Just what is a photograph

Discussion in 'Digital Photography' started by Pat, Nov 25, 2008.

  1. Pat

    Pat Guest

    Years ago, when working in my darkroom, I had a pretty good idea what
    a photograph was. You shone light on a negative, developed it, put in
    in an enlarger, shone light on a piece of light-sensitive paper, and
    developed that. When you got done you had a photograph. You could
    add elements, dodge, burn, screw with chemicals or make lithos; but in
    the end it all came down to shining light on a piece of paper and
    getting a print.

    Last week I was working on a silhouette. I took a (digital) picture
    of the person, copied it and used two copies of the same image -- one
    mirror image of the other -- so they were facing each other. I
    printed the faces in "white" and the space between them in black. I
    then used an exacto knife to cut away the white areas leaving me with
    just the black area. The profile of the faces were preserved in the

    I tried calling what I had left "a photograph" but I in effect, it was
    more of a negative of the original image. The only think I really had
    left was a representation of what I had NOT photographed, not what I
    had photographed. The other thing that I pondered was the fact that
    the image was not represented in "b&w" or in some tonality but the
    image was represented physically as to whether there was paper there
    or not.

    I all made me start thinking "is this a photograph or not". Just what
    is a photograph in the age of digital printing. How is a digital
    image any different than a really pretty Excel document. How much can
    you manipulate a "photo" before it becomes something else -- and when
    it becomes something else, what does it become?
    Pat, Nov 25, 2008
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  2. Pat

    Frank Arthur Guest

    As soon as I decipher "What is art" I'll get back to you on "What is a
    photograph". In the meantime I will continue with my joy of working
    with images as long as my eyes continue to receive light.

    Frank Arthur, Nov 25, 2008
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  3. Pat

    Frank Arthur Guest

    In the old days? Depending on how old the days.
    Did you start with a piece of clear glass and coat it with a silver
    salt mixture imbedded in gelatin? Or did you put a roll of Kodachrome
    positive slide film in your camera which was processed by Kodak and
    arrived at your door as positive color images mounted in cardboard?
    If you developed your own B&W negatives did you ever deliberately heat
    the film to cause reticulation and get strange effects? Or exposed the
    film part way through developing to make solarized images. Weren't
    these all "photographs"?

    It seems the two elements needed for photography are "images" and
    All and everything we are now doing today with Digital work is dealing
    with "images" and "light". Whether the light is being formed throught
    the lens onto a sensor or images manipulated using a scanner. Whether
    the images are printed with an Inkjet or viewed on a monitor they
    require light to get to your eyes in order to see them. They are all
    Frank Arthur, Nov 25, 2008
  4. Pat

    mianileng Guest

    Those points and the issue suggested by the subject line have been raised
    more than once and sometimes led to heated debate.

    To me and to some others, a photograph is a picture taken with a camera,
    reproducing the appearance of the subject as faithfully as possible within
    reasonable limits. This does not preclude the use of *some* amount of
    processing to make the picture appealing and to enhance technical accuracy,
    compensating for shortcomings in the camera and exposure errors. But it does
    exclude a picture that has been excessively manipulated and altered, such as
    by adding something that was not in the original scene or by gross
    deliberate distortion of shapes, content, color and light.

    This is where opinions differ. Some people argue that a picture always
    undergoes some processing and alteration in the camera and in the darkroom
    (in film photography), that everyone sees a scene differently and therefore
    there's no such thing as an accurate photo, and so on. This camp believes
    that a photo is a photo no matter how much of the manipulations described
    above has been applied.

    I don't think anyone will object to someone creating an artistic picture by
    applying any amount of alteration. It's just that some of us think that it
    is no longer a photograph.
    mianileng, Nov 25, 2008
  5. Pat

    Steve Guest

    If you want to go with the definition of a photograph and not try and
    really think about what it means when you creatively alter the image,
    the better definitions usually have something in them about capturing
    a real scene by some means, whether it's chemically sensitive film or
    directly converting photons to energy like in a digital sensor. A
    photograph is a graph (a visual or symbolic representation) of the
    photons (light) that were captured at a certain place and time.

    Once you start creatively altering that graph other than to make it
    more faithfully represent the light that struck the sensor and "look
    like" what you might have seen with your own eyes at that place and
    time, it may be art, it may be a picture, it may be an image but it's
    no longer a photograph.

