Digital Editing: Where Do You Draw The Line?
From time to time the question comes up of whether or not the use of Photoshop and similar image editing programs means that digital photography isn't "real" photography anymore. While Photoshop is a great tool to help overcome the limitations of the photographic process, it can also be used to change just about anything if you want to. So in order to answer the question, I guess it all depends on where you draw the line.
It was hard to take early digital photography seriously at all. The first consumer digital cameras were convenient, but not very good. Resolution was extremely low and color accuracy was unheard of. While it was amazing that it was even possible, it was more a novelty than a serious tool.
The same was basically true for early digital image editing programs. Computers just didn't have the memory and processing power to do all that good of a job. Yes, you could cut and paste to rearrange or remove objects to alter a composition, or paint over sections of an image to touch things up to your heart's content. But it was always obvious you had done so. Smooth blending and anti-aliased edges were years in the future.
The introduction of Adobe Photoshop started to change all that and each new version gets better and better. So does the competition. There are any number of programs out there vying for their place in the market. It's now quite possible to work on an image in the digital darkroom in ways that retain at least the look of an actual photograph. At least part of the stigma surrounding digital imaging perceived by some stems from the fact that digital started out as an unserious medium so it must still be unserious. Digital is everywhere now though and good photographs are too, many of which were shot digitally. It is quite possible to employ digital to produce images that accurately reflect what the photographer saw and felt when they were there shooting them. If one so chooses though, it is also possible to create images that never were in real life. It all depends on what they were trying to achieve.
When you think about it though, photographers have always used various means to alter their images. Many used filters to compensate for white balance issues, exaggerate a color already in a scene or add one they wished were there. Different films were used to alter the way images were recorded, making them look more saturated, or altering the contrast or tonal scale. In the darkroom, dodging, burning and other image manipulation techniques were common. Most photographers never even thought of image compositing to add or subtract objects but it could be done. Then again, most photographers never even entered the darkroom, they sent their film off to be developed and printed by others.
Photoshop and similar programs today put the tools to do major post-processing image manipulation in the hands of more photographers solely because more photographers today have computers at home than had wet darkrooms back when film was the dominant medium. For the most part though what is possible now was possible then, with the right tools. So again, it all depends on what a photographer is trying to achieve. Where someone draws the line is a personal decision.
I can't tell you where you should draw the line but I can put down some thoughts on where I do. My interest in photography stems from trying to convey the amazing sights that exist in nature but few often see. Sometimes these sights are fleeting and sometimes they simply exist in places not everyone goes. Sometimes capturing them is the result of a great deal of planning and other times they come from being in the right place at the right time and having the skills and tools to make the most of what is happening in front of me. But in every case, it is what actually is that I want to capture, not what I wish were there.
I do admit that I want to convey not only what physically was but how I felt being there. To do so I often choose focal lengths and shooting positions aimed at emphasizing what I feel I like most about a scene. Once I get back home I adjust color balance and contrast as needed to optimize each image. I want a viewer to feel as close as possible to how I felt at the time.
As for adding or removing things, I keep it simple. Annoyingly, even in the most remote places you can find chewing gum wrappers and other human trash. I don't feel like I'm altering a scene by picking it up before photographing the area where it sat. It should never have been there in the first place. I don't mind "grooming" leaf litter a tad either if it just as well could have been where I move it anyway. Some ecosystems are fragile of course and I don't want to do something that would have consequences just to get a photograph.
Neither do I mind removing dust spots from images. Thanks to improved coatings and vibrating CCD's, sensor dust is less of a problem these days than it was earlier in the digital era, but you can still find spots where they aren't supposed to be when working on an image in Photoshop. I really don't remove much of anything else digitally, although if I missed a bottle cap or cigarette but in the field it's going to get removed in Photoshop that's for sure. Some photographers don't mind digitally cloning a few wildflowers or big horn sheep if it creates a stronger image. I generally don't but it all depends on what you want to do with your images. An image in a scientific journal is necessarily held to a higher standard for authenticity than would one used editorially or as an art print.
HDR (High Dynamic Range) techniques can be used to overcome the dynamic range limitations of photographic equipment, but it can also be employed as the basis for using photography in the creation of digital art that looks hyper-real or surreal. There are plenty of Photoshop filters available to perform similar manipulations. Layers in Photoshop allow a skilled user to blend and merge images in order to create images that never were. Taking the full moon from one image and pasting it in the sky of another barely scratches the surface of what can be done if one so chooses.
It all depends on what you want to do. Each person needs to consider what they want from their photography. Don't assume either that what makes sense for you necessarily makes sense for everyone else. There exists wide latitude for everyone to choose from. There are no universal right answers, but everyone who works with photography should be asking the questions.