11 August 2006

Do you see what I see?

There's been news again of late about newspaper photos edited, or "Photoshopped", before being published. I find this issue to be interesting for a number of reasons.

First, because when I worked as a newspaper photographer I on a few occasions edited pix in Photoshop before they ran. Yep, it's true. There was a car ad where I erased the braces holding the car up on it's side, so it looked like the two salesmen where holding it up. And there was that group photo of kids where some were making, ahem, rude gestures shall we say? Their hands were somewhat shadowed already, so I just darkened things a bit more.

I don't feel any guilt over either of these incidents. In the first case, anyone with any sense would guess the photo had been manipulated. And in the second case, well, if I'd caught the kids at the time I was taking the photo I would have simply taken another, after letting the adults in the situation know what the kids had been doing.

Another reason I'm intrigued by these instances is that there's often a reaction of, "See, look what computers can let you do!" As if photos were never modified before the advent of image software and computers. Right. All computers have done is make it possible for any moderately tech savvy individual to modify things, rather than such modification requiring a photographer trained to use darkroom equipment beyond the essentials. If anything, I think the relative ease makes it easier to spot the manipulated images now, as the manipulators often don't have the skill to hide what they've done — at least not from those who are familiar with the software. (Here's a good look at some recent examples of photo manipulations by the media.)

However, I never really thought about the inherent difference between what individuals see and what a camera sees. Here's a quote from "Don't Believe What You See in the Papers" and article in Slate by Jim Lewis:
"... What, after all, do we believe when we believe that a photograph is true? That it mimics what we would see with our own eyes, if we were standing where the camera was placed? But a camera sees quite differently: For one thing, to take only the most obvious features, photos are rectangular, whereas the human eye's visual field is an ovoid blob. Moreover, "normal" vision is roughly equivalent to what you get from a 35 mm camera lens set somewhere between 42 mm and 50 mm zoom. Anything longer than that shows details no human eye could see; anything shorter shows an unnaturally broad vista. And cameras are notoriously crude when it comes to dynamic range: Highlights get blasted and dark areas become muddy. ..."
In other words, a picture is almost always going to be different from what a person would see in the same environment, to at least some degree. This is something I knew, now that I think about it, but had never really considered.

But a photograph really is always an artificial representation of the world. I was thinking about this recently when I looked at some pix Chris had taken of the girls. I commented that they were so different from mine and he joked, "Yeah, they're not as good" but that wasn't it.

When I take a picture, I usually frame it, make sure the orientation is right, the lighting, etc. I may ask the girls to stand still, smile, or move this way or that. The picture I end up with is therefore a constructed version of whatever was going on. The pictures that Chris had taken were spontaneous, at all angles, with lots of space around the action. The girls were playing, doing whatever they'd really been doing when he picked up the camera. The pictures were much more real than what I tend to capture. Maybe not as aesthetically pleasing, but somehow truer representations of the kids.

I guess I don't really have a point in all this — just random observations on a theme. *grin* That's what blogs are for, right?

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