    In these days of digital editing, you have to expand that a little
    bit. So basically, IMHO, the definition I like to use is that if your
    post processing only does things to an original captured image that
    could have been done in the physical world at the time the photograph
    was captured (like applying color filters, distortions that can be
    created with curved mirrors, fisheye lenses, etc.) and things like
    sharpening enough to account for lens/sensor softness, fixing bad
    exposure problems, etc., then you are still working with a photograph.
    But once your image starts depicting things that could either not have
    existed in the real world or could not have been photographically
    captured in the first place, then you are no longer working with a

    Steve, Nov 25, 2008
  6. Pat

    Ofnuts Guest

    My personal criterion would be along the lines that it's a photograph if
    it could always have been better with a better camera/body/lens(*).
    Otherwise it's just a pretty/interesting picture incidentally made out
    of a photograph.

    (*) for some virtual value of better, I am not that addicted to
    expensive gear, and anyway the relation between picture quality and
    camera cost is far from linear.
    Ofnuts, Nov 25, 2008
  7. Pat

    SS Guest

    In my mind a photograph (picture) is a point and shoot and it is either good
    or bad, or somewhere in between.
    Using a lot of digital editing (in my mind) is digital painting.
    I know I will lose any arguments on this but thats how I see it.
    SS, Nov 25, 2008
  8. Pat

    -hh Guest

    The slippery slope is the underlying issue of 'some means'.
    So if I take a bunch of physical chemicals and use them to
    'capture' ... through a 2D representation ... of a discrete physical
    view under certain temporal conditions, to what degree is the temporal
    variable all that critical? Must it be nothing less than a brief
    1/60sec impression of the photons and its subsequent series of
    chemical reactions...?

    ....or can substantially longer temporal inclusion of said photons
    being identified be considered, and can they be done so through a
    chemical-electrical system which then sends tiny electric impulses
    through a network to eventually find their way to the distribution of
    varying pigmentation colors on an archival 2D hardcopy medium?

    The reason for my obtuse (if not obfuscating) language is that it
    intentionally sounds like I was asking the "film vs digital" question
    (with digital having a color inkjet print), but if you go back read it
    back a second time, you can see that I might actually describing the
    process of an artist spending hours to physically spread his paint
    pigments on a canvas, thus creating a painting.

    Devil's Advocate: does this then mean that a Black & White photo is
    an "alteration" today, even though back in the days before we had the
    technological capability of color photography, it wouldn't have

    A commendably pragmatic approach, although with sufficient
    determination, one can probably find some loopholes to abuse.

    In general, I think that a similarly pragmatic approach is to
    recognize that a photograph generally entails the use of a machine to
    assist in the automation of the process of capturing an element
    nominally detected through human visual perception. As such, it is
    the machine-based automation that tends to differentiate it from the
    higher amount of labor (and arguably, skill) required to create a
    visually-based rendition through the mediums of a painting, sketch,
    drawing, etc.

    From there, we can recognize that just as there are different forms of
    art in painting (impressionism, realism, cubism, etc), there are
    different forms of photography (documentary/realism, interpretive,
    abstract, IR, lensbaby, etc) and the term of "photograph" isn't
    necessarly in of itself an assurance of 'realism', even though this is
    commonly assumed.

    -hh, Nov 25, 2008
  9. Pat

    Pat Guest

    Look at magazine photos. Are they not photos because they have been
    manipulated? All such photos are touched up.
    Pat, Nov 25, 2008
  10. Pat

    Pat Guest

    But "back in the day", no one though that airbrushing a photo made it
    less of a photo. If you remove a pimple or "unblink" an eye (and no
    one can tell the difference), then is it a photo? To some extend,
    touch ups might make some photos look MORE realistic.
    Pat, Nov 25, 2008
  11. Pat

    Pat Guest

    So a photocopy is a photograph? It uses photons and is graphic. But
    it raises an interesting question. Let's say you take a picture of an
    wrist watch and you don't do any manipulation outside the camera. You
    print it. It's a photograph. But if you take the same wrist watch
    and lay it on your photocopier and print it, it's not considered a
    photograph. My first thought was that "photograph" needed to include
    some human element (say holding a camera) but that's not true. There
    are traffic cameras and deer cameras and such that all fire
    automatically. So how come I can take a picture with my camera and
    print to my all-in-one and it's a photo but if I lay it on the scanner
    and use the same all-in-one it is then a photocopy.
    Pat, Nov 25, 2008
  12. Pat

    J. Clarke Guest

    But using analog editing is OK?
    J. Clarke, Nov 25, 2008
  13. Pat

    Mark Thomas Guest

    I think that is pretty much spot on.
    Yes, but that falls into the category "look(ing) like what you might
    have seen with your own eyes". Although I would change that to "looking
    like what you perceived", given how much brainwork there is involved in
    what we 'see'. I have sometimes retouched portraits where the person
    was unlucky enough to have a pimple or other temporary condition at the
    moment of the portrait. To me that definitely still stands as a

    Again, I pretty much agree. I don't think that the definition is very
    important except in one way - when there is *purposeful* deceit. In
    competitions, or when describing an image, the *process* is (or may be)
    important, so if, eg you pasted a silhouetted bird into a sunset rather
    than waiting for a real one.. you need to declare that. Same with
    replaced skies, etc.

