After being asked “what camera I use” I am most often asked “do you manipulate your images?” I don’t mind answering either question, but neither is straightforward. I use and have used a broad variety of gear, so my answer to “what camera” never pleases anyone. The harder question concerns “manipulation.” At a couple recent shows, a show judge and a customer asked me if I manipulated my images. The problem I have is that I do not believe most people know what they mean when they ask about manipulation. I have also discovered that those who do have a sense of what manipulation means to them, have differing ideas.

As a result, I always ask the questioner what they mean by “manipulation”. Some will answer honestly that they don’t know, in which case I just explain what I do in some detail. However, the show judge I mentioned above told me his definition of manipulation involved putting things into the image that were not in the original scene. That is not a practice I engage in. In the case of the customer who asked me about manipulation, I asked him “how I would measure manipulation?” His answer was that I would measure it “in hours.” I told him that I have a very straightforward workflow process and “hours” are never involved. However, I may stare at an image for days before I decide on how it should ultimately be developed to match the feeling I had while in the field.

Ironically, both the adding of elements to a photograph that were not in the original scene, and the working of a print for hours have been around since the beginning of photography. These practices were common and often discussed in their time as well. To my way of thinking, all of photography is fundamentally a manipulation. Working with a three-dimensional subject in which light is bouncing off in every direction and converting it into a two-dimensional print in which no light is emanating is a pretty big manipulation. Take away color as in black and white prints, add perspective, contrast, exposure, focus, and the myriad other creative decisions artistic photographers make in the creation of even rather “straight” images, and the answer to the “manipulation” question is never a yes or no reply.

Rain on Jordan's Pond, Acadia NP
Rain on Jordan’s Pond, Acadia NP


6 thoughts on “Manipulation

  1. While I completely agree that adding “things” crosses a line (**), it is curious that I don’t feel at all conflicted removing “things.” Cropping is gross removal, cloning portions is more subtle, but the same concept. My attempt doing either is to eliminate elements of the “real” world that distract from the ephemeral graphic relationships that I see in my head.

    Also your comment of the time spent staring at an image rings true. Whatever time is spent actually manipulating is almost always (for an image that particularly strikes me) less than just looking.

    Good paragraphs & nice image (but where’s Nessy?)

    ** I have a difficult time imagining what & how I would add anything to the images I often take. Standing in front of whatever, I can visualize different camera positions or approaches, but I’m reacting to what’s there. Adding elements just never enters my head. Ignoring that my eye/hand coordination precludes my ever being a painter, that way of “seeing” isn’t me.

  2. Paul, thank you for this thoughtful, informative, and important essay. Your grasp of the essence of your craft and your ability to articulate it are a boon to both photographers and viewers of the work. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but this post is extraordinarily valuable to the understanding and appreciation of those pictures. Bravo.

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