Ignacio Palacios is best known internationally for his travel and landscape work. He has been continuously traveling around the world since 1998 but since he came to Australia in 2008, he has focused on photographing landscapes and using digital imaging techniques to produce more creative and fine art work.

His images have been published in international photographic magazines and books all over the world including National Geographic, Australian Geographic, and Lonely Planet Guides.

To see more of his work, follow him on 500px, visit his website, or check him out on Facebook.

Following some recent criticisms about the way I created an image of an Aurora using Photoshop layers (you can see the video on Vimeo) and the post-processing work I undertook on an image I captured in the Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona (where I introduced a fake shaft of light), I have decided to write an article about Image Manipulation.

All arts have always involved some level of manipulation; be it painting, writing, drawing, stone carving etc., they all involve manipulation. Creation involves choices and decisions and interpretation.

But the growing popularity of image manipulation (widely used in the magazine industry) has raised a few concerns as to whether it allows for unrealistic images to be portrayed to the public as it creates a constructed reality for the individual and it can become difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. Photo images were considered as a reliable source and were known as a medium of communication to present the truth to the media but with the digital era, readers begin to question the ethics of some publications…

This hence is a big and complex topic to cover in just one article but I will try to present my views, and specifically in the area of landscape photography. I will introduce a few open questions and some historic examples of some quite well known photographers that used Image Manipulation either in the field, in the dark room or more recently with their computers.

Some also feel that much of the debate about manipulation is tied to the love, so many of us have, for the notion of what is a photographer and the work of that photographer, rather than manipulation itself.

In any case, this debate has always been a tricky topic as there are photographers/artists with very strong points of views about this.

However, the debate of Image Manipulation, Manipulation of Reality and “What is Photography?” has been discussed for many years, since Photography was born in the 1830s and actually, the history of the making of composite photographic images and image manipulation relates to the methods of Pictorialism (1885 – 1915)…

What is Photography?
Image Manipulation Vs. Manipulation of reality

One hundred years ago the discussion was if photographers were artists but the discussion these days seems to be the other way round. Are artists photographers?

Today, photo manipulation is widely accepted as an art form but the questions I hear all the time are:

Should images be retouched? and what is the limit?
When does an image leave “photography status” and become “just” art or “digital art”?
Should we call unrealistic or created images “fine art photography”, can we call them “landscape or nature photography”?

I will try to present my view on those but something I struggle to understand when I read some comments and criticisms is whether we are talking about Image Manipulation or about Manipulation of reality. They are very different concepts.

Is it Photography to capture a Black and White Image with an analogic camera? Is that Image Manipulation or Manipulation of reality? Both? And what about to capture the same image with a DSLR and transform it into a Black and White image with Photoshop or other processing software?
Is it Photography to put a warming filter in front of the lens, and what about to use a warming filter as a layer with Photoshop?
What about using different types of film to give different colour tonalities to your image? Is that altering reality? What about correcting colour and white balance with Photoshop? Again, is that Image Manipulation or Manipulation of reality?

One thing I struggle to understand is when some “purists” say that in photography, reality should not be altered. This is of course a very personal view and I completely respect it but the truth is that Photography per se, is tantamount to manipulation and the impact of the lens selected, the film chosen, and many other technical variables such as the ISO leave ample room to question the so called “faithful representation” of reality.

Original Capture

Original Capture

Image after RAW conversion – Wide angle lens made the peaks look small and was corrected in Photoshop.

Image after RAW conversion – Wide angle lens made the peaks look small and was corrected in Photoshop.

