Is it time we just accepted “Photoshopped”
images as the new straight photograph? To some extent I think we
should, and I will present some arguments to that end in this article.
When I first thought of writing about this subject
it was as much to clarify my own thoughts on the issue of digital
manipulation as for any other reason. About four years ago I started
seriously dealing with digital images, at that time it was scanned
film, but whether scans or digital, the conundrum is the same; how
much should I manipulate an image? Indeed how much can
I manipulate an image and still call it a straight photo?
Let’s get one thing clear; there is no such
thing as an un-manipulated photo, every photo is manipulated in
some way. Everything we do in the process of making a photograph
is manipulation, the choice of framing, lens, cropping, juxtapositions,
exposure, colour, motion blur, selective focus, perspective…I
could probably go on forever.
This article presents some of the issues as they
relate to nature photography, which is really a form of reportage
and, as such, strives to have the viewer believe that the events
in the photograph actually happened.
What is the fundamental issue?
If you photograph for your own enjoyment, and are not selling or
otherwise exposing your work to the public, there is no issue. But,
if you are presenting your work in any way, and especially if you
are selling images, there is an issue, and that issue is one of
deception. Can a viewer “believe” a photograph?
Photographs are supposed to depict events or scenes
that actually happened, that’s the whole reason people are
blown away by a fantastic image. We assume that there has been no
hank-panky on the part of the photographer; if the viewer were there
at the time, he or she would have seen the same thing.
Photography is in danger of becoming disregarded
as a medium that depicts real scenes and decisive moments, and lumped
in with painting, ironically something many have wanted since the
first wet plate was exposed.
Is this a new “problem”?
Many feel that the issue of manipulation is a problem that surfaced
with Photoshop and the digital camera. Not so. The earliest example
I know of is a photo entitled In a Piegan Lodge taken by Edward
S Curtis in 1910. The photo is of two American Indians sitting inside
their lodge. Between them, on the floor, is an alarm clock. It appears
that Curtis didn’t think the clock was “indian”
enough, so he retouched it from the print.
Move on a few decades. Ansel Adams’ Mt
McKinley and Wonder Lake photo was printed in 1949
as a washed-out insipid landscape. Years later we see a version
with stunning blacks and a fantastic tonal range, a classic Adams
print. The image has totally changed between 1949 and 1978. There
was more than a little manipulation at play there.
Still with Ansel Adams, what about the retouching
of the “LP” graffiti from the hillside in Winter
Sunrise, another of his better-known images.
In both the Adams examples I cite, manipulation
was at play, but everyone knows about it (or at least us photographers
do) so there is no deception; anything is OK as long as the viewer
is not being deceived.
Who is the viewer?
But there are viewers and there are viewers. Just who, or what,
is the viewer? A photographer can be deceived in different ways
to a layperson. Take the example of a macro photo that has had the
depth of field enhanced by combining several shots with slightly
differing focus points.
The layperson is not deceived because, in essence,
the photo faithfully depicts the scene before the photographer.
However a fellow nature photographer may look at the shot and marvel
that the insect is sharp from head to tail, “How on earth
did he get such fantastic depth of field?” the photographer
may ask. He would get the impression that the author of the photo
managed in some way to have the subject stay perfectly still for
a 3-second exposure at f64. He may be deceived into thinking that
the author had a different skill set than was in fact the case.
Rather than being able to mesmerize animals, the author was simply
proficient on the computer.
Image manipulation is a skill and should be recognized
as such, but it is a different skill to photography.
Why do we care what the viewer thinks?
I must admit that, when viewing a good image, I now find myself
wondering if it is real, or has it been manipulated. Now I’m
well versed in this field and can often spot a manipulated photo,
but if it’s done well there is nothing to spot.
For a while no harm will be done, the average
person won’t know that images are not what they appear, and
won’t care. But eventually people will get burned. They may
buy a classic shot of an eagle soaring above a snow-capped mountain,
only to find that the eagle was on a leash at a wildlife park, and
the mountain was located on another continent.
How likely is that person to purchase another
If you are selling or displaying images you should
care what the viewer thinks.
Some other issues
And now for something completely different. I’m moving out
of the photography arena here and into some environmental issues.
When is it more ethical to manipulate than not to manipulate?
Take for example the rotten stick that ruins your
foreground. Most photographers would consider it reasonable to move
the stick and thereby improve the photo. But what about the thousands
of termites who call the stick home? The earthworms that will not
survive if exposed to the hot sun. The cockroaches that will be
picked off by birds if left in the open.
