Of image manipulation

A Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) perched on a dry reed (2009_12_19_044990)

Ted recently talked about how he cleans up his photos in post-processing, such as removing shadows and bits of dirt.  My friend Nathalie is so adept at image manipulation that she can remove whole people to leave behind the perfect child-on-horseback shot without revealing the adult who was keeping the horse in place.  And my friend Warren, while referring to the background image on my Twitter profile, mentioned something about it being a nice pic considering I don’t do image manipulation.

These things got me thinking about post-processing photographs and what I do and don’t do.  As I said in the comments on Ted’s post, most of my disdain for manipulating images after the fact stems from my concrete inability to do so.  Sure, I can sharpen an image, remove noise, tinker with lightness and contrast, and various other primitives in the world of post-processing, but beyond the simple stuff I have to leave things alone.  Why?  Because I totally suck at it.

A Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) perched on a twig (2009_12_19_044914)

Add vignetting?  Only if you want it to look like you’re in a train tunnel.  Remove dust and debris from the image?  Only if you want it to look like I removed dust and debris.  Heck, I don’t even know how to create a mask or layer, steps necessary for more advanced manipulation techniques.  And the truth is I have no interest in figuring those things out.

Why?  The answer is twofold.  First: There are many things I would rather be doing than learning how to “Photoshop” an image.  If there are power lines in my landscape photo, then you’re going to see the power lines.  Second: Ignoring that I can digitally create scenes from my photos that never existed in the real world means I have to focus more on the photography and less on creating something later.  No, I’m not a professional photographer by any stretch of the imagination, yet I do think myself at least somewhat capable with a camera after spending years forcing myself to show what the lens caught just like it caught it rather than making the picture after the fact.  To wit, I’d rather be outside taking pictures than sitting inside trying to fix them.

A Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) eating a seed (2009_12_19_044888)

That means learning about filters, such as polarizing, neutral density, UV/haze, IR and intensifiers.  It means learning about ISO and f-stops and exposure and hyperfocal distance.  It means making certain that the camera does the work up front that I can’t and won’t do later.  All that turns into more time doing what I love and less time sitting at a desk cleaning up messes.  Because the more time I spend tinkering with an image, the more of a disaster it becomes.  Heck, I can’t even make small changes to highlights, midtones & shadows or brightness & contrast without washing out the image, so trust me when I say you really don’t want to see me delving too far into post-processing.

There are religious purists who think any manipulation beyond the basics is akin to photographic heresy, an untruth perpetrated to further illicit goals of world domination through image manipulation.  There are liars who create whole false scenes that never existed and present them as though they were real, showing dramatic pictures of rented animals while calling it wildlife photography.  Then there are the masses who exist somewhere between those extremes.  I’m counted amongst the masses with a focus on getting the picture with the camera rather than hoping I can somehow make it later.

A Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) perched on a dry reed (2009_12_19_044987)

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All photos of Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis).  All post-processing consisted of cropping, noise removal, sharpening, and saturation increases.  All photos taken with only a UV/haze filter.

8 thoughts on “Of image manipulation”

    1. I’m the same way, Swampy. I can appreciate artistic or abstract photographs in their own context, but I appreciate realism more than artistic license. For me it’s an issue of honesty more than anything. For example, Ted showed both the before and after images and explained why he removed the sand (to better show the iridescent colors of the elytra on the tiger beetle in the beautiful macro image he took). He disclosed the change and showed the original and final product, so I’m totally cool with that. But ultimately I think–specifically for nature photos–that natural history is best served by realism, not trying to create a technically perfect image.

  1. Love this post! I am firmly in your camp for many of the same reasons. (I’m not nearly as good at photography as you are though…) I crop and color balance images occasionally, but it annoys me when I have to do that. I’d rather take the photo correctly in the first place! Besides, the final result is SO much more impressive when you know a perfect photo you’re looking at hasn’t been manipulated and is perfect based entirely on the skill of the photographer. Your work is fabulous, so I’m very pleased to know you don’t do much to them!

    1. Thank you, Chris! You should see the photos I was taking just three or four years ago. Yuck! I’ve put time and effort into learning and practice, so I like to think there’s some payoff in what I do now.

      You hit one of my pet peeves spot on: the deception, whether intentional or accidental, that comes from heavy manipulation of an image. If it’s not disclosed that it’s been Photoshopped, the immediate assumption is that the photographer has great skill with a camera and accoutrements when in fact they may be only marginally functional with a camera and better at post-processing. Their product, then, is not one of photographic skill alone and it’s a lie to present it without saying as much.

      Like you, I prefer to get as close to right in the camera so people see what I saw. I feel better about it, I feel more accomplished, and I’m not as frustrated later given my lack of ability and interest in doing more than the basics with image editing.

  2. I hear ya, Jason! Photo manipulation gets crazy outta hand. I could go on and on but to keep it short…i agree.
    Photography (to me at least) is about what I see..not what i want to see and how to warp it into something it’s not.But blah blah, I’ll refrain from saying too much. 🙂 LOVE the chickadees, freaking adorable!

    1. I’m the same way, Jill. I look at my photography as a way of telling the story of what I’ve seen rather than the story I made up in my head. I’m not zealous about hating manipulation, but I am zealous about people being honest when it comes to what’s real and what’s fictional. If a photo is different than what the camera (and photographer) actually saw, that needs to be said, otherwise I think it’s a big fat lie.

      And thank you on the photos! These guys were VERY accommodating (as all chickadees tend to be).

  3. (A) and number one, chickadees. Oh man. The only bird I’ve tried to take pictures of, because they’re a foot away outside my window. So that would include the glare and dirt and spots on the window; the limitations of the point-and-shoot the size of a matchbook; and my own limitations. It’s good to see it done right.

    (B), this all reminds me of my father, who was a nature photographer. He did his cleanup on site, carefully gleaning shiny sticks and specks from this or that mushroom, stuff he knew would drive him crazy in the photo but that most people wouldn’t notice while they were taking the shot. It helped that he took lots of pictures of mushrooms and not so many of things that fly away.

    (C), I’m resisting the photoshop movement on two fronts. One, I don’t want to learn. I’m not saying my brain is full, but I’m rather enjoying a lot of the blank spots. Two, it’s fun to see what you can do when you don’t have those skilz. Witness my Saintly Cat photo in my current post, done with a cake pan, a flash and a very uncooperative animal. It took 45 minutes to get that picture, not that it’s worth writing home about, but I think it’s more fun than tossing a virtual halo around a suitable kitty photo. I’m just a retro girl.

    1. Thank you, Murr! I’m glad you like the photos.

      I laughed at the idea of clearing a subject before photographing it. I couldn’t help but picture it as I run along chasing a bird so I could remove a bit of dirt from its bill just before I take the perfect shot. Darn uncooperative avian foe! Sit still already!

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