"Image Manipulation" by Vikas Malhotra

I feel this is such an important topic and a very thorough response by Vikas, and therefore would like to offer his comment within its own post.


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.