Photography: What’s real, what’s not and does it matter?

Photography: What’s real, what’s not and does it matter?

This may be bad timing as I am preparing to leave tomorrow for a week in Banda Acheh, Sumatra, Indonesia. I’m not sure if I will have Internet access to be able to respond to the comments. But here goes– I want to address some flak I got on Facebook about the previous post. I received a comment from a reader or two stating they felt that what they saw in the produced images was not real. Meaning, after running through my workflow in Lightroom the images no longer represented reality. I have gotten this kind of feedback many times in the past. I think people are rather shocked at seeing a photo “undressed”. It’s a bit like seeing a high-fashion model on the streets without any makeup, it can be scary.

I think this raises several questions. I only have time to look at two. The first is an ethical question should we alter an image? The second is are we comfortable with where photography is going in the digital age?

Let me respond to the first question with a question of my own. Were photographers ever meant to capture only reality? I think the short answer to this is, no. It’s like saying, carpenters are meant only to build houses. Of course, this is silly. Carpenters can do anything with their trade and craft from building a house to a beautiful wooden statue or a gorgeous boat to sail the ocean. Traditionally, carpenters are meant to build things out of wood. The only limitation is that it needs to be wood. To relegate carpenters to do one thing would be stifling, limiting and simply ridiculous. I venture to say, photography is the same. Photographers can do anything with the images they create, from beautiful artwork to photojournalism. Photography is made to capture images from reflected light. Period. What a person does with this is something entirely different.

I think, the real issue here isn’t what a photographer does or what photography is. The real issue is how we try to define it. Some people, want to define it very narrowly and say photography is for capturing an image of reality. Fine. There are people that use the camera like an office worker uses a xerox machine. If that’s how you want to define it for yourself then that is all well and good. But that’s too narrow for the rest of the world. Likewise, there are people who use a camera like Picasso used a brush. These people are every bit an artist. So, the question really is, either what have you defined as your personal boundaries or what has your profession defined? Look at it this way, if I’m working for the National Geographic magazine they have very strict standards of what can be done with an image once it’s shot. My friend, and Nat Geo photographer, Ami Vitale told me she has to send in the raw files to her editors, completely untouched. In fact, they’re not even allowed to delete files from the card. That’s fine. If that’s the way the magazine wants to do it, and you want to work for the magazine, then you do it their way. You have a choice, their way or the highway. The fact is, there is no right or wrong when it comes to using this tool we call a camera.

The thing that really chaps me is when people try to define boundaries for everyone. Personally, I think even the strictest rules used by the National Geographic and other photojournalist are a bit naïve if you take them and apply them broadly. I know, that’s sounds like bold talk coming from someone like me, who doesn’t work for a great magazine like the National Geographic or great newspaper like the New York Times. Yet, these rules are made to work within the boundaries of those organizations. They’re not over arching rules for photography. But even these rules, that many photojournalists subscribe to have blind spots. We’ve talked about this here before. Every time someone points a camera somewhere we choose what we want or do not want to include in the frame. This alone is subjective and can alter the story. The story is altered no matter what we do. Reality is not two-dimensional. It is not a set of RGB colors. It is not black-and-white. The angle in which we shoot influences the viewers emotions. This is an old argument and one that’s been beaten to death, so I’m going to move along.

The other question really is derived from our humanity. Without getting overly philosophical, people are uncomfortable with change. I’ve said many times that what we do in the digital darkroom is not that much different than what we used to do in the physical darkroom. You know what? It doesn’t matter if it’s different. It doesn’t matter if it’s completely different. It doesn’t matter, because things change. Things evolve. We don’t do what we did 100 years ago. Not only do things naturally change – things have to change. It used to be, most photos represented pretty much what the camera saw; telephone lines, poles sticking out of people’s heads, eyelids half shut and more. This was what the camera saw and this is what we got. Now, it’s easy to remove telephone lines, poles and even open eyelids in Photoshop. Does this matter? Yes it does matter. It matters because people want poles removed and eyelids opened. We want perfect pictures – or at least we want a representation of what we saw. We have selective vision, we don’t see telephone wires when we take a picture. We don’t see the pole sticking up behind someone’s head and we certainly don’t see someone’s blink and the fact that we can alter that is in itself the reality we live with. Maybe when photography stops recording light and some smart person finds some other way to record what we see, we will have to change the name of what we call photography to something else. But until then I still love this thing called Photography and I’ll continue to use the tools that are being developed to support me in this addiction.


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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.


  1. Adrien

    This was similar to a post I wrote on my blog sometime back titled “Is it WRONG to post process a photo?”… and I echo your sentiments. And yes depending on what you do with the photo & if you are employed, it is a highly subjective debate. Even in photojournalism as you pointed out, the act of cropping an image can send an entirely different message than when it is shot at a wide-angle.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Matt

      Thanks Adrien, I think the idea of all photography being “subjective” really is at the core. Certainly for the first question.

  2. Gavin Gough

    Matt, great post and I completely agree. Every time we put a lens on a camera we are distorting “reality” to some extent, after that it’s simply a question of degrees. There is no universal or absolute truth, there’s only our interpretations of what we see. How we choose to present that to the world depends upon our perspective, our abilities to control the medium and our intention.

