Part 4 Reflection

This part carried on where part 3 left off. I have found working through the gamut of Photoshop corrections, enhancements and other techniques extremely interesting and I have learnt a lot. That is not to say that all the material was new to me, most of it I have picked up along the way (or stumbled across it would be a better way of putting it) but the coherent and logical order of presentation has put a lot of that experience into a better context.

The unit constantly challenged us to question the ethics of what we were doing. I have commented on much of that in the exercises and I have prepared a separate post where I consider the issues more deeply so I won’t go into it here. Rather I will concentrate on what I personally have got from it.

Photoshop is a big program and my version (Elements 7) is quite rudimentary in comparison with the latest CS version. It was still powerful enough to be quite intimidating and was man enough for all the exercises. Part way through the unit I started using Lightroom 5 and although I am getting to grips with it fairly quickly, I was not confident enough to tackle the exercises and in any event, the later ones required the use of layers which are not available in the new software. For the assignment I used layers so the final image was produced in Photoshop. Lightroom was used for the rework to assignment 3.

Some useful Photoshop sites I’ve found…

http://www.photoshopelementsuser.com/category/getting-started-editor/

http://www.photoshopessentials.com/basics/

http://ibrandstudio.com/tutorials/how-to-create-3d-ball-in-photoshop

…and I’ve invested in Phillip Andrews’ two books on Photoshop Elements 7.

Looking at the ethical concerns around this kind of work added an extra element, lifting it beyond the simple “do this and that happens” to a higher intellectual plane.

I have also started to look at analysing pictures. I’m in the process of working out my own personal approach to this (which will be the subject of a separate post) and I’m reading Kenneth Clarke’s book “Looking at Picture”. So far this is proving very insightful, explaining his personal way of analysing a picture, how he gets sidetracked and comes back to it.

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The Photography of Truth

David Byrne has reason to be rueful. Having been awarded the title of Landscape Photographer of the Year in October 2012, he then had to sit back while other photographers and forensic experts dissected his entry, decided he used Photoshop excessively and disqualified him. In his own words:

“I have to inform you after a conversation with Charlie Waite I have been disqualified from the Landscape Photographer of the year awards, unfortunately I didn’t read the regulations and certain editing like adding clouds and cloning out small details are not allowed, while I don’t think what I have done to the photo is wrong in any way, I do understand it’s against the regulations so accept the decision whole heartily.

I have never passed off my photographs as record shots and the only reason this has come about has been due to my openness about how and what I do to my images. The changes I made were not major and if you go to the locations you will see everything is there as presented.” [i]

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Lindisfarne Boats by David Byrne

Harry Fisch suffered a similar fate in the prestigious National Geographic Photo Contest with this image:

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Preparing for Prayers by Harry Fisch

The reason he lost his title was that he cloned out a small paper bag at the extreme right of the image. He argued that he could have cropped it but to no avail. Like Byrne, he accepted the issue gracefully and vowed to read the rules more carefully next time. [ii]

The introduction to part 4 of the course has this to say:

When digital photography began to be used professionally for publication, many people voiced concerns about the threat to what was perceived to be the inherent ‘truth’ of a photograph. How are we to know any more that a photograph was truly taken from life, and not in some way manipulated unscrupulously?

We then went on to look at various Photoshop actions and were asked to comment on the ethical issues around each one. The concept of a continuum from ethically acceptable to unacceptable was used. Clearly in the two cases mentioned above, the photographers placed their entries in a more conservative position on the continuum than the organisers.

Competitions are one thing, they have well defined rules and are officiated by a judging panel. Whether the rules in terms of allowed Photoshop interventions are clear is a matter of debate beyond this post. Nevertheless, as is often quoted, “the judge’s decision is final.”

What is the situation with more ‘real world’ areas of photography? I looked at what was meant by photographic truth in my previous post “The Camera Never Lies” and questioned what the real truth was. In a reply to a blog post by Kevin Connor on fourandsix.com, Eduard de Kam argues along the same lines, “…the truth is way too complex to ever be captured in a picture, a picture or photo will only show a small part of the reality. The lens used and the direction the photographer aims his camera are choices made at the very moment the picture was taken.” [iii]

In this post I will look a bit deeper at the history of photographic manipulation and review the situation with regard to two specific genres, fashion and photojournalism.

