Where’s the line on toning photos, especially for contests?

My aunt asked me for recommendations of software that would easily allow her to remove people or objects from photos. At first, I fired up an ethically infuriated head of steam. How dare anyone remove objects from a sacred image?

Silly reaction, no?

Then I got to thinking: Wouldn’t it be nice if there were universal agreement about how much post production application to images is acceptable, especially as it applies to contest entries?

That’s like saying, wouldn’t it be nice if we all agreed about who makes the best car? There are people who don’t think we should be driving cars, those who are emphatic about a particular brand being the best, others who are oblivious of the nuance of cars and yet others who could care less what they drive, as long as it drives.

And so it is with post production of images. Some people think there’s a line in the sand that can’t be crossed, others don’t see the line, others think there shouldn’t be a line and others yet think the line swerves here and there depending on where you cross it.

There are so many layers to the issue that it’s like trying to hold a swarm of worms in your hands when all you want to do is put one worm on a hook and go fish.

Those in the art and commercial and advertising worlds must think this a paltry, pointless discussion. And yet, even in those worlds, the further the path strays from some form of reality, the less likely the message falls on willing ears.

The core principles in the story telling realm seem to be tied to the notion of altering physical reality, falsifying the truth, presenting a situation not as it appeared to be.

But these days, most debate noise comes from adjustment of images and it’s a negative action mostly if the adjustment happens after the image was made. I’ve heard many an argument against instagram and hipstamatic images from the iPhone because they alter saturation, shadow density, exposure and such things after the image was made. It is post production and therefore changes the real image. That argument is absurd.

The core determinant, for me, is whether objects were moved, people’s faces were changed, images were combined in a way that altered what anyone would have seen in the setting, or if things were removed from the frame. The Washington Post has run a few HDR images of scenes, which by their nature combine multiple exposures into one frame to get a higher range of detail than cameras can now record. I’m ok with HDR.

The degree to which people get pissed off about this issue is astounding. It’s as if clinging to an extreme set of rules that say never do this/always do that somehow elevates their work and protects them from innovation and evolution. Having rules in photography is like trying to rigidly control traffic in a Rome traffic circle.

I’d rather follow principles than rules. Forget rules such as: You cannot alter the saturation beyond 5 percent of the original capture; you can’t put frames around photos, their is no post production allowed that presents an extreme of the actual setting.

Instead, follow guidelines or principles and practices that seek to accurately reflect your impression of what you’ve photographed. That impression is ideally formed through your connection with and understanding of the subject. The goal is to elicit responses from photographs that convey a quality of the subject photographed.

There isn’t a set of rules that could contain the breadth of what’s possible in the photographic medium. So why put them out there, except at the extreme end of what happens - adding elements that were not in the scene, changing the physical structure of elements.

Then it’s up to the individual setting to determine if a given set of photos is appropriately handled. If that’s a scary proposition, then loosen your sphincter.