Every so often in conversation with friends, in online forums or letters to magazines the topic of photo editing or retouching (those opposed will use the word “manipulation”) comes up. I want to give here my opinion on the subject. I’ll start by saying that the issue is twofold: on one side it’s merely artistic, an interpretation of what is seen and therefore completely subjective; on the other side it’s a mechanical problem.
When is much too much? There is a correlation between the two sides. I need to make one point clear: there is no such a thing as a non-retouched photograph. I know, you’re thinking… What?! This is true for both film and digital media. A digital camera is built around a sensor that interprets light. Each active pixel sensor measures the light and converts it into an electric signal, needless to say each brand works it a little differently. The electric signal has to be interpreted (by software in a computer or firmware inside the camera) and therefore the amount of data that corresponds to the image has already been “transformed” (retouched) by the camera maker or other software company.
Let’s make a true life example: you shoot an image in JPEG, you click the shutter and you get the file in the memory card. By now the firmware in the camera has already modified colors, light and discarded all unnecessary (according to programming) data as Canon, Nikon, Fuji or whoever else built the camera. So, you say: ok, I will shoot RAW then, and I’ll use the data as seen by the sensor without any action on the firmware part. Well, it’s not actually that simple. First of all, the sensor is like a human eye, but much less perfect therefore what you capture is already an interpretation of what you see (don’t believe me? Go shoot high contrast scenes and compare what you see with what you get). Second, RAW data is not an image, it needs to be converted into an image by specialized software. Now you have to load your RAW file into your favorite software (mine is Adobe Lightroom) which means the software company has decided how to interpret the data. Load a RAW file into Lightroom, Aperture, DxO Labs, etc. and you will see differences.
That’s why when someone tells me proudly: “I don’t retouch my images” my answer is usually: “In that case you’re letting someone else do it for you” – It is that simple, you can load an image into your favorite software, modify it a bit and make it look like what your eyes saw, or you can let the camera maker or software house decide how you saw it.
What about film? Well, pretty much the same story. Different emulsions produce different results and when it comes to exposing, toning, etc. every touch is personal.
I hear now and then people say “Ansel Adams would never retouch” – As a matter of fact Ansel Adams could be considered the father of modern retouching and some of my friends who had the chance to work with him assure me that he would love using Photoshop.
Discussions welcome. Remember that this is my personal view.