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What's so special about digitally manipulated photographs?

Nothing, in principle.

Except that digital manipulation is much faster and easier than the old-fashioned kind with brush and paint, so it's likely to happen more. What took Stalin's photo-retouchers a whole morning can often be achieved in minutes, with much less skill.

And except that it's done within the same program which a picture desk uses for (perfectly proper) adjustment of colour balance, and so forth. The temptation to "just remove that lamp-post growing out of the Secretary of State's head" is much closer than it was when you had to send the photo down to the re-toucher's splattered bench.

If you have not played with these programs, it may be interesting to know a little of what can be done with them:
Instead of having to mix paints, you can "pick up" a colour from the image.
You can cut an arbitrary area out of an image - in some programs creating an "object" which can be separately manipulated...
...and move it around at will. That includes moving it into a separate image, if you understand colour balance and the change in shadows with the time of day really well.
When you've placed your object - a bush concealing an untidy homeless person, or someone who was at the conference but missed the photo-shoot - you blend around its edges. In the old days, one way of doing this involved micro-surgery with a scalpel: look very closely at a magazine photo and imagine cutting round the individual dots of colour...
"Cloning" is probably the digital manipulator's greatest asset. Even with the ability to match colours effortlessly, to cover up that lamp-post requires some painting skill. A cloning tool allows you to pick a suitable area of foliage or warehouse or whatever's behind the lamp-post, and paint with it. Striped paint, spotted paint, flowered paint, paint which is a bit of London Bridge... if only it worked for interior decorating...
Computers and programmers being what they are, there are some very clever tools... like one which will create a "mask" around an area by selecting a background colour which is not part of the object of interest. So, if the object you want to cut or paste is against a plain background, you don't even have to be able do draw round it.
Some brushwork may still be required. But you can do the equivalent of painting with a tractor tyre or sandpaper or whatever makes it easier.
You won't see this button on any other computer screen for a while. But the principle is simplicity itself. Once you've manipulated your photo, it isn't a photo any more. It's an illustration. So you click this, and the symbol is added to your brand-new illustration, as the visual equivalent of a "quote mark", so everyone knows what it is.

These examples are drawn from Corel PhotoPaint.

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Last modified: 09 Nov 1997
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