    But, then, what if you just digitally removed a piece of rubbish from a
    scene (it might have been behind a fence and inaccessible..). Do you
    need to declare *that*, and under what circumstances?

    It's all very tricky.

    As an aside, I must confess I get some enjoyment out of busting
    pretenders - there have a been a few notable examples on sites like
    Photosig where a 'photographer' falsely described the 'reality' of an
    image and then got busted.. (Eg a 'Joshua Tree' that miraculously
    appeared in two different locations.. (O:)
    Mark Thomas, Nov 25, 2008
  14. Pat

    Peter Guest

    Funny how this issue was rarely raised when the artist painted on a
    I fail to see the importance of this, unless you are doing pure documentary

    My reason, every photograph is an am impression of what the maker saw. I see
    little reason for an arbitrary line.
    Peter, Nov 26, 2008
  15. Pat

    Pat Guest

    Last summer, on the back cover of my mother's AARP magazine, there was
    a scene with a lot of water in the foreground. I don't remember the
    exact details, but IIRC then there were 4 clouds in the sky and 6
    clouds on the reflection in the water -- the four from the sky plus
    two more.
    Pat, Nov 26, 2008
  16. Pat

    Peter Guest

    I may well be, digital painting, but so what?
    Peter, Nov 26, 2008
  17. Pat

    Steve Guest

    For the purposes of competition, things should be declared that might
    not necessarily matter when discussing whether something is a
    photograph not. For instance, if you digitally removed something that
    you could have removed in the real world, but didn't because it's
    behind a fence and is inaccessible and did it in such a way that it
    looks like it was never there in the first place I'd still consider
    that a photograph. But it should be declared for a competition.

    I have a wonderful picture of an old steam engine pulling away from a
    station but there are overhead wires that detract from the image. I
    could have cut them down but that would land me in some trouble. So I
    removed them digitally and I still consider it a photograph, probably
    because the alterations were so minor.

    But on the other hand, when you do something like superimpose a full
    moon on a scene where the moon is obviously several times larger than
    it would have been if it were captured as it would appear in real
    life, then that's no longer a photograph.

    Superimposing a bird on a sunset is definitely a gray area though. I
    would more than likely consider that not to be a photograph because,
    instead of working with what you captured, you're adding something
    that wasn't there. But as with anything that's in a gray area, I
    could be convinced otherwise.
    Or recently and famously, the pictures of the Iranian missile test
    that were altered by copying and pasting missiles that worked and
    sections of their smoke trails over the duds.

    Steve, Nov 26, 2008
  18. Pat

    Roy G Guest

    The above is a fair definition.

    Everything that was done in the original post could just as easily have been
    done in a darkroom.

    Don't forget that using semi transparent negatives never were the only way
    of making prints.

    Roy G
    Roy G, Nov 26, 2008
  19. Pat

    Roy G Guest

    Which means that applying selective tones to the print via waterproof masks,
    or combining images from several negatives, or removing unwanted parts using
    cardboard masks, stops it from being a photograph.

    What about the old timers, circa 1900, when they had to add skies from
    bought in plates because their own emulsions were so slow they could not
    record cloud detail.

    Get real, if it was taken by a camera it is a photograph.

    Roy G
    Roy G, Nov 26, 2008
  20. Pat

    Steve Guest

    Well, according to what I wrote above, those would be photographs.
    Because you'd be using some type of processing to enhance what the
    camera captured but because of technilogical limitations could not
    present the image near as well as what you'd see if you were looking
    at it. Same thing as sharpening or exposure fixing today.

    Also, removing unwanted parts using cardboard masks is just like
    digitally removing unwanted things from images today, which would
    still IMHO be a photograph because you could have always removed them
    in real life before you shot the picture.
    Well hell, I absolutely agree with that ... as long as the camera is
    at least trying to faithfully capture the scene. That's true even if
    you apply the strictest definition of what a photograph is.

    But once you start playing with things taken by a camera, they may no
    longer be photographs. You could have 2 images taken by a camera and
    superimpose them in such a way as to make the result no longer a
    photograph because it would be impossible to take such an image with a
    camera. A great example being superimposing a huge moon, several
    times it's natural size, on a scene. Both the moon picture and the
    scene could be photographs. But the superimposed result is not.
    Although it could be a very pleasing image.

    Steve, Nov 26, 2008
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