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.