Monday, May 27, 2024
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Photoshop is not a synonym for fakery


THE recent hoo-hah around the Princess of Wales’s snaps of herself and her family, in particular about the minor and frankly rather inconsequential image-editing, has set the debate alight about the veracity of photographic images and the extent that their credibility can be dismissed. When it got around that there was some evidence of digital editing on the photos, five of the world’s biggest picture agencies, led by Associated Press (AP), didn’t merely withdraw the pictures from circulation, but issued what they rather melodramatically refer to as a ‘photo kill’ notice (no, I’m not making this up, they really do use that ludicrously overblown language).

In a policy statement, AP explained that ‘minor photo editing, including cropping and toning and colour adjustments, are acceptable when necessary for clear and accurate reproduction and should maintain the authentic nature of the photograph.’
However ‘changes in density, contrast, colour and saturation levels that substantially alter the original scene are not acceptable’ are not allowed and ‘the removal of “red eye” from photographs ‘is not permissible’. 

What this implies is a steadfast and rigid devotion to ‘truth’. But which truth? Which authentic nature? Authenticity to how the scene was in reality? Or merely determined to stick rigidly to what the camera produced? This is a genuine issue because the camera does not ‘tell the truth’. The photographic process itself, whether in the days of film or today with digital imaging chips, has always interceded with its own limitations and distortions of the scene that the camera was employed to ‘record’. AP’s claim that they will not use pictures which have been subject to changes in density, contrast and colour saturation is an extraordinary one and I for one don’t believe it.

High-contrast scenes will usually result in bright highlight areas all blown out to a featureless pure white, while the shadows may come out as impenetrably dense black, again without detail. On a bad day both will happen. Neither of these things resemble what the eye saw at the time. The human eye is a vastly superior seeing system to any photographic process yet conceived. It does this by scanning a high contrast scene while the iris diaphragm adjusts to the changing light levels. A camera cannot employ this method because it uses a single exposure and will always produce a result which does not conform exactly with what was seen. In other words it is not true to the reality as perceived by anyone who ‘was there’. For myself, I define a picture as authentic if it conforms as honestly as possible to what the eye experienced at the time.

Because of this limitation, since the earliest years, photographers have devised and adopted many strategies to come up with photographs which do resemble reality. Even Ansel Adams, probably the US’s most famous and respected ‘natural photographer’, writes extensively in his three volumes on photography about the manipulations he employed at both the negative and printing stages to produce the result he wanted.

One of the ways around the seemingly insoluble contrast problem with digital cameras is to take two exposures of the same scene, one correct for the shadows and one for the highlights. These two exposures can then be combined in software to produce an image which is infinitely more faithful to what the eye saw than any single camera exposure could ever be. This is in effect no different from the ‘shading and dodging’ techniques which Adams described in great detail in his book on making prints. But I don’t imagine for one second that AP etc would issue a ‘kill’ order against any of Adams’s pictures, since one of his highly-manipulated prints of the Snake River in the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, was sold in 2020 at Sotheby’s in New York for $988,000.

Software, of which Photoshop is the best-known, has made image improvement and manipulation easier than ever. Photoshop is a very powerful tool, in use every day in just about every graphic design studio in the world, ensuring that photographs are of sufficient quality to go to press. And yes, there’s a real value to our being on our guard against photographs which have been deliberately montaged and fictionalised to mislead and defraud the public. There’s nothing new about that. Stalin’s retouchers using airbrushes and gouache to remove ‘inconvenient people’ from group photographs are some of the most famous examples in history.

But a few instances of misuse should not bring it into disrepute, where the name Photoshop becomes a facile byword, carelessly thrown around by those who don’t understand the pre-press process, for falsification and fakery. 

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Brian Meredith
Brian Meredith
Brian Meredith is a retired graphic designer who grew up in the Midlands but has lived in Devon for over forty years. A semi-professional musician since his early teenage years, these days his main interests are writing and recording his compositions in a modest home studio.

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