Post #366

Photo manipulation

10th April 2004, the wee hours | Comments (31)

A horse and tree in a misty field
Altered | Original | Altered | Original

I don’t know that this is entirely a good idea, but I thought it might be helpful for other aspiring photographers to see some ‘before’ and ‘after’ versions of my work.

Why might that be useful? Well, let me explain…

It doesn’t have to be perfect

One of the things I worried about when I first started snapping away, was that I’d never master the technical side of photography; that although my framing of a scene was okay, my application of the aperture/shutter speed relationship would always let me down. My photos would come out too dark, or slightly off-kilter, or the focus wasn’t right. I didn’t see how I could ever achieve the perfection that others seemed to produce on a daily basis. Then I discovered Photoshop, and all my worries vanished.

I’m not saying that Photoshop entirely replaces photographic ability, or that you shouldn’t strive to become a technically excellent photographer (by all means, do), I’m simply saying you shouldn’t discard images because they’re wonky, or the crop is wrong, or they’re slightly out of focus. If the composition is right, and the subject is interesting, then odds are the computer can save you.

The photos

The following images have been tarted up using a mixture of:

(As always, click on a photo to see a larger version.)

Not a tutorial

I’m not going to get into writing tutorials for this kind of thing (because it takes forever to do one properly), but I do hope this post might encourage you to give your not-quite-right images a second chance. Knowing what’s possible, that’s half the battle; I’ll leave it up to you and Google to manage the rest.

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Comments (31)

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  1. Chris Pederick:

    What's most interesting to me are the "Kung Foo Dunstan" and "A Pigeon In Paris" photos...

    I nearly always make adjustments to my photos using Photoshop or equivalent, but it's usually just cropping, focus and color balance tweaks. What is different about those two photos is that you fundamentally altered the photos themselves by adding more wall or removing pipes.

    I'm not suggesting that is bad at all - the photos definitely look better in their altered state - but I've never got to that stage of tweaking...

    Posted 25 minutes after the fact
  2. Simon Willison:

    Wow! This is a real eye-opener for me, especially the one of the bird where you cloned the wing-tip and used it to replace the part that was cropped out of the shot.

    I naturally shy away from editing photos in this way, although to be honest I can't say exactly why. If they're personal pictures it's hardly like doctoring them is a betrayal of the truth. The issue of doctored photos in newspapers is far more interesting though.

    It's pretty incredible how much of the photography we see in every day life has been seriously altered - especially pictures in magazines. I've seen some incredible before-and-after shots that really made me question how much photography I could really trust. One thing's for sure: the girls pictured in many magazines are practically fictional.

    Posted 28 minutes after the fact
  3. Chris Vincent:

    I particularly like the way you altered the Pigeon In Paris image to completely change the composition itself. I'm not sure that my eye would have caught that improvement possibility.

    Now, the fun part is seeing if I can find the sections of photograph that you cloned... :P

    Posted 2 hours, 59 minutes after the fact
  4. Lee:

    And the magician reveals his methods.

    It's nice to know that even someone who takes fantastic pictures like you do needs help occasionally.

    Makes you all the more human I'm afraid, and there I was sticking you in the deity category.

    Posted 13 hours, 57 minutes after the fact
    Inspired: ↓ Dunstan
  5. Dunstan:

    Which is why I said "I don't know that this is entirely a good idea."

    On the one hand I'd like to help people, but on the other hand it's nice to retain some of the mystery of how you do things...

    Oh well, if you've removed me from the 'deity' category perhaps you'd care to move me to the 'selfless hero' category instead?

    Yes, I think that's appropriate...

    Posted 14 hours, 29 minutes after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Lee
    Inspired: ↓ Lee
  6. Lee:

    How about moving you to the Divinely Gifted category instead?

    Posted 14 hours, 41 minutes after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Dunstan
  7. Ben:

    Quick Question -- not a tutorial, BUT! would you just throw us a couple of key words about the "Kung Fu Dunstan" image? I'm happy with the cropping, duplication of the background and the brightness, but I can't fathom the colour. It's like late 70's school text books, and I assume it comes from the types of photographic films of the time. Any pointers appreciated.

