Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph Blog Have You Been Photoshopped? – Dr. Ellen's Blog

Have You Been Photoshopped?

Posted on February 5, 2012 By

Yes, indeed! In today’s vernacular you are routinely photoshopped by virtue of having your photograph taken with a digital camera. Even when a film camera is used to take your picture, that image can be scanned so that later it is available for digital manipulation. In the early days of photography you were technically retouched in some of the same ways that software does it today.

Both these terms refer to any and all editing of a photograph regardless of the methods used. This is not a good or a bad thing, it is just the way it is. And it entails the injection of photographer bias in every case.

Photographer bias? How so?

•Photographers routinely select out just one part of a scene to photograph, which automatically injects bias into their images.

•This act of selecting one part of the scene over all other available parts of a scene injects further bias, because in order to do so the photographer has to make some a priori assumptions about what they want a particular photograph to communicate to others.

•The lens chosen for the task is also a biasing factor: a wide-angle lens, a telephoto zoom, a normal lens and a micro lens will capture their subjects in very different ways, depending again upon the needs of the photographer at the time.

•Furthermore, these different lenses also deal with the background of the chosen subject in different ways:  by blurring the depth of field and sharpness of an image, by distorting the perspective in certain ways, or by allowing the viewer to see an non-distorted image similar to how their own eyes perceive objects in real life. These things automatically factor in bias to the photographic output.

•The addition of light, or the subtraction of light from the scene being photographed adds another kind of bias; which is effected primarily through the use of strobes or multiple strobes.

•Even the selective use of natural light injects a bias of sorts, as it is used with certain subjects more than others to enhance the photographer’s overarching story line, even the mood projected.

•Bias is also injected by the decision to shoot (or process) an image in color or in black and white for artistic or other considerations.

•So, too, are image enhancements such as the application of hue, saturation, high contrast, double exposure, airbrushing, burning and dodging, sharpening and other manipulations.

In other words, the very act of taking a photograph necessarily entails a myriad of photographer-induced considerations depending upon the state of mind of the photographer, the message to be communicated and also the photographer’s intended audience.

Each of the above kinds of things bias a captured image in a unique way and are therefore considered image manipulations. And this is true whether these manipulations are intended to deceive, to persuade, to add flair, or even to enhance the story-telling impact of an image.

An Example to Illustrate Photographer Perspective

The scenes below are taken from adjacent locations on the same Florida river. The first image [taken from a boat] captures a section of undisturbed riparian growth beneath the forest canopy at river’s edge. The second image [taken inland] shows an immediately adjacent section of severely depleated understory where a riparian buffer used to exist.

The second shot highlights the kind of damage to the river’s riparian buffer that results from unfettered development. See the above link for more information about the ecological importance of riparian buffers.


rainbow_river02*Images by Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph

Image Manipulation is Not Without Controversy

Since even subtle changes to a photograph can profoundly impact how that photograph is judged or interpreted by others, legalities strictly forbid image manipulations in photos used in photo contests, courtrooms, morgues, news photography, advertising, and sometimes even in political campaigns.

Such restrictions reflect the related mission of groups like the National Press Photographers Association where integrity in ‘visual journalism’  is promoted and the following kinds of manipulations are to be avoided:

  • elements are removed from an image
  • bodies and heads are switched, etc.
  • bodies are slimmed or ethnicity is changed
  • the addition of biasing artifacts into the image that weren’t there when the photograph was taken.

Such manipulations are clearly intended to deceive, and they can have significant consequences in news accounts, etc.

The over-riding worry is always that the public’s confidence in the integrity of a photograph is compromised but I think that is laughable at best.

The Camera Never Lies?

The fact is, a camera in the hands of a photographer always lies, depending on the intentions of the person holding the camera. I spoke of this earlier in the form of self-induced bias that is injected into an image by virtue of approach, intention, equipment used, etc.

I deliberately use the word ‘bias’ to differentiate the kinds of things discussed above from outright and sometimes ill-intended image ‘manipulations.’

That said, today’s software gives us a thrilling array of digital manipulation tools that are used with great enthusiasm by photographers everywhere; tools that teach photographers a great deal about pixel structure, color management, sharpening and perspective control, among other things. These tools are invaluable in the learning process.

I do find that novice photographers use these tools with abandon to make their images look better which, in turn, makes them think they look better as photographers. This is all part of the fun of photography for them and so be it.

What they don’t realize is that these digital tools can also irreparably damage pixels when not used properly. For example, amateur photographers universally tend to over-saturate, over-sharpen, and excessively crop photos just because those tools are cool and they love using them.

By excessive cropping I mean zooming in on an important part of a wider-angle  photograph, such as someone’s face in a group of 10 people in a beach scene. My own rule is to crop in-camera, which is quite a different thing.

This means that I control the zoom and the subject matter while I am taking the picture, never afterwards. Oh, I might straighten the horizon in the background later but that’s about the extent of it. My expertise and experience in photography, as well as the use of a tripod and flash, allow me to control the outcome without such amateurish excesses. I also use professional DSLR equipment and prime f2.8 lenses that make my job easier.

In Summation

There are obvious differences between art photography and news photography but even so, both kinds of photographers are injecting bias into their images whether they know it or like it, or not.

I therefore think the photographic industry would do well to understand and clarify the difference between the injection of ordinary self-induced bias, psychological and otherwise, and deliberate manipulations intended to deceive the purveyors of truth. In the first instance the introduction of bias is clearly part of the art of photography. In the second instance, however, there is an additional layer of willful manipulation that masquerades for truth under false pretenses.

The whole of still photography should not be bludgeoned by restrictions that serve only very narrow needs where videography may well be tool of choice.

Leave the ART in photography, please!