Manipulating photographs is a touchy issue with many photographers, and everyone has their own definition. I'm no exception on the subject, and I'll present my view on it. There is a simple view and a complex view as we know with many issues, as you approach the center of the argument the gray area gets wider and fuzzier, because words are open to interpretations and actions are subject to individual choices. I raise this subject because it came up on a forum on street photography where someone asked if there limits on manipulating a photo presenting street photography.
First, there's a wide definition of street photography, and the widest works for me when it's defined as photography taken while engaged in the everyday events of life. It's about people, places, events, and so on that constitutes anything taken in the moment of time with little real interest in making it artistic beyond what was there. It's about the photographer's realistic view of the moment. The key thing is that it must be real and realistically presented, which means no manipulation.
And that's where the subject came from. We may have seen in recent months the story of photojournalist manipulating images of war scenes, one example being the bombing of Beruit by the Isrealis last summer where the photographer added more smoke plumes to exagerate the effect. Well, that's the crux of the issue with street photography. It must be real and realistically presented. Otherwise, it's just an image, more art than fact.
And this leads to my defintion of manipulation. Manipulation involves the content of the photograph, meaning anything that changes what was originally captured in terms of the entire image including color (if taken in color). After that anything done with the image is divided by this line. Which is?
Well, for one, outside of compositing images, anything generally done with traditional darkroom techniques is not manipulation in my view but work involved in making the print. This includes the film, for which there was a huge range in both color and black and white and their individual characteristics. This includes any film processing, for which black and white photographers were noted to do because of the dynamic range between the scene and the film. This includes any technique used in the printing methods including the paper, and the exposure, which also includes dodging and burning.
Digital photography has changed the techniques available in capturing, processing, and printing images. In short, it's a whole new world. But it doesn't change my definition of manipulation. It's still the same because you can translate all the traditional techniques to Photoshop, and if you want, limit yourself to them, and even add a few within the definition. Which are?
Ok, everyone knows we get the color wrong with film. Who hasn't used the wrong film, wrong lighting or the wrong color corrective filter? And you can do the same with digital, except now you have the raw file to recover your mistakes and get the right color balance. And this is where I draw a dotted line, "to get the color correct" for the scene. Anything altering the colors from their original color is manipulation.
So, this means everything else is manipulation? Well, I can't fully say as I haven't tested the features in Photoshop, but I can say what I have tested constitutes manipulations with very few fuzzy distinctions. Fuzzy? Well, on some images recently I noticed the lens had a dirty spot which caused streaks in the blue sky, so I brushed the streaks to match the surrounding sky and make it appear correct. And for that I would say is the fuzzy part, small mistakes are ok if it's to correct it to the original from somethings not intentional in the original.
Why all the arugment? Well, some types of photography demand realism. These are wildlife photography, photojournallism and street photography. That's where most stop, but I include nature and landscape photography. I'm a stickler for capturing what I see and presenting it as realistically as I saw it. Many don't include these catagories, but I do for personal and professonal reasons. When I see a nature or landscape image I like to know I can stand the same place and see the same scene in the image, or at least as best one can because of time and weather.
And it's why many of my nature and landscape images look a little flat, I don't put "pop" into them. I didn't use saturated films or now use Photoshop to "improve" the image. It's the old WYSIWYG idea. And I'll continue to practice it as best I can. This doesn't mean I don't appreciate and admire manipulated images. I do because it shows originality and artistic talent which I enjoy seeing. I only say ask they say what it is, which may not be realistic.
And so, as they say, in conclusion, manipulation is relative, but it's centered around the content of the photograph, and if it was or wasn't altered beyond the original scene. And as Jimmy Buffett sang, "That's my story and I'm sticking to it."