Assignment 4 Reworked

My tutor picked up on the colour I changed the water to and I admit I was not happy with it. My intention was to make the water more inviting by changing the muddy brown colour to a more attractive blue. As he pointed out, all I did was t change the colour of the material that was making it brown. So instead of bits of earth suspended in the river water, I had bath salts.

He suggested another couple of approaches. The ideal he said was to take another picture under similar conditions of a nicely coloured river and use that. I did not have such a suitable picture and was not able to take one with the right lighting conditions so I experimented with his other method. This was to combine a hue shift with desaturation and a contrast boost.

Working further on the final image with just the water selected, I changed the hue to a slightly deeper blue and almost entirely desaturated it. I then used levels not only to increase contrast, but also darken it. This is the result:

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I think the result is more realistic, still not perfect but an improvement over the previous attempt.

And I’ve learnt a new Photoshop technique which has deepened my understanding of the software, especially hue and saturation.

Assignment Four – Tutor Feedback and Response

Within a week of receiving it, my tutor sent me his feedback to assignment four. I’m getting used to his thorough feedback but continue to value it. It’s in full here:

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I expected to get some useful advice on how I could have achieved the results I got in a better way so I was very pleased with “Technically you have done well, The majority of your techniques have been handled soundly…” yet I was well prepared for what came next “…apart from the water colour change.” This is one manipulation I was not happy with although I could not explain my dissatisfaction as pithily as he did, “The water looks like it has blue bath salts in!” I made several attempts to get it to look how I wanted it but never really made it. He has given me another avenue to try.

I should point out that his comments about submitting a final print were rescinded in a later e-mail. I did submit one but it had apparently got stuck to the hard copy of the assignment when I posted it. The lesson is to keep them separate, either in a separate envelope or with a divider sheet. Aside from sending assignments to the tutor, there is an obvious lesson here when I send everything for assessment.

The other main learning to take away from the feedback is really to continue on the direction I am going, especially with regard to researching, using that research to inform my own work and documenting it. This is particularly important as I start on assignment five, the personal project.

A couple of other gems of useful advice:

“Garry Winogrand is often quoted about how the photographer can ‘transform’ a situation by the way that four edges are used to select and arrange the elements within the photograph, and perhaps more importantly by what information the photographer decides to exclude from the framing.” – I was thinking along the same lines when I was looking into photographic truth but could not find a suitable quote.

“Commercially the less a photographer has to process and correct within an image the better, mainly down to time involved in post-production.” – Time is of lesser consequence to an amateur pursuing a hobby in his own time but to a pro, time is money! The consequent tip of shooting a straight image as well as a tilted image is valuable.

Assignment Four: Real or Fake

Boats and Boating

The fourth part of this course was taught on two levels. Firstly there was an increasingly invasive set of Photoshop “manipulations”. Then at a deeper level we were invited to consider the ethical implications of what we were doing. The purpose of the assignment was to demonstrate my stance on these ethics by taking and manipulating an image for an imaginary book or magazine cover.

A lot of my thinking on the subject is in the posts “The Camera Never Lies” and the “Photography of Truth” and summarised in the research to this assignment. Therein I concluded that my stance could be best demonstrated using documentary photography or photojournalism. A hypothetical magazine cover could represent documentary photography so this is what I used.

I will first of all show the picture I used, then the adjustments I made, and follow this with a discussion on the ethics of it.

My starting image for a publication on boating is on the next page.

Apart from the obvious defects, the tilt of the image and the sensor dust midway between the swan and the boats, a number of “improvements” can be made to make the image better suited to its intended purpose. The muddy colour of the water is not especially inviting, the swan could be repositioned to close up the dead space between it and the boats, the building at the top left is a local riverside pub. Its partial inclusion does not enhance the composition but detracts from the rural scene and there is not enough dead space at the top of the picture for the magazine’s title.

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1 – Correct Tilt

When I took the shot, I wanted to place the swan in the corner of the frame to create a diagonal between the swan and the boats, hence the image was tilted. Seeing it later I don’t think it worked as the image looks messy and contrived. This was a straightforward correction using the straighten tool. I used the verticals of the hut on the jetty as a reference. The result was cropped to the dimensions of A4 at 300 dpi.

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2 – Remove blemish

This was another straightforward correction using the clone stamp tool. A patch of water alongside the blemish was chosen as a sample point.

