Camera Tricks are magic!

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In the YouTube video Camera Tricks are not Magic, magician Penn Jilette delivers a broadside against fake magicians who substitute camera trickery for skilled slight-of-hand.

The question “what is magic?” dovetails with an oft-quoted dictum of science-fiction writer/futurist Arthur C. Clarke. His “Third Law regarding the future of scientific development staes: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

In this sense, photographic tricks become magic when they’re performed by skilled photographers, who use cameras, lighting and post-processing slight-of-hand to achieve photographic illusion.

Early use of content-aware fill by Stalinist censors to remove newly-executed associate.

Early use of “content-aware fill” by Stalinist censors to remove newly-executed associate.

We live in a world of computer generated images that photographers can only dream of creating. But CGI aside, today’s photographers have post-production image enhancement tools that far surpass older darkroom techniques.

At what point of photographic manipulation do we feel that we’ve been cheated? We’re too familiar with retouching in the advertising world; it’s moved far beyond blemish removal and into entire body reshaping. Photographic trickery is nothing new. Stalin simply airbrushed his newfound enemies out of photographs.

“It’s been ‘shopped” – Adobe’s trademark takes a hit as “photoshop” becomes a generic term.

Photo-editing can be roughly divided into three categories:

Global adjustments like brightness, contrast, and color toning are applied to totality of the image, “without prejudice.” These adjustments, even carried to some extreme, can be considered pure in the sense that they don’t tamper with the integrity of the overall image, and instead apply a (nerdspeak alert) monotonic continuous curve to all values in the image.

Next come local adjustments; graduated linear and radial filters and similar tools that mimic darkroom techniques of dodging and burning. In our digital darkrooms we can do tricks like altering contrast, coloration, and clarity and sharpness. These still tend to be, like global adjustments, “broad brush” techniques that serve to even out large-scale unevenness. However subtle, they are clearly edits that change regional areas.

Finally, there is retouching; brushwork that aims to change small “imperfections”. In some cases the retouching might not be aimed to change reality per se. Most photographers who do post-processing are too familiar with techniques to fix the ugly spotting of the sky that can be caused by even a single speck of dust on the camera sensor.

But what of removing blemishes? If your job is to make your subject look good, chances are you wouldn’t think twice. Sometimes you remove a large blemish, but retain smaller ones so as not to overdo it. What about removing an ill-placed lamp post that threatens to spoil an otherwise great picture? Or replacing a burned out light on a marquee? How about moving an animal in the background of a field for the sake of balance?
(to be continued)