I am assuming that most photographers understand that changing the aperture, the shutter speed, and the lens changes reality…

A few more questions related to that:

Is it photography to undertake a very long exposure of the sky to capture start trails? Is that altering reality?
Is it photography to use a large format camera to achieve maximum depth of field? Can we use focus stacking to achieve the same (or actually a much better) effect? What is the depth of field of our eyes? When we use a very shallow depth of field, to blur the background with our camera, that’s not what our eyes see, so what aperture should we use to capture reality?
Am I photographing a faithful representation of reality if I use a lens different from the standard 50mm? If I use a wide angle lens to capture a landscape with some mountains in the background, those mountain will appear smaller in the capture than in reality. Can I use Photoshop to accurately represent what I see? Is this altering reality or a better representation of reality?
What is the dynamic range of our eyes? Cameras can’t achieve the same dynamic range of our eyes (not yet) and so, can we use exposure blending/HDR techniques to be closer to reality, or to get closer to what eyes can see?
Also there is much research that suggests that people don’t all see the same range of colours anyway which begs the question of what is reality

With the advent of computers, graphics tablets, and digital cameras, the term “image editing” encompasses everything that can be done to a photo, whether in a darkroom or on a computer.

As I have written in some newsletters and articles, for me photography is a two-step process: the capture and the post-processing and as I have previously indicated this has been done nearly since photography was born. Post-processing not something that was invented with the digital sensor. And really, does it matter to use the creative tools available to you to make an image? These days instead of dark room manipulation or other types of manipulation, photographers (or digital artists) have other tools such as Photoshop.

I am leaving the above questions open for you to think about the topic of Image Manipulation and Manipulation of Reality but what if you want to go beyond the limits of reality…? As far as I am concerned this is a personal decision of the artist (or the photographer) and everyone should put their own limits in photography on how much manipulation should be done when creating an image.

Photoshop is a tool that modern photography provides to everyone to play, process and create the image that you had in mind when capturing “reality”.

Ice detail, Grey Glacier, Patagonia – Original Capture

Ice detail, Grey Glacier, Patagonia – Original Capture

Digital Manipulation = Being Dishonest?

Before I start to get deep into the subject let me write down a couple of definitions of retouching:

Technical retouching: This is the manipulation of an image for either restoration or enhancement purposes and covers colour correction, contrast, white balance, sharpness, noise, and minor cloning.

Creative retouching: Used as an art form or for commercial use to create more sleek and interesting images for advertisements. One of the most prominent disciplines in creative retouching is image compositing whereby the digital artist uses multiple photos to create a single image. This kind of image manipulation is widely used when conventional photography is technically too difficult or impossible to shoot on location or in studio.

Some people say: “either you get the shot, or you don’t; Photoshop is for those who don’t.”

In the digital era, we have learnt that exposing to the right without clipping the image will result in a file with more information, a better file. This is a very standard practice among photographers that use digital cameras so critics on the initial capture of an image such as “how to create a great image from a wrongly/badly exposed photograph”, don’t make much sense to me either…

The Wikipedia definition of Photo manipulation is “a process performed by a digital artist using image editing software to transform a photograph into a desired image”. But what about when the digital artist that uses Photoshop takes the photograph as well? This is an interesting concept as to create an image you have to take a photograph in the first place… so am I perhaps a photographer that sometimes, becomes a digital artist to fulfill my own creative desires?

Photoshop is a great tool of modern photography and allows me to process and enhance an image I had previously captured and edit it to match what I had witnessed and felt and this means minor adjustments such as colour balance, brightness, contrast, sharpness etc.

But sometimes, when I feel motivated by an image or when I feel like it, Photoshop and other editing programs let me go beyond those “limits” and allow my creative and artistic spirit to do whatever I want with an image such as adding and removing elements, drop in skies, alter the perspective and the size of some elements and cropping it to different formats to help the image compositionally etc.

So yes, for me there are no limits as long as you are not hiding anything and you are perfectly honest about what you are doing. Same way many “purists” feel very convinced about their principles, I also feel very strongly about “Photoshopping” an image and letting your creative spirit experiment with it.

For me it is not about capturing what was there but to create something special and the amount and style of retouching that I do to an image back home will depend on both the use and my creativity desires at the time of looking at the image on the screen.

Image manipulation in journalism and documentary work

Most people seem to agree that a photojournalist should be held to higher standards than other photographers when it comes to image manipulation and specifically adding or removing elements of an image, but what about white balance, color correction, exposure ? This raises a tricky ethical question for editors that process documentary images. How much post processing should be performed before a photograph stops representing reality?

