Image Manipulation: The Bane of Digital Photography

Digital photography has turned a world of possibilities into reality. It has alleviated photographic challenges and made visual communication much faster, easier and more fun. But offsetting these positives is a Pandora’s box of evils that have been released in the publishing world. Paramount among them is the issue of digital image manipulation.

Image-editing software programs designed to aid photographers and the graphics industry, are being used to materially alter images that intentionally deceive the viewer. The huge downside to this unscrupulous practice is erosion of the public’s confidence in the images we see.

Image manipulation is nothing new, and it is not solely the realm of digital photography. Film images have been modified using various means for decades. But at least with film we have a point of origin. A photograph’s veracity can often be traced back to an original transparency or negative. With digital capture, will we need a signed affidavit from the photographer that an image has not been significantly altered before we publish it?

Of course, minor modifications made during file preparation are to be expected. That’s what software programs do best. Adjustments to contrast, saturation and color to match printing profiles can enhance an image for optimal reproduction. At issue here is the heavy-handed use of the technology to deliberately change what the image communicates to the viewer.

We all know that supermarket tabloids have been guilty of this sort of exploitation for some time, but nothing in those publications is factual or ethical. We also accept and even expect a certain amount of image manipulation as standard practice in advertising and commercial photography because ads do not pretend to depict reality. And images manipulated for artistic purposes pose no ethical problems, either.

But technological advancements also have made it much easier for photographers to manipulate digital images for editorial purposes.

One of the first acknowledgements that the intent to mislead had made its way into the editorial publishing world was in the early 1980s when TV Guide let it be known that they had put Oprah Winfrey’s head on Ann-Margaret’s body for their cover photograph. As a young, fresh-faced photojournalist at the time, this went against every tenet of journalism ethics that had been impressed upon me. The cat was out of the bag. Since then, there have been countless examples of poor judgment exhibited by photographers and editors who lost sight of the importance of a photograph’s integrity.

The old, established code of ethics among editorial publishers has become muddled. Labeling manipulated images as “photo illustrations” — as in the case of the Time magazine cover accompanying this post — can help maintain image integrity, and is especially critical for photojournalism, documentary, wildlife and nature photography. But even then the technology should be used sparingly and judiciously.

The litmus test must be narrow and stringent when making the decision to modify an editorial photograph. Otherwise, the integrity of our profession, as well as that of the publishing industry, will suffer irreparable harm.

[tags]Photoshop, digital photography, image manipulation[/tags]

3 Responses to “Image Manipulation: The Bane of Digital Photography”

  1. This packrat has learned that what the next generation will value most is not what we owned, but the evidence of who we were and the tales of how we loved. In the end, it's the family stories that are worth the storage.

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