Image-editing is not lying just because you’re adjusting ‘reality’

I was slightly stung by a comment on one of my reviews on Life after Photoshop:

“Photographs do not lie , unless they are retouched.”

I don’t know who posted it, or why, or whether it was the random output of some spambot – but it made me think.

Why are some people so preoccupied by this idea that any kind of photo manipulation produces a ‘lie’?

It’s a naive assumption at best. It assumes that photographers who retouch or otherwise edit or enhance images are cynically manipulating the innocent minds of their audiences.

What rot. You might just as well say that Bronte, Hemingway, Proust or Plath were ‘lying’ about the world. Of course they weren’t. In producing fictional renditions of the world they opened up our minds to universal truths, tragedies and ideas in a condensed, powerful way that we seldom experience in the ordinary world.

I’m willing to bet that for most of us our most formative ideas and experiences came from works of fiction – or from works of art, which are themselves a kind of fiction. As a photographer, I’m not in the same creative class as these literary giants, but I think we are all entitled to try to create our own ‘fictions’ to show other people how we and they might see the world.

So the photograph I’ve used to go with this post is far from a literal rendition of the scene. It’s a ‘fictionalised’ (i.e. edited) version that tries to capture the sense of empty, oppressive stillness of the weather on that day.

This is, in my opinion, what most photographers are trying to achieve when they manipulate their images. They don’t want to deceive anyone. Instead, they want to present what they see as important in the world in a focused, concentrated, archetypal form. It might not be ‘reality’ in a literal sense, but it can represent our ideas about things and our feelings about them in a much more powerful and engaging way.

So please excuse me if I get cross about this issue, but image enhancement does not automatically equate to lying, any more than a work of fiction is ‘lying’. Great literature, art and sculpture is an idealisation of the world, a concentrated representation of an idea, and its all the more valuable for that – and I don’t see why we should regard photography any differently.

If your sole aim is to record reality exactly and precisely with your camera, then good luck to you. I’m afraid it’s not enough for me.

OK, that’s me done. I just had to get that out there.

11 thoughts on “Image-editing is not lying just because you’re adjusting ‘reality’

  1. Let those that disagree with you try telling their wife or significant other that using make-up or better, a fragrance is llieing about their body.

  2. Activating the shutter on your camera is TAKING A PICTURE.

    Manipulating a photographic image after you take your picture in order to improve the image is MAKING A PICTURE.

    Manipulating an image to falsify the information it bears is FAKING THE PICTURE.

    As with any good thing a photographIC image may be misused..

  3. Your blog and reviews always seem very interesting and thought provoking in a stimulating way not as contentious opinions – I subscribe and always enjoy seeing a posting from you in my in-tray. Surprises me that more people don’t comment but in fairness I’m more of a reader than a responder so maybe that is a norm. Sadly my wider experience of blogs and Facebook Groups is that often as much as 80% of their content is from people who don’t read the manual, don’t know what they are doing – but think they do – and there is so much badly written, misspelt abusive rubbish. That is the price of free speech I guess. Over time I’ve learnt to skip and gloss over the idiots and just enjoy finding occasional pearls of wisdom – in which category you clearly rank highly. Keep up the good work. Noli sinere malos insolentesque te vexare

  4. Sorry to read this – like countless others, you’ve been attacked and bitten by a troll, and you’ve found that their bite stings. For days afterwards, perhaps, their venom leaves you feeling uncomfortable and distressed.

    Sadly, they will never realise that it’s all very well to have an “opinion” – but opinions are a peculiar beast – they are incapable of being either “right” OR “wrong”. All they can do, on their own, is agree with another opinion – or differ. They have no probative value whatsoever. The only real use that anyone can make of “opinions” is to form the basis for a sensible adult discussion. A discussion which may even result in a consensus viewpoint.

    Oh – forgot – silly me! I suppose if someone is a troll, their opinions do have one other use. They can be used to effect, upsetting other people. As you yourself have found out.

    Last time I caught one “at it”, I posted a comment suggesting that in future he might stop trying to belittle someone else, by criticising their photography. And he replied with a two liner saying “But you are criticising me!” I felt like adding one final comment – saying “yes I am, but you deserve it – I never realised until now that ‘troll’ was a FIVE-letter word!”

