Digitally enhancing analog photos – is it cheating?

The whole “back to basics” photography movement, with its return to analog film and (in some cases) cheap plastic lenses has a kind of purity about it that doesn’t mesh well with all of the computer-aided post-processing of photos we have come to take for granted. We have computer programs that know how to automatically enhance our photos, or we can deliberately alter photos to add someone who may have been absent on a particular day, remove wrinkles and blemishes, darken skies and lighten shadows. We even have programs we can use to make modern digital photos look old. But with analog photography, it just feels like cheating. Especially when you’re shooting in black and white!

With digital photography, it’s easy to go too far – I try to limit – ok, fine, justify – my own post-processing with photoshop and its cousin by insisting that I’m only trying to compensate for the shortcomings of the camera, and am just trying to restore the digital image to what my eyes witnessed. This even works to an extent with HDR photography, where you’re compensating for the opening and closing of your pupils as your eyes move across a scene.

But with analog photos – especially when you’re taking them with a vintage camera – no one expects the photos to look like you remember the scene from real life. In fact, what’s so cool is the inaccurate way they reproduce colors, yet due to our own hazy memories of that time, somehow manage to accurately reproduce, say, 1973. (Or was the sky really white back then, with grass a weird shade of olive?). When you take it a step further and photograph in black and white, there’s no longer any pretense of trying to make it look “real”. Unless you’re using cameras from before 1950, when the world really existed in black and white… Little joke.

Anyway, I felt the contrast in my latest photos wasn’t quite up to par, so I played around a bit with the correction software because the digital scans I was given (so I could share them with you!) didn’t quite have the same feel as the prints I was sent in the mail. So is this cheating? Can I justify this as making up for someone else’s faulty developing techniques, or a cheap scanner?

Examples are below – original scan first, followed by the modified – um, “corrected” version.

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