LEFT: Post Processed, RIGHT: Unedited original
The line between photography and manipulated images can be somewhat subjective and has evolved with advancements in technology such as AI and changes in societal perception. However, there are some general principles and considerations that can help define this line including the following:
Intent and Purpose
One of the key factors in distinguishing between photography and manipulated images is the intent behind creating the image. As a photographer, I typically aim to capture a moment or scene as it exists in the real world, while manipulated images are intentionally altered to convey a different message, perhaps an artistic vision, or to somehow deceive viewers. If the primary purpose is to deceive or significantly alter reality, it is more likely a manipulated image. Plus, if your aim is to satisfy public demand, it is more likely subjected to manipulation as is everything under the guise of 'marketing'.
Degree of Alteration
The extent to which an image is altered plays a crucial role. Photography involves minimal post-processing adjustments, such as cropping, color correction, and exposure adjustments, which are considered acceptable in the photography community. Manipulated images, on the other hand, involve substantial modifications, like adding or removing objects or people, changing backgrounds, or creating composite images from multiple sources.
Transparency about image manipulation is an important and often photographers will disclose their editing and manipulation processes even if categorising their photography under the guise of fine art. If an image is presented as unaltered or if the alterations are hidden or not disclosed, it may be considered deceptive.
The context in which the image is presented can also influence the perception of whether it is photography or manipulation. For example, in journalism and documentary photography, strict adherence to accuracy and minimal manipulation is expected, whilst in artistic or creative photography, more extensive alterations are generally accepted.
Some forms of digital art and photography may intentionally blur the lines between photography and manipulation. Artists may use digital tools to create surreal or abstract works that challenge traditional definitions. It is in such cases that the distinction may be less clear.
Ethical considerations come into play when determining whether an image has crossed the line into manipulation. This is specific to journalistic or documentary photography and if an image manipulates reality in a way that misrepresents facts or harms individuals or groups, it may be considered unethical.
Technology and Tools
Advances in technology such as AI, have made it easier to create convincing manipulated images. The use of such tools can make the line between photography and manipulation more ambiguous particularly that these are used on the fringe of post-processing.
In practice, the boundary between photography and manipulated images can be fuzzy, and there may not always be a clear-cut line. It is essential for photographers and image creators to be transparent about their processes and intent, and for viewers to be critical and discerning when interpreting images. Ultimately, the distinction often depends on the purpose, context, and degree of alteration of the image and in the real world, the distinction of photography vs fine art photography helps clarify the concepts.