Saturday, April 28, 2012

Dear bloggers: Please manipulate your pictures (rant)

This picture of a junkie's leg was disqualified from the annual press photo award:
Copyright Thomas Nielsen. As seen on / Må man redigere i virkeligheden?
The photographer's crime? To tape a little piece of cardboard to one side of the flash as to direct the light towards the leg only and to increase darkness in development of the RAW file.

Press photographers and journalists by definition work for (main stream) media. What they get published is granted the authority of the media. And the editors of these more or less credible media companies feel the people they pay to produce content should act like cogwheels in their media machinery. Being creative with reality is something to keep under control.

Bloggers do not borrow the credibility of their publishers. There are no publishers but themselves. Bloggers have to tediously build their social media standing from scratch. Every bit of accountability and authenticity to be accumulated and always subject to evaporate like dew in the sunlight if the rules are broken. In other words: If Thomas Nielsen had been his own publisher and if he felt a piece of cardboard on the flash and some post-processing better conveyed his experience of the junkie's leg, then that was what he should have done because that would have been the most trustworthy thing to do. What he does when working for someone else is a discussion between him and his employer (or the association of press photographers as in this case).

I know there is a lot of people out there with a lot of anti-Photoshop sentiments. Most are wrong for wrong reasons. Here I am going to throw out a couple of tech centered reasons for manipulating photos on top of the accountability centered argument above. They come in four categories:

  1. All photos are manipulated
  2. No photo is an accurate reproduction of reality
  3. Post-processing should improve the reporting value of the image
  4. Expensive equipment can be replaced by technical tricks
First the obvious: Different cameras produce different pictures. In choice of camera are the photographer not already manipulating the image? Sorry but I have to begin with the fact that the superior sensor on a Canon 1Dyadayada will produce a prettier picture than an iPhone will. Secondly, even the fool-proof auto mode(s) on any camera will manipulate the picture. For example, using the landscape auto setting on most cameras will turn up green and blue colors (as far as I remember) and that is manipulation. Even the auto-auto setting will adjust colors; you have to go to manual mode and select "neutral" or "faithful" to not have the colors automatically adjusted.

Some manipulation have been integrated with shooting routines that nobody gives second thought anyway. No editor either. Like decent cropping (which, obviously, can be done wrong too) or changes to the white balance settings. To be strict, even the choice of which of the 500 photos taken at a 20 minute event are to be included in the two or three photos that go with a report is a subtle kind of manipulation. Editor's privilege.

As for what reality is I'm not going into anything philosophical here. But a camera is a tool to emulate the mechanics of the human eye and record moments of this experience. Even the most expensive cameras are not perfect (yet). If you don't know what I mean by this, try to take a picture of the full moon or just think back to the first time you tried to do this. (Wonder for a moment how impressive the human eye actually is.) Should shutter speed be 1/1000 or 5 seconds? Manipulation around the corner.

Of course, the moon isn't a character in a lot of press reports. But a lot of outdoor reporting can have the daylight sky in it, and even photographing that can be a problem. It's so bright anything on the ground can be shadow. While mostly used for artsy photos (example: Trey Ratcliff), HDR (high dynamic range) techniques address this issue. By taking the exact same picture with more than one exposure it is relatively straight forward to add shade details from an overexposed and light details from an underexposed shot. For most reporting purposes there will be neither time nor circumstances for HDR, but hey I had a point.
Not a particularly successful picture, nor newsworthy at all. But one of the first with my new lens and my first use of a Gimp plugin for one-click HDR construction. Has both cloud, hedge and statue details. Reality certainly wasn't manipulated.
Finally, I'd like to advertise a software package called Hugin (doubtless there are countless alternatives but Hugin is cross platform, open source and free). It stitches any number of shots into one image file. Just take a series of partially overlapping shots covering a view of a scene, then have them combined on your computer. It's digital manipulation, not reality manipulation.

An Occupy Copenhagen demonstration taken with a series of 18mm shots. A lens this wide is expensive and to take a shot from which this could have been cropped the photographer would have to be standing in the middle of a heavily trafficked street.
So, report reality. Support the story. Don't be a slave to old media hegemony and technophobic prejudice. Just my opinion.

best regards,
Benno Hansen - not a pro-journalist and not a pro-photographer but a guy with rants :-)