Monthly Mailbag

An Homage to John Cage

A burning missive from Constant Reader, who writes: Okay, camera-guru… I know I’m not good at this whole “picture-taking” thing, mostly because my subjects tend to blur the cell phone camera I typically aim at them. What came as a shock to me was to hear from a professional photographer who is a friend of mine that pictures these days are almost never shown exactly as taken. First of all, is this true? Secondly, is it unrealistic to expect pictures to be shown as they were captured? I suddenly feel as if we are being lied to each and every time we see a photograph. Do you know if magazines (like National Geographic, whose nature shots are famed and supposedly accurate) also tweak their pictures?

It’s almost like waking up early one Christmas morning to find your parents shoving presents under the tree instead of the jovial old belly-jiggler you were expecting. It doesn’t change the result (ooh…presents!), but it changes your perspective on the result because it takes away some of the magic. I guess I always assumed photography was honest.

Well, it still can be. I think the best a photographer can do (or a writer, or pretty much anyone else) is be as truthful to what they’ve observed as possible. It’s harder, in some ways, with a photo (or even a few of them) than it is with an article, ’cause all the stuff about a picture being worth a thousand words aside, there’s only so much that each image can capture. If the processing is minimal (the digital equivalent of dropping your film off at CVS versus doing a bunch of your own darkroom trickery) and isn’t invasive or dishonest — if all it does is clarify what’s already there, in other words, rather than trying to change or “enhance” it — and you’re starting with an honest photo, then it’s okay. The problem comes when either the photo or the retouching are done in bad faith.

But I digress. Getting back to what I think is the gist of your question: if, after all, most photos are edited, how do you know to trust what you see? It’s all the more valid when you stop to consider that some really powerful stuff is available to consumers for editing that would’ve baffled someone working ten or fifteen years ago. Your photographer friend is right. If it’s published, it’s been tweaked in some way. Even amateurs (like me) will generally make some kind of edits, and the more visible or expensive the venue for the photo, the more it’s probably had done to it. Sometimes it’s little things (sharpening, cropping to remove distractions, fixing color and contrast to make them truer to what you saw when you took the photo, slightly sharpening the photo). Sometimes, it’s more drastic intervention, involving compositing, adding or removing things from the photo (or even the subject)… there are hundreds of options, in thousands of combinations, available in most editing programs.

Some things demand editing. If you shoot in JPG (which most of us do), the camera’s making a lot of decisions for you in terms of how the final photo looks. If you shoot in RAW (which, if you’re a professional, is more or less a given), the camera’s doing next to no processing, and just rendering the image more or less as the sensor captured it, with varying results based on your exposure settings. The thing is, most RAW images look pretty bland, even when held up next to what you just took a picture of, so you’re relying on some kind of software to do all the stuff the camera would otherwise do, only you’re making the adjustments by hand.

But it’s just as important to remember that this has always been the case. With the exception of instant photography (Polaroids, or similar stuff where the photo’s developed and printed in-camera), photographers have nearly always intervened in the end results in some way. Think for a minute about all the choices you make just to take one picture:

  • First, you have to choose your camera and your lenses; the capabilities and limitations of each will dictate what, and how, you shoot.
  • Choose your subject. If it’s a single subject – say, the Empire State Building – what angles will you choose? Will you shoot the building’s interior or exterior? Or will you, instead, use the view from the observation deck or one of the office windows to somehow make a point about the building itself?
  • Now that you’ve figured out what you’ll photograph, how will you do it? Composition carries its own series of decisions within it, which I’ll elide here to save time and space… but among others, will you use a wide-angle, normal, or telephoto? Flash or available light? Will your framing, lens choices and depth of field tend to isolate your subject, or make him/her/it just one element among several in the scene?
  • Dial in your exposure settings. Unless the scene is very evenly lit, you may find yourself, either by choice or necessity, over- or under-exposing some parts of your scene in order to preserve it on the parts you feel are most important. 
  • Okay, now press the shutter.

And again, if you wanted to get really specific (or nitpicky), you could break the process down to a ridiculous degree of detail. The point I’m trying to make, though, is that even when the photographer’s trying to be objective, there are a lot of subjective choices to be made at each step in the process. Perhaps most importantly, whether your work is journalistic or artistic in nature, it doesn’t matter what lens you’re using or where you stand; something has to go in the frame and by definition, something else — oftentimes lots of somethings — get left out.

And then, only after all those subjective choices, there’s the editing process described above. As if that weren’t enough, once the photo’s out of the photographer’s hands, it’s usually going through some form of editorial review, where an individual or group of people will decide which of the dozens, or even hundreds, of photos a photographer’s taken on an assignment will actually be used, and how. So even absent any kind of Photoshop trickery, it is, in a sense, as disingenuous to pretend that there’s some kind of noble, untouched photograph out there, in much the same way that the written word is never truly objective.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. A lot depends on the venue, the type of photography, and what it’s “for.” David LaChapelle, for instance, does all kinds of fanciful stuff that you’d never see in reality, but he’s a fashion photographer, so it’s acceptable. If your friend does weddings or portraits, I’m sure nobody minds if the zits and unibrows are airbrushed out. Again, given the type of photography, it’s acceptable, and maybe even expected.

When editing becomes problematic is with journalism and documentary photography. If you’re presenting a photo as a statement of fact — in essence, “This is what I saw, and captured as it happened” — you have a responsibility, ethically speaking, to intervene as little as possible within reason. I say “within reason” because there are a number of things that I think act to undermine photographic objectivity (not least of those the actual process of taking the photo). But it also means not deliberately misrepresenting what you’re depicting.

That’s the photographer’s end of the bargain. That doesn’t let any of us off the hook as viewers, however. We need to approach photography as critically as we would any other medium. In some areas, it’s safest to assume that there’s been some pretty drastic intervention (like fashion photography… I’d be surprised, frankly, if I ever met a model or actor who looked anything like their photos), and in others, not so much. In any event, you need to be aware of the process behind the photo — any photo, really — and give some thought to the series of judgments that led to that photo and not some other.

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