To Tweak or not to Tweak, that is the digital darkroom question

For the past year, I’ve enjoyed membership in the Bracknell Camera Club. The speakers, and competition judges, for that matter, seem to be chosen on the basis of how colorful they are. At least from my POV, growing up in America, some of these crusty old analog dudes are…..unusual.

We had a neurosurgeon speak once. He did beautiful B&W photos of symphony performers, and in his oh-so-received accent he explained that he was actually a very simple man who used the simplest gear possible: a Leica with an F/1 lens. I’m never sure if the English actually are polite or not, but nobody snorted out loud.

A more recent speaker (in calendar terms, not age), was a bit more wired, and he actually used our club digital projector, raving over the potential offered by PowerPoint as a slideshow platform. He animated lines across his photos to demonstrate how in spite of his being a completely intuitive photographer, when you looked at his photos, you had to agree that he was instinctively following well-recognized principles of composition. It would be unfair of me to quote him as having said “One doesn’t tweak.” What he actually said was, and you have to imagine an outdated sort of BBC English that is no longer taught (nor received), “Well, of course I use Photoshop, but just for minor exposure and light balance changes. I do not tweak.”

In terms of either the digital or the analog darkroom, just what constitutes a tweak?

I grew up using an old-fashioned darkroom. Thanks to an extremely talented and dedicated teacher, Judi Coolidge, my high school had a serious journalism program, with one of USA’s consistently rated yearbooks and a weekly, multi-page newspaper. You quickly learn that journalistic photography is about coming up with the goods as requested, on time. When you are sent to cover a story, the editor is planning on using your picture, and if you fail, for either technical or aesthetic reasons, then everybody has a problem.

You try your best to expose correctly, and develop the film properly, but if you screw up, you do what you can to make a usable photo. Once you’ve got a negative in hand, there are a lot of decisions to make with exposure, contrast, dodging, and burning. I actually spent a lot of time reprinting other people’s pictures, and sometimes had to use 5-grade high contrast paper to try and make a decent picture out of muddy underexposed images. Was that tweaking? If so, then long live tweaking.

A few years ago, it was all the rage for artsy photographers to file out their enlarger’s negative carrier so that the edges of the film showed, demonstrating that their photo was framed in-camera exactly as printed. What kind of a strange little contest is that? Books and magazines are generally not publishing pictures using the exact aspect ratio of the cameras which took them, so most published pictures are cropped. Does it truly improve the viewer’s aesthetic experience when they know that the photo wasn’t cropped? For that matter, why should the viewer care how many layers I used in Photoshop?

The only thing that counts is what is on the final print. Certainly it helps to optimize the capture and reduce the need for later manipulation, but ultimately, only the photographer knows.

At the top of this posting is a photo I took last year on a Young Life service project to an orphanage in Bulgaria. It was a harsh place, and the kids in the Tran orphanage had a difficult time of it, but for a week, the kids on our service project managed to connect with them.

This picture to the immediate left is closer to the original, but it still has undergone a lot of processing, and it should be pretty obvious that I removed a large brown splotch on the wall. We had just primed the walls, but no amount of primer was capable of fully covering the filth that had been allowed to collect on this wall. From a journalistic point of view, I would probably have left the splotch in, although I’m not certain of that. I don’t think anyone can doubt that as an aesthetic effort, and one that properly portrays the mood of these two girls, the ‘tweaked’ picture at the top of this post, is superior. If you look carefully, you’ll see that the shadow under the redhead’s chin is darker in the ‘original’ than it is above. More tweaking on my part.

The ‘original’ file created by my camera is in camera RAW format, and it cannot be viewed by a human being without being processed in a way that affects the colors, exposure, and contrast. I used Adobe Lightroom to adjusted white balance, exposure and color as my starting point. Then I used CS3 to clone out the splotch on the wall and lighten the shadows, along with a couple other ‘tweaks’ that you wouldn’t notice.

I do feel that much of the power of this picture lies in its authenticity, and that it would be wrong to make substantial manipulations. The redhead actually does have paint all over her fingernails, having ‘helped’ us do the hallways of the orphanage. The other girl was recovering from eye surgery, paid for by a Christian charity. If she had been paying me for a professional portrait, she might have expected that I would open up her eye and align the pupils of both–I really don’t know. I’m comfortable that what I did to the picture was appropriate, and does not misrepresent the lives or spirits of these teens. I tweaked the picture, and I’m proud to admit it.

Lots of photographers like to brag that they capture the picture in camera, and that their pictures don’t need any additional processing. Well, you can still buy transparency film, and as long as you don’t scan it or print it in a darkroom, then you can claim that you didn’t tweak it. Last I heard, a couple guys in Paris had bought up the last of the small-format Polaroid instant film, but even much SX-70 photography is subject to after the fact ‘tweaking.’

The fact is, you can’t reproduce either a film negative or a digital one without making multiple aesthetic decisions about the output appearance. That holds true for journalism and documentary photography as much as it does for purely abstract photography.

The question of what constitutes representational truth and integrity is a deep one, and I’ll be exploring it, and look forward to discussing it. But it isn’t about tweaking. This is a picture. Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

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