Is Digital Imaging Real Photography?

Does modifying a digital image change the authenticity of a photograph?


There are purists and there are artists.  A purist would define a photograph as original if the photographer used slide film, which does not offer much in the way of manipulation.  An artist, on the other hand, would define a photograph as original even if they modified the entire look and feel in Adobe Photoshop such that the image now resembled a picasso.  Which one is correct?


Photography is the concept of visualizing the real world seen through one’s eyes to create an image in one’s mind and then producing the image through a photographic process as an end result to mimic the imagined moment.  Ansel Adams called it *visualization*.  Michael Freeman calls it *the Mind’s Eye*.


In the days of film as the only medium for photography, one could argue that slide film was the pure photograph.  The latitude for an exposure error was slim and a perfectly exposed transparency was a marvel in color saturation.  It was also one-of-a-kind unless the painful process of duplicating a slide was undertaken.  Yet, even with slide film, were modifications possible and accepted in the photographer’s community that could destroy this purist approach?

The answer is, of course, yes.  However, the point is, was it acceptable manipulation even in the eyes of the purist.  I would argue that it was and is no different from the artist perspective.  There are two methods that support this statement.

First, film type provides a method of manipulation.  It well known in the slide film community what the spectral response is of certain film types and what to expect when exposing them through a camera.  In fact, the resulting transparencies of the same scene, in the same light, through the same lens produce different colors.  Kodak’s Kodachrome was known for bright saturated reds and yellows.  Fuji’s Velvia is known for saturated greens and blues.  Both are slide film and both, unmanipulated, produce different images.

Second, even color transparency photographs may use a filter at the end of the lens changing the light that records the *pure* image.  An *ultraviolet filter* or *UV* filter takes out some of the light that causes haze in an image.  A *polarizing filter* removes light at stray angles thus reducing reflections from stray light.  A *neutral density filter* lowers the amount of light entering a lens so that a slower shutter speed or larger f-stop can be used for the image causing image blur, perhaps, or a narrower depth of field.

Each of these filters modifies the light entering the lens and ultimately exposing the film.  In fact, any lens worth it’s weight will have coatings and use special glass to ensure that light is well aimed and placed precisely on the film plane.

We have modifications abounding even for the Purist.

the Artist

So what about the Artist?  Has their process gone too far in the other direction?  In it’s simplest form, the answer is *No*, the Artist just adds more manipulation to produce the image visualized when the scene was first encountered.

Clearly the Artist manipulates an image.  But what is different from a painter?  Does the painter not view an image and transfer it to canvas using brushstrokes and liquid colors?  Does the painter not represent what that scene has become in his mind?  Is that not art?


View the scene.  Spark imagination and creativity to realize the scene is important to record and share.  Manipulate the scene in one’s mind to produce the desired focus of emotion and story.  Then, determine what must be done, photographically, to capture that moment and present it as seen in one’s mind.

The amount of manipulation will vary according to the individual photographer and according to the desired outcome or visualization.  In fact, the measure of success is not what the image looks like, but rather two fold.  First, can the photographer truly say the resulting image is what they say in their mind when deciding to take the photograph?  Second, did the photography adequately convey the emotion and story he intended to?

If the answer is yes, then the photograph, in whatever resulting manipulated or mutilated form, is reality.  In pure logic, the image is authentic because it was taken from forward moving matter in the universe and converted to a moment in time on a visual medium. The moment was halted and preserved.  It is the authentic representation of the creator and is therefore, real.

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