When Does Photo Manipulation Go Too Far?

image manipulation
These retouches are considered minor by today's standards

It all started innocently enough; editing out a pimple here, a blemish there, maybe a chipped tooth. It was easy, it made the client feel better, and it was, for the most part, harmless.

Fast forward to today and digital manipulation has gotten totally out of hand. It’s not just blemishes and pimples anymore. Today we shave years off a face and pounds off a body, lengthen necks and make eyes bigger, lips pouty, and change hair color on a whim. Clickity, clickity done.

Color and lighting are now skills that can be mastered in post. With Photoshop plugins like Color Efex Pro 4 you can change the color scheme, lighting and almost anything else you desire.

All that taken together is bad enough, now comes along a product like LayerCake Elements and now the manipulations to the subject are just the beginning. Now you can add trees, grass and flowers. Don’t like the sky? How about nice sunset sky instead? Add a few clouds for dramatic effect. Put the moon over there, add a few stars because we have to pay attention to details. Need a horse? No problem, drag and drop, resize to fit the scene. Done and done.

Time, date, and place are now meaningless. It reminds me of the sunset scene in the John Wayne movie Green Berets (1968), supposedly set in Vietnam but featuring the sun setting behind the ocean. Those with a 5th grade understanding of geography know that Vietnam doesn’t have a westward facing ocean view. But that didn’t stop the filmmakers and it doesn’t stop the photographer with LayerCake. You can have a sunset anywhere.

So where does all this stop? Or does it? It’s easy to smirk and wonder if grandpa is having trouble adjusting to the new digital reality but keep in mind I was digitally manipulating images when most of you still had training wheels on your bike. At some point do we in the photography community have to say enough and start asserting ourselves in favor of reality? How will we know when we’ve gone too far?

In some fields that question has already been answered. Like photojournalism, where retouching, even adding a little smoke is a non-starter. You’ll not only get fired, you’ll be vilified and humiliated as a value added bonus. Your career will be over.

But what about the rest of us? Do we owe reality a nod, or is reality merely a canvas for us to paint our vision? Are master photo manipulators actual photographers, or something less?

Where it all ends is with H&M’s new lingerie catalog where the faces of the models are real, but the bodies are computer generated.  What do you think is “too far” in digital manipulation?

Flash Umbrellas – Size Does Matter

wescot 7 foot umbrella
New umbrellas like this 7 foot Wescott for $99 are bringing umbrellas back

It may come as a surprise to many photographers today, but softboxes are relative newcomers on the photography and video lighting scene.

In the old days on movie sets there were huge hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide lamps (HMIs), and “hot lights” with names like “Blondes”, which was a 2K open-face light and “Red Heads” which were 1K. Only poor filmmakers used Red Heads, although I saw them sneak on to big sets as background fills occasionally.

About the same time in photography, you probably would have found floor flash units mounted inside large umbrella reflectors.

Photography has always had an edge on film lighting, until very recently. With the advent of DSLRs on movie sets, we’re also seeing some intersection in lighting gear. The old days of HMIs, jokingly referred to as standing for High Monetary Investment, are giving way to less powerful lighting options that produce more even lighting. Softboxes are now turning up in photography studios and film sets alike, although the lighting inside is somewhat different.

With advances in construction and materials, we’re also seeing flash umbrellas making a comeback in photography, although these are not your grandpa’s flash umbrellas.

When it comes to umbrellas in photography, size matters. The broader and more diffuse your light source, the more even the lighting on your subject. The older style umbrellas were small, not much bigger than an umbrella you might carry with you for rainy days. Today you have a better selection.

Companies like Booth Photographicare fielding umbrellas that would make any softbox owner blush with envy. Parabolics, because of the shape, are going to have less fall off at the edges. A parabolic light like a large umbrella, near your subject. is going to give you a bit of wrap around the subject, contributing to a very smooth overall lighting effect.

Booth umbrella
75 in reflective umbrella by Booth Photographic

Umbrellas lost favor to softboxes because, for a long time, the only large umbrellas you could find were really expensive. Today, they’re coming back into vogue with models like this 7 foot Wescott and this 75 inch silver model from Booth.

When you’re out shopping for studio lights, don’t forget to give some of the newer umbrellas a look. With price tags under $200, it’s possible that parabolics will stage a comeback.

The Essence of Great Portraits

sample portrait
A very decent head and shoulders portrait that may be the most unimaginative work I've ever produced

You all probably remember the series we did on studio lighting a while ago. While we were focused on the technical aspects of lighting a good portrait, it completely overlooks the art. Sure, what we came away with was a completely decent head and shoulders portrait.  Looking at it now I realize it lacks any imagination and creativity.

Okay, that’s not totally fair. I shot those photos to demonstrate how changes in lighting change the look of a portrait, not as a demonstration in portrait photography. And yet it still bothers me. The reason it bothers me is that many photographers would think that’s a perfectly fine portrait.

