Manipulation in photography 1


–verb (used with object), -lat·ed, -lat·ing.

to handle, manage, or use, esp. with skill, in some process of treatment or performance: to manipulate machinery.

to adapt or change (accounts, figures, etc.) to suit one's purpose or advantage.

I am often asked "do you manipulate your photos?" or "are they enhanced?" or simply "are they altered?"

Well, according to the above dictionary definition every photograph that has ever been taken by anyone is a manipulation of reality. I think what people are really asking is "have I cheated in some way to make the photographs look the way they do." and the answer is no, I don't believe so; I am merely aware, and have taken full control, of the manipulations that go into producing a photograph.

Photographers - be it film or digital - who say that their images are not manipulated are either lying or, more likely, are unaware of some part of the photographic process; usually the processing and printing stage of image making.

Why then is a photograph a manipulation of reality? The human eye has evolved over 4 million years (give or take!) and has the ability to see a huge range of colours, contrasts and textures as well as the added benefit of stereoscopic vision - we see in 3 dimensions. When we view a scene our eyes are constantly adjusting to take in all of the information in front of us - we can 'zoom in' on a point of interest, or 'zoom out' to look out the wider picture. Our brain is very subjective; disregarding anything in the scene that is not of interest. All of our other senses too go into making up our impression of a place; the smell of the salt air, the cold wind on our face and the crashing of the waves.

The camera (& lens) on the other hand have "evolved" over 170 years or so, they suffer from colour distortions (chromatic aberration), a vastly limited contrast range, flare, linear distortions, and can (usually) only render an image in 2 dimensions. It is also totally objective; it will render everthing that is in front of it, regardless of how boring or unnecessary to the image. A photograph is also incapable of capturing the smells, sounds or feelings we experienced when we were there.

The question then is how to give the viewer of the image the same sensual response as was experienced by the photographer when they were there making the photograph? Everything from film type chosen, focal length of lens used, shutter and aperture combination, colour and contrast filtration used, through to developers or software and finally papers, chemicals, inks and printers used for the image will have a bearing on the final outcome.

My personal way of working is to utilise all of these manipulations to try and create an image that is as close as possible to what I experienced when I was there, whether cold or warm, tranquil or rousing, noisy or peaceful, and through the image making process hopefully convey some of this emotional response to the viewer.