The Camera Always Lies

By: Clive G

In case you were under the illusion that cameras never lie, you should know that all smartphones and most digital cameras manufactured today have chips implanted inside them that automatically post-process the photographs you take, whether you like it or not.

That means the ‘truth’ of the reality you photographed has already been compromised twice over by the time you view your photograph on the screen, first by the limitations of the image sensor and, second, by the post-processing carried out by the chip. The only way you can avoid this unsolicited post-processing is to shoot in the RAW format. But to submit a RAW image for publication without having made some adjustments would be ridiculous in the extreme.

If one aspires to becoming a serious photographer, then it is important to give thought to the question, ‘To what degree is post-processing of a photographic image acceptable?’ I have been pondering this problem ever since I wandered into a darkroom some 38 years ago to print my first black-and white negative and found that the image I ended up with was too low in contrast for my liking.

Image 3I guess the first point to consider is whether post-processing of our images is really necessary at all. There is a widely held view that to tamper with a photograph after it has been taken is to distort the ‘truth’ of the image? This view, however, is based on a misconception: cameras do not and never have told the truth.

The emulsion of the largest format and fine grain photographic film, or the largest and most sensitive digital camera sensor come nowhere close to being as clear and accurate in their image capture as the human eye. If you have ever gazed on a beautiful scene and been prompted to take a photograph of it, only to be utterly disenchanted with the resulting image, you will realize the truth in this.

It follows, then, that if we wish to bring the photographs we take as close as possible to what we actually saw with our own eyes, post-processing is a must, though with two important caveats.

The first is that we should do it ourselves and not leave it up to the pre-programmed chips inside out cameras. After all, how could the little man in the white coat in the laboratory in Tokyo who pre-programmed your camera chip know exactly what adjustments are necessary to a photograph you took, say, in Riaml al Sharqiyah (Wahiba Sands) in Oman on an overcast day?

The second proviso is that your post-processing should not involve adding something to the image that was not there in the first place, or taking away an integral element of the scene that was photographed. It might be fun to paste a Great White Shark into the snap you took of your kids in the swimming pool, or deeply gratifying to airbrush your mother-in-law out of all your wedding photographs, but such images are fabrications and must always be signalled as such.

Ethical post-processing involves making modest adjustments to the aesthetic aspects of the photograph, such as lightening or darkening the image, increasing or reducing contrast, removing unnatural colour casts or cropping the image to achieve a more pleasing composition, sharpening the image. Needless to say, it is preferable to get the photograph as right as possible in the camera by paying attention to focusing, exposure and composition before you press the button.

But given the limitations of all cameras, post-processing refinements are an important part of the photographic process of all serious photographic practitioners. The skill of post-processing is not to overdo these adjustments and end up with an image that looks unnatural, but rather to bring the photograph more in line with the reality you actually saw with your eyes when you were inspired to take the photograph in the first place.

Another huge shortcoming of the camera in relation to the human eye is field of vision. No matter how wide-angle your lens, the standard camera just cannot capture the big picture in the way a pair of human eyes can. For years, I thought the best way to overcome this problem was to use panoramic cameras, but I soon found that the wide pictures they produced came with a lot of image distortion.

These days, I rely on a post-processing technique known as ‘digital stitching’, or ‘digital joining’, whereby a number of separate images are invisibly stitched together to create a more expansive and accurate image.

The recent image of a large dwelling in the old settlement of Al Hamra which you can see here is actually made up of three separate photographs, shot in RAW, cropped, post-processed to bring the contrast and colour in line with what I actually saw, stitched together in Photoshop and then perspective corrected. So why did I not just take a few steps back and fit the building into one photograph? The reason is because the dwelling is in a narrow street, facing a high wall.

Only a fish-eye lens could have captured the whole building in one image, but the lens distortion would have been so hideous as to make the exercise pointless.

To sum up, post-processing our photographs should not be a means of duping the public with some fabricated image, or of correcting technical errors made while taking the picture.

In its purest, most ethical form, it is simply a way to make up for the limitations of the camera by bringing the image it recorded more in line with the image our own eyes witnessed when we were prompted to take the photograph.

The central issue surrounding post-processing is, do we let our cameras do it for us, or do we take control and do it ourselves?


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