The Myth of the Unmanipulated Image
Not long ago, I read a complaint about all the "manipulation" of photographs that is being done these days. The man who was complaining expressed a preference for unmanipulated, original photographs. I've heard similar comments on many occasions.
Let's take a look at that unmanipulated, original image.
Last summer, I took a photograph of a pretty mountain lake. Like many digital photographers, I shoot exclusively in RAW. Here's an approximation of the unmanipulated, original RAW version of that photograph:
Anyone want to frame it? A RAW image consists of digital data. We can't see it at all until some software program translates the data into a visible image. That's why this version of an original RAW image is only an approximation.
The closest thing to a visible original version of my photograph may be the following:
This is a conversion of my RAW image done in Adobe Lightroom, with all settings at zero. Not very appealing, is it? It also isn't original or unmanipulated. This default conversion incorporates many decisions and assumptions made by Adobe's designers concerning how a photograph should look on a default basis. Their recipe for RAW conversions wasn't handed down at Sinai. A conversion made by a different software program that incorporated different assumptions would look different.
Those who shoot JPEGs would see a different—and often somewhat better—default version of the image. That's because the camera processes and compresses JPEG files before they go to the memory card. With a JPEG, the manipulation of the image is done automatically, according to instructions given by the camera's designers. That manipulation is extensive. It's also largely irreversible. I don't want Canon's engineers making irreversible decisions about how my photographs should look. That's one of several reasons why I shoot in RAW.
Since I wasn't thrilled with the default RAW conversion of my photograph, I shamelessly manipulated the digital data in Lightroom. I adjusted the colors, tones and contrast. Sharpening was added. What I got was this:
I didn't add anything to the photograph that wasn't already there. I simply brought out what the camera captured. That includes the red color, which was very noticeable to my eyes but barely visible in the default conversion. Of the three versions of my photograph we've seen, this last one—the most manipulated, although the manipulation was fairly minimal—comes closest to reflecting what I saw when I looked at the scene.
But it really doesn't come very close. This is a two-dimensional facsimile of a three-dimensional scene. It reflects the conventions of our time concerning how such a facsimile should look. Contrast has been used to enhance the illusion of depth, according to convention. You can't see all the shadow detail that my eye could see, in part because I've sacrificed shadow detail in favor of highlight detail, according to convention. What most of us accept as a "realistic" photograph is one that conforms to current conventions concerning how a photograph should look. Those conventions aren't sacrosanct. In its own way, my photograph is as stylized as a kabuki play.
We all tend to forget that, though. It's easy to develop a fixed idea of how photographs ought to look, to equate that idea with the "unmanipulated original," and to criticize photographs that depart from our conventions as "manipulated." I suspect that's what prompts most criticisms of image manipulation.
The dubious notion that we owe some kind of allegiance to the "original" version of a photograph can shackle the creative impulse. I used to think, for example, that it was somehow cheating to expose once for the sky and once for the ground and then combine the images. (Gosh, I hope Mom doesn't see me doing this...) Now I do it often and without compunction. Similarly, I have no qualms about HDRs.
A few kinds of manipulation are obviously problematic, particularly in photojournalism. Lying with a photograph is no different from any other kind of lying. As long as we don't engage in deception, though, we owe allegiance only to our own conception of how an image should look. We should manipulate images freely when it helps to realize that conception. The "unmanipulated original" is a mythical creature that dwells with the unicorns and centaurs.
You can see more of my work at my Smugmug.