Edited image of Ankor Wat, with reflection added
Friendly Friday,  Photographic techniques

Smoke and mirrors

Some say the camera never lies. But does it? Even before technology made it possible to alter reality, photographers were playing around with tricks and illusions. Ghosts, spirits, fairies … all appeared in photographs.

One of the most famous of those early illusions is this, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln’s wife taken in 1870 after his death. At the time people were convinced that his ghost was captured in the photo.

Old photo of a woman with ghostly figure behind
Old photo of Lincoln’s wife

Today it is easier than ever to edit an image; to fool the viewer into seeing something that was never there, or not seeing something that was. Can we ever trust what our eyes are telling us, or is photo editing just smoke and mirrors?

Another question – does it matter? Does it matter that a photographer may have altered an image before presenting it to the world? Feelings can run high on this, perhaps because people don’t like to think they’ve been fooled. My own view is that it depends on the purpose of the image. If it’s important that it presents an accurate record of an event or place, then clearly any editing beyond minor tweaks (to adjust lighting, straighten a horizon, etc.) is unacceptable.

But what about photography as art, where the purpose of the photo is to spark the imagination, create an emotional response in the viewer? Then, it seems to me, any amount of manipulation is acceptable (although it’s arguable that the photographer should be open about the ‘tricks’ employed).

For my part, I strive to produce the best images I can, even if that means playing around with the originals to create something I find more pleasing to the eye and more reflective of how I perceived the scene rather than how the camera recorded it. Our brains are very clever at filtering out what we don’t want to see – telephone wires, ugly street furniture, a stray person wandering into the background of a shot. Photo-editing can remove those distractions to create a more aesthetically pleasing, if not totally accurate, record of a scene.

Have a look at the following three images. I took the first two on a game drive in India’s Ranthambore National Park. We were on the hunt for tigers but although we’d seen one the previous evening, on this early morning drive they eluded us. No problem – there were lots of interesting birds to see and photograph. I spotted these two bulbuls in a bush very near our vehicle, undisturbed by our presence and happy to pose. Or so it seemed. But whenever I pressed the shutter one or the other would turn its head away from me. It proved impossible to get an image in which both were in profile.

Photoshop came to my rescue and on my return home I was finally able to create on my computer the picture that I wanted. Does it matter that in reality I saw the two birds posing like this too briefly to capture them thus? Or is it OK to have manipulated my two images to create a third which I consider to be better than either of the originals?

Smoke and mirrors? You decide!

Two birds in a bush
Bulbuls in Ranthambore NP ~ the edited version

I also like to play around with effects from time to time, to make new images from old, just for fun or to create an impact. To finish, here are few ‘before and after’ shots from my experiments.

I don’t think there is any right or wrong answer to this debate by the way; I’m just curious to hear your views.

The photo at the top of the page is of Angkor Wat, also edited with a reflection effect using the MirrorLab app


  • thebeerwanderer

    Great. I was able to post a comment on your actual website (while logged into my WP account) without having to log in again. 🙂

  • thebeerwanderer

    I am all for “fixing” photos. Sadly, as advanced as cameras have become, they often don’t capture what the human eye (and its well-connected imaginative mind) can produce. If a photo is bad, I’d rather not see it. In a world where we look at 1000s of images often daily, it sees a waste of time. Life’s too short for bad photos.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m with you on that Rich 🙂 The other issue I have is when people share 20 photos of the same thing, taken from an almost identical angle. Editing for me also encompasses selecting which are the best images, and reducing them down to a manageable (for the viewer and me) number!

  • rosalieann37

    The Mark I eyeball is a much better and more flexible recording device than any camera. Cameras have gotten better through the years. The photo I took of the moose in Yellowstone Park in 1948 with my little brownie camera where the print turned out to have just a tiny speck in a big landscape that might be an animal, would be much more like what I saw if I took the same thing today with a digital camera – zoomed and then cropped.

    So I am comfortable with ‘fixing’ photos that I took to show what I saw to match what I really saw. And I DO hate photos where the ocean slants so that the ship looks like it is going uphill. I was really happy when I found software that would let me fix that.

    The two birds photo was pretty similar to one I did recently for a friend – she had two photos of her parents at their wedding. In one he was not looking at the camera and in the other her eyes were closed. I was able to marry the photos so that both people were looking at the camera with their eyes open.

    But I almost never take photos as art. So while I will alter a photo to illustrate a subject, I don’t really do that much to manipulate photos. (And I’m sorry but I don’t like the reflection effect – I prefer the originals in your post)

    I am currently having a problem because I am selling old photo albums and some of the prints are tiny. (like 1 inch by 1.5 inches) When I photograph the prints, I can crop them so that you can really see the people’s faces. This makes me a little uneasy – when the people get the photograph album in person they are not going to see those photos the way I have presented them on the selling site. I do take a photo of the whole page – one page which is 12×10 might have five or six of these tiny little portraits on it. But you really can’t see the pictures in person without a magnifying glass and a good strong light.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Sounds like you did a great job with that wedding photo Rosalie. And I think as long as you’re showing the full album pages too people will understand that you’ve cropped the portraits to make them clearer.

      As to the reflection effect, I guess I was partly making the point that with effects apps it’s possible to distort reality, and the reflections themselves echoed the ‘smoke and mirrors’ theme. I rather like them, in moderation, but it’s very subjective and I quite understand why you don’t – that’s art, after all!!