A notable case of a controversial photo manipulation was a 1982 National Geographic cover in which editors photographically moved two Egyptian pyramids closer together so that they would fit on a vertical cover. This case triggered a debate about the appropriateness of photo manipulation in journalism…

I am not going to enter into this discussion as it opens a whole new debate but, I believe that in journalism and documentary work, there should be no retouching as these kind of photographs should be a faithful representation of reality… but again, should be photojournalism photographed with a 50mm lens all the time?

Image manipulation in photo competitions

It is good to see competitions re-writing the rules and splitting categories to differentiate between landscape composite and more traditional landscape. That will keep the purists happy…

But I have seen photographers that call themselves “nature photographers” cutting branches off trees, and even worse once in Indonesia, while diving, I have seen some “wildlife photographers” breaking coral reefs and rearranging them to get the perfect shot. That made me really angry and I am sure some of those photographers have presented their “untouched” RAW images in competitions but I wish they had actually done some cloning in Photoshop instead.

Why is it that photography gets singled out more so than other arts with judgements about manipulation?

This raises a few questions: Is it because people expect photography not to be not manipulated?  Is it because the expectation is that photography should be more real? Or is it that photography is often much more manipulated than many other arts and so it deserves to be dragged into the manipulation debate? 

Before I sent this article for publication, Steve Coleman agreed to review it. Steve Coleman is a very experienced and respected Australian photographer with strong views about this and one of his main comments was that this debate could also be broadened to the manipulation of the concept of the photographer and what that means (i.e. for some the definition of the photographer is also being manipulated).

I think is worth writing the thoughts of someone with a different point of view to mine in some of these debates:

Steve says; “I hold in great reverence, the individual skill of the person who can work their camera and is able to get great work, most reasonably in-camera. That is a skill worth respecting, honouring and acknowledging, in its own right. But, if another person does most of their significant image work on a computer, and can do so using mediocre images, which can be combined, recreated, rearranged, recoloured and re many other things, and done using the skills of a retoucher or painter or a composite artist, and can do all this with the assistance of third party creative plugins, and they can do this over what can be many hours or days, and they also call themselves a photographer, so, who then is the person just working the camera?  To me they are different people, with different skills. I may respect both and their work equally for their unique art, but they are different people. Today, the very concept of who and what is a photographer is being manipulated” 

“For me, a photographer, has special meaning. And, I suspect, it is just this very meaning, credibility and marketability which others are trying to borrow for themselves.” 

“The issues around image manipulation are also compounded by the fact that there is now so much sameness in look and style in photographic output from many of those who claim to be photographers, than ever before. For example, how do hundreds of thousands of landscape photographers manage to produce work that looks completely interchangeable, while only small numbers seem to produce work that has some stronger degree of uniqueness and originality? I’ll tell you how; one set of people produce work that is largely a function of their smart tools, while the other set of people produce work that is largely a function of themselves. This latter group are the real photographers. I don’t know what you call the others, but I don’t call them photographers. 

I love Photoshop, smart cameras and all the tools, don’t get me wrong. My issue is how they are being used. The effect of these tools for the great bulk of ‘photographers’ is that they are pulling people and their work together because the tools are not being used correctly. If used correctly, the tools should in fact pull the work apart. If the vision and work is a function of the person then the tools will in fact help to exaggerate and emphasise this difference, but if the work is a function of the tools then the work will all look the same. Go and have a look at the work of many contemporary commercial landscape photographers. You will not see much difference in their work. Mix the work up and you’ll have trouble pulling it apart. Then go do that to the great photographers through history; now you can start to pull the work apart. 

For many people who express concern about manipulation, they often in fact don’t have a problem with an image being manipulated if it is presented as an art piece from an artist. The problem they have, is that it is presented as a photograph from a photographer, and this is what puts fire into the debate. When someone says to me; ‘I am a photographer and this is my photograph’, I say ‘Really?’ ”

I do understand and respect Steve’s comments, they are all valid points, but as indicated at the beginning of this article, this debate is complex and there are no right or wrong answers or opinions. I am just presenting thoughts and questions as well as my position regarding image manipulation and my aim is not to respond to them but leave them open for you to think about…

History of digital manipulation

Before computers, photo manipulation was achieved by retouching with ink, paint, double-exposure, piecing photos or negatives together in the darkroom, or scratching Polaroids. Airbrushes were also used.