    And I think you’re right about editorial restrictions. Sure, don’t photoshop elements in or out that weren’t there at the time but really news photographers shouldn’t ever use anything other than a 50mm lens, should shoot JPEG and upload directly to their editor. Better still, editorial photographers should shoot film.

    The truth is, there’s no such thing as absolute integrity in a photograph. “The camera never lies”? What nonsense. The camera ALWAYS lies, it’s in the hands of the photographer to decide to what extent.

    Keep processing how you want and keep showing the world your images according to your own interpretation.

    And have fun in Sumatra.


    • Matt

      Thanks for commenting Gavin and I still think we should do that podcast on the camera and how its lies.

    • Brian

      Gavin – great post. This is why I like you…

      “The truth is, there’s no such thing as absolute integrity in a photograph. “The camera never lies”? What nonsense. The camera ALWAYS lies, it’s in the hands of the photographer to decide to what extent.”

      • Matt

        The camera made me do it.

  3. Craig Ferguson

    I get the impression that a lot of people are simply unaware of how much manipulation can be done in a darkroom. Invariably, complaints and comments about post-processing relate to Photoshop o and similar products. Many feel that computer processing is somehow changing the reality without realizing that the same techniques have been done in darkrooms since the earliest days of photography. There’s a well known photograph of Abraham Lincoln taken in 1860 or thereabouts, that is actually a composite of Lincoln’s head and John C. Calhoun’s body (despite Calhoun having died 10 years earlier). The “altering of reality” is as old as photography itself.

    • Matt

      Ok… messing with Lincoln? That’s were I draw the line! What? Was he too tall? Too skinny? Sheeze! What is this world coming to?

      • Brian

        I frankly love post process… and if millions of other people didn’t, we’d not have a market for all the software.

        It’s so often about expressing ME… my images, what I see, and what I want to show. At what point does this all become pandering to an audience?

        It’s like saying a super fine haired paintbrush is cheating because everyone is using big ones. if I get more enjoyment out of it, screw what people think.

  4. Newton Lewis

    Talking from a viewer’s point of view, I would say that it’s up to the photographer to decide how he wants his final image to look.
    I think Gavin put it best when he said “The camera ALWAYS lies, it’s in the hands of the photographer to decide to what extent.”
    The choice is always up to the photographer as to what he wants to portray. 4 photographers could shoot the exact same scene and come away with 4 completely different images. It all has to do with each photographer’s mindset or “vision” and how he interprets any given situation.
    As long as the photographer is not trying to distort reality (especially if he’s a photojournalist), I think everyone has a certain artistic license.

    • Brian

      Newton – hope you are well man!

  5. Brian

    This is one of those topics that seems to pop up en masse about every six months

    I think of my buddy Jeremy Cowart who’s photography is just as much art as it is photography. I look at a lot of Chase Jarvis’ stuff as well. It’s a matter of interpretation and honestly sometimes a matter of how famous the person is. We’ll burn some Flickr Joe Blow at the stake while giving the ‘industry professionals’ a pass.

    It seems like we as photographers are ok to call highly-edited imagery ‘art’ but go to the shed for the torches, shovels, and pitch forks the second someone labels it as ‘photography’. Why is that?

    Edits can make a picture better or they can make them worse and still be telling the same story on the whole (relatively) – edits can also totally ruin the original story. Sometimes editing is totally necessary to tell the story we saw Edits that change the core story and are for journalistic causes/publications become lies. Edits can change the news. Just google all the photoshopped news stories – that’s crossing a line and is usually self serving to a news agency or government (Remember, I live in China. China Daily has some really laughable ones).

    These are all points that have been made, and made well already. I don’t want to belabor of dimmish those who have expressed it better than I.

    Beyond that I just kinda tired of throwing stones over the subject. I want to love what I do and if editing the hell out of a picture is fun for me and doesn’t really fall into one of the categories above, I don’t care anymore – though that happens very rarely.

    I’d throw this into the mix maybe just to stir the pot – I think tons of photographers get ‘offended’ or raise red flags over the subject because they feel like someone is breaking a rule, creating a shortcut, or cheating somehow. A personal example would be my true hatred of HDR because it’s usually a horrible composition and make to look absolutely absurd. However, a buddy of mine only shoots HDR, loves it, and actually is growing as a photographer through the process, so I’ve made my peace with it on the grounds that he finds more enjoyment out of it and theirs little point to me constantly attacking something he loves and something he’s growing in – ie, being a photographer on the whole. How much time am I going to spend arguing and worrying about what he does vs. spending it photographic sweet spot that I love?

    This subject seems to have at least a hint of undermining the pride, recognition, and mostly identity of photographers, because some 13 year old photoshop genius artificially created the best image we’ve ever see. We create all sorts of rules to invalidate that individual. Could it be that we are too easily offended or bothered?

    Having a wife as a semi-professional painter and graphic designer (and running my own design company for a decade) has really served to add some light to this subject.