  • Forestwood

    I really like what you did with these photographs, Sarah. As the photographer, it is up to you how you present and edit them. Editing is fun and we can add some elements, however I take Albert’s point about being a historical record. Most of our photos won’t be that, or if they are, they will have to factor in our ability to enhance the truth. Love the pop of pink in the street as well as the fishing nets. The birds photo is perfectly okay. You hav emerely adjusted for the vagaries of nature. Thanks so much for joining in. I feel sure some of the other bloggers who participate in the challenge would enjoy these photos. I look forward to seeing what you will come up with next.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Amanda 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed my take on your theme! I guess the historians of the future will need to have an understanding of what we could achieve with manipulation of images, but by then it will probably be even more endemic and they won’t trust anything they see!

  • Easymalc

    An interesting topic Sarah, and I think you’ve got it right when you say way that it depends on the purpose of the picture. Photoshop is really only a digital form of the darkroom, but with advanced capabilities of course.

    From a personal viewpoint, I tend to use photoshop to improve an image to look much as I remember it and I have no qualms about straightening the horizon or improving the exposure. My reason for this is because I made a conscious decision quite a long while ago about what I wanted to achieve with my photographs, and that is to record the places I visit in the best way possible with what I saw and remember.

    I have absolutely no problem with manipulating an image for artistic reasons providing that the intention is obvious. That said, some of the creations I’ve seen I’ve not too keen on and appear gimmicky at times, but if that’s what pleases the creator, then who am I to argue? It’s all part of life’s rich tapestry. Isn’t it? I’ve always loved that pink umbrella in Lucca by the way.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Malcolm, you’ve pretty much expressed my own views here. I totally agree with your statement about Photoshop being a digital form of the darkroom. The best photographers of the past would always manipulate their shots to present the best version they could of the reality they had captured. I also share your aim of recording places ‘in the best way possible with what I saw and remember’.

  • TheRamblingWombat

    I am with you on basic adjustments like cropping and straightening an horizon. Given what I use photos for I never go beyond this and would not remove phone lines (beyond a cropping), use filters, add or remove or otherwise change things within a cropped frame etc. What I see is what I want to record.. accepting that the camera often does not record what you see… raw sunsets/sunrises are nearly always either underdone or overdone and filters and photshop just accentuate this. This does not mean I am against changes and I like how you adjusted the birds above… though if I did that I would always think I was cheating. This and adding the reflections in the instances you have done so have not distorted what could have been. If you were to take a picture of Buckingham Palace and add reflections on water in front of that I would totally disagree if you portrayed it as reality (the only exception being if it were specifically tagged as ‘art’). The St Lucia street and the Marrakesh shots are obvious distortions of reality for the sake of art and to me are ok but where is the cut-off between art and deceit… obviously how you present it .. If you did a published a tourist article on the Ranthambore National Park with twenty photos and every one was edited to the level of the birds one above I would say that was wrong and that you were overselling what the average punter could expect to see in the park – false advertising. Anyway from my ramble you can see I have mixed feelings and there is no right or wrong answer. Of course nature can be deceptive too… take a picture of a run down street in Bolivia on a grey dull day and again the same shot on a cloudless full sunny day … each natural picture tells a very different story/ creates a very different impression and can be used to push different points on the exact same thing.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      All fair points Albert. I’m comfortable myself with the bird edit because I did see them like this, just couldn’t capture the shot. Any tourist visiting Ranthambore would have a good chance of seeing, and photographing, something similar. We were also lucky enough to see tigers there, but if we hadn’t and I later edited an image to make it look as if we had, that would be deceptive and unacceptable to me because I’d be raising expectations of sightings.

      As to the others, I’d never present any of these as reality. I see them as artistic interpretations of a scene, just as a painter might play with colours, shapes and light to create a version of what is in front of them rather than a direct representation. By the way, I’m curious why you would find a similar edit of a Buckingham Palace shot not OK but you can live with the Angkor Wat one? Surely the principle would be the same? Actually, it might be fun to do Buck House and present it as a vision of a dystopic future, with London under water …

      • TheRamblingWombat

        I believe we are of like mind and it really comes down to how you use / present the photos. In terms of the reflection photos my comments related to the Iceland and Fort Cochi shots but not the Angkor Wat one which I overlooked. For the record I would categorise it with adding water to Buckingham Palace as, from my recollection the water at Angkor is not where you have represented it here. Of course it is fine to play with Angkor as you have though in this case I am not as fond of it as I am of your other adjustments. I would love to see your take on Buckingham Palace in due course 🙂

  • Teresa

    I like the edited versions of all the images. Are the reflections photoshopped too? They are great! The bulbuls look better too with both of their heads seen. Thanks

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Teresa 🙂 The reflection effect is done with an app called Mirror Lab which I have on my (Android) tablet. It can create lots of other cool effects too but this is my favourite!

  • jazzibee

    Enjoyed your post – covering a great debate indeed. I think you’ve got it right. The software we’ve got is a tool we should use either to improve an image or to create a bit of art. I think you’re quite justified to fix your bird photo – I would do that. I like your other edits, especially the top two, they work really well.

  • Nemorino

    Straightening horizons is something I often do with my photos (somehow I often seem to hold the camera slightly at a slant), and I often try to crop in such a way that the main feature of interest is in the center. I’ve never tried adding reflection effects, and I suspect it would get old if done too often. By analogy: I’m a big fan of revolving stages in opera productions, but in Frankfurt it is done too often (because visiting stage directors love the unique arrangement of a small revolving stage imbedded in a large one), and now I find it refreshing when an entire evening goes by with nothing revolving at all.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      You’re absolutely right Don, an effect can very easily be overdone. Normally I wouldn’t dream of posting so many, were it not for the challenge of this ‘Smoke and mirrors’ theme 🙂 But yes, straightening is useful, and indeed necessary imho – I hate to see what could have been a good photo spoiled by a sloping horizon that could so easily have been fixed!

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