How much image manipulation is too much?

And just as importantly how much is too little!

I am often asked where the line is drawn between good image enhancement and excessive manipulation. Photography is not like a football field, it is not as simple as in or out, so where do we start?

Well inevitably, if we are to manipulate an image, we are going down the route of changing what was there to our vision, how we interpret it, or would like others to see it. This is taking us down the route of art so firstly let me refer you to the article IS PHOTOGRAPHY ART? in which I noted photographs of the people around us, our immediate environment and the items within it, are often made as a record and as such need to be accurate as to shape, proportions and colour or they do not fulfil the purpose for which they were made. This is particularly true of wildlife shots; most people would agree that any manipulation, beyond that which is inevitably required to correct the lack of sharpness and vibrancy in a RAW image file, is not acceptable in a wildlife shot. It may well make good art but is definitely not a wildlife shot and will not be accepted by most viewers, competition judges etc. as being such.

At extremes, image manipulation can result in a variety of unwanted deformities including blocking of shadows and blowing of highlights (no detail, either totally black or white) artifacts, banding etc. which arise where the changes to the basic information, as recorded, can not be accommodated in the file without resulting in damage. Even here however it is possible to use some of these effects to create an arty effect and indeed I have distorted one image of a classic car to the extent the colour changes banded and at the edges created an effect like fractals. Was this successful? Well I liked it and so did a motor magazine, which devoted a page to it! Strangely this excess gives us a key to finding the answer but for the moment I will digress a bit.

My philosophy in image making is to produce something that pleases me first and hopefully other viewers. Why do I seek to please myself first? Because I know what I like but cannot be sure what will appeal to others. It is therefore the most accurate assessment I can make of what is right; I like it, therefore it is right. Yes, maybe it can be improved and I welcome and, where I feel it appropriate to my ends, willingly use creative criticism.

How many times have you been out on a nice day and started taking photographs? The sun is warm, the sky is blue and the flowers are all nodding their approval in the sweet breeze blowing over the fields. Later you look at the photographs and disappointment floods over you. Why? Because you were trying to capture the mood you were feeling but you were photographing what you saw not what you felt. Oh yes. I have been there many times and still fall into the same trap occasionally.

I have two sticks I lean on when making photographs, less is more and I don’t do subtle. Let me explain these.

By less is more I mean experience has taught me that most of the photographs I take please me and others more if they concentrate on a part of the view rather than the whole. Reduce what you see down to the simplest elements, which a viewer can fix upon, these will retain the eye and interest in the scene. This is not to say I do not take broad view landscapes. I do this a lot, look around my images. Most good landscape views will however have a strong foreground interest. Another photographer provided me with a good way to explain this technique as Find a really nice view and then put something even better in (the) front of it! I like that and it brings us straight back to simplifying the image, less is more.

“I don’t do subtle” is not perhaps the most accurate way of explaining my intentions, every image does not have to have high saturation nor a high contrast. What it must have is all the appeal I can give it. This may be contrast or saturation it may require a vignette to constrain the viewers eye in the frame or mist to obscure the unimportant parts and maximise the main subject’s appeal. Horses for courses.

What does this have to do with image manipulation; yes we are back on track! Quite simply I will manipulate any image as much as is necessary to maximise the impact and appeal to the viewer. At the point where the manipulation, in my opinion, starts to detract from the appeal to the viewer, that is too much.

You may well have a different opinion. Fine, you are making your images, they need your treatment. In making your images you need to decide, before you press the shutter button, what you want to include. The more impact your initial subject selection, viewpoint and framing has the less manipulation your image will require. Then when you develop the image you can refine the framing, and add just enough, colour, contrast or other manipulation to make it pop.

The photographs on the warm day that did not work… just add that mood back in, they will be wonderful memories for the rest of our life. How you do that, well that is down to your vision. I can not tell you exactly which slider to move nor how far, it varies from picture to picture but with experience gained through practice it becomes intuitive.

Cromer pier on a bright spring day; an image which is flat and holds little impact for a viewer.
Cromer pier on a bright spring day; an image which is flat and holds little impact for a viewer.
The same image edited to give impact - all editing was done in Adobe Lightroom.
The same image edited to give impact – all editing was done in Adobe Lightroom.

7 thoughts on “How much image manipulation is too much?”

  1. Are you trying to record what is before you (or what you see in your imagination) as accurately as you can? Or are you trying to abstract it, compress the experience, distill a feeling into a vision at some distance from the triggering image?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well said! For me – when we are talking about photography as an art – it’s not only the image / the moment you are going to capture in a click; sometimes I see what follows after the click. There are no boundaries in art and art it is not to please the masses but to express yourself.


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