    If we spend all our time concentrating someone else images for over-photoshopping or lacking truth, I think we are taking time away from the love of what we do – we are focusing on something that is not our individual style (granted, other people photography can inform our own… even if it’s what NOT to do or what we dislike. That’s important). However, I see so many photographers getting heated about the subject and quite often flat out mad.

    Could it be we are too easily offended vs. doing what we love?

  6. Doug Pyper

    You present this contentious issue well here Matt. It will certainly stimulate some diverse discussion. Views and beliefs surrounding this topic are as infinite as they are passionate. And your piece creates a pivotal starting point for an interesting Forum.

    I suggest that the polarized view… that either one completely accepts image manipulation in all forms and rejects it entirely is somewhat of a limiting viewpoint. Unfortunately it is often, in fact usually, portrayed as such… an entirely polarized issue. I believe it is much more complex than that. It is the middle ground that must be examined and explored, bringing to bear the goals and artistic objectives of all the photographic disciplines. From working photojournalists like Ami Vitale, to landscape, wildlife, architectual, portrait and wedding, fashion, graphic illustrators et al.

    And of course, there a many who find artistic expression virtually begins and ends at the computer screen. And for many digital photo enthusiasts sometimes ‘mousing’ an image to death can be just plain fun!

    In examining this complex issue conclusions are relentlessly embedded within individual viewpoints. But perhaps open discussion may broaden those viewpoints and give us a greater understanding of each other and how each of us perceive this unbelievable gift called photography.

    My views have changed somewhat even since our discussion began back on FB a few days ago and I am a professional of twenty five years. I have always utilized Photoshop and Lightroom as a ‘digital darkroom’ but I set parameters and limitations on the use of such. Perhaps restricting myself unduly fueled by well entrenched moral and professional beliefs. In the end these individual beliefs are all questionable…and are best examined by each and everyone one of us, no matter where we stand on this issue.

    • Matt

      Thanks for joining in Doug and welcome to the blog, and thanks for the open mind.

    • Brian

      I’m a bit confused in terms of illustration/graphic design. Would you be willing to elaborate?

      I work in the extremes every single day (literally, every day) and most of my clients says these words “I want to see something outside the box!” which by definition is no really the ‘middle ground’ that you suggest we examine and dwell in.

      In fact much of my photography actually goes into the graphic design elements I’m creating and I still believe it to be 100% photography.

  7. Doug Pyper

    To explain where I actually stand on this issue?… I would generally make a distinction between Digital Darkroom and Image Manipulation. But it is indeed a fine line…and I could write a book about where I draw that line personally. Looking forward to the discussion. Thanks for this Matt.

  8. Robert van Koesveld

    I like that you show the two images and agree very much with most of what you say but found myself thinking “what the camera ‘sees’ is NOT reality at all!”. We see differently to machines: (something to do with having two eyes and a brain.
    So I got up there and then and took several photographs and not one of them looked the same as what I saw. Not one. I looked at the viewfinder and then at the scene. Different. Every time. Why on earth would we give up on what we see for what an instrument records and processes internally. Go on try it….

    I process so that images approach what I experience eyes plus brain plus emotion



    • Matt

      Robert, Well said. The camera can never give us an image of what we see. This is what post processing is about. Conveying our vision.

      • Cathy

        I think that in many ways, this is what first got me into photography.

        Taking pictures on a crappy point and shoot (in the 90s, with film), having no idea what I was doing, and being disappointed with the massive gap between the picture I thought I had taken and the print that ended up in my hand. What I actually saw, experienced and felt; and what the camera took on my behalf; were so far apart, that I had to start delving.

        A camera is a tool. An imperfect tool. Sure, as they get more sophisticated they do more of the ‘thinking’ for us, but we still have to mediate the experience as photographers. Cameras don’t see. They record. It’s a subtle, but vital difference.

        And even while this issue gets debated over and over, I love the fact that photography and philosophical ideas intertwine over and over:

        The nature of ‘reality’.

        What is ‘truth’.

        ‘Representation’ vs ‘art’ or ‘interpretation’.

        It’s no wonder that photographers are such a passionate, navel-gazing bunch. These are big questions we are trying to answer.

        • Matt

          Kathy, I sure am glad you like it here. You make this blog a richer experience for all of us!

          • Cathy

            Oh, thanks Matt! Gosh…such kind words 🙂

  9. Steve

    I hate to be the first dissenter here, but nobody else seems to be taking up the torch, so here goes:
    First of all, if we are still defining photography as “painting with light” (the definition I have always used, anyway) then digital manipulation is by definition something other than photography. The ethics of darkroom photo manipulations aside, it at least still fit the definition stated above, so while photoshop and its ilk may reproduce and expand upon darkroom techniques, they are not actually painting with light.

    As for the ethical concerns, I am a photojournalist and will therefore tackle this subject as such, but even if I worked in another field I stand staunchly against altering photographs (beyond color and size adjustments, obviously) the main reason is this: alterations of an image ruin believability. They are dishonest, and everyone knows they are dishonest, including all of you. There is an obvious attempt to justify the dishonesty usually in tried and true arguments about subjectivity vs. objectivity, but they are just that, justifications.