    Posted 1 day, 15 hours after the fact
    Inspired: ↓ Stefan, ↓ Dunstan, ↓ Lee
  8. Stefan:

    Although I don't mind altering the brightness and contrast of a photo, or cropping it to a suitable format, but rearranging the composition is just wrong.

    The trick in (amateur) photography is to shoot something as it is, to frame a scene beautifully.

    Now your equipment might not have the ability to change a lot of the variables or your weren't given enough time to set up the camera, but it certainly doesn't hinder the photographer to shoot a scene.

    It is not like I don't like photo's that are rearranged, but just don't call it a photograph. It's a bit (dare I say it) degrading to the profession.

    I don't call myself a photographer, but I like to occasionally snap some pics.

    Posted 1 day, 19 hours after the fact
    Inspired: ↓ Dunstan
  9. Stefan:


    the grainyness you see in the altered verion is already visible in the original, albeit subdued because of the low contrast.

    The altered version has a high contrast, to get the colours to shine. A fair bit of playing with levels and such would give you that kind of saturation. And because it had such a grain in the original, the altered version got a seventies vibe. :)

    Or I am completely wrong. I know nothing about creating a 70's style. I'm from the ninethies.

    PS There's always the noise filter.. ;)

    Posted 1 day, 20 hours after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Ben
    Inspired: ↓ Dunstan, ↓ Dunstan
  10. Dunstan:

    Stefan, I'd take issue with some of your points there:

    "Although I don't mind altering the brightness and contrast of a photo, or cropping it to a suitable format, but rearranging the composition is just wrong."

    I don't think so at all. For example, let's say I'm photographing three beer bottles lined up on a wall. What difference does it make if I swap the order of those bottles by hand, and then take the photo, or if I take the photo, and then swap their order in Photoshop?

    That's certainly a simplification of the situation, but it's fundamentally the same thing - if you alter anything post-shot then you're manipulating the image. There are degrees of manipulation, sure, but it's all manipulation.

    And as for it being wrong, well that depends on your aim. If your aim is to produce as good an image as possible, then manipulation (in whatever form) is acceptable. If your aim is to shoot what you see, and only what you see, and to never burn or dodge, and never be tempted to alter the contrast in the darkroom (digital or otherwise), then sure, I get your point. But in the world of professional photography it's not a very realistic one.

    When the people at Getty Images decide if they want a photo of mine they don't ask how it got to look like that - they couldn't care less - they're only interested in the quality of the image.

    "It is not like I don't like photo's that are rearranged, but just don't call it a photograph. It's a bit (dare I say it) degrading to the profession."

    I'd be very, very surprised if you could tell me a top photographer who's never manipulated one of their photos; never dodged or burned, never removed an offending object, never selected a processing chemical or film type or filter in order to 'manipulate' the real life scene and produce what they could see in their mind's eye.

    It helps to have a broad mind regarding what photographers are doing now a days, and also to forget the idea that top level photographers won't ever have done similar things (technology allowing). Sure, what I've demonstrated doesn't follow a puritan, or dictionary definition of 'photography', but it certainly falls under the modern (and commercial) definition.

    I do photo manipulation for a couple of guys who epitomise the title of 'professional photographer'. They lug around giant panoramic cameras, and tripods that weigh a ton. They take 15 minutes exposures to get giant depths of field. They'll travel to New Zealand once a year for three years to get the perfect shot of something. They make a packet and produce beautiful images.

    They are most certainly professional photographers, but you can bet that when I offer to remove a vapour trail, or turn a factory pipe with steam coming out of it into a factory pipe with black smoke coming out of it, or whatever their brief demands, they will jump at the chance.

    If you'd rather people called manipulated photos 'digital art' then I guess they could, but the only place you'd ever see anything labelled as a 'photo' again would be at an amateur photo club gallery.