In the early days of photography, the use of technology was not as advanced and efficient as it is now and results similar to digital manipulation were harder to create. At that time photographers and others debated whether photography could be art.

The 1980s saw the arrival of digital retouching with Quantel computers running Paintbox, and Scitex imaging workstations being used professionally. Silicon Graphics computers running Barco Creator became available in the late 1980s which, alongside other contemporary packages, were effectively replaced in the market by Adobe Photoshop. (Source: Wikipedia)

I have nearly completed my Masters in Photography and during the course I have studied the history of photography including photographers that manipulated their images. Some of these photographers are very well-known and respected and are called photographers in all the books of history of photography. But before we go into the work of some of these photographers there is a movement in the history of Photography that I think is related to what we are discussing and has set the basis of image manipulation nowadays. This movement is the Pictorialism.

The Pictorialism (Source: Wikipedia)

Not long after photography was established, photographers, painters and others began to argue about the relationship between the scientific and artistic aspects of the medium.

Pictorialism is the name given to an international style and aesthetic movement that dominated photography during the later 19th and early 20th centuries. There is no standard definition of the term, but in general it refers to a style in which the photographer has somehow manipulated what would otherwise be a straightforward photograph as a means of “creating” an image rather than simply recording it. It emphasizes photography’s ability to create visual beauty rather than simply record facts.

Typically, a pictorial photograph appears to lack a sharp focus, is printed in one or more colors other than black-and-white and may have visible brush strokes or other manipulation of the surface. For the pictorialist, a photograph, like a painting, drawing or engraving, was a way of projecting an emotional intent into the viewer’s realm of imagination (source: Wikipedia).

Pictorialism began in response to claims that a photograph was nothing more than a simple record of reality, and transformed into an international movement to advance the status of all photography as a true art form. For more than three decades painters, photographers and art critics debated opposing artistic philosophies, ultimately culminating in the acquisition of photographs by several major art museums.

Pictorialism gradually declined in popularity after 1920, although it did not fade out of popularity until the end of World War II. During this period the new style of photographic Modernism came into vogue, and the public’s interest shifted to more sharply focused images.

Oscar Gustave Rejlander (1813 – 1875)

Rejlander undertook many experiments to perfect his photography, including combination printing from around 1853. He had an article featured in the Wolverhampton Chronicle, on 15 November 1854 that suggests that by 1854 he was experimenting with combination printing from several negatives. (Source: Wikipedia)

In 1857 he made his best-known allegorical work: The Two Ways of Life. This was a seamlessly montaged combination print made of thirty-two images (akin to the use of Photoshop today with layers, but then far more difficult to achieve). (Source: Wikipedia)

The success of The Two Ways of Life, and membership of the Royal Photographic Society of London, gave him an entree into London respectability. He moved his studio to Malden Road, London around 1862 and further experimented with double exposure, photomontage, photographic manipulation and retouching. (Source: Wikipedia)

Rejlander’s ideas and techniques were taken up by other photographers and this, to some extent, justifies labelling him as the father of art photography. (Source: Wikipedia)

Oscar Gustave Rejlander, The Two Ways of Life, perhaps the most famous example of a composite photograph

Oscar Gustave Rejlander, The Two Ways of Life, perhaps the most famous example of a composite photograph

Gustave Le Gray (1820 – 1884)

He has been called “the most important French photographer of the nineteenth century” because of his technical innovations in the still new medium of photography, his role as the teacher of other noted photographers, and “the extraordinary imagination he brought to picture making”. (Source: Wikipedia)