    Now, if you’re posting in an art gallery then fine, have at it. Because audiences have no expectation of realistic depictions of reality in an art gallery. But on a magazine, in a news paper, on a billboard, basically anywhere in the general public’s eye, especially with no clarification of it’s falseness, and you are lying to the audience. People try to diet their way to photoshopped thin, just to name one problem that has arisen from the age of photoshop, but as I mentioned before worse than all of that is the loss of trust in our images.

    National Geographic did not always Hve such strict requirements of their photographers, but with story after story after story ad nauseum with increasing frequency there are news photographers breaking the rules, altering their photos, and altering the reality of the images. Can you guess their rationalizations for doing so? As a result, and mainly to assure both to their readers and themselves that their images can still be trusted, news organizations are resorting to very extreme measures and are no longer able to trust honest photographers.

    In every way, the few that are so willing to alter a photograph to be “how they saw the event” rather than how they captured it are ruining it for the diminishing minority that still retain the skill to capture that same moment outside the darkroom.

    With the exception of art photography, if you did your job right in the first place, you wouldn’t need the band-aide that is photoshop.

    Or such is my opinion. Vive le Resistance!

    • Matt

      Steve, I am really glad you felt the freedom to commented. It was starting to sound like I was preaching to the choir. I love it when we have a some push back here. Frankly, it makes for much better reading. I won’t belabor this point, as below Gavin did a much better job of making my point than I could have. (I have thought about banning him from these discussions as he always makes me look so bad. But I feel sorry for him, as he doesn’t have much to do otherwise.) So, in short. I agree. Even when I shoot for myself, or for a client (not photo journalism)I try to keep cloning to a minimum. If I do any cloning, as above with the tube light, I try to keep it to a minimum and try never to change the context of the shot. Some might say, by cloning out the light I did in fact change the context. But I feel the image now draws the viewers eyes to the man lighting the josh stick and he is the story. If this was PJ and I was shooting for a paper, I would have left it alone. I don’t see that this is much different then Steve McCurry’s editors cloning off blemishes from Sharbat Gula (the Afghan Girl) face. They changed it so much that they almost missed her years later.

      Again, thanks for posting and I hope you keep coming back.

    • Cathy

      This may take the discussion slightly off-course, but what sort of honesty/dishonesty is being discussed here? Are there some high-profile examples of ‘photoshoppery’ that tried to disguise itself as journalism?

      Thinking about – for example – the standards required by Nat Geo photographers, I wonder how much of this is driven by a need to control digital manipulation. Sure, it must come into it, but isn’t the real issue more about editorial control?

      If a photo journalist goes out to capture a story, she is going to have a certain angle that she’s looking for – either her own, or under the editor’s instructions. Taking Gavin’s example below about the Red Shirt protests in Bangkok, the photojournalist may be looking for the political angle, the unrest, the danger. However, while shooting those images, other bits of the bigger story (the funny wigs, the smiling faces) will creep into the shots. By requiring the photographer to surrender all RAW, undeleted, unedited files, the Nat Geo editor gets to see a much bigger picture that he would have been shown from a photographer-edited selection. And has a greater choice of which story to tell, or which angle to take. At the very least he gets to see the final images in their context.

      Getting all semantic here, don’t you find it interesting that the language used to talk about journalism – the ‘story’, an ‘angle’ – itself implies subjectivity, not objectivity.

      And you can bet your bottom dollar that no image is going to be published in a National Geographic magazine without some sort of post-processing – whether that’s done by the original photographer or a staff member working with (probably) Photoshop.

    • Doug Pyper

      I’m with you all the way Steve. Couldn’t have stated it any better. Photography is creating a visual image with light. Playing with and altering pixel configurations to make the image appear differently is NOT photography and very far removed from traditional darkroom technique. As you so eloquently suggested…light was a integral element in the darkroom.

      In defining all the nuances of digital photography manipulation tecniques…we must redefine it as an entirely different process and venue.

      Image manipulation is a good term to describe it. But to describe this as a ‘photographic’ process is musleading and just plain wrong.

      There is a point where photography and the new technology diverge. We must make a note and be aware of the distinction.

  10. Gavin Gough

    Hi Steve, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m not sure you’re really dissenting as I’m not sure anyone here would disagree with you. I don’t suppose that Matt or any of his readers would support “Photoshopping” editorial/news images, quite the opposite. So we’re probably all in agreement.

    I think the main point made was that everything is a matter of interpretation – and by degrees. If you and I go and photograph the same news event, we will inevitable return with different images. Which one would you say showed the “truth” of the event? There is NO absolute truth. That’s why we rely so heavily on journalistic integrity, which, as I think you’re saying, has been undermined in recent years when photojournalists have given in to the temptation to “enhance” their images.

    Fortunately, 99.9% of the photojournalist colleagues that I know would never do such a thing. And, hopefully, journalistic integrity will prevail.