    Personally I've grown up with photography and manipulation hand in hand - I think I did my first 'head-swap' when I was 15 (12 years ago) - so the idea of altering a photos details after the fact doesn't bother me. My aim is to have the finished product look as good as possible, how I get there is of little consequence to me. Sure I'd prefer to get the perfect shot in one go, direct onto 'film', but that's not always possible.

    All that said, I do get your point about the name of 'photographer', there'd be a certain point where your images couldn't claim to be 'photos', but I think that point is blurring. I still see my images as photos. Manipulated photos, sure, but photos none-the-less.

    Is that a lazy use of language? Maybe. But I think it's an increasingly popular one.

    Gosh, what a long comment :o)

    Posted 2 days after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Stefan
    Inspired: ↓ Dunstan
  11. Dunstan:

    Ben, Stefan's right -- all the colour and noise was already there in the original, I just brought it out.

    The reason it's so grainy is cause it was shot with a 400 ASA film, and then scanned in from a 6x4 print -- I only popped it on the computer to email to a friend, I never meant to get it on with any kind of quality.

    Still, I like the outcome :o)

    Posted 2 days after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Ben, ↑ Stefan
    Inspired: ↓ Lee
  12. Dunstan:

    I'm sure this is one of those arguments, where neither side can truly convince the other to change their point off view.

    Oh well :o)

    Posted 2 days after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Stefan, ↑ Dunstan
    Inspired: ↓ Stefan
  13. Sans:

    I think there is an emotional side of us that still believes photos at face value. Photographs used to be indisputable proof that something existed as represented. Now that manipulation is so easy, we realize that this is no longer true.

    Still, even though I use photoshop for the same types of manipulations, I felt a bit duped when I saw the original Kung Foo shot. I've never experienced that from the "other side" of the photograph.

    Makes for an interesting contrast between what we know to be true and what we feel to be true.

    Posted 2 days, 14 hours after the fact
  14. Seth Thomas Rasmussen:

    A good point, however, I actually started refusing to do any digital editing aside from resizing with my digital photos. And I was only touching the levels and color balance! To me, once you get into that, and especially when you take it as far as you have, it's not photography anymore. It's image manipulation. Digital illustration almost.

    Posted 2 days, 15 hours after the fact
    Inspired: ↓ Scrapmonkey
  15. Jay Pettitt:

    From choosing and arranging the subject, the composition, your choice of lense, filters and film, the settings on your camera through to any darkroom or photoshop techniques you use, you are manipulating the image.

    Posted 2 days, 16 hours after the fact
  16. Jay Pettitt:

    oops, double posting, sorry.

    As an analogy, I like to play acousitic guitars. I can't be doing with electric guitars and all that faffing about with amplifiers and effect pedals to achieve an enjoyable musical tone. I enjoy the simplicity, the directness and the honesty of the acoustic instrument. But that isn't to say that Jimi Hendrix did'nt rock or wasn't a proper guitarist.

    Posted 2 days, 16 hours after the fact
  17. Stefan:

    You have a point there; commercial photography is almost always retouched, because no-one wants to see a birth mark on a shoulder.

    But that's for money. Photography for a living. If I made a living from it, I would call my touched up birtday partypictures 'high-quality business photography' and sell them like that, if law would let me.

    But if I wanted to show them to my friends, I would call them 'heavily edited shots'. Not because I want to be honest, but because they are. For me, they differ too much from the original photograph to classify them as such.

    It's not that I don't like you editing them. Infact, there much better off, and much more pleasing to the eye.

    As you said, it's what you understand to be photography. For the one it is more constricten, for the other one it is much more free to interpretation.

    Still, I wouldn't call it photography. ;) It's more like digital darkroom to me.

    Posted 2 days, 18 hours after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Dunstan
  18. Sergio:

    Photo manipulation takes many forms. You can switch lenses to get a bigger depth of field, use filters on the camera, and post processing is pretty common, too. We used to do it in the dark room, by overexposing parts of the photo when printing, or reframing, or even blocking a part of the photo. Don't think there's anything wrong with this. Don't think there's much difference with photoshopping the thing either.

