Manipulating Digital Images

Three Roseate Spoonbills staring down the photographer. And, they’re really in the water! Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida. © David C. Lester, NatureBook Photography                                                        

 Most professional photographers I know make every effort to get their images “right” in the camera to make the best possible photographs and avoid extensive post-processing using Lightroom, Photoshop, or other software. Post-processing, in my view, should be limited to color correction, a touch of sharpening, and maybe a few other minor adjustments. I’m not even a fan of removing a light pole that’s obstructing your subject slightly. If the light pole is a problem, recompose your image so it won’t be, or merely consider it part of the scene you faithfully recorded.

I’ve seen some photographers manipulate their images to the point where the finished product looks nothing like the original image. They move people and objects around in the picture, and they use parts of other photos to add to the final product. The result is a “photo illustration” instead of a photograph. In the future, someone will likely look at the picture and think it is real, even if the photographer initially records and communicates that it is not.

Now, if the bulk of your work is creating material for graphic movie posters, or you’re working in the realm of fantasy, that’s a different story. In this case, you will likely use Photoshop heavily to achieve your desired outcome. Unless this is your line of work, however, if a client asks you to make significant changes to an image to achieve a specific outcome, I would be wary of doing so.

These powerful post-processing tools enable photographers to make minor enhancements to improve their images, just like Ansel Adams did when printing his beautiful black & white pictures in the traditional darkroom. These are vital in the “digital darkroom.” However, they place an extra responsibility on the photographer to ensure that their images are genuine and let viewers know that they do not create photo illustrations.

The practice of making photo illustrations erodes the viewer’s confidence that the image is what the photographer saw. For example, consider an image created inside a house, looking out of a pair of windows. And, you see a giant moose peering in from the outside; it’s hard to know for sure if the image is real or if the background and moose were taken from another picture and dropped into the window frame in the final image. This manipulation treads on dangerous territory, and the credibility of all photographers is at stake.

One example of the fundamental problems this practice can generate is when an architect won first prize in a prestigious design award competition, and the judges determined award winners only by looking at photographs of their buildings. After the architect received first prize, others learned that the photo of their building had been manipulated in Photoshop to eliminate large air handling equipment on the roof, which detracted significantly from the structure’s aesthetics. Moreover, many architects pointed out that a different design of the air handlers would not be visible on the roof. This point struck at the heart of the issue – would this architect have received the design award had the air handlers been evident in the photograph? I don’t know the outcome of this debacle, but there was some discussion about rescinding the architect’s award. If I find out, I’ll tell you in a future blog.

David C. Lester

NatureBook Photography

Printing Your Photographs


A fine art print provides a more intimate experience than an image on a screen. © David C. Lester


If you’re over 30, chances are you have memories of informal family gatherings to look at pictures your parents made of you when you were a child, images of your parents when they were dating, and even photos of your grandparents and great-grandparents when they were at different ages. The pictures are in a shoebox, a photo album, or a simple envelope or folder, like the ones drug stores and old camera stores would return your processed pictures along with the negatives.

All of the images were printed, including the bad ones. This printing led to waste, and there were probably relatively few “keepers” in the bunch.

If you’re between your late teens and late twenties, you’ve likely taken and viewed most of your photographs using the camera in your cell phone. This method is fun and convenient, and your pictures can stay with you on your phone, or transferred to your computer at a later date. You will also likely back up your images through a cloud-based program, external hard drive, or even a thumb-drive. And, if a picture turns out poorly, you can just hit the “delete” button, and the image disappears in the ashbin of digital history.

I’m astonished at some of the stories I hear regarding folks who have taken treasured photographs, yet have not printed any of them. For example, I recently led a discussion of young photographers, and each said they had never printed one of their images. These folks were in late high school and college, and I know money is tight at that age, so I can understand why they didn’t do a lot of printing. But, not one?

I also spoke with someone recently whose daughter got married, and the photographer, at the client’s request, delivered merely digital images of the ceremony and reception. The client said they would have them printed later. The surprising thing was that the wedding took place three years ago. If the client hasn’t had any printed by now, will they ever?

