How Much Post Production is Too Much?

By Jason Row / December 3, 2012

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A recent article I wrote here on Lightstalking demonstrated how to add life to a flat image.  It showed a fairly mundane image being turned into something somewhat more striking. Whilst writing that article, there was a major controversy brewing in the photographic world, when the Landscape Photographer of the Year, David Bryne was stripped of his title (and £10,000) because of over manipulation of the digital image. In fact three images entered by the photographer were disqualified in the end, the ruling can be read here (PDF).
The Telegraph newspaper has a page with the manipulated image, here.
Today, rather than give you an article on technique or what to shoot, I want to perhaps spark some discussion and debate on how much post production is too much.
Image Manipulation and Photojournalism
Let’s start our discussion with photojournalism, as whilst a manipulated landscape or travel photo may be controversial within artistic circles, manipulated photo journalist images have the power to change minds at every level, even governments.
Does the photojournalist have duty to create the most visually striking image he can, to create the greatest impact (and hence money) or is his duty to convey an accurate visual representation of what is actually happening? Most outsiders as well as photo journalists would say the latter, but it does not stop some of them manipulating either to aid composition or to add impact.
So what level of manipulation is right for a news image? In my opinion, you should be able adjust the image using levels, contrast and saturation with the possibility of cropping but nothing that was in the original should be removed or anything added. If you remove something for purely compositional purposes and it is discovered, you will lose the trust of your audience partly because they will believe if you are prepared remove something aesthetically, did you remove anything else for political purposes?
Although in this day and age, there is a healthy dose of cynicism for most news media, you only have to look at fake images that go viral on social networks to realize that there are plenty of people that will believe anything they are shown.
Commercial Photography and Image Manipulation
Moving away from photo journalism, we all accept that most commercial photography involves manipulation of varying degrees but looking at, for example competitions such as the one we saw at top of the article, how far should a photographer go to add impact to an image? If it was for personal use, or as a commissioned work, then presumably the sky is the limit, metaphorically not literally.
But what about competitions? Is it fair that someone with average photographic skills but a high degree of proficiency in photo editing can gain advantage over someone with less editing skills. Perhaps, you could argue, that Photoshop skills are an integral part of being a photographer, much as printing in a darkroom was in film days.

These days, there are a huge amount of images with wonderful looking skies, deep saturated colors and a huge dynamic range. There can be no denying that these images are visually very striking and warrant a lot of attention, but how many people look beyond the visual look of the image to the composition, are we guilty of using post production to excuse poor camera technique, and if we are, is that a bad thing?
The one thing we all have to accept is that digital manipulation is here to stay, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. How we interact and accept that genie will influence the future direction of our beloved pastime or profession.

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About the author

Jason Row

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer. He now concentrates on producing travel stock photography and video from around the world, and you can get to know him better here

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