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.
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!
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