Why does one manipulate an image?

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bob5050 Regular Member • Posts: 440
Why does one manipulate an image?

There are two interesting threads going on ('computational photography' and 'Optometrist's view of Bokeh') that presume rather than dissect the answers to this question.

Off the top of my head: we manipulate images to

  1. To mimic the computational processing of human vision. The most obvious example of this might be white-balance adjustment, which seeks to represent the scene not as it is (heavily color cast), but as our senses adjust it for us. We don't change white balance to get the scene closer to what we know it to be, but rather to get it to what we know it 'should' be were the light different than what it actually was. Our visual system does much the same.
  2. To compensate for the limitations of our equipment or the physics of light. The most obvious examples perhaps being shadow/highlight adjustment because our images cannot handle the real world's dynamic range, and the various pixel-shifting or frame-stacking approaches to noise reduction.
  3. To exercise control over the viewer's point of attention. The inescapable example of this is image selection and framing, but within the frame, I'd argue that bokah is the same--the photographer's attempt to force his understanding of what's important about the scene on the viewer. Bokah should be thought of as 'depth framing.'

My point is not that these are mutually exclusive motivations with hard, discrete boundaries, but only to make it unarguable that there is no single answer. We manipulate images for a variety of reasons, not all of which might be conscious. And we all do it continuously.

Several comments seem obvious given this breakdown, the first of which is that the various techniques we use vary in importance with the type of photography we're doing. Bokah becomes important in things like portrait photography and macro/art photography where the whole point of the photo is, in fact, focus--whether on something like the expression/character of a person's face or the appearance of a dew-drop on a flower. We 'help' (or force) the viewer to accept our sense of what the center of attention should be. In wide-angle travel or scenic photography, by contrast, where the point might be to capture as much of an entire scene as possible and let the viewer's eye wander around within the image, bokah is not your friend. But neither approach is more natural or 'real'--mounting a wide-angle lens is itself a manipulative decision, a choice of a framing tool no less, and really no different, than cranking open the aperture to achieve a shallow DoF.

Second, the entire notion of 'computational' photography as if it were some alien thing differing from 'real' photography is just silly. We all manipulate images in the very act of taking them, and for various reasons. Technology will continue to deliver new and increasingly capable tools for doing this, but the basic act of manipulation remains the same as it was when a primary approach to scene manipulation was selecting slow or fast films, b/w or color.

And third: new tech enables new intents. The influence relationship between tools and intent goes both ways--we create tech to better support our desires, and the tech in turn enables us to imagine new capabilities and approaches--giving us new desires. I'm not simply a better-equipped photographer than when I picked up my first camera, I'm a different photographer--I see opportunites for pictures and approaches that I didn't see before.

It remains up to the photographer to choose what tools are most conducive to what he/she wants to achieve. Personally, I want the best, most powerful tools I can afford. Does that make me a bad photographer? I don't think so. I think I'm making the same type of choices that my Cro-Magnon ancestors made in carefully selecting and transporting the finest ochre they could obtain for their cave paintings.


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