    So I think we agree. Mostly. However, just to pick you up on a couple of things, you say that you’re staunchly against altering photographs but then you say “beyond colour and size”. So it’s OK to alter colours? But how do we know what the REAL colours were? Let me ask you this: do you only use a 50mm lens on a full-frame sensor? Do you only shoot at f/8.0? Do you ever crop? Do you ever change your perspective? Do you ever move forward, backward or to one side to alter the composition? Do you always point your camera at 90 degrees to the ground? Are you 100% confident that your film or sensor is recording colour temperatures accurately? Ever switch ISO? Ever change White Balance? Ever shoot at anything less than 1/250th? I could go on but I think you get my point. Every decision we make changes the final image. On film, digital or in any medium. Even if we could wire up a transmitter to your retinas, we would still only see through your eyes.

    Cameras are simply a tool. It’s the photojournalist who makes the interpretations and there is no such thing as an absolute truth so we HAVE to be able to rely on the integrity and impartiality of our reporters, editors and producers. Perhaps that’s the real question, not what “is” or “isn’t” genuine, there’s no such thing, but, rather, how do we ensure that what we see is the fairest and most balanced interpretation of the scene?

    I teach a class at the Bangkok Photo School where I show a series of images taken during the Red Shirt protests and riots in 2010. I show four images of protesters being jolly, wearing crazy wigs, waving banners, smiling and generally having a good time. Then I show another four images of protesters looking sinister, with weapons, behind barricades, under balaclavas. All eight images were taken on the same day in the same location. Both sets of images show the “reality” of that particular day but my choices when choosing what to photograph and then what to include in my final edit are what change the sense of the event.

    Finally, “photography” does literally mean “painting with light”, from the Greek “phōtos” and “graphé” as you say, but I think we can accept that in the last 150 years it has come to include other forms of recording an image. I don’t use Photoshop but I suppose it’s no less “photography” than using film. I mean, you’re not actually “painting” with the light, are you? You have a brush? A palette? I’m all for spirited resistance but if you don’t think that “photography” can include other forms of image production then I fear you may be fighting a losing battle.

    Loved your comments though and am enjoying this discussion. We need more like this.


  11. Ian Mylam

    Matt, thanks for raising this thought-provoking topic.

    I also feel that there is no such thing as truth or objectivity with photography – how can there be, given that we are attempting to represent a four dimensional world (including time) in two dimensions? However truthful or objective one tries to be, reducing four-dimensions to two will always require the photographer at the very least to make choices about which moment to capture and which viewpoint to select – and those choices, whether conscious or otherwise, will necessarily reflect the bias of the photographer. To borrow your analogy, even when attempting to use the camera as a Xerox machine, you have to decide which bit of your four-dimensional world you want to Xerox. And the only truth is the whole truth: part of the truth is not the truth, and can never be objective.

    The interesting thing for me is that many people accept the subjectivity inherently manifest in choice of moment, choice of viewpoint, focal length, shutter speed, depth of field etc., but will not accept any digital manipulation of the captured image whatsoever – which to my mind seems rather absurd, given that an unprocessed raw file needs interpretation simply to mimic the response of a given type of film. And since that is the case, then who is the arbiter of how much contrast, sharpening and saturation one is permitted to add to a raw file? Is a JPEG file produced in-camera, which has the manufacturer’s choices hard-wired into it, any more acceptable?

    People also often appear to forget that different makes and types of photographic film also evidence significant differences in tonal and colour response, saturation, grain etc., and that a photographer may also deliberately choose film based on those unique characteristics in order to allow him to more fully express his vision or communicate his personal viewpoint. Furthermore, during development, that film may be pushed, pulled, cross-processed, etc., and the negatives may subsequently be dodged, burned and toned during the making of prints. To the seekers of photographic ‘truth’, I would ask: is any of that acceptable?

    Great discussion, look forward to more thought-provoking points of view.

    • Matt

      Ian, Thanks for taking the time to comment. I really like your second paragraph. Well stated. I love the question, “Who is the arbiter of how much contrast, sharpening and saturation one is permitted to add to a raw file?” or as you go on to say, who is the ultimate arbiter for any choices a photographer makes? I think the standards have to be made and kept by the publication. They need to keep our trust (for what ever reason, we tend to trust most journalistic publications. Not sure we should) by keeping their standards high. But as for the “field” of photography, I see there is no one standard we can all subscribe to. It’s impossible and unrealistic.

  12. fil..

    as for me Steve you are right.
    and still Matt you are great artist but that is how I call it.. art not photography. You show your picture and the same being post-processed. The second one is for me computer graphic. I see (and often do the same) plenty of such a pictures each day. I accept it’s dishonesty and it’s beauty the same as I accept modern world/ media/ politics lying to me from every possible place. It is world of cheating now.
    So as a photography, as an art of painting with light I accept only classical darkroom technics in digital world.. cropping and level, brightness, contrast.. (all in reasonable amount) the other things you can do.. especially in PS is computer graphics for me.. Still doing great picture this way is an art. I simply value more great photographers than great artist..
    BTW Matt.. doing little bit less modifications to your photo would certainly improve my reception (as you show both versions) You have ruined the light in your darkroom not to mention colors/W&B.
    and Stave.. thank you for posting.. it is great to know that are still few who ask photo/philosophical questions to themselves and can understand more than they see or imagined…

    • Matt

      Thanks for adding to the mix of thought on this. Just out of curiosity, what brought you here? Do you follow my work? If so, do you follow it as art or a travel imagery (I chose to use imagery there and not the word photography 😉 I ask, because you seems to see my work as something other than photography.

