When To Use Digital Image Manipulation, And When Not To

By: William Penworthy


When you think of digital image manipulation, what images first spring to mind? You may consider that manipulation of digital images involves making major changes to photographic images, creating pictures that would be impossible to shoot in real life. But the truth is that image manipulation can range from the incredibly subtle all the way through to eye catching, imaginative vistas which defy reality. But very often the subtle changes made to a digital image can make every bit as much difference to the eventual impact of the photograph as the more daring manipulations.

Subtle digital image manipulations might include adjusting the tone, contrast, saturation or lightness of an image, helping to counter any lighting problems at the time. For example, a photograph of a complicated shape such as a motorbike are notoriously hard to achieve. With some parts of the motorbike very shiny and light, whilst others are very dark and shadowy, creating suitable lighting is virtually impossible.

With digital image manipulation it is possible to create a composite image from several images taken using different lighting arrangements, producing a final image which ensures that every part of the bike is lit naturally. In real life it would be impossible to take such a photograph, yet most people would see nothing unusual about it. The reason for this is that photographs are very limited when compared to the human eye. We can easily scan scenes or objects, adjusting our natural ‘aperture’ - the pupil - which allows us to build up a mental composite image of the view, enabling us to fool ourselves into thinking that we see a scene fully lit.

Digital image manipulation on this scale simply does what the brain would do, allowing us to see photographs in the same way as real life. For brochure photography and advertising photography this is important. Businesses will always want to ensure that images used in brochure photography and marketing material portrays products in a vivid, accurate way that best reflects reality.

But of course digitally manipulating a photograph can involve a lot more than simply adjusting tone or hue, or creating composite pictures which use different lighting techniques. Sometimes it is impossible to achieve a desired image - or at least too expensive for it to be considered a viable project. For example, taking a photograph of a motorbike in the middle of the desert might seem like a great idea until you consider both the financial challenges, and the practical challenges. Flying a bike out all the way to the desert, as well as full compliment of technicians, marketing advisers, photographers and other specialists would be very expensive.

There would also be no guarantee of conditions, and if it was very windy it could be impossible to shoot for several days. Keeping the motorbike clean during the voyage and the shoot would be hard, and the end result may well be less than ideal. However, taking multiple photographs in a studio using different lighting techniques, then creating a composite image of the bike from those separate photographs to ensure the lighting is perfect, and then replacing the studio background with a stock photograph of the desert can, in the hands of an expert image manipulator, result in a promotional image that looks natural and genuine, portrays the bike in ideal conditions, yet also achieves the aims of generating a striking juxtaposition of location and product.

For brochure photography it will be important to make sure that the images are both striking and accurate, since they will be placed directly in the hands of your potential clients or customers. Images on posters and billboards will be blown up so large than any imperfections or lighting issues will easily become very obvious. For these reasons it will be essential to make sure that any digital image manipulation which is carried out on your product photography or advertising photography is done with care, and the benefit of experience.

Anyone who has played around with digital photographs at home will know that whilst it might be easy to use software to achieve some unusual effects, it takes a great deal more effort, time and understanding to ensure that those effects add to the photograph in a positive way. It is too easy to assume that manipulating an image using digital techniques must always, in some way, add to or extend the value of any image. This is not true. A professional digital image manipulator will know what is required, and what is not, what to do, and when to stop. Without doubt, for brochure photography and commercial photography digital image manipulation can be a valuable tool, but only in the right hands.

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