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3 – Change colour of water

I made a careful selection to avoid unwanted details (eg the swan), then tried two techniques for this. “Adjust Hue and Saturation” did not give me enough control so I used “Replace colour”. I had to make sure that the selection of colour to be replaced included all the muddy brown. Some attempts were not successful, leaving out some ripples or the shadow of the main boat. It was also difficult to get the colour looking right and natural.

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4 – Move swan

The swan was selected fairly easily but so that it would blend in with its new surroundings when moved, I expanded the selection and feathered the edge. Then it was a simple copy, paste and move. I did not delete the original swan yet, preferring to leave it until I had moved the whole image down. Also, the new swan was kept on a separate layer to await and facilitate final positioning.

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5 – Delete pub

The pub was selected and deleted. My first attempt was to add some foliage in the gap and blend it with a gradient layer mask. This proved difficult as the blending was taking place in two distinct directions so in the end I feathered the edge of the pub selection and placed the replacement foliage behind it.

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6 – and replace with foliage

The foliage came from another picture taken from the same viewpoint and using the same exposure. This also had a feathered edge to enable blending with the final image.

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7 – Masthead text added

This was added now so that I knew how much room would be needed when I made more room for it. This was easily done with the text tool.

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8 – Create more room at top for masthead

The added foliage and background layer were merged, then converted to an ordinary layer so it could be moved. Note the swan is on another layer, this will be moved later. As it happened, I moved the image sufficiently for the original swan to disappear off the bottom, relieving me of the need to delete it.

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9 – Gap at the top filled with foliage

The foliage again came from a donor image, the same as the one used earlier. It was added as another layer and merged using a gradient mask.

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10 – Moved swan to final position

This was moved to a position to make a neat triangle with the boats and to attempt to merge the ripples.

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11 – Add supplementary text

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12 – Final tweaks

Looking at the overall final image, the boats seem a bit over exposed. The scene behind them is nicely exposed and a suitable backdrop to them so I did a local level adjustment. Unfortunately the tops of the boats were unrecoverably over-exposed (even working on the RAW file). The swan looked a bit big in its new position, I hadn’t allowed for perspective when I moved it further from the viewpoint, so I made it smaller. All through the process I was unsure what the small white dot to the right of the swan’s head was but looking at the final image, I decided it did not look right so removed it with the clone stamp tool.

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Ethical Considerations

Taking each step in turn:

1 – Correct Tilt

I don’t think there is anything wrong with this, it’s correcting a fault from when the picture was originally framed. Had I done this more accurately when taking the shot, the question would not have arisen. It is not changing reality in any way but excluding a bit more of it.

2 – Remove blemish

Similarly, this is simply correcting a defect, rather than altering reality. It could be argued that I am taking something from another part of the picture to make the correction, but I don’t think this would be particularly strong argument.

3 – Change colour of water

Water’s blue isn’t it? Everyone knows that! Actually water is colourless, it’s typically thought of as blue because it reflects the colour of the sky. In this case, it was a muddy brown colour because of the suspended solids in it. That is the reality, and if it appears uninviting, that is the way that it is. In this case, changing the colour is distorting reality. It might make it a more attractive picture, it might encourage people to buy the magazine when they see it on the shelf of their local newsagent but the fact remains that it is deception and done for purely commercial interests.

4 – Move swan

This is on the borderline for me. One the one hand, in moving it I tampered with reality. On the other hand, it was moving anyway, I might have waited until it was in a more suitable position before clicking the shutter. But then, the swan was not under my command, he might have turned around and gone in totally the wrong direction. I’m reminded of the paper bag in Preparing for Prayers by Harry Fisch. He could have waited until a gust of wind blew it away but he didn’t, he used Photoshop and was excluded from the competition. Moving the swan would have resulted in my removal from a competition but this is not a competition entry. In the context of a magazine cover, I think this is acceptable – just!

5 – Delete pub

6 – and replace with foliage

I wonder how the landlord would react if a bulldozer came along and wantonly destroyed a corner of his building, so that my picture would be more suitable! That is what I have done; not physically destroyed (the pub is still there) but removed an element of its virtual or pictorial existence. Perhaps more so than changing the colour of water, this is tampering with reality.

7 – Masthead text added

I don’t think there is any challenge with adding text over an image.

8 – Create more room at top for masthead

This is simply another way of cropping an image. It’s not changing anything at this stage, just reframing and removing some of the scene…

9 – Gap at the top filled with foliage

…however it’s made different when I add the foliage. Perhaps not in the same league as demolishing half a pub, it’s still changing what was in front of the camera. In this case, it is ameliorated somewhat by acting as a backdrop to the text.