You can have the camera, the lens, and the lighting and take fantastically lit portraits that are technically near perfect,  and still produce average work lacking in imagination and creativity.

The Essence Of a Great Portrait

The essence of a great portrait doesn’t come from the lighting or the camera, it comes from getting to know the person and capturing the essential qualities that make them unique. I don’t think the best portraits always come in a studio setting, they come taking the shots at home, in the shop, or where they work. Maybe that’s my background as a photojournalist talking, but those are the places people are most relaxed and most likely to be themselves.

If you are going to work in a studio, which does offer a lot of advantages, have the person bring something unique to them. For someone like my sister in law, I’d have her bring her knitting bag. I have a friend in Seattle, for her it would be one of her bikes and one of her cats. How you work such bizarrely different props into a single picture, that’s what you get the big bucks to figure out.

The bottom line is anyone who thinks they can capture a person just by having them sit on a stool or stand in front of a background is doing them a disservice. Spend some time getting to know your subjects and figure out what makes them unique.

Good portraits show people on the outside, great portraits show people on the inside.

Rumors Swirl Around Nikon D4


nikon logo
The new D4 could be a video powerhouse - by Rama

NikonRumors is abuzz with rumors about the D4 and if their intel is accurate, Nikon could finally be ready to challenge Canon in the video market.

The problem with speculating about a camera that probably won’t hit the market until August of next year is that the specs are a moving target in this phase of production. Still, a few general conclusions are starting to emerge.

The D4 will sit atop the Nikon line with a full frame sensor right now estimated at 16.2-megapixels but at least one source thinks that could go as high as 24 or even 36-megapixels if Nikon opts to tweak the Sony sensor.

From the specs it appears as if Nikon is finally taking DSLR video seriously. Originally Nikon included video capability as a favor to those using their cameras for news gathering, but they never really embraced it and Canon has managed to own that space until recently. That could change with the D4.

The D4 will offer 1080 video at 30/25/24 fps but the real winner will be serving up uncompressed video out through the HDMI port, a feature also rumored to included in the D800. RAW video out is a feature Canon DSLR video shooters have been clamoring for since the 5D MK II hit the market and a feature the folks at Magic Lantern have been working toward for months. If Nikon gets uncompressed video output working before Canon, that could make a dent in Canon’s filmmaking market.

Another nod to filmmakers is the ability to assign the two buttons in front for smooth aperture control during video shooting. Competition is a wonderful thing.

Other rumored changes in the D4 will be XQD memory card slots along side the CF card slots, integrated ethernet, face detection, and an auto-focus system that uses 9 cross-type sensors operational up to f/8.

The price tag? While not known at this time, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. With the Nikon D3 priced at almost $7,000, you can expect the D4 to be…more.

But then when has photography ever been an inexpensive hobby?  And, for video shooters, $8,000 for RAW video out would be a bargain.

The Trend Toward Real Time Photography

wedding photos
Brides waiting three weeks for photos is a relic of the past - by Joxemai

Justin Ng is a photographer with over 130,000 people on his Facebook page, numbers that would make some Fortune 500 companies blush with envy. What’s funny is that Justin didn’t even start out life as a photographer, he started out as a Windows developer and PHP programmer.

Now he’s getting between 50 and 60 inquiries a month to shoot weddings.

But Justin managed to hit on a trend in wedding and event photography that has been building for some time; the trend toward real-time display of event images, as the event is happening.

Justin Ng developed a smart phone app that guests and those unable to attend the ceremony can download and watch the wedding photos pop up in real time. There’s even a feature that allows guests to download high resolution copies of the images they like.

The trend is not a surprise and anyone in wedding and event photography should be educating themselves about the technical realities of how such a setup might work. While you may not be able to develop your own smart phone app, you could still use an assistant with a laptop and wifi connection to do almost the same thing.

Other options may include gadgets like Eye-Fi’s wireless SDHC cards. There are also attachments for your camera that will transmit files wirelessly. The tech pieces are out there and the market will belong to those adaptable enough to figure out how to use them.

The trend is making itself known in subtle ways. One feature many brides are opting for are monitors at the reception that play slideshows of the wedding photos. Other services, such as having a CD or DVD with wedding images ready for guests by the time they leave, are gaining popularity.

Social media options are also gaining popularity. Having at least a few of the wedding photos up on Facebook and other social media sites the same day, is almost an expectation with many tech savvy couples today.

All of these real-time inroads will put pressure on everyone in wedding and event photography to step up their tech game, both in terms of real time photos and turn-around times for image processing. The days of waiting three months for wedding photos are a footnote in history, even waiting three weeks is out of the question for many brides. Many are calling about their photos in three days and are annoyed they have to wait that long!

Regardless, the time to start exploring your technology options is today. Waiting until the services are pre-bundled and available commercially could well be too late.