contrast, has been dislodged as the film of choice and replaced by Provia and even Sensia, because these other films are far less contrasty and far less color saturated than Velvia. The logic behind this change is that contrast and color saturation can be easily increased in Photoshop, and that starting from a more neutral and softer image, in terms of color and contrast, gives the photographer more latitude for change than starting from an over-saturated and over-contrasty original.
    Referring to my specific images in question, and in particular to the fifth one with the dramatic sky, was the original RAW file like this? Certainly not. BUT, was the sky as dramatic, Certainly Yes; was the final output how I visualized it prior to taking the shot? ABSOLUTELY YES! Through the judicious use of filters (both actual and digital), polarizer and of course, conversion from the RAW file, I got to the point where the photograph was as close to what I saw and visualized, prior to pressing the shutter.

    Earlier on, I made a reference to the line which each individual photographer draws, beyond which he/she does not go with respect to image manipulation. I go upto playing with levels/curves, saturation, dodging/burning, shadow/highlight recovery, contrast enhancement, cloning/healing and sharpening. I don’t do any manipulation where I replace skies, or backgrounds; add/delete elements that didn’t exist in the first place, or move two pyramids closer to make for a better composition.

    In conclusion, I concur with Preya and I quote, “no amount of manipulation can make a bad picture truly good; it can, however, sometimes help improve a great capture.”

    Cheers, Vikas.

  • Dear Vikas

    I rarely say this – `I am your fan, after Raghu Rai’, trust me for this statement. Photoshop is a specialised tool and photographer’s work doesn’t finish with just downloading images. Its extension of your camera, rather part of the camera equipment kit now. Only a talented artist can use Photoshop with such great perfection as you have done. I can very well imagine that how much of hard work you have put into these images and they do not get into your camera own their own. I am extremely impressed with your work. I would love to meet you on my next visit to Delhi. Please write soon.

    I admire your work!!! Keep going.


    Capt Suresh Sharma

  • I bought my first DSLR back in March 2006. At first, I was disappointed about the differences between it and my point and shoot digital. But the past few months, I’ve been experimenting with the ISO, white balance, f/stop, etc and have been pleased with the difference. A camera is a tool that captures how you see the world.

    I was hesitant to use manipulation of the photos I took because it did seem like cheating to me. But I started playing around with the two programs I do have: Photosuite and HP Image Director. It’s a lot of fun. To see the differences, I would take a photo and ratch up the saturation/hue to the extreme and then work backwards, so to speak, to find the combination of brightness/saturation.hue, etc that best matched what I saw. I still need to learn more and have started buying books on the subject.

    I no longer feel that using Photoshop and similiar programs are cheating. As stated elsewhere: it’s another tool to learn just as in the past, photographers needed to master dark room skills.

    I’m glad you brought this discussion to the fore. It is something that amateur photographers probably wonder about.