    (I’m not sure if that last sentence computes everywhere, but where I live “four-letter words” are the abd ones – the ones that unpleasant people chuck in your face).

    Finally – Rod, he’s achieved one thing – he’s provoked you into writing your side of the discussion. And I really appreciate that. In another photographic group that I belong to, we are have a discussion right now about this very topi – when is it legitimate to PP, and when does it take the shot out of the realm of photography and make it into something else?

  5. When I first read this there were no replies but I was out and only had an iPhone to reply…

    I can agree with you to some MINOR extent but I know photogs that really abuse their images with Photoshop and other post production processing…they add images of the moon, stars, snow, and even birds to enhance their image to the point where it no longer is theirs….it’s simply generated with a few mouse clicks and key strokes.

    I shoot mostly in infrared which some may call cheating but what is there in the image is really there…it’s just that the human eye or unconverted camera can’t see it… I don’t see that as cheating… However it does often take some processing to usually a minor extent…mostly in color adjustment and cropping… I see those actions as OK too… When people start adding stuff that was never there when they pushed the shutter button, I roll my eyes and move on..

    1. Mark, I think there’s a line to be drawn between “post processing” and “image manipulation”. Post processing in the form of image retouching has been common practice since the early days of photography. Even to the point of hand colouring images, before modern colour photography took off.

      But I would regard adding things that were never in the photo when it was taken as “manipulation”, rather than photography. I don’t see any objection to it, as long as disclosure is made to tell viewers that it has been created that way. Certainly that was the line taken in a similar discussion I saw recently in another photography group.

      A common example is adding a more interesting sky – that’s OK, but what is wrong with saying so?

      Another one that HAS been common is in fashion photography – removing all wrinkles & blemishes, thinning fat thighs, etc. The fashion industry itself has started to put a stop to that – several major fashion houses have announced that they will no longer accept any such manipulated images.

  6. For my money photography is an art form just like painting.The Pictorialist Movement of the early 20th century set out to prove that but a photograph can also be a record of what the photographer actually saw (worts and all) These are two distinct types of photograph and there is room for both. Black & White is not showing the truth and neither is Infrared. Manipulation of an image may not be showing the truth depending on what is manipulated and how much is done. So what !!! I often take record shots and if they are going into a competition or an exhibition I give them a title which reflects the fact that they are record shots and true to life. However, for me a much more satisfying aspect of photography is that which is not showing the scene exactly as it was. It takes imagination to create such images. If I am showing an image in the creative category then it would be wrong to give the impression that what has been produced is exactly what the photographer saw and so the title needs to reflect that. The problem comes when photographers try to pass off an image that they have manipulated as being true to life. In my view that is totally wrong.

    People who complain about pictures not telling the truth and insisting that pictures should be an exact record of the subject need to get a life and some creative thinking in the brain. It’s a very narrow minded point of view which some people believe is the result of digital. This is far from the case. There was plenty of manipulation in the days of film and we should not forget that. I take record shots when I need an exact record but also creative images which I regard as an art form which people can like or dismiss. Creating them stimulates the brain.

  7. Everything we see with the naked eye is ‘Faked’ by the brain. It decides what colour things are only partly by wavelength but mostly by what colour it thinks it should be based on past experience and by reference to the other colours around it which is why we don’t need to use filtered glasses to see a banana as Yellow under both daylight and tungsten light. Edwin Land showed that the effect is so strong that we can think we are seeing a full colour photograph when shown a Black & White picture illuminated by a single colour light. Now add to that the brains tendency to store memories very poorly then make up facts when we recall them and I think you have every right to amend your photo to match what you remember seeing or what feeling it evokes when you recall it. When you looked at that Swan in the pond you truly did not see that floating bus ticket and the cigarette packet on the far shore so there is nothing wrong with photoshopping them out. Personally I have no problem at all with people just using the photo as a basis for something artistic that bears no relation to the original. Why should Dali be praised for melting clocks while photographers can only make scientific documentaries?

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