10 – Moved swan to final position

See 4

11 – Add supplementary text

See 7

12 – Final tweaks

The Reuters handbook says “No excessive lightening, darkening or blurring of the image. (thus misleading the viewer by disguising certain elements of an image)” A level adjustment as performed here would probably be acceptable in these terms. Regarding the size adjustment of the swan, the sin was already committed when it was copied in step 4. The removal of the unidentified white dot might correspond to Harry Fisch’s paper bag, depending what it is. Even so, I think compared with the other indulgences this is fairly trivial.

Summary

I have mentioned elsewhere that to determine the acceptability of this kind of intervention one has to judge it against the context in which it is viewed. The context here is a magazine cover, the purpose of which is to make the edition stand out on a newsagent’s shelf, to advertise its contents, to encourage people to buy it. In this context, it is not a picture of a specific location, but instead symbolic of what this particular edition represents. I have commented elsewhere how liberal fashion photography can be; this is of specific, well-known and recognisable people. The Boats and Boating example is symbolic so the ethics become more dulled. The other side of the coin is the viewers reading of the image. This is a “River Thames” special edition, is the Thames really that colour? That boat looks appealing and the location is so idyllic; someone wants to hire it, does a bit of research and tracks it down; only to be ultimately disappointed. Does the commercial interest and the need to sell the magazine justify the deception? In my opinion, the answer is no. Changing the colour of the water and removing the pub each is a step too far.

Analysis of Picture

The boats, pointing as they do out of the frame say they are ready to head off into unpictured waters. Within themselves they form a triangle, with another triangle heading down to the swan. The swan in the foreground is in a dominant position but his head is pointing towards the boats so it naturally leads the eye to them. There is a rhythm in the row of punt poles, also leading the eye to the boats. The presence of the two people on the landing stage makes the image more personal, it would be a bit soulless without them. The colour scheme of largely blue and green is restful and harmonious, engendering a feeling of serenity which is fitting with the notion of lazy days on the river. The choice of colour for the text was deliberate so as not to clash with this. Against this the two orange life belts, although small, stand out without spoiling the feel.

Reflection on Assignment

When I set out on this assignment, I had a number of ideas to follow (these are discussed in my research post). In addition to the research suggested by my tutor, I found the work of Sarah Small and Wang Quinsong relevant. But these were all surrealistic and I did not feel I could demonstrate where I stood on the ethical continuum with a surrealistic image. I was at a loss what to do and my indecisiveness was to an extent compounded by only having one image to submit. Where the assignment asks for a collection of images, there is the feeling that any weak ones in the set can be carried by the strong ones. In this case, however, I had to commit to one image; all my eggs had to be in one basket! Even when I had the Boats and Boating example in mind, I was riddled with doubt, whether it would be suitable and show sufficient research.

I eventually went ahead with it for two reasons. Firstly, there would be a number of manipulations of varying degree. I thought this would make it a suitable vehicle for demonstrating where I stood on the ethics of each manipulation which collectively would summarise my stance on the issue. Secondly there was the learning value.

I had to determine what techniques would be suitable and learn those that I had not used before. These were:

Gradient mask layer – Elements does not support layer masks but there is a well-known and widely publicised work-around, using the layer mask attached to an adjustment layer. I needed to do this to merge the added foliage for the background to the masthead. It was surprisingly straightforward when I discovered that the merging had to be against the background layer.

Refine edges of selection – I have always shied away from the refine edge dialogue, not really having an understanding of what it does and how to use it. I found here it was useful when selecting the swan, the pub and its replacement foliage, to expand the selection and feather the edge made the join with the final image more invisible. The amount of expansion and degree of feathering was a matter of trial and error.

Creating layers from background and vice versa – There are things you can’t do with a background layer so it needs to be converted to an “ordinary” layer, equally there are times when a layer has to be converted to a background. It’s a simple menu item, but I didn’t know it could be done.

Replace colour – I’ve dabbled with this before but never had a good reason to learn it properly.

I am fully aware that some of the techniques I have used were executed a bit clumsily, I am also aware that there may be other, better ways of achieving the results I got here. I’m still learning and I am working through two books by Philip Andrews: Adobe Photoshop Elements 7: A Visual Introduction to Digital Photography and Advanced Photoshop Elements 7 for Digital Photographers. Together these provide a comprehensive handbook to the software and its capabilities.