Four and Six Technologies is a company founded by Adobe veteran Kevin Connor and photographic forensic expert Hany Farid. Their website fourandsix.com (mentioned earlier) contains a timeline of photo manipulation stretching back to 1860. It contains many examples of alterations for political reasons, either because a leader had fallen out with someone or to make them look more powerful. [iv]

Mussolini:

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Mao Tse Tung:

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The nest example was a Pulitzer prize winning photo published in Life magazine.

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But even though manipulation has been going on since the dawn of photography, the timeline shows increasing numbers. The assertion now is that Photoshop has made it easier and more widespread.

At one end of the acceptability continuum where manipulation is widespread is fashion photography. Refinery29.com is quite amused by it: [v]

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Ralph Lauren and Fillipa Hamilton
This highly controversial Ralph Lauren ad makes model Fillipa Hamilton look like distorted bobble head being sucked into a vortex. Ralph Lauren later apologized, but our eyes still haven’t forgotten.

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Carla Bruni in Closer Magazine
The perfect accessory to a beautiful evening gown is not a black clutch but apparently, a floating third hand.

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Demi Moore on The Cover of W Magazine
In this photo of Demi Moore wearing Balmain on the cover of W magazine, her body looks awfully similar to Anja Rubik’s. Demi’s disappearing hips caused a ruckus when this photo was first published, but W‘s Creative Director Dennis Freedman claims that there was no retouching of the image.

These are extreme examples but the industry finds no ethical impairment in it. Flawless magazine’s creative director and photographer, Don Horne (his Facebook page say’s ‘I’ll shoot anything!) goes further than merely justifying the approach,

<p>“These days everything is about money. We all want it, We all try to make some of it! So its not surprising to see the lengths companies / brands would go to, to try and make some of it. All that these brands are worried about is selling. Sometimes they do it in a good way, Sometimes they twist the truth a bit to try and sell…”

“…But im a strong believer in photoshop’s role in photography![vi] (sic)

He goes on to warn about “the bad things about photoshop”, nevertheless his comments indicate a level of acceptance of photo-manipulation in the industry.

Further evidence is provided by the Guardian in their article “The Camera Often Lies.” [vii]

"Every single magazine cover in the UK has been Photoshopped to some degree,…If it’s a celebrity or a model, the bare minimum is that the skin will be touched up to remove blemishes, folds in clothing that show fat, wonky looking legs, bad hair, the whites of the eyes, cellulite … For men as well as women."

A former art director at Arena recalls two complicated cover shoots where Natalie Imbruglia’s cheeky grin as she jogged away from the lens was constructed from three different pictures, and Nicolas Cage had his forehead extended using a composite of six separate shots. "With the advent of digital technology, stars are taking more and more of an active role in the picture selection and retouching," the art director explains.

The prevalence in an industry where image means everything is understandable; does that mean it is acceptable?

"It’s (unsettling) because our commitment to telling the truth is being diluted," explains Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News.

The International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis University, Massassachussetts published its ethical enquiry in August 2012[viii]. It gave a balanced report but amongst the arguments against the practise, it blamed numerous eating disorders on the “thin-ideal media images.” Although the link to Photoshop was not expicitly proven, it was criticising the attitude of the industry that leads to the digital manipulation. A number of organisations that were bucking the trend were cited, including online magazine Jezebel and the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.

Strongly allied with this is the skewed definition of beauty that is communicated and the harm done to “ordinary” people’s self image.

A genre at the further end of the continuum is photojournalism. Another competition winner who (nearly) fell foul of the forensic analysis was Paul Hansen for this winner of the World Press Photo of the Year 2012:

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Angry Mob by Paul Hansen

Neal Krawetz claimed the picture to be a composite of a number of images, a claim refuted by Hany Farid and the photographer got to keep his award.[ix]

Brian Walski was not so fortunate. The LA times staff photographer lost his job for this piece of doctoring a picture of a British soldier with Iraqi civilians in Basra. [x]

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Walski called his actions “a complete breakdown of judgement” and blamed the stress of the assignment.

