Trick or Treat

This full moon image backlighting a spooky winged silhouette on a cool, cloudless October night captures some of the scary fun of Halloween that I remember as a kid.  Hope it provides a pleasurable spine tingle down memory lane for you as well. 

Several folks who've seen this image have asked me if it's "real" or if it's been "photoshopped."

Many think such questions are new to the digital age of photography.  Not true.  Did you know that one of the most famous images of president Abraham Lincoln from the 1860s is actually his head perched on the body of another politician, John Calhoun?  Or that in the 1930s Stalin and Chairman Mao routinely had comrades removed from photos after they had been otherwise removed from history?  Even the famous Mathew Brady sometimes played tricks with his images, once by later adding a missing member of General Sherman’s officers to a group picture.  

Today most people agree that such manipulation of images in the realm of photojournalism is a no-no.   But there are other areas of photography where the answers aren’t so clear, at least to me. Say for snapshots, what about overriding the camera’s limitations?  Or correcting for the casual photographer’s composition mistakes? Depending on the sophistication of the camera, or the settings selected, a lot of decisions about the image get made inside the box.  For example, broadly speaking, the camera likes to see everything as medium grey.  Ever notice in a winter snapshot, the snow is not quite as white as what you saw?  After taking a gorgeous shot of toddler Michelle’s angelic smile, is it immoral to remove a few Cheerio crumbs from her chin?  And isn’t it ok to crop out a distraction in the backrouond from an otherwise perfect portrait of Aunt Polly?  I think most would say if you’ve got the means, go for it.

The more interesting debate involves photography as art.  Sometimes, as with snapshots, you have to make adjustments to bring the capture closer to what you witnessed in the field.  For example, a landscape with a bright cloud filled sky and a dark shadowy foreground could, because of the camera’s calculations, lose the detail in both areas that originally attracted the photographer’s eye.  That’s easily fixed with today’s software and actually, while an adjustment to the image, is not a manipulation of the subject that “improves” it.  Going a step further, the master himself, Ansel Adams, was known to make post capture adjustments in the darkroom, darkening and lightening key elements of a scene for visual drama, known as dodging and burning.  He is reputed to have said that these techniques were “steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.”  Manipulations or an artist sharing his vision of jaw dropping visual beauty using the tools at hand? 

Going even further, some modern photographers move us by producing powerful abstract images using pre-, peri- and post capture manipulations of their subjects.  So, in the end, if photographic art is creative skill and imagination provoking strong emotional reaction to visual images, it’s hard to come up with a set of hard and fast rules on how it must be achieved.

Is Night Flyer a Trick or a Treat?  You be the judge.