Where Photography Ends and Photoshop Begins

Yvan Cohen

Fri Jun 04 2021

Where Photography Ends and Photoshop Begins

A photographer’s guide to the ethics of digital photography

The essence of photography has often been summed up by the saying “the camera never lies”.

Indeed, for much of photography’s relatively brief history this seemed almost true. Photographic film has been an inflexible medium. Composition and lighting could be manipulated on location and during the printing process, but the physical elements of an image were seemingly seared into celluloid.

For the most part, we trusted what we saw.

The advent of mass market digital photography just a couple of decades ago, ushered in a quantum shift. While the physical format of cameras and the process of capturing images has remained much the same, the medium has been completely transformed.

Inflexible film has been replaced by infinitely flexible digital images, composed of pixels that can easily be re-arranged with just a few twitches of a mouse.

Processed images in a darkroom. Processed images in a darkroom. Photo by Rudy and Peter Skitterians

Creative possibilities vs. credibility

The significance of this technological leap is often underestimated. It was a seismic change that simultaneously opened up a universe of creative possibilities while eroding the credibility of the photographic image as a means of witness. Digital technology has prompted both creators and viewers to understand photographs and photography in a very different way.

If you’re an artist using photography purely as a tool of expression, digital photography has surely been liberating. It has unlocked a limitless world of possibilities. You can add, remove, manipulate and massage your pictures in any direction you like. The creation of a digital photograph is just the beginning of an artistic journey, powered by tools like Photoshop.

If you’re an editorial photographer, the story is slightly nuanced. While the technological transformation of the photographic medium presents new opportunities, it also has its pitfalls.

On the plus side, digital photography provides editorial photographers with instant feedback, making it possible to review and even transmit photographs directly from the field.

There are also economic advantages, though these are double edged. The low cost of digital storage cards and hard drives make it possible to shoot much more than would have been economically viable in the age of film. But where relatively cheap film cameras could be used for decades, digital cameras have become an expensive form of disposable technology, leaving photographers saddled with the expense of purchasing pricey new cameras every few years or so.

All this being said, if you use your photography to bear witness to and report on the world as you find it, the digital medium requires a strict ethical approach. Without it, the credibility of your photographs risk becoming as fragile and ephemeral as the pixels they are composed of.

Here are four basic rules to ensure your digital photography adheres to the core ethical principles that will help maintain the credibility of editorial photography and photojournalism.

  1. Never delete, add or move the position of physical elements from your photographs. This means if there’s an annoying electrical wire, person, or whatever, in your picture, it stays right there. It’s your job to record the world as it is, not as you’d like it to be.
  2. Never use digital tools to alter the shape of an object. More importantly, never use these tools to change the expression or physiology of a person depicted in your image. These subjects are not details, they are the truths that make your editorial pictures credible and valuable.
  3. Only use digital tools to adjust the tone and contrast of your image, much as you might have done in a traditional darkroom. You can create mood with these tools, without adding or removing anything from your image.
  4. Make sure you leave the exif data in your file. It’s not a requirement, but it does help provide a digital identity for your file. Exif will show what camera and lens was used and indicate your settings at the time you took the photo.

Written by Yvan Cohen | Yvan has been a photojournalist for over 30 years. He’s a co-founder of LightRocket and continues to shoot photo and video projects around South East Asia.

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