      I would love to hear your responses to Gavin, Ian and others comments how you justify any “painting” whether with light onto film or onto a sensor as “real” and not a lie?

      • fil..

        Actually I am considering following your work as 1. You have rise extreamly good point and opened nice discussion even if we are in oposite camps. 2. After reading this blog entry on Flipboard or Zeit app I have also tried your galleries.. Just few pictures.. And imidietly I found few extreamly bad and extreamly good pictures (IMHO of course).. Those next to each other just brought me idea that you are indeed great photographer.. and great observer so.. I will stay a while and get through all of your shots..

        Those good photos showed me your view of world, experiance and great moments.. This what I value the most.. And if I remember one picture next day.. It stays in my head.. Than it is def. good.. 😉 this was the case for a yellow girl from Malaysia.. Indeed picture not perfect probably modified but still.. Great moment.. So natural.. As You can see already I value the truth.. So I prefer your not perfect pictures of perfect moments.. On oposite I hate the same album cover photo.. That was modified much to far.. HDR like lendscape.. Blee.. My later(still very early) impression is.. Don’t you try too hard.. Don’t you push too far.. What for?? Hungry for world wide sucess.. Kind of a greed?? I don’t know.. But I will def. see it in your pictures.. We are what we photograph and show.. Those are our soul images, mirrors.. Aren’t they??
        Ps. Sorry for my english and missspells it is harder to spot writing mistakes on the ipad..

        • Matt

          “this was the case for a yellow girl from Malaysia.. Indeed picture not perfect probably modified but still.. Great moment.. So natural.. As You can see already I value the truth.. ” Just to let you know, the girl’s photo was taken during the festival of Thaipusam. It was shot with a flash using a rear curtain sync, thus the feel of a double exposure. She was entering into a trance and that is the moment I caught. The only thing I did to this was played with some saturation and clarity. So, I am not sure if this photo communicates the truth or not.

          • fil..

            Indeed it perfectly catch the moment and saturation is certainly something you can adjust under analog traditional development. Great one! That’s why it is so much worth visiting your galleries and blog. Thank you for sharing the picture, this thought, story behind this picture and all your great work.. especially this discussion.. 🙂 Most of your works I believe say truth.. and IMHO it is worth to draw the borderline between real beauty (or its reality) of the world, photography and photographic artwork.. where plenty of real light is changed by extensive post processing not achievable under traditional (analog) post processing. There was such a line before digital age.. right? at least sort of…
            You can call me traditional even conservative.. but that is my opinion.. Not that long time ago there was huge discussion in media about post processing newspaper pictures removing some elements that where not in line with some thesis or a person (politician) that was removed from the picture.. after all big agencies agreed that this manipulation was wrong and ban such a post processing.. Similar is happening at fashion photography where post processing creates images that don’t even come close to reality.. dreams are selling best but I don’t want to be part of that.. Cheers and keep up with great pictures!

  13. Doug Pyper

    This is the SUMISSION GUIDELINES FROM “NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC” for contributing to their public venue ” YOUR SHOT”

    Please take special note of this Matt and all Forum contributers!

    I encourage you to submit photographs that are real. The world is already full of visual artifice, and we aren’t running Your Shot to add to it. We want to see the world through your eyes, not the tools of Photoshop.

    Please do not digitally enhance or alter your photographs (beyond the basics needed to achieve realistic color balance and sharpness). If you have digitally added or removed anything, please don’t submit the shot. We look at every photo to see if it’s authentic, and if we find that yours is in any way deceptive, we’ll disqualify it.

    DODGING AND BURNING: Dodging (to brighten shadows) or burning (to darken highlights) is OK, but it should be minimal. Do not overdo it. Your goal in using digital darkroom techniques should be only to adjust the dynamic tonal range of an image so that it more closely resembles what you saw. And don’t oversaturate the color.

    SOLARIZATION, MEZZOTINT, DUOTONE, ETC.: No. If you use one of the myriad alteration “filters” available in your digital photo software, please stop.


    HAND-TINTED IMAGES: OK, but only if you’re experienced in this art.

    CROPPING: OK, if it makes the photo better.

    STITCHED PANORAMAS: OK, but only if the segments were all made within the same time frame. We don’t want panoramas with sections made at significantly different times. Do not change focal length when you create a stitched image. Do not stretch the meaning of panorama to include elements that weren’t in the scene as you saw it. If your entry is a stitched image, please indicate this in the caption. (A stitched panorama is created from multiple images, each taking in a different angle of view from the same position, then combined using digital techniques. It results in a wider view than can be achieved with most wide-angle lenses.)

    FISH-EYE LENSES: OK, but enter at your own risk – editors tend to dislike such optical gimmicks.

    HIGH DYNAMIC RANGE IMAGES (HDRI): OK, but like panoramas, only if the combined parts are made at about the same time. We don’t want final images where the foreground was shot at noon and the sky at sunset. If your entry is an HDRI image, please indicate this in the caption. (An HDRI image is created from multiple images of exactly the same scene, made rapidly but at different exposures, then combined using digital darkroom techniques. The final image, when done successfully, allows one exposure for shadows to be combined with another for highlights.

