In the era of film photography, the accepted rules of printing had been established by masters long since departed. A photographer was limited in what he could do to enhance his images in the darkroom; he could dodge and burn, adjust the contrast, tone the final print.
Making, and Breaking, the Rules
Every now and then, somebody would come along and break one of the rules and the art would reluctantly advance a few steps forward.
In the ’20s, for instance, the avant-garde photographer Man Ray gave us blurred images and Rayographs (various objects placed on a piece of enlarging paper and exposed to light) that at the time were considered amateurish and dull. But his work influenced other artists and photographers, and today Man Ray is considered one of the greats.
Eventually, photographers began printing with multiple negatives on the same sheet of paper, while others experimented with Polaroid and — heaven forbid — color! The heretics ultimately became the masters.
In the end, what really counted was the final image and that is what prevailed. A good image is simply a good image — rules be damned.
More Tools, More Temptations
Today, in the early stages of the digital era, our tools for enhancing images have greatly expanded. Photoshop has given us the ability to alter and correct our photographs as never before.
And so, just as in past eras, there is debate as to the rules. How far can one go with these tools before our images are dismissed as “gimmicky schlock”?
Here’s my two cents.
Some time ago, I took a photo of a woman clutching her purse straps behind her back. I never gave it a second thought at the time; the RAW file looked boring to me. A few months later, while reviewing my images in Lightroom, I glanced at the picture again and wondered what it would be like with a darker background.
Once I made the change, I liked the photo much better. The distracting background is what had made the image dull.
In a darkroom, burning in the background in this way would have been all but impossible. But Photoshop enables me to burn in details with an accuracy that previously did not exist.
Eight Simple Rules
The question is where to draw the line. To me, it’s a balancing act; I try not to go overboard.
Over the past few years, I have developed a few simple rules to guide me:
- I never add anything that was not originally there.
- I never change the lighting or background.
- I am OK with any modifications that were always done with film (e.g., burning and dodging.)
- I am OK with selective alterations such as blurring, contrast, and shadows; if they were possible in the film era, they would have been the standard long ago.
- I will remove background objects such as trees, telephone poles, and reflections from time to time — as long as the change is minor and never noticed.
- I never retouch people’s faces — ever.
- I am OK with cropping, but only subtle, small crops to straighten an image out or get rid of minor distractions.
- I avoid HDR like the plague.
Conventional Wisdom Continues to Change
I am certain that a lot of readers will disagree with my rules, and that’s just fine with me. They’re my rules, not yours.
I am beginning to notice a number of photographers who are very free in their use of Photoshop. I find some of their work quite interesting.
It is as it always has been. Conventional wisdom in art is the rule until someone steps up and changes things. Even Monet and Cezanne were considered too outrageous in their early days until their acceptance became universal.
The pattern is a familiar one. There is resistance, then grudging acceptance — and finally praise.
And then there are new conventions waiting to be overturned.