Confessions of a Proud Manipulator

I frequently hear negative remarks about photo-manipulation and my part in this evil scam.  I want to put my political position on this issue right out front  – HUH? I’m not talking about people who purposely change an image for some nefarious reason, like to reflect a political point of view by putting some famous head on a body that isn’t theirs or purposely making them look evil (both done in the last presidential campaign).  Let’s talk about just changing the image to look better.  This is not new stuff here, folks.  Michelangelo did image manipulation in his paintings!  Do you think Ansel Adams went into the darkroom to create his masterful photographs and just let the light shine, unfiltered, through his film?   As an old film guy, I can tell you that negatives were adjusted, dodged, burned, and cropped to present the image the way I wanted it to look.  Today, we do it digitally.

Of course, we try to get it as perfect as we can in the camera, but, even there, we choose what makes it into the viewfinder.   Here’s a perfect example of doing just that: no pixels were harmed in the making of this image from Rome.


But where are all the people?  They are there.  You see, the Coliseum has three levels of arches, but from my vantage point, you don’t see the bottom level where all people are waiting in line.  Oh my gawd, Becky, he manipulated the image!

There are many good reasons to alter an image.  And I just happen to have some examples handy.  Let’s go through a couple of them, shall we?  Here’s another cropper shot.  Let’s say you’re in England, climbing along the roof of the York Minster, on a day with a really bland sky, and you take the picture on the left.  Not too interesting, is it?  But with a little cropping, you can make it turn into something more dramatic, with a point of view you don’t usually see from this fine building.  I prefer the second image.


During many events, the photographer has no control over the background (for me, who eschews studios with seamless paper, that’s just about all the time).  This young graduate is my godson.  He had visitors from all over the U.S. in the stands watching him in one of his finest moments to date.  He lifted his diploma high, so everyone who came to watch his moment could see it and join in his pride and happiness.  I had to take the shot even though parts of his classmates and a flower pot were in the frame (who puts a flower pot in the middle of a football field?).  I fixed the photo in post-processing.  He and his family are much happier with the final image.

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And there are times when we need to go deeper than just cloning grass over some poor graduate who had the misfortune of not being an important element of my picture.  Some times, when I’m trying to be all artsy-fartsy, I’ll completely change an image into a completely different color space.  (Oh, nasty, unscrupulous modifier!)  I was in a little blues joint in Reston, Va., listening to a great band.  I had a camera, but didn’t want to disturb the band with a big, nasty flash (another manipulation tool) while they were performing.  I shot this with the available stage lighting.  It’s not tack sharp as I wanted it because the low light forced me into a slow shutter speed, and the lead singer was really grooving, hair blowing from the fan at the front of the stage and his head moving to the beat.  First, I cropped to make him fill the frame.  Then, I decided to go to a grainy black and white look to focus the viewer’s eyes on the subject and keep his mind from wondering what was with the weird color cast and lack of absolute sharpness.

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When Mark and I are doing restoration of old and damaged photos, of course we manipulate the images.  Nobody wants to get back a digital version of their scratched, faded family heirlooms; they want us to make them look new again.  When we're feeling extra evil, we might even colorize an old black and white!  I could go on and on, but someone told me to try to keep the blogs shorter.  (I’ll try, but you know how I get…)

So don’t just take it lying down when someone gives you that attitude of scorn because you bent a pixel or two.  Smile and explain to them that even Reuben used unnecessarily wide brushes when he painted his nudes.  Have fun while you manipulate your images.