My psychological battle with photo filters

I like the idea of Adobe’s Lightroom. It can turn a pretty flat, passable image into something dramatically engaging, even beguiling. But I struggle with whether applying presets and other filters to photographs is actually a form of deception - not presenting a scene to an audience as I truly saw it.

Cameras integrated into mobile phones and the explosion of social media have driven our most recent obsession with presets. I have seen numerous articles online about how many more eyeballs a filtered or special effects image will attract and, of course, the number of ‘Likes’ and other positive emoticons they will draw from an adoring audience.

I first started in photography in my very young years, with my Dad obtaining a home-made enlarger from his boss as the centrepiece of a first darkroom set up in my parents laundry. In Brisbane’s summer heat, I used to sweat it out in this non-airconditioned room while simultaneously trying to keep developer and fixing fluids at the ideal 20 degrees Celsius.

I never extended my skills into colour processing and never really took pictures in colour until my teen years and later as a photojournalist, when I shot 35mm Kodak Ektachrome transparency film or 6 cm square frames on an occasionally borrowed Hasselblad 3C (requiring the use of one of those ancient hand-held light meters to calculate ideal aperture and shutter combinations!).

It was really honest photography. You couldn’t use limitless storage capacity to blaze away in the hope of capturing one decent shot in 20. Every frame cost you money to process, so you focused on camera calibration as much as on what was in the viewfinder or etched glass screen.

Of course, filtering has been available to photographers for decades. In earlier days, I had quite a number of filters - hard spot diffusers, cross-screen and a range of colours. These were applied on location, allowing me to preview their creative impact. I chose to filter or not before releasing the shutter.

You could argue that this was the pre-emptor of software and apps like Lightroom, but somehow I still suffer a pang of guilt when I load a RAW image from my trusty Canon into this software package.

These powerful packages give me the power to step well beyond the capabilities of those lens filters. I have the power to create the illusion that I was in a national park or visiting some monument at a different time of day, in the rain rather than in the sun, or that somehow the lighting effects of a city skyline were far more impactful than they really were.

Through software I can make my holiday experience, in fact my whole life looks far superior to anyone else’s. I struggle with whether this is right and if I am slowly being drawn into a level of social media narcissism that sees me projecting an enhanced view of my life experiences.

Of course, there are many talented people who employ photographic techniques as the basis of their art. In their context, it is entirely appropriate that they wildly manipulate images to interpret the world they experience, to offer their audience a new perspective on reality.

However, I am not one of these. My photographs are meant to reflect what I see, what the world really looks like when I travel, or paddle my kayak, or simply enjoy experiences with family and friends.

My compromise, my acknowledgement of conscience is therefore to apply minimal use of software to images. I have provided a couple of original versus enhanced images to show you what I mean.

I would be interested to read your comments on the honesty of image enhancement and whether it matters.

The banner image shows a simple comparison of an original photograph of a leopard in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park and a Lightroom adjustment to warm the image to something a little below the daylight temperature (I also removed some infringing twigs!).