    Hell, Playboy does it! Can't be all that bad, huh? =)

    Posted 2 days, 20 hours after the fact
  19. Scott:

    It's too easy to say that "digital" manipulation is wrong, but other forms are right. To use the "three bottle" example, you could have just as easily switched the bottles before shooting the is that fundamentally different than switching them in photoshop afterward? There is nothing magical about clicking the shutter button that makes something be true or not. You can do forced-perspective shots as well, before clicking the shutter. To say something is not a photograph just because some manipulation was done AFTER the shutter was snapped misses the whole host of things that can be done to alter the image BEFORE the shutter is snapped.

    There are definite gray areas with photography, but I tend to look at it as does it misrepresent the subject and purpose of the picture? In the Kung-Foo shot, the "purpose" of the image is the figure, not the environment it's in. In fact, in this case the environment takes away from the focal point, so it was removed. This could also have been achieved by cropping the image (which most wouldn't have a problem with). Does cropping the image make it not a photograph? The photographer could also have asked the figure to step to the left before snapping the shot. All are forms of image manipulation.

    Does the fact that the clutter to the right of the figure misrepresent the image, considering the other ways the figure could be isolated? No.

    Superimpose that figure next to Bruce Lee...then you're misrepresenting the purpose of the shot.

    Thank you for showing this to us, Dunstan. I am a graphic designer and am no stranger to image manipulation, but it's nice to see how others do it.

    Posted 2 days, 21 hours after the fact
  20. Lee:

    Aside from the original grainy feel from the film, looking at the original, you can see what I think is strip lighting (or something similar, i.e. fluorescent).

    Different lights operate a different colour temps, sunlight, for example, is very blue, tungstan (normal indoor lightbulbs) gives a very warm orange colour. Fluorescent lights give a very green colour.

    Film neg tends to be biased toward either indoor or outdoor light conditions. And so you need a filter, or someone to change the white balance during processing, to take the green out of a shot where you have strong fluorescent lighting (if you have a shot where everyone appears ill or slightly green, this is probably why).

    I think I'm right in saying this was shot on film (Dunstan ref's scanning it in rather than transfering it) and that this, combined with the flat, straight down shadows from the directly overhead light source, could be a reason for the 70s feel to it.

    Looks pretty groovy though (no pun intended).

    Posted 2 days, 21 hours after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Ben, ↑ Dunstan
  21. Seth Thomas Rasmussen:

    heh. mr. pettitt said it succinctly enough to begin with. and actually, the rebuttal i prefer:

    "From choosing and arranging the subject, the composition, your choice of lense, filters and film, the settings on your camera through to any darkroom or photoshop techniques you use, you are manipulating the image."

    but with regard to all, point well taken. let me say this, though, would you all not agree that there is something to be said for trying to capture an image as it truly exists. that is to say, as it exists to you of course? obviously the least, and perhaps most that can be said about that perspective is that it is a preference. and i guess for me, it's something i strive for because it's like, if i can capture an image as true to what i saw on that day, then regardless of however others see it, they're seeing what would otherwise only have existed in some neuron of my brain. but at any rate, that is where i get into hesitating about doing any digital manipulation.

    and i know, even at this point we could split plenty of hairs. forgive me if i've bored or annoyed you. ;p

    Posted 3 days, 6 hours after the fact
  22. Seth Thomas Rasmussen:

    oh, and on the record, i really dig your photos and website. :)

    Posted 3 days, 6 hours after the fact
  23. Jenene:

    the "originals" in your post are still printed a certain way. that original neg can be manipulated very similarly in the darkroom as on the computer (not as well ... but you get the idea?)

    like the dark flat images - they could have up-ed the contrast when printing it, or lightened the photo, etc. to make a better print from the neg.

    cloning wings is different, although you can do a lot with dodging and burning.

    i don't mind the alterations. its your vision.
    you know?

