Essays and Opinion Other Photography

On the Meaning of Photography, and Digital Processing

Ever since I took up photography a bit more seriously, the issue of digital processing and manipulation keeps popping up more and more often. And strangely, most of the time, the people that bring it up have nothing to do with photography and have little knowledge of the subject. Most of those times, I don’t […]


Ever since I took up photography a bit more seriously, the issue of digital processing and manipulation keeps popping up more and more often. And strangely, most of the time, the people that bring it up have nothing to do with photography and have little knowledge of the subject. Most of those times, I don’t even bother to counter-argue, but during the last month I’ve been forced to defend my views quite a few times, so I decided to sit down, put my thoughts into an order and try to document and communicate them with you, in an attempt to be heard and understood.

Editor’s note : This is a syndicated article by Fotis Athanasopoulos that originally appeared on his blog Through the Looking Glass. It is used here with permission.

So, what is digital processing? The ability to manually adjust the exposure in selected parts of a photograph, for example. What is digital manipulation? The adding or removing of some elements from a photo. Like the removal of a plastic bag from a beach, for example, which disqualified a photo from a National Geographic’s contest (more here, from the photographer’s blog)

Let’s start with some basic facts. As we all know (and as I’ve previously mentioned), photography is the capture of light. How does a camera capture the light? Well, by using a photo-sensitive material behind the shutter, this being the film in older cameras and the APS-sensor in modern DSLRs. By processing this material, we get our final photo. During the film age, this was achieved by developing the film (negative) in a dark room.

Now, most of you might think that the development of film is a simple procedure, that we just leave the film alone in the dark room until our image appears in the paper. And that is wrong. One can interfere during this procedure, and depending on his skill, creativity and vision, produce an image quite different from the one captured in the negative (even “Photoshop” manipulation existed way before the famous program appeared on our computers (see this interesting article here, here and here)). One easy example would be the “Dodge and Burn” technique, where a photographer would selectively chose to expose parts of a photo differently, thus being able to draw the attention of the viewer in certain parts of the photo.

You see, since many (including myself) never developed a photo from a negative in a dark room, they don’t know that photographs have been processed and manipulated for a very long time now, and they are firm believers that a photograph must not be tampered with in any way. Fanatics that believe that the “Straight Out Of Camera” (SOOC) shots are the one and only truth in photography.
Quite ironically, some of these guys are the same that are photographing with modern DSLRs, totally unaware of the fact that their camera has an in-built processor that is processing their “digital negative” in ways that sometimes they can’t even alter, totally oblivious of the fact that modern DSLRs are in some ways portable computers with Photoshop installed (for example, my Nikon has innumerable built-in functions that allow me to tamper with a photo, from the selection of White Balance to the adjustment of saturation and hue, from the addition of filter effects to the adjustment of sharpness or contrast, and so far as even the adjustment of the color curves of the Red, Green and Blue colours!).

I‘ll admit that I was (for a brief time) a SOOC believer too. But I completely changed the way I view photography when I understood that the .RAW file (that is, the ‘data’ collected from my APS sensor (the amount of light that reached the film) for the duration my shutter was open) is in fact, a digital negative of the photo I took, and that I can use it as I like in order to make the photograph I want, using programs like Photoshop and Lightroom as a digital darkroom. And I said, what’s the difference between altering the White Balance of a shot in-camera or in Photoshop? None! All the best for me, I’ve got more creative options in Photoshop than in the limited abilities of my camera. (There are times that one might go over the top though, like some photos I over saturated from a trip in my town’s castle for example).

Finally, it all boils down to one simple question. What is photography? Now there’s a question that has many answers, a question that can’t be answered unbiased. If photography to you is simply the capture of what you see, then yes, all kinds of processing and manipulation will seem like a sin to you. But if photography is viewed as an art, then you quickly realize that in order to confront the obstacles that come in the way between your vision and what you captured, the only way is to learn how to use all the tools available in order to process and manipulate your negative to create the photograph you imagined with your mind’s eye.

I agree that there is a limit there though, a point where if you go too far you become a digital painter, a graphic designer and not simply a mere photographer. And that is why I am trying hard not to install Photoshop on my PC yet, and I just resort to the use of Lightroom, which simply provides me with the same tools a photographer would have in a darkroom (albeit making the use of them extremely easier, I admit).

Nevertheless, I simply refuse to feel guilty for digital processing, when it allows me to take this :


And transform into this:


Only through Lightroom I was able to bring out all the light from the billions and billions of stars that my sensor captured but was unable to show due to bad settings. And this, is a skill that I am proud of and am trying to hone through practice and constant upgrading of my gear, until I reach the level of a pro photographer!

Editor’s note : This is a article written by Fotis Athanasopoulos. If you liked that article, please visit Fotis’ blog here and encourage great content!

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