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What Is Photo Manipulation?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Photo manipulation is a process in which a photograph is altered in some way that can be fairly subtle or quite dramatic. While these types of changes were often accomplished in the past through physical alterations to the negative or a print of an image, improvements in technology have made the use of computers much more common. Photo manipulation can be performed for artistic purposes, to make an image unique and to combine artistic beauty and imagination with real images. There have also been numerous instances, however, in which altered photographs have been used for commercial or political purposes in ways that have been controversial.

The methods by which artists have performed photo manipulation have changed quite a bit over the lifetime of photographs as a medium. In the past, these changes typically had to be done in a physical way to the negatives used to capture an image or to prints of a photograph. Techniques such as the creation of a double-exposure by taking two images on one piece of a negative were often used to create artistic images. Modifications to a print could be made through direct photo manipulation in which someone might physically cutting and pasting part of a photograph to change it.

Due to developments in computer software and the proliferation of digital photography, however, photo manipulation has become easier than ever before. Changes to pictures can be easily accomplished using programs that are specifically designed to allow someone to alter images in a variety of different ways. This software can be used for artistic purposes, to create pictures that are clearly based on a photograph, but which portray things that are impossible. Other types of photo manipulation have also been made much easier, which can include possibilities as simple as changing a color image into a black and white photo and complex alterations like placing one person’s head onto another person's body.

Such dramatic photo manipulation possibilities have also made it simpler for people to create images for fraudulent or deceptive purposes. Computer programs can easily be used, for example, to remove someone from a photograph in order to change evidence in a trial or in public opinion. Politicians have used this kind of photo manipulation for decades to remove someone from a photograph who has fallen into political disfavor. Altered pictures have also been used in some political campaigns and commercials to try to make a person or product appear unattractive or disreputable; these types of actions have typically elicited controversy and outrage once uncovered.

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Discussion Comments
By browncoat — On Jun 28, 2014

@MrsPramm - Photography competitions seem to do just fine with the rules they have about manipulation. I actually don't think there's anything wrong with it in general, unless it's being done to mislead you. If you are buying makeup and they have a completely manipulated image of it to sell it, that should be illegal. But smoothing out a model's skin shouldn't be that big of a deal.

By MrsPramm — On Jun 27, 2014

@irontoenail - The problem is that it's difficult to draw a line. The same thing happens with photography competitions in general these days. Color correction is a completely normal and acceptable photography technique, for example and is usually done in order to get the photo to look more realistic, rather than less realistic. But it could still be called manipulation. Removing a tattoo is definitely manipulation, but that's hardly changing a a body the same way narrowing the waist would be. If a person is supposed to portray a particular character, removing a tattoo makes sense.

But at what point do you say that a technique is too much? If you allow any manipulation, you pretty much have to allow all manipulation.

By irontoenail — On Jun 26, 2014

It's a good idea to study how this is used in media and advertising in particular, in order to create an unrealistic ideal image of humanity. It seems like, no matter how slim or smooth skinned a person is, they will still be made "better" by digital manipulators after the photo is taken.

It might seem like a harmless enhancement, but the images that we see every day can really effect how we view ourselves as well. And if you never see someone who looks like you in the media, you might start feeling like you aren't good enough.

I think it's a good thing that this has become a sticking point for many groups and they are starting to encourage magazines and companies in general to try and stick to realistic images when they are portraying the human form.

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