Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Integrity in Digital Photography

Introduction - A Rude E-mail

This morning (2004-01-12), I received a rude e-mail from a man in Spain regarding one of my photographs on this website. Here is a screenshot of his e-mail with his name and email address blurred out (click to see a full-sized version):

Upon reading this e-mail, I excused his spelling and grammar since he was probably not a native English speaker, but I could not excuse his false accusation and demeaning tone. The photograph in question, one that I took of a crippled beggar boy in Central China, is shown below:

His claim was that I had used a photo-editing program to digitally "remove" the boy's right leg. After looking at the picture again, I can sort of understand how he could make that claim. The cutoff from the bottom of the boy's shirt to the ground seems a bit abrupt, but that was a result of the angle of the shot. Of course, I did not alter the photograph; the boy really only had one leg. Take a look at how his weight is not distributed evenly on both sides and how his hip thrusts out slightly on his left side to balance his weight on his one leg.

I dug up the original photograph from my file cabinet, took a picture of it, and emailed it to my accuser with the hope that he will realize it was an honest mistake. Well, I never did hear back from the man, but he got me thinking about an interesting issue that eventually became the topic of this article.

Digital Photography vs. Digital Art

Look at any magazine cover and you'll see perfect pictures of beautiful people with perfectly sculpted legs, chiseled six-packs, wrinkles where you want to see them, and no wrinkles where you don't. These are enhanced representations of real people, and we all know that real people (although people on magazine covers are usually hotter than you or I) do not look that perfect. After photographing a celebrity for a magazine cover, the photographer turns the image over to the digital artists who use computer image-editing programs to enhance the photo to the editor's liking. They can remove wrinkles, sculpt arms, chisel abs, or enhance eyes with graceful sweeps of the electronic stylus. The "art" in all of this is to make the person look as good as possible without making them look too "fake."

On the other hand, the job of a photographer is to capture the reality of the world as accurately as possible through the camera's lens, not to enhance reality by adding new features or removing unwanted ones. The "art" in photography results from picking the right lenses and angles, choosing the type of contrast, exposure, and lighting, and composing the shot to portray a certain element of emotion or flavor. However, not all photographs are accurate portrayals of the world as humans view it. Nobody sees in black and white, nobody has a fisheye lens coming out of his head, and nobody's eyes can focus down to 1 centimeter.

Digital photography, in its most conservative definition, is simply photography without film. The image is captured as a computer file instead of emulsion on a piece of film. Nothing else changes. If you adopt this conservative definition as I have, digital photography should not be able to achieve anything that is not possible with conventional film or slide photography. Magazine cover pictures are examples of digital art, not digital photography, since many of these pictures are not possible to obtain using old-fashioned film photography. There is no filter that you can put on the front of the camera to enhance a person's abs.

The images I display on this website are examples of digital photography, not digital art. That is why I was so insistent on making a quick response to the false accusation that I had digitally altered one of my photos to remove the boy's leg. That e-mail vexed me because it attacked my integrity as a digital photographer.

Slide, Film, and Digital Photography

What does a photograph truly look like after you have taken it?

In traditional slide photography, the slide that results from the development process is your final photograph. Take it or leave it. That's it. That is why professionals love to use slides. There is a certain satisfaction in knowing that if your picture looks good when it is projected onto the wall, then you did everything perfectly - you chose the correct film, you set the right f-stop and shutter speed, and you composed the shot optimally. However, if the picture is a bit darker or lighter than you intended, but you like everything else about it, then you're flat out of luck. There ain't nothing you can do. Slide photography is costly (and thus mostly reserved for pros) because there is no forgiveness for even minor mistakes.

Film photography is a bit more forgiving since photographs are developed into negatives before being printed onto photo paper. Through proper darkroom techniques, a photographer can control the brightness, contrast, and color balance of a photograph. He can even make specific changes to certain areas of a photograph in a process known as dodging and burning. The great landscape photographer Ansel Adams is well-known for his remarkable ability to dodge and burn photos in the darkroom. However, most people do not have the time nor skill to custom process every photo in the darkroom. We take our film to photo labs where a computer decides what the best darkroom processing settings are for our photographs. A picture that is a bit darker or lighter than intended can be fixed in the darkroom to a certain extent. As a result, just because a photograph looks great as a print does not mean that you did everything perfectly. The photo lab computer probably fixed some of your minor mistakes to give you a good-looking print.

All of the photos on the Internet are in digital format, and many of them were originally taken as slide or film photographs. They were scanned in using either a conventional flatbed scanner or using a more expensive (but higher-quality) film scanner that scans negatives instead of prints. All of my photographs that originated as film negatives were scanned in using a film scanner.

Digital photography bypasses the physical world altogether and directly captures the light from a scene onto a light-sensitive chip and saves the image as a computer file. This is a great technology for presenting photos on the Internet since it bypasses the extra step of scanning in physical images from slides, film, or print.

The One Golden Rule of Digital Photography

I admit that I sometimes use image editing programs to modify photographs before putting them on this website, mostly in my early pre-2001 pictures to compensate for distortions in the scanning process or the primitive sensor in my first digital camera. However, I strictly obey the one golden rule of digital photography that any modifications made on the computer must be reasonable and plausible using conventional film photography techniques. I am allowed to adjust the brightness, contrast, and color balance of an image within certain reasonable bounds since a photographer could do the same thing in a physical darkroom. I am even allowed to dodge and burn specific areas of my photographs, although I have never felt the need to do so. The computer is merely serving as my digital darkroom. As a result of me abiding this golden rule, a casual observer should not be able to tell which photos on this website came from a film camera and which ones came from a digital camera.

Why am I allowed to "touch-up" my photographs in these ways? Because any reasonably-skilled person could do the same thing in a real darkroom. Still skeptical about the integrity of digital photo enhancement? Take a look at one of your good photographs lying in your photo album. Chances are, if you had that photo developed within the past few years, it was done in a "digital photo lab" which is essentially a computer that scans in your negative, modifies the brightness, contrast, and/or color balance to produce the best-looking photo possible, and prints it out onto photo paper. That does not differ one bit from what I do to some of my older photographs on my own computer.

Remember that I am not adding any extra elements into my photographs or deleting any unwanted elements from them. I am merely practicing traditional darkroom techniques on a computer. I am not removing wrinkles or augmenting breast sizes. Thus, I am not digitally "altering" the photos. I feel that it is unethical to digitally remove a boy's leg from a picture and pass it off as a work of digital photography (as opposed to digital art), and that is why the e-mail accusation inspired me to write this article.

Conclusion

For me, digital photography is nothing more than photography with the word 'digital' in front of it. Digital photography has opened up opportunities for amateurs such as myself to explore darkroom techniques which used to be reserved only for professionals with large amounts of money and experience. However, it is still a form of photography, and digital photographers should follow the same of rules of integrity that accompany slide and film photography.

Created: 2004-01-12
Last modified: 2005-08-14