He developed a new technique for his seascapes so that both the sea and sky could be correctly exposed. Because of the limitations of photographic materials at the time, it was extremely difficult to capture both sea and sky in a single image. By combining two negatives — one exposed for the one for the sea and another for the sky (and sometimes made on separate occasions or in different locations!) — Le Gray triumphed. This use of combination printing was not criticized when he exhibited his seascapes and so perhaps it went undetected. More important was the harmonious union produced by his innovative technique, which he originally invented for landscapes with overexposed skies. (Source: http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/le_gray/)

The dramatic effects of sunlight, clouds, and water in Le Gray’s seascapes stunned his contemporaries and immediately brought him international recognition. At a time when photographic emulsions were not equally sensitive to all colors of the spectrum, most photographers found it impossible to achieve proper exposure of both landscape and sky in a single picture. (Source: http://www.metmuseum.org/)

Gustave Le Gray, The Great Wave, Sète

Gustave Le Gray, The Great Wave, Sète

Camille Silvy (1834 – 1910)

(Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/)

Camille Silvy was a French photographer but his career lasted only 10 years before the onset of devastating manic depression. Confined to a madhouse for the last three decades of his life, he died in 1910, all but forgotten.

In 1859, he showed his early masterpiece River Scene, France at the first exhibition ever to present photographs as works of fine art. To take it, Silvy set up his camera on a bridge over the river in order to show both its banks, with the river between them meandering into the distance. It is a hot afternoon in high summer. On the left bank, a well-dressed couple are about to go boating, while on the right, farm labourers laze in a meadow.

To the casual observer, the river scene looks entirely natural. But as curator Mark Haworth-Booth explains, the composition is an artificial construction. Far from reproducing the idyllic scene just as it looked that day, the photograph is a composite made from two negatives, on one of which Silvy painted the clouds and trees mirrored in the water’s glassy surface by hand. The boating couple and the farm workers didn’t just happen to be there when the shutter clicked; they were asked, or paid, to pose. Each group represents a different stratum of French society, with the river dividing rich from poor, middle and working classes, town and country.

River Scene by Camille Silvy

River Scene by Camille Silvy

Frank Hurley (1885 – 1962)

Frank Hurley was an Australian photographer who participated in a number of expeditions to Antarctica and served as an official photographer with Australian forces during both world wars. (Source: Wikipedia)

He was hired to record the events of WWI for the Australian Imperial Force. Better known for his photographs of the Endurance expedition into Antarctica, Hurley’s photographic recordings of WWI have generally been overlooked. Experiencing war firsthand, he felt that he could not accurately represent the war without being permitted to make composite photographs, images derived from multiple photographic negatives. (Source: http://www.constellations.pitt.edu).

For the 1918 London exhibition Australian War Pictures and Photographs he employed composites for photomurals to convey drama of the war on a scale otherwise not possible using the technology available. This brought Hurley into conflict with the AIF on the grounds that montage diminished documentary value. Charles Bean, official war historian, labelled Hurley’s composite images “fake”. His feelings on this topic were so strong that he resigned when he was ordered not to produce composite images. (Source: Wikipedia)

Photographers usually manipulated their images to appear more compositionally similar to painting. While this was celebrated at the time as the proper way to fit photography into the canon of art history, the 1920s saw a radical change in ideals, causing this kind of art photography to be seen as indecent. (Source: http://www.constellations.pitt.edu)

Perhaps one of his most famous composite images is the one below.

Frank Hurley, composite image of WWI

Frank Hurley, composite image of WWI

Jerry Uelsmann (1934 – )

Uelsmann was the forerunner of photomontage in the 20th century in the USA. He believed that through photography he could exist outside of himself, to live in a world captured through the lens. Uelsmann is a master printer, producing composite photographs with multiple negatives and extensive darkroom work. He uses up to a dozen enlargers at a time to produce his final images. (Source: Wikipedia)

Similar in technique to Rejlander, Uelsmann is a champion of the idea that the final image need not be tied to a single negative, and may be composed of many. During the mid-twentieth century, when photography was still being defined, Uelsmann didn’t care about the boundaries given by the Photo Secessionists or other realists at the time, he simply wished to share with the viewer, the images from his imagination and saw photomontage as the means by which to do so. (Source: Wikipedia)