The sequence presented here is the result of a number of practise attempts to see what worked, what did not, what depth of manipulation I could get away with, what order to do them in. even the final result took three versions to get right. As a result, the whole assignment has been an immense learning experience.

Assignment 4 – Research and Planning

I worked through part 4 rather quickly, mainly because I found it so interesting! Apart from the range of image adjustments covered, which in themselves were fascinating, the challenge to question the ethics of what we were doing provided an additional intellectual stimulus. The assignment picks up on the ethical question, inviting us to illustrate an idea or concept by designing a book or magazine cover (real or imaginary). This post shows some of my thinking and research.

For research my tutor suggested a few areas I could look at.

3-D rendering and CGI is used extensively in new car advertising. Taking a library backdrop and placing a CGI image of the car onto it, the rendering engine then creates realistic reflections and shadows. The cars do not exist except in the virtual reality of the CGI, yet the resulting image is made to look as lifelike as the software and artist can make it:

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https://www.moofe.com/#/gallery

For me, all these do not look real, everything is too clean, even clinical. Perhaps that is the intent, to hide the fact that they are unreal, the reality is made a little too real; or perhaps it is the limitation of the software.

I considered the possibility of using CGI and rendering software and looked at the open source “Blender” program but decided the challenge of learning a new tool would be too great. Thinking about what I could do in Photoshop I came up with this:

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The spiral galaxy was created entirely in Photoshop, the planet was a map of the world but distorted to make it look spherical and alien, the astronaut was found on the internet. It would be easy to add a blanket of stars in the background.

I like the bold, graphic simplicity of this and the design allows each element to move in relation to each other to adjust and fine tune the composition. Is it real or fake? It’s fake, quite obviously so and I do not think there could be any confusion so there is no ethical justification required.

John Stezaker won the prestigious Deutsche Borse photography prize in 2012 for his cut and paste collages. He uses pictures from old postcards, film stills and books and magazines, to create collages that are often witty and sometimes disturbing. There is no denying his eye to pick up the arrangement in seemingly disparate photos, and skill to cut them precisely and paste them to make something meaningful. Whether he is a photographer in the purest sense of the word is open to debate and perhaps this is where the ethical issues lie with his work. There is also the issue of him using other people’s work and whether adequate credit is given to the original artist.

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http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/sep/03/deutsche-borse-prize-john-stezaker

My possible response to the assignment brief is something along these lines:

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Here the original images are mine but the skull and stoney face were found on the internet. Is this ethical? The pictures are obviously fake, no-one can be imagined to have a stone head or have a skull headed alter-ego following them. But what would the original subjects say to being exploited in this fashion?

Larissa Sansour is a Jerusalem born Palestinian whose work is inspired a lot by the tension that understandably arises from that, although this is not manifested in a conflictive or judgemental way. Nation Estate for example offers a solution to the Palestine deadlock by suggesting the state is housed in a high rise building, with a floor for each city.

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http://larissasansour.com/nation_estate.html

Her work is highly sensitive, very imaginative and extremely well-crafted. Like the car adverts above, the reality is a bit too real, it seems a bit plastic. But I get the impression here that it is deliberate.

One thing these three examples have in common is their surreal edge. Perhaps that is a consequence of the heavy manipulation involved, perhaps it was the main influence my tutor had mind when he suggested them.

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My last experiment as I explored some ideas for this assignment was “Champagne Production.” This was not really inspired by any of the examples above but I wanted to push the ethical boundaries a bit further. This is an imaginary book on making champagne. The background picture is original, the glass of champagne is obviously added (the vine it is sprouting from less obviously). What about the chap walking up the hill towards the refreshing drink at the end of a long day? He was added! In fact, he is not even a worker in the vineyard, he is a visitor. So is this ethical manipulation? When I took the picture, there was no-one there but what if I had this shot in mind and arranged for a model to be present during the shoot and arranged him accordingly? Is this any more ethical? So the question about ethics is really nothing to do with Photoshop. In my view, in this context this would be perfectly acceptable. The book is about making champagne and the addition of the person does not detract from that. If it had been about working conditions in the vineyards it might be a different matter.

So this leads me to the subject of the assignment. In my entry “The Photography of Truth” I looked specifically at two genres of photography, photojournalism and fashion and an earlier post “The Camera Never Lies” looked at documentary photography. The ethics involved in fashion photography are there, but often ignored but it’s possibly in the area of photojournalism and documentary that bring ethics into a sharper focus. This is where I should look in this assignment if I am to demonstrate my stance.