Lebanese photographer, Adnan Hajj was dropped by Reuters for this digital manipulation (original on the left) of an Israeli air strike on Beirut: [xi]

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Reuters have published a “Handbook of Journalism” [xii] in which they make their views on the use of Photoshop very clear:

“Materially altering a picture in Photoshop or any other image editing software will lead to dismissal.”

They go on to describe what is allowed and what is not:

No additions or deletions to the subject matter of the original image. (thus changing the original content and journalistic integrity of an image)

No excessive lightening, darkening or blurring of the image. (thus misleading the viewer by disguising certain elements of an image)

No excessive colour manipulation. (thus dramatically changing the original lighting conditions of an image)

In defence of Brian Walski, fine art photographer Pedro Meyer asserted that Walski did not materially affect the content of the image, ‘in its essence’. He reckons they fired a photographer effectively for doing something the journalists do regularly, that he tried to come up with a better picture in the same way that the writers polish their text. He might have a point, a recent study to measure the accuracy of journalism has shown that there are errors in 59% of 4800 stories across 14 (US) metro newspapers. This reflects the results of other studies going back 70 years[xiii]. This in itself does not prove anything, but it would seem to indicate that mainstream journalism is making genuine efforts to maintain ethical standards and ensure the accuracy of its visual reporting.

The acceptability of manipulation depends very much on the context. By context I include client’s expectation, photographer’s ambition, how the picture will be used, how the viewing public will interpret it etc. We have seen how heavily manipulated images have lost competition winners their awards and photojournalists their jobs. There are rules covering both these activities, all involved broke the rules and it is to the credit of the parties involved that rules were established and enforced. On the other hand, the fashion industry has no rules and less well-established codes of practise. We have seen how this results in much more liberality with what is done to the image and something of the effect this can have on the viewing public.

I have not looked at Fine Art Photography, this is an area where even higher levels of manipulation would be accepted, if not expected.

This gives some guidance to a photographer when his computer is booted up and Photoshop loaded, what is the intent? How is the audience going to view it? Is there any deception involved? Any degree of manipulation might be acceptable in some contexts, in others only a small amount of correction can be used.

In conclusion I quote an extract from Susan Sontag’s book “On Photography” where she sums up the paradox between truth and aesthetics in photography:

“As the vehicle of a certain reaction against the conventionally beautiful, photography has served to enlarge vastly our notion of what is aesthetically pleasing. Sometimes this reaction is in the name of truth. Sometimes it is in the name of sophistication or of prettier lies: thus, fashion photography has been developing, over more than a decade, a repertoire of paroxysmic gestures that shows the unmistakable influence of Surrealism. Even the most compassionate photojournalism is under pressure to satisfy simultaneously two sorts of expectations, those arising from our largely surrealist way of looking at photographs, and those created by our belief that some photographs give real and important information about the world.” [xiv]


[i] http://petapixel.com/2012/11/02/landscape-photographer-of-the-year-2012-stripped-of-title-for-too-much-shoppin/

[ii] http://www.digitalcameraworld.com/2013/01/11/first-place-not-in-the-bag-national-geographic-photo-contest-winner-disqualified/

[iii] http://www.fourandsix.com/blog/2013/5/21/what-is-a-truthful-photo.html

[iv] http://www.fourandsix.com/photo-tampering-history/

[v] http://www.refinery29.com/the-worst-fashion-photoshop-disasters/slideshow#slide-1

[vi] http://flawless-magazine.net/flawless/photoshop-fashion-industry/

[vii] http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/feb/23/newspaper-photography

[viii] http://www.brandeis.edu/ethics/ethicalinquiry/2012/August.html

[ix] http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/155617-how-the-2013-world-press-photo-of-the-year-was-faked-with-photoshop

[x] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/photo/essays/vanRiper/030409.htm

[xi] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/5254838.stm

[xii] http://handbook.reuters.com/?title=A_Brief_Guide_to_Standards,_Photoshop_and_Captions

[xiii] http://jonathanstray.com/measuring-and-increasing-accuracy-in-journalism

[xiv] Susan Sontag, “On Photography” pub Penguin Books 1979, p105

Reflection on Part Three

This was a big unit!