    Posted 3 days, 23 hours after the fact
  24. S T E F:

    I kind of feel uncomfortable with manipulating at *this* level. I don't know why, but well. If personal pictures lie as much as either advertising or propaganda pictures, that's a long shot for me to accept.

    I feel that if I am to publish pictures, I can crop the 'outer noise', but the rest is kept quite intact, except some level balancing and some sharpening. I think I'd draw the line where it comes to cutting/pasting things for my personal pictures.

    Of course, if the picture was to be used in advertising or website decoration, things would be different I guess.

    Still, beautiful job, Dunstan.

    Posted 4 days, 7 hours after the fact
  25. KillAllDash9:

    With my own photography, the most I will usually alter an image is through cropping, color-leveling, and adjusting brightness and contrast. I also regularly desaturate images because it's easier and cheaper to get color negatives developed than black & white (supply and demand), but I prefer black & white images in most circumstances.

    I don't think photo manipoulation is either "right" or "wrong". It only crosses the line if you claim an image to be unmanipulated when it is not. The only reason I shy away from it in my own photography is because the image always loses a lot of emotion (for me) and becomes, well, commercial. That's not to say that all altered images lack emotion--sometimes they have more. It's just how I feel about my own work.

    Posted 2 weeks, 1 day after the fact
  26. Scrapmonkey:

    i think in a way both sides on this argument are right. the original kung foo isn't a very good photograph. and while the retouched version is a really well-composed image, is pretty good art in its own way, and would probably bag you some money, that doesn't make it a good photograph either. i'm impressed by the picture but if you handed it to me and said "look at this photo i took," and i later discovered how it was made, i would be, at the very least, the opposite of impressed.

    photography - as an art form - is taking what is there, and by being aware of the relationships between content, frame, angles, light, focus, and all that, "making it something else." the camera is your only tool. therein lies the art. but literally *making it something else* isn't photography. it's an art, but that art is design. to call it photography is akin to adding watercolor effects to a pic in photoshop and then saying you painted it.

    any dodging or burning or choosing matte finish or whatever are just accentuating, not modifications on the same scale as discussed here. as an analogy, lighting a play differently doesn't change the dialogue or the blocking, it just helps you see parts of it better.

    Posted 2 weeks, 4 days after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Seth Thomas Rasmussen
  27. Jorge Laranjo:

    A great article for some like me, that makes —good— css + xhtml code but is bot so good with the graphics.

    Posted 6 months, 3 weeks after the fact
  28. Christophe:

    Did not Ansel Adams manipulate his images?
    Did he not use filters?
    And what of "Film" this in itself can alter an image from what might be in real time.
    Then what of our eyes? do we all see the same colors and contrasts?
    Exposure times will alter images as our eyes cannot. I have some beautiful (in my opinion) pics of Sunset Beach on Oahu, Such a long exposure the "Film" went to Reciprocity failure and the reds came out real interesting as did the available light. NOW, is this not image manipulation?
    I am not a purest (whatever that means)Dunstan does have a tutorial here in the sense of visualization, nice work. Thanks

    Posted 7 months after the fact
  29. Bjburrows:
    examples of before and afters that i have done.

    or feel free to look through the gallery yourself

    Posted 7 months, 2 weeks after the fact
  30. Ro:

    I think that photo manipulation is wrong in all ways.. i do not think that picture's should be altered in any way .. The way that they are takin should be the way they are left. Pictures are taken to capture moments and what not.. why alter it in anyway your just decreasing the value of the photo.

    Posted 1 year, 1 month after the fact
  31. Kelly:

    you could never be a photo journalist what you do is ethically wrong. i think people like you are responsible for making the public question true unaltered photos. please make sure to list you photos as Illustration's always meaning they are altered, un real ect. for any one can pick an choose parts of pictures and add things and move things, but only a true photographer can do that through the camera.

    Posted 1 year, 11 months after the fact

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