When you consider how rapidly technology around digital photography has changed over the past twenty years, are you confident that your treasured photographs will be available electronically thirty or forty years from now? It’s entirely possible that technology will evolve in such a way as to maintain the integrity of these images, but it’s also possible that it won’t.

I’m certainly not advocating going back to the old days of printing everything you shoot, but there is a happy medium that I think everyone should consider. To ensure the integrity of your images, I believe you should print your “keepers” so they will be around for a long time for your family or clients to enjoy. Many believe that the ultimate expression of an image is a fine art print. Ansel Adams once said, “the negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.” There is something about a beautiful print that provides the viewer a much more intimate experience than an image on a screen.

The Professional Photographers of America (PPA) has initiated a campaign to raise awareness of the need to print photographs. It’s called PRINT. The Movement. Information about this program, along with thoughts on the value and beauty of prints can be found at



Chasing Technology – Is It Good For Photography?

Around 2005, digital cameras began to achieve parity with film cameras for the serious amateur and professional photographer. At that time, most photographers agreed that the resolution and other features of the new digital cameras were equal to or even better than film cameras.  Thus began the digital revolution in photography that continues unabated nearly 15 years later.

There’s no doubt that the digital camera has brought whole new set of tools to the photographer.  Cameras offering resolution that is close, if not equal to, medium format quality.  The processes of working with images in the camera and on the computer during post-processing allow artists to create beautiful images in color and black & white.  In addition, the ability to set high ISO and noise reduction has given new meaning to the concept of low-light photography.

So, it’s all good, right?  Well, yes and no.  The advent of the technology is certainly good, and I’ve heard some folks say that it has drawn them back into photography.  On the flip side, though, at what point does the technology become more intriguing than making images?  Are we all becoming “gear heads?”

The past fifteen years have seen new digital cameras released, on average, about every two years.  That’s a lot of new releases, and the primary driver has been the ability of manufacturers to increase the number of pixels in a given space to increase resolution. This has created a difficult situation for photographers.

Unless one is a pro shooting, say, sporting events, and goes through the life cycle of a shutter in two years, it becomes increasingly difficult for serious amateurs, and even some pros, to acquire the latest technology every two years.  Yet, if you don’t have the latest, you feel as though you’re behind the curve in some way, and your camera is obsolete.

While those feelings are not based on fact, they tug at the emotions, particularly when there’s so much hype and mystery around when the “new” camera will be released.  Indeed, there are several websites devoted to speculation and “what people are hearing” regarding when the next camera will be released, and what features it will have, especially how many megapixels.

The key message of this discussion is that, I believe, serious amateur and professional photographers may be better served by stopping the chase for the latest cameras and the most megapixels, and work on elements of their photography that improve lighting, composition, exposure, and many other elements of basic photography.

Consider the work of well-known photographers before digital came on the scene.  John Shaw, Art Wolfe, Tom Mangelsen, Frans Lanting, Galen Rowell, and others became famous for their excellent work using film cameras, where color (usually slide) film could only be developed by commercial labs, and black & white processing had to be done in the darkroom.  Thumb through one of the many books by any of these individuals, and you’ll see what I mean.  Wonderful composition, excellent color saturation, creative use of depth-of-field, good lighting in difficult situations all come together to produce images as good as, or even better than professionals working today.

Even though there are hundreds of books on how to improve your photography that have been published during the digital age, you can learn as much about the basics by consulting a book published during the film age.  One of my favorites is John Shaw’s Nature Photography Field Guide, published in 2000, which is chock full of good advice and beautiful photographs.  Although he recently published an updated version of this book that offers plenty of advice on the digital workflow, I often enjoy reading and learning from the first edition.

We live during a great time for photography, and the digital workflow from capture to print offers much greater control over the final version of our images than film did.  No doubt about that.  We simply have to guard against a preoccupation with technical advances and specifications to the detriment of the basics of photography and our focus on excellent images.