Art Term Tuesday: Image Editing v. Image Manipulation

Kaitlin Binkley, Marketing Coordinator

Image editing has gone hand in hand with image production since its invention. Following the first photograph in 1826, people have endeavored to achieve perfect images through editing. Shortly after the first photograph, the first edits, the first image manipulations began with photographers going beyond selective enhancements to full-on changing what was photographed after the fact.

To edit means to revise or correct while manipulating something means to change it to suit one’s purpose or advantage. When you edit a photograph, you enhance what is already captured though noninvasive methods. For many photographers of the digital age, correcting lighting, cropping or straightening the composition, or enhancing the color saturation slightly is a necessary and acceptable editing process and not considered manipulation. Take this example of a shot from one of the museum’s galleries (pictured below). The unedited image is on the left, uploaded straight from the camera as it was taken. A cute shot but there are several distractions from the story this image could tell. On the right is my edit of the image, cropping out the elbow and thermostat on the right and focusing closer on the mother and child. I also changed the contrasts and saturation of the colors to bring out the vibrancy in the child’s jacket and the red devil mask they seem to be reaching towards. This is a typical edit I do every day for the museum as Marketing Coordinator.

I have also done some image manipulation. Manipulating an image changes what was captured to something else, sometimes in subtle ways but other times in a noticeable and impactful manner. Here is a subtle photo manipulation where I removed the street lamp from in front of the building on the right. It was captured, but I manipulated the photo to remove it. Can you see why I chose to manipulate the image in this way?

This is an example of a more extensive manipulation I did. For the Day of the Dead celebration a few years ago, I knew I wanted to use a bouquet of marigolds in the advertising material and have text over and in between the petals. I purchased some dollar store fake flowers and photographed them in a light box from above: see the photo on the left, right out of the camera. On the right is after all my manipulations to have the text become part of the image: I added false shadows, erased some letter shapes to get petals going “over” them, and changed the background to completely suit the needs of the art.  

The examples I have given are my utilitarian versions of photo editing and manipulation, but fine art photographers also edit and manipulate their shots. You might think that these processes are a digital practice, but, there were techniques to change photos from the beginning. The first known retouched photograph is from 1846, only twenty years after the invention of photography! We can talk about this version of editing versus manipulating in a later blog post. For now, be on the lookout for our call for entries to The National: Best Contemporary Photography 2020 here in the next month or two!

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