    This pretty much states where I stand on this entire issue myself!!!

    • Matt

      Ok? So what is your point Doug? We already said that magazines can have their own standards and this was the magazine we used over and over again as an example. So is this the standard for the rest of us? Are you implying we all subscribe to this list?

    • Craig Ferguson

      I think some of Ansel Adams’ work would be disqualified based on the dodge / burn part of the rules.

      • Matt

        Heck, Ansel Adams used to pay folks to paint out signboard from images. Low tech cloning. But then, he never works as a PJ. I think the guy saw himself as an artist through and through.

    • Cathy

      So…there’s actually quite a wide range of post-production that they find acceptable. Cloning is the big no-no, everything else is all good 🙂

      Has this all just been about cloning? Oh.

  14. Craig Ferguson

    For anyone who still has a film SLR lying around, here’s an experiment. Get yourself a roll of Fuji Velvia and a roll of Kodak Elite Chrome. Now go and photograph the same subject with both films – maybe do half a roll of portraits and half of landscape. Keep all other variables the same. Study the results. You’re likely to find noticeable differences in the color and contrast of each film. Although you’re making the choice of film in advance (pre-processing maybe?), to me that’s no different than shooting in RAW and adjusting in Lightroom / Photoshop / Aperture.

    As other’s have mentioned above, you are constantly making creative choices be it with lens, perspective, film type, editing, settings and so on. IMO, it’s all part of what goes into making the final image.

    • Sabrina

      Good point Craig. No matter how much some “artists” might protest, film is a pre-set.

      • Matt

        “film is a pre-set.” I love it! Good to have you back commenting Sabrina.

  15. Doug Pyper

    PRESETS…..the nemisis and the ultimate ruin of the art of photography. Whether it be ‘presets’ on Lightroom, Photoshop, or Niks Software..(i’e. Colour Efex). In my opinion anyone who utilizes these so-called tools is not a photgrapher, not an artist and is not a creative in any way imaginable .

    Clicking a mouse to turn a garbage image into so-called art is pathetic! And is a favoured tecnique of a myriad untrained and untalented wedding photographers that permeate today’s new age of digital photography.

    If you can’t make a decent photograph and your can’t salvage it with knowledge of the ‘digital darkroom’ then give it up. You’re not a professional and you’re not a photographer. I believe this is the essence of what’s destroying photography as an art form and a craft in this modern age . It’s pathetic and trivial!!

    It’s a joke and nothing more. Period!!

  16. Jack

    To me the issue of whether or not it’s appropriate to change a photo depends on who is doing it and what the purpose is.

    The who is doing it part: I am a photojournalist. I don’t alter the reality in my photos. I’m also old and remember the days that we worked in darkrooms. We did a lot more manipulation then than we do now. Burning, dodging, bleaching were all par for the course on many photos. Now that sort of thing can get us fired or pilloried on the internet. But for others, especially commercial photographers, manipulation may be the norm. It is the norm for high end portrait photographers, whose mission is to make their subject look good at all costs. Is one way wrong and another right? I don’t think so. It becomes an issue of right and wrong when the intention is to deceive.

    As far as this specific photo goes, I like it. By and large it falls into the parameters I set for myself when I’m editing. I think it’s a great job of toning and making things pop. Back in the day, my film of choice was either Fujichrome Velvia or Ektachrome 100 VS (back then VS was rumored to mean Very Saturated). I like very saturated colors. I liked it when I shot film and I like it now. I tweak my own photos in Lightroom to achieve looks very similar to what Matt has in this photo.

    What I couldn’t do with this photo is take out the highlight in the mid-upper left side of the frame, opposite the lantern. That would get me fired from the newspaper I work for and probably get me kicked out of the photo agency I work with. If I was toning it for my wall or a friend’s wall, I might remove it, but for a story, it crosses a line I’m not comfortable crossing.

  17. Doug Pyper

    The digital age has reduced the art of photography to a very ‘diluted’ state. With the introduction of the Kodak ‘Brownie’ years ago, the art of film photography became available to average person and essentially nurtured and promoted the art form in a postive way…eventually elevating it to its greatest heights. There has been a very evident and steady decline of this ‘artistic peak’ since the onslaught of the digital age.

    It is no longer just accessible to everyone, but has become a cultural commodity ….enabled by endless simple tools, mindless applications and very low cost, making it endlessly appealing to the general population.

    The end result… a world flooded with visual images. A place where the sublime and the mundane are now indistinguishable ….where little or nothing stands out as having any artistic value.

    Certainly something to consider….any thoughts on this observation?

    • Matt

      So, sort of like how paint-by-numbers has ruined painting as an art form. I think you are making very strong and very general statements on a culture. So, you don’t think as a result of the digital age that there are better photographers? When someone makes crappy images in Photoshop, it says nothing about me or my work. It really only shows me where they are. Anyone can say they are a photographer and many people do. I really don’t care what you call yourself. Some folks I know don’t care what anyone else thinks of their work. I respect that. Personally, I am a little more insecure and I enjoy the encouragement and support from my peers. But, I know if I get too crazy and “mindless” then I will loose that support. I guess what I am saying it will all balance out in the end.

