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The Ethics of Digital Photo Manipulation

The Ethics of Digital Photo Manipulation

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Published by: Obinna Steve Nwafor on Jun 28, 2012
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What Is Photo Manipulation, Really?
Article byallychevalier (20,726 pts
 
)Edited & published byRhonda Callow(76,002 pts ) on Jun 9, 2009
See More About:
 
 Photo manipulation is everyday in the digital age... but what precisely is photomanipulation? What does it entail, what are the types and uses? This article outlines thebasic definition of photo manipulation.
Introduction
In the digital age, photo manipulation seems absolutely everyday, yet it is a commonlymisunderstood and misrepresented topic. This article outlines the types of photo manipulation, itsuses, and what precisely it means for an image to be photo manipulated.
The Medium of Photo Manipulation
Virtually any image format can be manipulated, though some image formats are certainly more popular for purposes of photo manipulation. Most digital cameras as their default shoot JPGs,making it probably the most used format for the subsequent photo manipulation. However, many photographers prefer to shoot inRAW formatif they plan on manipulating the image, due to thehigher quality.While this article will focus on the manipulation of digital photos, photo manipulation has been a part of photography since its very genesis. In the dark room, many a political photograph wasdoctored through a very time intensive process. The digital age brought digital cameras and digitalcameras have the advantage of creating, well, digital images.Of course, the sophistication of today's photo manipulation techniques may also be applied to oldfilm negatives, onceappropriately scanned.
Photo "Editing" versus "Manipulation"
Of course, many people don't think of what they do as photo
manipulation
, rather, as photo
editing 
.While any change to a photo technically qualifies as photo manipulation, this is a commondistinction to make.Photo “editing” generally consists of smaller changes that do not change the image in anyfundamental way. Virtually all digital photographers partake in this sort of photo manipulation,fromremoving red eyeto adjusting curves to playing with color balances. Sometimes, it's that the photographer made a mistakecomposing the shot and the manipulation is just to fix it, to straighten a crooked horizon or to lighten an underexposed photograph. Others, it's to increase theaesthetic qualities of a photo, to saturate the colors of a sunset or toremove a distracting branch from a skyscape. No intention to deceive, only to please.
 
Where precisely this crosses over into what is more popularly considered photo “manipulation” isa subjective line, one that varies greatly by photographer. Generally speaking, photo manipulationis when you have conglomerations of multiple photos, or if the photo has been changed beyondreasonable recognition.Photo manipulation is done for a number of purposes. More infamously, it is for political or sensational purposes. Notorious examples of this vary from a “blacker” version of OJ Simpson'smugshot to Soviets erasing political figures from photographs once they fell out of favor. Indeed,the first known case of photo manipulation is one of Abraham Lincoln made to look a bit moretrim.However, photo manipulation is also an art form in its own right. Fire spirits, literal lionfish, a little boy fishing on a crescent moon, all are examples of high amounts of photo manipulation as fineart. Beautiful and foreign images may be created from the familiar, and the techniques involved indoing so require every bit as much skill as photography proper.
Manipulation With What?
The tools for photo manipulation are many; here's an overview of what's available.Older film-based cameras had many dark room techniques for manipulating photos, involvingactual physical changes to the negative. Everything from acids to pins were utilized in what wasoften a time consuming process. To this day, even, there are people who swear by this process,relishing in the intimacy with the image that the dark room provides.But back to the digital age. With today's sophisticated digital cameras, there is a substantial amountof manipulation that happens even as the shutter whirs, from automatic red eye removal to contrastadjustments to color filters. Some deep-diving into your individual camera manual is required tosee how many such features are available on your camera—and how many are default without youeven knowing it.After the image is downloaded onto a computer, the options are numerous. The software variesfrom expensive professional options such as the famousPhotoshop(hence “photoshopping”) andaffordable photo editing programstofree, open source programssuch asGIMP. The possibilities are endless, and the sophistication and ease of image manipulation increases by the day for averageusers.Check out this article for trends in how photo manipulation is changing photography.
 
The Map Is Not the Road
A picture can act as a map toward greater consciousness — it can point toward things, signifythings — but it is not the road itself. Until digital photography came along, most people were, and perhaps still are, asThom Hartmannsuggests, “unconsciously incompetent” about how picturesshape or construct meaning and reality. In other words, we haven’t been trained to think carefullyabout the power of images.How can we trust what we see in the media in an age of digital manipulation? Can we really trainourselves to be more visually literate and consciously competent?Even though most of us appreciate how media images can edify and inform us, or perhaps evensave us from our personal biases, pictures are not a panacea for critical thinking. If anything, pictures aid the unconscious mind in constructing conditions of knowing the world in certain ways.Theorist Thomas Sebeok’s claim, “The more we see the more we know and understand, andconversely, the less we see, the less we know and understand,” may be argued in an age whentampering with pictorial representations of places, people, and things appears to be morenormalized as an unintended reality of technological change.Sometimes today, the more we see, the
less
we know.
The Ethics of Digital Photo Manipulation
Doctoring photographs has been around almost as long as photography itself, but as digitalimaging hardware and software has both advanced and come down in price, the practice of digitalimage manipulation has become much more commonplace and faked photos are becoming harder to detect. In fact, digital photo manipulation -- commonly referred to as 'photoshopping' -- hasrecently become a popular pastime, and many consider this photographic fakery to be a new artform. But when it works its way into photojournalism and the media, the issue of ethics comes tothe forefront. How far can we take digital image manipulation and still maintain photographicintegrity?
This article was first published in the December 1995/January 1996 issue of 
Leading and Learning with Technology ©1996 all rights reserved.

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