It seemed such a long time ago we were looking at the RAW format. Whereas I was doubtful to begin with, I have convinced myself of the advantages and it has now become an integral part of my picture taking, my camera is now set almost permanently to RAW + jpeg. I can’t say I’m fluent with the manner of processing but it is improving. In fact, I have just started using Lightroom and this software seems much more seamless in it’s processing of RAW files.

The value of the exercises on managing tone and colour lay not so much in the core subject (although it was useful in providing a more coherent background to the work I already do) but in providing a good opportunity to practise RAW processing. I think the results I achieved with the images I chose were an improvement on what I would have got previously and I particularly appreciated the ease with which some of the adjustments can be made in the RAW file.

Creative interpretation was interesting. To have the freedom to take an image and produce some wild effects with it was quite liberating. I noted at the time that I did not think it would become part of my normal photographic practise. This was based on the notion that I am more of a realist than a surrealist in my work. However I am thinking that some kind of more extreme processing, consistently applied, can provide a kind of signature.

The last, and by far the largest, subject covered was black and white processing. This was new to me so had an immense value. I learnt the effect that adjusting the relative tonalities of the different colour channels can have on the final image. My software at the time, Photoshop Elements 7, could only adjust the red, green and blue channels, Lightroom has the ability to adjust a greater range so should offer more flexibility and control over the finished effect. The course noted that black and white allowed more extreme processing in key and contrast although this is not something I have explored much. The assignment was an exercise in black and white and although I produced pictures that were quite pleasing, I’m still not sure whether it is a medium which I want to pursue. That is not to say the exercises were not valuable: I learnt more about image processing, what can and can’t be done and what is effective; I learnt more about how Photoshop works; and if I’m ever called upon to give black and white images, I can honestly say I know what I am doing.

There are plenty of web sites that offer tutorials in Photoshop but I have found that most of them offer instructions on doing some quite eclectic techniques. Adobe has some good help on the basic features. Therefore I particularly liked the way this unit was structured, starting with simple corrections and moving through more radical adjustments. Photo processing software are powerful pieces of software and an image file is a complicated thing but this unit showed in simple and effective terms the most important elements of those. This process is taken further in the next unit.

Reflection on Part Two

This is where it got going!

Part two started with how a sensor captures light and introduced the concept of response curves and gamma. Whilst perhaps not having much practical value, I found it useful to understand this and the discussion comparing sensor response with film and the eye that ensued on the forum was stimulating and interesting.

This was followed with sections on highlight clipping and noise, leading to the definition of dynamic range. I’m not sure if I got the calculation of my camera’s dynamic range quite right, I’m sure it should be more than 7.7 stops I calculated. But this misses the point, the learning came in the doing, the evaluation and the reasoning behind it. This all added up to an increased understanding of what dynamic range really means, what defines the top and bottom limits of it and it prepared the way for the next section where we evaluated the dynamic range of a scene.

Dynamic range, or contrast range, seems so simple to me now but it has taken a long time to get there. These exercises have proved valuable to my understanding of the idea and I am sure will prove invaluable to my future photography.

Colour cast and white balance were covered in the Art of Photography so this section was not as useful but I used it to improve my understanding of how my camera deals with it and uncovered some useful idiosyncrasies.

The assignment was a challenge! I dreaded not being able to use Photoshop to correct exposure, white balance and other errors and doubted my ability to get it all correct in the camera. On top of this was the ongoing supplication to produce a coherent set of images. I did more planning and preparation for this assignment than any previously, discovered another photographer (Chip Simon) whose work I relate to for its whimsical nature and in the end produced a nice set of images. There are some flaws and I plan to reshoot some of them for the assignment, but I’m waiting for tutor feedback first.

All in all, I found this a challenging but rewarding part of the course. I’ve learnt plenty, put it into practise and am ready for “Processing the Image.”

Reflection on Part One

This introductory unit to Digital Photographic Practise introduced concepts of workflow, histogram and editing. I found it all fairly straightforward, in the most part an extension of what I am currently doing. (more…)