Jerry Uelsmann photographs

Jerry Uelsmann photographs

Andreas Gursky (1955 – )

Andreas Gursky is a German photographer and Professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Germany. He is known for his large format architecture and landscape colour photographs. Before the 1990s, Gursky did not digitally manipulate his images. In the years since, Gursky has been frank about his reliance on computers to edit and enhance his pictures, creating an art of spaces larger than the subjects photographed. (Source: Wikipedia)

Before Peter Lik sold “The Ghost”, Gursky held the record for highest price paid at auction for a single photographic image [Editor’s Note: Many believe he still does]. His print Rhein II sold for USD $4,338,500. The image of Bahrein below is an example of a composite image that he created for his work Bahrain 2005.

The image was taken from a helicopter and subsequently manipulated using digital software, the photograph shows the track curving in a snake-like fashion through the desert landscape, the black asphalt forming a strong contrast with the beige sand surrounding it. No cars or people are visible in the image, although a long horizontal grandstand with a white roof can be seen just above the centre of the composition. A cluster of distant buildings are also perceptible near the horizon underneath a hazy grey-blue sky. (Source: http://www.tate.org.uk)

Gursky began to digitally alter his photographs in 1991; initially using computers as a tool for retouching images (Restaurant, St. Moritz 1991 was the first work altered in this way), he later used digital technology to combine multiples shots in one image as seen in the image below. (Source: http://www.tate.org.uk)

Andreas Gursky, Bahrein (composite image and original capture)

Andreas Gursky, Bahrein (composite image and original capture)

The next three photographers, or digital artists, are some examples that I have recently found and I would recommend that you have a look at their work.

Erik Johansson

In his website Swedish photographer Erik Johansson says that he “uses photography as a way of collecting material to realize the ideas of my mind.”

Michal Karcz

Michal Karcz is a Polish photographer and his journey into photography started in the 90’s. His passion was painting and helped to develop a vision in photography that was hard to create with other techniques. Digital photography gave him the tools to generate unique realities that were impossible to create in the dark room. Most of his work is a journey to places that don’t exist, places from his dreams, desires, imagination and fears.

Leszek Bujnowski

Born in Poland, Leszek Bujnowski often uses the technique of digital manipulation. He is fascinated by the possibility of altering the world around us.


As we have seen in this article photo manipulation is as old as photography itself. It seems that through the history the different photography movements were marked and nowadays there are all mixed up and people follow different movement and ideas without a very clear trend. Perhaps this era of digital blending is just a fashion that will vanish?

For me post-processing an image is part of the creative process and I think everyone should put their own limits on photography and how much post-processing is done. Depending on the use of the image and/or your personal vision and style you should choose what to do with your own images and always be honest about the post processing undertaken.

Photoshop and other digital editing software are great tools that modern photography has provided to show the world in a way not done before, to show the world the way the photographer wants you to see it… When I look at the world and I look at beautiful landscapes, I look at it to transform it in a photograph or into art. Our camera can be better or worse, with more or less possibilities but its lens will never be a substitute for vision.

Photo manipulation has a positive impact by developing creativity (or maybe for some a negative one by removing the art and beauty of capturing something magnificent and natural), but for me creating an image with Photoshop is an adventure and an experiment and post-processing an image is a creative, artistic, personal and fulfilling experience.

Final Thought

I was born in La Rioja, a small region in the North of Spain very well known for its red wine. Thinking about this debate made me think of the following analogy and questions:

The grapes as they are harvested contain the potential of wine: you can make a bad wine from good grapes, but not a good wine from bad grapes…
1. Who makes the wine, the harvester? or the oenologist (wine expert) that process it with technology and chemistry in the factory to give it its final and characteristic flavour?

2. And which one would you rather drink?

Like in Photography, it is a question of taste but if you don’t have good grapes you won’t produce good quality wine, processed or unprocessed.

I like good wine. In the same way the oenologist processes the grapes to make wine, I like to process my images, with the tools I have and with the experience that I have acquired all these years.