      OK I am off to the airport. You all play nice!

  18. Jerod Foster

    Matt, thanks for posting and encouraging discussion and deliberation on a very real issue photographers and other visual content producers face on a daily basis, photojournalist or not. Some really great points are made here (so much so that I feel like contributing is a big task).

    However, there are a couple points I would like to make/highlight broadly. This topic’s pervasiveness in the industry warrants both this post and lively discussion. We come around–just as I would imagine photographers in the past did–to this topic every now and then, and it encourages us to brush off the dust on all the well-worn, tried and “true” answers, opinions, and perhaps as Steve points out, justifications for what side of the line we individually stand. Discussions like this might seem almost redundant to some of us, particularly for those that confront the topic more frequently than others. BUT, the fact of the matter is that every time the topic/issue is breached, it forces us to reflect on just who we individually are as photographers, where we individually position ourselves in the industry, our ethics, and in cases (using Matt’s great illustration of the issue at hand above), what we might do in the same situation. This reflexivity is healthy, whether you’re a photojournalist, an editorial shooter, a commercial photographer, or someone simply more interested in shooting weddings (and it’s obvious that this is far and away not an exhaustive list). Often times, we’re not justifying where we stand on the topic to others as much as we are to ourselves…and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    Another area of this discussion (not just the one here, although you see moments where it is evident in the preceding comments) is that we tend to create these normative binaries of right and wrong when it comes to photography (or art, but I’m not going to tackle that term at the moment) in a broad sense. “Normative” in the sense that there is an ideal way of practicing photography, in the professional sense, of course. This subsequently trickles down out of the profession and into other areas of photography. As some have pointed out but maybe not necessarily identified here, there is a “newsroom norm” of photography, as is there a “commercial/advertising norm” of photography, a “wedding norm” of photography, and so on. These are, again, ideals–utopian depictions at best. What they don’t do is paint a completely accurate picture of what is actually practiced 100% of the time. They provide guidance, and there’s no better example of how rigid that guidance can be than the newsroom/photojournalism. Still, you’ll be hard pressed to find complete conformity to any of these normative values of photography. To make a point here, this normative binary is awfully harmful when the rubber meets the road, particularly outside the photojournalism/editorial-esque industry. As Doug puts it in his first comment, there’s a lot of middle ground not accounted for when we create these polar opposites, and as someone that does shoot for a living, I’ll be the first one to say that this middle ground is not all composed of photography either. We haven’t even veered off the road into media economics, competition, issues of power, and a host of other critical issues to that directly and indirectly impact this topic in the less than ideal world of photography.

    In other words, to make grand, polemic statements about whether or not post-processing or image manipulation (two very different terms when we decide to actually define them) is right or wrong is to also simply reference an ideal, and one not always achieved, appreciated, or for that matter, even taken into consideration when it comes time to publish. I suppose that was sort of a polemic, huh?

    In any case, this discussion is about a very large, shades-of-gray area that exists between the binaries that are easier to talk about and deliberate upon than what actually happens along the photographic process. This discussion is ongoing, and one that I’m certain has occurred from when Niepce created his first 8-hour-long exposure, to when (as Craig aptly pointed out) “Honest” Abe Lincoln’s head was put atop John C. Calhoun’s body, to when the fence post was “airbrushed” out from behind Mary Ann Vecchio’s head in the iconic image connected to the 1970 Kent State shooting, to National Geographic “moving” two Egyptian pyramids closer together to satisfy the needs (needs is a certainly loaded term in this case) of the yellow-bordered cover in 1982, to the outcry that surrounded Art Wolfe’s book, Migrations, to the most recent Ralph Lauren or Chanel advertisement.

    More importantly, though, is the value in such a discussion. Again, although it may seem old hat to some photographers, it’s something new and worth considering to those entering into the industry. I teach photography at an American university as well, and this topic is always fresh to my students. If for anything, its the VALUE of this discussion even occurring that is the most important thing for me to convey to students. And, it doesn’t hurt when we “seasoned” professionals/amateurs have another go around with it as well.

    Thanks again, Matt, for initiating this discussion, and thanks to all that have contributed! I hope you all know that you make the practice of photography a richer endeavor by doing so. Carry on!

    • Matt

      Jerod, I think we found the subject for your next book. Well stated.

      *By the way, if readers here have not read Jerod’s book on Storytellers, go get a copy. Great read!

  19. pam

    The image above is stunning. I agree with everything you said. I have always chosen the highway in constrictive photography situations. Highway is metaphorical, the style I choose to pursue is mine alone. Sales is another thing, unfortunately.

    • Matt

      Thanks Pam for commenting. The “highway” huh? I would have thought it was a trail you blaze. 😉



  1. Things You’ll Find Interesting April 24, 2012 @ Chuqui 3.0 - [...] Photography: What’s real, what’s not and does it matter? | The Digital Trekker Blog [...]
  2. Photos and its impact on society, what’s the big deal? | Blog #1 - [...] [...]

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