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Photography and Digital Manipulation: Finding a Middle Ground

One of the most important topics in the photography world revolves around the use of editing, digital artistic manipulation (such as composites) and recently, the widespread practice of “peak stretching.” Just in this past year, I’ve come across extensive blog articles, listened to heated debates and scanned endless online commentary, all centered around these issues. I feel this is an important topic that greatly effects the world of photography and the future of the medium.

I feel like most of my images are somewhere in the middle ground of processing. But always with the goal of representing the original scene.In this case, the main change was moving the small circular cloud a little bit to the left so I wouldn’t have to crop half of it out.

Two Sides and a Middle Ground

On one side of the fence, many feel that a finished photograph should look very close to what came straight out of the camera. Maybe some exposure adjustment, some contrast, etc., but the image should be more or less left alone. On the other side, many modern photographers and artists use the image or images that come from the camera as a starting point. Those files are then worked on in various ways, and a piece of art is created on the computer. Sometimes it can look very similar to a “real” scene and sometimes not. Of course, most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

Figuring out exactly where we stand on this topic and how we feel about the morals and effects on photography can be challenging. Many of my workshop clients have expressed feeling shamed or put down (about the editing choices they have made) by those who believe strongly one way or the other. As a pro photographer that fits somewhere in the middle, that is both pro-Photoshop and pro “real,” I thought I would share my thoughts on finding a middle ground and hopefully help others to make their own choice on how to handle the modern digital world of photography.

Here’s an example of an image I used very little editing on. Just a bit of cropping and basic adjustments in Lightroom.

Pros for “Real” Photography

Figuring out what “real” photography is is a topic that can be discussed endlessly. After all, taking a 2-dimensional photograph in one direction, at one point in time, is hardly showing the multi-dimensional, 360-degree reality you were standing in while taking the image. Throw in odd focal lengths, both ultra-wide and extremely long; panoramas that distort and warp; and the simple fact that when we find a “perfect” clean, simple photograph, it is probably the exception to the very busy cluttered world that we live in anyway. “Real” and photography are not a perfect match.

That said, for me, while a photograph is certainly not 100% real, photography can give us a very close idea and approximation of a particular scene. It can show us elements that are close enough that our brain can fill in the rest and we can have an excellent idea of what a place might look like or be like in person. That is the real power of a photograph in my opinion, and that is why we love photography so much. The power is in that nearness to reality. The idea that the place you see in front of you is a place you can actually go, a place that you can actually experience in the real world.

An example of an image that has quite a bit of editing, including focal length blending. However, I feel like the scene is looks very close to how it did standing there in person. Anyone visiting this spot would not be disappointed.

I walked into an Indian restaurant a while back and saw a photograph on the wall of huge towering mountains over a stunning valley. It evoked such a strong desire in me to travel and see that place. It was the same feeling I had many years ago seeing an image of Machu Picchu for the first time. A time when I could hardly believe that a place like that existed. It inspired me to travel and to become a photographer. I wanted to inspire others to see and explore as well.

As it turns out, the piece in the Indian restaurant was a painting, not a photograph. While I love paintings, many forms of art, and have great respect for the talent, the second that I realized it was not a photograph, and not a real place, I lost all of the sense of wonder. An amazing piece of art, yes. But a place that I can actually go see… no.

Albert Bierstadt’s “Among the Sierra Nevada” is a great example of a painting that’s absolutely incredible. However, knowing that it is not a real place, at least for me, changes the emotions I experience while looking at it. And if it did actually exist, I would by dying to go see it. (Ironically, in the 1860’s it fueled the image of America as a promised land.)

This yearning to visit the places photographers capture is also evident on social media — such as Instagram photography hubs, where hundreds and hundreds of comments are filled with excitement about visiting the location of the photo. Often it is hard for non-photographers to discern whether or not a place really exists.

We love photography because someday, we want to visit that incredible place that was shared. We want to see it with our own eyes. Somewhere out there. If we take photography to a point where it is no longer showing the viewer a place they can go, again, much of the power is lost.

But there is much more to the story…

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