Digital manipulation – what is and what isn’t?
Beyond ethics, what can we really consider as acceptable nowadays?
Before we speak about manipulation let’s not forget pure and plain lies. Many photographers have been caught lying about location, context, subject manipulation on their photographs – beforehand this is about ethics, has nothing to do with digital post processing.
In spite of the natural grey area this issue implicates I believe that to make matters simpler and easier there is a perspective we must consider, as long as we are familiar with the analogue/film process.
Plenty of times I read or engage in conversations where it is affirmed that almost everything one can do with Photoshop or with any other imaging editing software is digital manipulation. Well, it is not. For those that have no idea of what is possible within the analogue realm it is hard to realise that plenty of what we can achieve with Photoshop nowadays was also achievable using film development and/or enlarging techniques during the film era.
Just a glimpse of what was possible with film development: using different chemical solutions, altering dilution ratios, changing temperature of the diluted chemicals, increasing or decreasing development time resulted in changes in the shadow and highlight areas of the negative. Furthermore, the fine silver halide particles “changed” when exposed to different chemical combinations/brands, the output changing accordingly. But, even prior to this step we could expose a film one or two EV’s below or above its nominal sensitivity (ISO) changing dynamic range and therefore the shadow/highlight relationship and rendering. We could compensate for this in the development stage or increase the desired effect changing recommended development times.
Once the negative was ready to be enlarged a whole new frontier opened up: more or less sharpness could be achieved changing the aperture in the enlarger’s lens, cropping, recomposing, correction of converging/diverging lines, enhancing shadow or highlight areas using masks or overexposing certain parts of the image. This was a very long process, trial and error, undo was not possible. I spent hours and hours of my life locked inside the darkroom experimenting, enhancing and fine tuning my images. I have to confess that we’ve gained a lot with the digital process, our life being much easier today. Undo is probably the best command the digital era invented.
Last but not the least, print development was the last frontier. And again, different papers combined with different chemicals, temperatures and timing provided exceptionally different results. Selenium toning was just one of the final touches available, changing a print’s colour and making the image more permanent by bonding selenium particles directly to the metallic silver in the emulsion. There were a few different toners usable to finish the prints, all of them providing dissimilar results. The output of fibre-based or resin coated papers was also substantially distinctive.
Ansel Adams book trilogy “The Camera”, “The Negative”, “The Print” is mandatory if you want to get to know (and learn) about the extraordinary potential of the analogue process. Ansel Adams was a master, second to none when it comes to exposure, development and printing techniques. “Manipulation” of the original image using analogue processes was absolutely mind blogging.
In my opinion, all that we could do to enhance and improve the original image back in those days was acceptable and therefore, my opinion again, acceptable nowadays within the digital medium. I do not consider digital manipulation everything that one can do to improve, enhance and potentiate the final result, starting from a RAW file (JPEG SOOC already have a considerable amount of manipulation/enhancement). I prefer to tag this process as “digital enhancement”, not manipulation. Jerry Uelsmann’s entire photographic carreer was based upon image manipulation using analogue techniques and his work demonstrates what was possible using analogue techniques to heavily manipulate one, or a set of photographs by creating a new reality, a completely new interpretation of a scene, clearly manipulated.
So before adding “digital” to this conversation I believe we must discern enhancement from manipulation. Putting this openly, Adams’ work is the epitome of enhancement and Uelsmann’s work is the embodiment of manipulation.
Of course, being unaware of the history, complexity and potential of the analogue process doesn’t help. Roots are always important, if not critical, for a better understanding of the present.
If you’re not adding or subtracting objects, subjects or any other items to the image or altering those that were present when the shutter was released I do not think you’ll be manipulating. If you’re using image editing software to crop, reframe, for perspective correction, to enhance shadows or recover highlights, to sharpen, to saturate or desaturate you’ll be enhancing the RAW file (the “negative”) and this is not manipulation.