Where Does Editing Begin?

Where does image editing and image manipulation get in the way? Is editing your image Cheating?

In a recent round of the Blue Gecko Images Photo Competition that I host every 2 weeks on Facebook, the winner wrote a short back story on what was involved in producing the photograph. (Image shown on left) (Link to Article). In this short article Ray (the Photographer & Editor) started off by telling everyone what equipment he used and the settings, he also went on to talk about the editing he performed to recreate the image he saw on the day. While I saw nothing wrong with the process that Ray went through to produce the photograph you see here, there were a few who went on about image editing. Some wanted me to include a separate category for unedited images in the photo competition. This got me thinking about the editing process. Where does it begin?

Firstly let’s do a little history lesson. Photography has been around in different forms for over 100 years. Photographers have been editing their photos since photography began. Those who were good at photography were able to take the limitations they had in the field to a different level via editing or image manipulation. Ansel Adams was a master of choosing the right film, the right exposure level and then finally the right developing process for the film and paper to produce the masterpieces he is known for. Hand tinted black and white photos were all the rage when colour photography didn’t exist. Before the digital era we shot with colour film. We would expose the film with our camera and hand it off to a film processing lab to produce our photos. The operators of these machines would look and evaluate your negs and determine which level of density to apply and what colour to add or subtract to produce the image. They even went to the trouble of determining the right settings for EVERY type of film that was available. I ran film processing labs for nearly 10 years and we would always be chasing that perfect setting for one film type or another.

So where does editing begin? It started before you even owned the camera. The technicians who designed and built your camera has made decisions on how your image will appear. Colour, contrast, sharpness, dynamic range has already been decided, by the camera company. The techs, engineers and designers have applied their knowledge to determine how the camera will react to certain circumstances, how much light is available and what are you aiming at. All these things are built in to the camera.  The more advanced cameras have settings that will allow you to reverse most of these but even that has been predetermined as to how much is allowed. Is this editing? YES, to a degree.

You decide you need a new camera, you go to the local store and buy one. You settle for a lens that suits your needs. This too, is editing. By choosing one lens over another you are already having an influence over how your images are going to look. Guess what? You’re already editing your image. You take this new camera and go shoot some images. The different modes your camera has will have an impact on the way your pictures turn out. More forms of editing. You determine that the landscape mode is the right mode to use. Your camera is programmed with the way the image will look. Once again, editing. After taking several images you decide to shoot some black & white images. Now you’re editing out the colour. Image manipulation in any form is considered editing the image. Even zooming a lens is a form of editing. After all you’re cropping out something you don’t want your viewer to see. Editing an image begins before you pick up your camera and doesn’t stop until you produce the final result.

Let’s take another view point. You’re still taking the landscape photo. Through the viewfinder you see an empty bottle laying on the ground, you stop what you’re doing and go move the bottle out of the way. Once again you’re editing the image. I see no difference with moving the bottle before taking the photo or using Photoshop to remove it later. Same result, no bottle. So if I remove a bird flying through the image or remove a plane’s con-trail from the sky, I’m only cleaning up the image to the way I want to present it. The bird would have flown away anyway and the con-trail would have dissipated with time. Did I need to wait until I had my “clean” image. Sure, but what if something else changed in the mean time?

Let’s look at Ray’s result. Here you can see  the before and after editing example.  The problem here is the camera’s sensitivity level is not as broad as ours. It can only capture a small variance of light levels. The human eye can capture a wide range of exposure levels. The eye is constantly moving and our brain takes in all this information and processes it so we see what is in front of us. The camera, on the other hand, can not do the same.  As he said in his article,  the exposure for both the land and the sky was beyond the range of his camera ‘s ability to capture it correctly in one capture. He decided to capture the detail in the sky as his priority and change the brightness level of the land later. Or he could have decided to take 2 or more images and combine them later to show the full range of exposure. Either way would have resulted in a great image. Ray did also go on to say that he did tweak the colour by adding the morning orange glow back into the image. This colour was lost in the brightening of the land area and all he is doing is bringing back what he saw on the day. Once again nothing wrong there.

Each piece of equipment had it’s limitations, most choose to accept these limits, some want to go beyond the limits of their gear and use other technologies to bring light to their vision. Let’s face it, there are people who happen to be better at it than others. Are we all to hold back because the few who decide they can’t or won’t? Are we not to push the boundaries of our abilities? The whole idea behind my photo competition in the first place was to encourage and nurture talent and abilities. Who am I to put a lid on that.

Will I have a section for unedited images? No. Simply because what do you class as “edited”? How do you prove that your image has had no editing applied by you? It can’t be done. Editing images is part of the process of producing a photo. From camera, to lens, to mode, to exposure and on. Like it or not you can’t hide from it. You choose the level of editing you’re willing to perform. If that means you let the machine do the work so be it. Me on the other hand, I will exploit the latest technologies available to get that perfect setting and finishing touch. Once I find it I’ll let you know so you can catch up. If you find it before I do, don’t wait for me. Leave a bread crumb trail so we can follow. Until then….

Happy Snapping (and Editing)

Images reproduced with permission

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