Thoughts on the Digital Manipulation of Images

Is it the goal of photography to replicate, as accurately as possible, the scene that existed before the lens at the instant the shutter was tripped? Or is it to create an image that will stir the emotions of the viewer regardless of went into its making?

A 100% accurate recreation of natural light conditions on any photographic medium, whether it be a digital sensor, a piece of film, a computer monitor, or a print, is just not possible. The human eye is capable of distinguishing a vast range of colors. Human beings can also see a tremendous dynamic range from the darkest shadows to very bright highlights. No film, ink and paper combination, or digital sensor can even come close. So, in reality, the very act of "taking a photograph" results in an approximation of the scene that was witnessed. In a sense, the scene is manipulated into a photograph. However, if a photographer uses a film that produces saturated colors, is that manipulation? What about using black & white film? Or using a warming filter to correct color casts of certain films? Are these not manipulations of the scene as well?

But what about Digital Manipulation? We've all seen the dinosaurs roaming Jurassic Park and Neo battling Agent Smith with no regard to gravity or physics. We know that with a computer (and a great deal of skill and artistry), an image can be completely fabricated or endlessly manipulated to give a desired effect. This is OK in the movies or perhaps advertising, but how far is too far when it comes to still photography? Or landscape and nature photography to be more specific?

True, computers increase the amount and extent of manipulation possible, but manipulation is inherent in all types of photography. Ansel Adams spent many hours in the darkroom manipulating his negatives and techniques to get the print "just right". In the wet, or chemical, darkroom, traditional photographers dodge and burn to even out contrast, spot to remove dust and scratches, and create masks to allow the manipulation of one part of the photograph but not another. Color saturation and balance is adjusted, as is tone and contrast. All of these techniques (and many more) are now available to the digital photographer using a computer. The amount to which an image is manipulated is dependent upon what the artist is trying to accomplish. In fact, Ansel wrote to his Father in 1920, "I am more than ever convinced that the only possible way to interpret the scenes hereabout is through an impressionistic vision. A cold material representation gives one no conception whatever of the great size and distances of these mountains."    Photography needs to convey a feeling, a reaction, an emotion—not just a documentation of the scene, but an interpretation of it.

"As with all art, the photographer's objective is not the duplication of visual reality.... Photography is an investigation of both the outer and the inner worlds...." 
— Ansel Adams

Our goal is to capture stirring images of nature and the landscape. To bring to you the splendor of the natural world with the hope that our images will instill in you a sense of awe and wonder. And also a responsibility to help preserve what is left of the wild and beautiful places on our planet. To this end, our "manipulations" are limited to the digital equivalents of traditional darkroom techniques. Yes, we will remove dust, scratches, litter, powerlines, contrails, bird poop, etc. from our images. We will adjust color balance, saturation, tone, perspective, sharpness, and adjust contrast. Nothing new here. One modern tool we do use consists of taking several exposures of one scene to blend together to achieve a larger dynamic range than the camera or film is capable of by itself.  This allows us to preserve in the image the shadow and highlight detail we could see with our eyes that the camera could not capture. Some refer to this as HDR (for High Dynamic Range) or Exposure Blending.  We use these modern versions of traditional tools to ensure that the images we present to you faithfully reproduce, to the extent possible, not only the scene we witnessed, but also the emotions we felt. We do not add things that were not there. We do not create composites (combining elements from several photographs into one that depicts an imaginary scene). We do not move trees or mountains, or place wildlife into a scene that wasn't there to begin with. We truly capture our images—we do not fabricate them. We'll leave that to Hollywood.

—Phillip Noll
Los Alamos, NM, Nov 2016