When Is a Photo No Longer a Photo

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Bill Ferris
Bill Ferris Veteran Member • Posts: 3,952
When Is a Photo No Longer a Photo

"Photography is the art, application and practice of creating durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation, either electronically by means of an image sensor, or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film. ... Typically, a lens is used to focus the light reflected or emitted from objects into a real image on the light-sensitive surface inside a camera during a timed exposure." - Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photography )

"A photograph (also known as a photo) is an image created by light falling on a photosensitive surface, usually photographic film or an electronic image sensor, such as a CCD or a CMOS chip. Most photographs are created using a camera, which uses a lens to focus the scene's visible wavelengths of light into a reproduction of what the human eye would see." - Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photograph )

I offer the above as the starting point for a conversation about photography and photographs. Specifically, when does the editing of a photographic image cross a threshold that renders the image no longer a photo?

If for the sake of discussion, we accept the above as working definitions, then we can say that an original image produced as the result of a still camera shutter actuation is a photograph. The image is the product of the interaction between light and either film or a sensor. The film chemicals and sensor pixels are sensitive to light. The result of the interaction of light and a light-sensitive medium is a image of the scene. Assuming a reasonably competent person makes the photo, the image will be both focussed and properly exposed.

At this point, I'm going to focus my comments on the digital image processing side of the topic. For those of you who prefer film photography, I'll trust that you're able to translate the details of what follows such that they apply to the film medium.

When does the editing of a photographic image cross a threshold that renders the image no longer a photo? I will suggest the following: when the image can no longer be accurately described as a single exposure of the scene at the time of the exposure, it is no longer a photograph.

Let's explore this concept. Suppose we open a straight out-of-camera photo in our photo processing application of choice and make adjustments to a vairiety of settings including, lightness, white balance, white level, black level, crop, saturation and sharpening. Is the resulting image still a photograph? Can that image be accurately described as a single exposure of an actual scene? I would argue, yes. In our processing, none of the elements in the scene have been removed. No elements that were not in the scene at the time of the exposure have been added. The white balance, lightness, saturation and other changes made may produce an image that does not match in appearance the way the scene appeared to the eye at the time. However, not withstanding any issues of the scene's accuracty or realism, it is still the same scene that was recorded in the exposure. The elements of the scene remain. The elements were present at the time of the exposure. The scene's appearance is altered but nothing has been added or removed. It is still a photograph.

Suppose we use the healing brush in the application to remove the shadow of a dust speck that was on the sensor at the time the exposure was made. Has a threshold been crossed? Is the image no longer a photograph? I will argue, no, a threshold has not been crossed. The dust speck was on the camera sensor; not in the scene. As such, neither the dust speck nor its shadow are elements of the scene. Using the healing brush to replace the shadow - a tiny, circular dark spot - with a similarly-sized portion from the same area of the scene accomplishes two goals. First, it removes an element of the image that was not an element of the scene. In this sense, it has the effect of correcting a flaw that compromises the integrity of the image as a record of the scene. Second, it uses a nearby portion of the scene to "heal" the flaw. Strictly speaking, we are not able to assert that the resulting image is exactly as the scene would have appeared, if the dust speck had not been on the sensor. However, given that the use of the healing brush is applied only to a miniscule portion of the image and that we have not substantially altered the accuracy of the appearance of the scene elements, it is reasonable to conclude that the integrity of the image is preserved. It is a photograph.

This raises an important aspect of such conversations. If one so chooses, it is possible to establish clear, bright line thresholds for image processing techniques that do or do not preserve the status of an image as a photograph. I am not here to argue that such an approach is right or wrong, should or should not be adopted. That said, I think it's more interesting to explore to idea that there is a spectrum of image processing tools and techniques available to photographers and to find the zone - the range - within which the application of those tools & techniques crosses an imperfectly defined line to render an image no longer a photogaph.

Suppose we use the photo processing application to remove a person in the photo and to add another person in their place. For the sake of discussion, let's say the person added as a replacement was not present during the photo shoot. In fact, that person died years before the photo was even made. As such, it would litterally be impossible for the photo to have been made on the date and at the time of the original exposure. The person shown in the final image was not present for the shoot and was not in the scene at the time of the exposure. The image can no longer be accurately described as a single exposure of an actual scene. It is no longer a photograph.

Please note, I've not delved into the ethics or legitimacy of photographic processing tools or techniques. Ethics and legitimacy are not topics for this thread. Is it right, wrong or deceptive to do any image processing? These questions are not relevant to the topic we are discussing. Is the use of elements from multiple photographic images to create a single image of a ficticious scene a legitimate form of expression or art? Again, this is not a relevant question for this thread. The sole topic of this thread, is a consideration of the question of where the threshold lies, before which an edited image is still a photograph and beyond which, an edited image is no longer a photograph.

I have established a scope for the discussion. At the one end, are a set of photo processing techniques that, while they alter the appearance of an image, I would argue do not substantially alter the collection of elements that were present in the scene at the time of the exposure. Those elements were present when the photograph was made and remain present in the final image. None have been removed. None have been added. The resulting image can be accurately described as a single exposure of the scene. It is altered in appearance but not substanitally in content. It is a photograph.

At the other end of the spectrum, I have offered a processing technique used to remove a substantial element of the photo and replace that element with one that was not present during the shoot. This changes not only the appearance of the resulting image but also substantially alters the substantial elements of the scene. The image can no longer be accurately described as a single exposure of the scene as it was at the time of the expoure. It is not a photo.

Where between these extremes does the threshold reside? Is that threshold a hard & fast line or a zone...a range determined by a collection of factors which can be applied in order to arrive at one of two conclusions: either the elements of the image are substantially unaltered or the elements are substantially altered.

How would you define that threshold?

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Bill Ferris Photography
Flagstaff, AZ

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