Are Original Pictures Really "Original"?
One of the greatest blessings (or curses, some might say) of our decade, would be enabling every person on the planet to be a “photographer”. In addition to smartphones and mobile photography, recent technological advancements have led to a steep fall in the prices of advanced cameras such as DSLRs. Improvements in image processing software over the years have also led to the popularity of editing apps like Instagram, VSCO, Retrica, etc. with a multitude of easy-to-use “filters” that are just slapped on a picture with a click of a button to attain some pleasing effects.
But photography becoming an everyday commonplace has its own issues. Nope, we are not talking about the millions of “XY Photography” pages that pop up on Facebook immediately after someone gets a DSLR, or even, a flagship smartphone. There is a rise in the number of pseudo-purists on the internet and elsewhere.
“This picture is straight out of the camera. It’s not edited, bro”
“Your picture looks completely Photoshopped, dude.”
A pseudo-purist would be anyone who tries to insist that “original” photographs are the way to go, and everything else that is edited or Photoshopped is an insult to the art of photography. They tend to gleefully take pleasure in posting and spreading the word of their “original” captures in various media.
Now, there are are a couple of things that are vague here. I’ll define them one by one below:
Original - A picture that comes straight out of the camera as it is, and it has not been retouched or edited in any manner.
Purist - A person who insists on absolute adherence to traditional rules and structures (here, in case of photography).
Editing: Prepare an image from publishing by corrections and modifications.
Re-touching: Improve or repair an image by making slight additions or alterations.
Photoshopping: The act of using image-editing software like Photoshop on an image.
Manipulations: Modify physical and abstract entities within an image, such as removing spots on faces, adding clouds to the sky, etc.
Are “Original” Pictures a Myth?
Our eyes only sample a limited range of visual information that is present in the world around us.
Do original pics exist? Are those images that come out of the camera truly unedited original representations of the actual scene?
If you believe that what your eyes can see, represents the reality of a scene; then you could stare at a clear night sky for hours and still won’t be able to make out the Milky Way and the millions of stars. If you don’t believe me, check out the comparison between what our eye sees and what the camera sees.
Our eyes only sample a limited range of visual information that is present in the world around us. To conclude that only the things we see, are the way how things actually are, is a gross misunderstanding. If you had ever wondered whether the astrophotographs of skies filled with billions of stars and blue-red aura of the Milky Way are real, I hope I could convince you of something.
In the pre-digital photography era, editing a picture after it was taken on a film camera was next to impossible, and the options were severely limited. For example, in current cameras, shooting at night would require the photographer (or the camera automatically) to turn up the ISO (Light Sensitivity settings) so that the faint illumination at night can be captured well. While for daytime shots, the ISO is lowered since the illumination is fairly good. But long back, photographers had to actually purchase different types of film rolls, whose chemical properties were different, making them more or less sensitive to light, hence useful in different lighting conditions.
Given above is a set of film rolls rated at different ISOs from 100, 200, 400, and 1600.
Some More Examples:
Note: All photos shown below are straight out of DSLRs without any post-processing.
Photographers also use a specific filter called “Polarising Filter”, mounted right in front of the lens, which reduces glares and reflection. Such hardware was used extensively in earlier times to get extremely detailed and colorful images as shown above on the right, compared to the washed-out hazy picture on the left.
Similarly, ND (Neutral Density) filters can be attached to lenses to darken a scene in extremely bright daylight. With the normal eye, we may see a white sky with no clouds, but with an ND filter on, details in the sky can clearly be seen in the picture taken. Graduated ND filters were used to selectively restore the colors and detail in the sky only, without darkening the rest of the scene.
Lastly, graduated color filters are also used with DSLRs to warm up (more yellow tones) or cool down (more blue tones). This can also be achieved using the White Balance & Colour Temperature settings in-camera.
Did you know that cameras automatically edit pictures for you?
By now, we’ve seen how a camera can see better than our eyes, and also how accessories and other hardware filters were with cameras to change the entire mood and look of the picture. Some might still argue such pictures are still original, and hence better than a "Photoshopped" pic.
So let’s go back to the fundamentals one more time. What is a picture inside the camera? It is just data - an array of 0s and 1s. The settings the camera applies on this binary data - contrast, sharpness, saturation, color profiles, picture temperature, exposure, noise reduction, etc. determine how the picture will look on-screen in the camera. Thankfully, in most cameras, including phone cameras, all of this is done “automatically” for us by some algorithms, and voila, the end result is a beautiful picture most of the time. Being completely ignorant to the fact that all those settings and tweaks were done automatically by some advanced algorithms in-camera, and showing off the “original-unedited” picture everywhere, and emphasizing that it is better than any edited picture, is indeed very pretentious and naive. On the other hand, photographers tweak the very same settings mentioned before, later in software or apps to get the best results possible. They tend to take flat images in RAW format (where the in-camera settings are applied reversibly, and the image isn’t compressed, so there’s a lot more flexibility and pixel information to work with later on).
The difference is, we (the photographers) make the picture, not the camera; while it is the camera makes the picture for the pseudo-purists. Isn’t that what art and creativity are supposed to be about? Being in full control of how your work turns out to be? When you are in full control, it doesn’t matter which camera (mobile phone, DSLR, point-and-shoot) is used (to an extent).
Just because there is a picture that seems to be impossible to see with human eyes, doesn’t mean that it isn’t real.
Modifications to a picture can be done in-camera using settings or other hardware accessories like filters, etc. But why would anyone want to spend hundreds of dollars to acquire good quality equipment, when the same effects can be imitated by tweaking a few sliders and buttons in software like Photoshop?
How about photo-manipulations - including removing unwanted people from the pic, correcting curves and perspectives in buildings, adding clouds and stars into the sky, etc.? Why not?! What if you were at a landmark, unfortunately, when it was crowded, and would get the perfect shot that you’ve always wanted? What if you were at the perfect location but the weather is grey and gloomy with no clouds in the sky? Go ahead and manipulate the picture in the most creative way possible! Show the audience what scenery you had in your mind! Most of us pursuing photography these days, aren’t professionals. We have classes, and jobs and other commitments. We can’t always wait for days for the perfect moment or the perfect weather. Editing and manipulating a picture in software is our way of expressing our creativity in ways that are much easier and less time-consuming than the real deal. We aren’t photojournalists to show things exactly as they are. It would be incredibly boring to see millions of pics of the same landmarks and the same locations from the same perspective and style. Taking time to put some imagination into the picture is at least better than clicking a picture and masquerading it as an “original”. It’s more important to have fun with photography!
This article was in no means to hurt the sentiments of pseudo-purists. Many of them are not aware of most of the things mentioned above, and hence tend to have an uneducated opinion on edited and Photoshopped pictures in general, and sometimes their comments and opinions tend to hurt to the sentiments of creative photography enthusiasts who use digital tools. This would also serve as an eye-opener to people who have some interest in photography.
Keep clicking. Keep sharing your perspective and compositions. I’m thankful for the huge support I received since my early amateur days in photography. Such support is needed for everyone starting out. A word or gesture of appreciation can go a long way in motivating enthusiasts and amateurs. Criticism, especially on highly debatable and misunderstood topics of editing/Photoshopping are to be well-informed and constructive.
I have tried to keep the technical lingo to a minimum to suit a wider audience, but if anybody still requires further clarification, feel free to reach out to me over social media.
This article does not endorse photo-manipulations - I personally do not manipulate most of my pics, since the challenge of getting the right shot at the right time is an exciting and rewarding experience. This is meant to clear the misconceptions of editing/Photoshopping/manipulating an image.