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YOLO COUNTY NEWS
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Demystifying the controversy over photo-editing software

By
July 18, 2010 |

Special to The Enterprise

While visiting a photo gallery, you may overhear people expressing their dislike of a picture by saying, ÒThis picture must have been photoshopped.Ó The term Òphotoshop,Ó which originally refers to a photo-editing software by Adobe, has become an expression representing excessive manipulation to an image beyond the liking of viewers.

However, without knowing the differences between our eyes and the camera and how the camera alters the scene, we should not put all software users under the same umbrella.

Adjusting photographs is not new to photography and it has not been limited only to the digital age. During the age of film photography, only professionals and advanced amateur photographers could process images, while the public did not have easy access to the secrets of the trade.

In his darkroom, Ansel Adams, the legendary photographer who captured AmericaÕs wild beauty, elevated dodging and burning techniques to an art form where he selectively adjusted the brightness and darkness of certain areas of his photographs. With digital photography, the accessibility to photo-processing software has become easier than ever and there are no secrets anymore.

Photo-editing software, such as Photoshop, is a digital darkroom that can be used to bring photographs back to the way our eyes see naturally, as well as to bring out the best in photographs and enhance their quality. Some photographers may stick to the Òdarkroom rule,Ó by using software only to do things that can be done in a traditional darkroom, such as adjusting color, contrast and exposure to enhance photographs without changing them.

Other photographers may take photo editing beyond that rule and introduce new elements to or take out elements from a photograph. The lack of specific and widely accepted guidelines for the extent of the changes that can be made before an image is labeled as ÒmanipulatedÓ has blurred the line between right and wrong in digital photo editing. This has led some viewers to advocate using photographs as they come out of the camera without any post-capture digital processing.

While some alterations to the scene are intentional, others are not desired. We intentionally make many choices during capturing or processing photographs that alter the final image beyond what our eyes can naturally see.

In his book ÒThe PhotographerÕs Eye,Ó John Szarkowski points out that photographers edit the meanings and patterns of the world through an imaginary frame the moment they decide what to include in and reject out of their composition. When we want to blur the background and emphasize the main subject, we choose a telephoto lens, and when we want to emphasize form and texture and accentuate the drama within a scene, we print our images in black and white.

On the other hand, undesired alterations to a photograph disappoint us. They are mostly due to the difference between the ways the camera and our eyes see the world and what the camera introduces to a scene. While the pupils of our eyes are constantly changing their diameter so we can see adequate detail in bright and dark areas, the camera can capture only adequate detail either in the bright or the dark areas of a scene in a single exposure.

The lens of the human eye is always changing its shape, so the scene will be sharp everywhere, but the camera has a limited depth of focus. The human eye and brain adjust to and compensate for the unnatural colors of different sources of light in ways that cameras cannot, resulting in undesired color casts in photographs.

Furthermore, the inherited softness of digital cameras slightly reduces the overall sharpness of images. Cameras with interchangeable lenses introduce dust to the sensor that is seen as dark spots scattered throughout the image. Photography in dim light forces us to increase the sensitivity of the sensor, which adds a grainy appearance to the image and reduces its quality. Flash can turn the eyes red.

All digital cameras have a built-in software that processes the initially captured digital information (raw file) to a digitally readable image (JPEG file) so that images can be viewed on screens and can be printed. This conversion process relies on settings determined by the manufacturer according to what the manufacturer estimates a good photo should look like.

Thus, relying only on cameras to capture images that depict the truthfulness of a scene is mostly not adequate. All these undesired alterations can be adjusted by software to bring the photograph back to what our eyes naturally see.

In photojournalism and documentary photography, viewers expect to see the truth. Anything that alters reality alters the truth. Digitally processing images by photo-editing software is a standard of journalism as long as the darkroom rule is followed. When it comes to fine art photography, capturing images is the beginning of the creation of photographic art. Fine art photographers have their own personal interpretation of what makes a good photograph, ÒPhotoshoppedÓ or not. Similarly, viewers who see these images will have their own interpretation of why they like or dislike the final image.

However, the true joy of photography lies in interacting with the scene in its physical form and sharing this emotional experience with the viewers. The role of software in this situation is to highlight that experience, and facilitate its communication with the viewers at its best.

Ñ Samer Alassaad is co-founder and past president of the Photography Club of Davis. Reach him at sameraldds@yahoo.com

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