Retouching photographs

Photo by Simon Woehrer on Unsplash

Since I bought a second-hand Leica X2, a twelve-year-old camera, I have started playing with photography again after a long break. In the past, I used to develop my photographs in one of my rooms that I turned into a dark room. Those were times!

Digital photography is the way to go for me right now. I already talked in the past about why I bought a second-hand camera. Look back here, and you will find why if you are interested.

Yesterday I was working on my computer with some photos I had taken earlier.

Suddenly, I stopped and started thinking if what I was doing was right or at least fair.

Should photos remain the same as you took them when you pressed the shutter?

Are you altering reality when you retouch a photo?

Making these adjustments changes, often dramatically, what the camera sensor has captured. The result is a representation different from what the sensor saw initially. As a result, you are altering the “reality” of the photo. The fundamental question remains: did the camera sensor capture a snapshot of reality?

This question is challenging to answer.

In the first place, a photo is not what our eyes see. Our eyes capture reality in three dimensions, and our brain often corrects what we see to make sense of it. A digital camera makes a two-dimensional representation of what it sees through the lens.

Then comes the camera lens itself. The focal length, the aperture, the shutter time, and the lens’s optical construction make a vast difference between what our eyes see and what is recorded on the camera.

If you read carefully what I have written so far, you may notice that I am almost writing about the path of light from the subject to your computer.

After the light has traveled through your camera lens, it will hit the camera sensor. As you may know, a camera sensor converts light into digital data. Every sensor is different, giving its own “interpretation” of what it sees from the lens. Even if you take two identical cameras, the two camera sensors will have slight, unnoticeable differences because of the manufacturing process.

Then comes the camera firmware that will interpret the digital data coming from the camera sensor and convert it to data, typically a file format, that a computer can deal with. This firmware significantly impacts the final result of the photo you will see on your computer. If you think about analog cameras, it is about the same because the light will impact a physical film, and each film has different characteristics.

Finally, the photo lands on our computer, and we retouch it. Contrast, white balance, exposure, color, and so on.

You can understand that what you are looking at on your computer has already been heavily manipulated during travel from the original subject. What has not changed is the subject or the “moment.”

When you retouch the photo, you add your interpretation of the moment.

Marc Bloch wrote that history does not exist. Interpretation of history exists.

We can apply the same concept to photography.

When we shoot and retouch a photo, we offer viewers our interpretation of a moment.

I understand some people suggest not to retouch photos. I don’t want to argue with them. Each approach is valid. I notice that even if you do not retouch your photos, those photos have already been heavily altered from what our eyes saw.

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