We’re not talking the Exxon Valdez disaster
here, but there are other issues at play than just photography ethics.
In this example it is surely more ethical to remove the stick in
What if you see the distracting stick in the field but decide not
to remove it because it’s easier to clone it out on the computer.
Are you being eco-friendly, or just lazy? What if you didn’t
see it at the time? From a straight-photo point of view, what’s
the difference between physically removing the stick and cloning
it from the photo? None. Once you interfere with a scene it is no
longer a “found view”, it is a manipulated view.
Of course if you remove the stick in the field
no one will ever know and I wonder how many classic “straight”
photos had a stick moved to tidy up the foreground, or a branch
broken off to clear the view? I suspect that even some of the most
iconic images have had this treatment, but there is no way of knowing.
Therefore I argue that removing the stick with
a computer is more ethical and still results in a straight photo,
and the photographer has had less impact on the environment that
he or she loves.
In-camera VS in-computer
For years some photographers have espoused the purity of an image
that is displayed entirely as captured by the camera, to the point
of including the negative frame in the print to prove that the image
is uncropped. Such images are, some will argue, the purest form
of photography. I have no problem with that, as a genre it is as
valid as any other. But let’s not impose those restrictions
on other photographic styles, and as I’ve stated, even these
images are manipulated, it’s just that the manipulation occurred
before the shutter was fired.
What’s so sacrosanct about doing the manipulation
in-camera? For over a hundred years photographers with large-format
view cameras have been “distorting” subjects, most commonly
raising and/or lowering the camera’s standards to correct
leaning verticals. How is that different from creating exactly the
same affect with Photoshop’s perspective tool?
While talking about view cameras, the other common
trick used is to tilt the standards. This in turn tilts the plane
of focus and gives the illusion of incredible depth of field. How
is this different from combining similar images with different focus
point to obtain the same affect?
What about panoramas, why is a photographer with
pockets deep enough to buy a Linhof Technorama any better than one
who creates a panoramic image from several consecutive exposures
and a stitching program?
Is the use of a ND graduating filter any more
ethical than the application of a graduated adjustment layer?
In short I say no, all the above techniques are
equivalent. Of course when these adjustments are performed post-exposure,
the photographer has a lot more room to experiment, the pressure
to get it right in the field is off. So what? New technology has
made life easier, if you don’t like it, buy some eggs, some
glass plates, a lightproof tent, three pack horses, and travel back
In fact I see the raw digital image in much the
same way as I see a negative, it’s the raw material, from
which something beautiful can be created. If I do that by waving
my hand over an easel, or a mouse mat, it doesn’t matter.
Many photographers, especially in the fine art
genre, sidestep the issue by saying “This print represents
what I felt when I was there”. This is a cop out; we can all
say that we “feel” whatever we like. After hours of
pushing through scrub without finding a single decent image I “feel
like” a hamburger and a beer, but that’s got nothing
to do with the photograph. And who’s to say the “feeling”
wasn’t conjured up six months later when the photographer
was pressed for an artist’s statement.
One of photography’s appeals is that it
depicts an actual event in a manner that was not possible before
the camera’s invention. If you see a photo of a leopard sitting
on a rock with the moon in the background, then you have the right
to expect that that scene actually occurred. The photographer can
adjust the lighting at the scene by electing to use a flash or not,
similarly he can adjust the mood by increasing or decreasing the
exposure (either in-camera or in-computer). But he cannot say, “Well
it felt like a barmy moonlit night” and add a full moon from
three days before.
What do the experts say?
In an attempt to ascertain what the experts think on this subject
I did some web surfing, starting with some high-profile competitions.
The British Gas (now Shell) Wildlife Photographer
of the Year competition is arguably the most coveted prize
in the nature photography genre. They only began accepting digital
images recently, and do not have a section for manipulated images.
The rules quote…
“Digital manipulation is only acceptable
if limited to cleaning work, levels, curves, colour, saturation
and contrast work, applied to the image as a whole.”
Moving across the Atlantic to the USA we have
the Nature’s Best competition.
“…all photographs should accurately
reflect the subject matter and the scene as it appeared in the
viewfinder. Nothing should be added to an image, and, aside from
minor dust spots, nothing should be taken away. Cropping and minor
adjustments to colour and contrast are acceptable.”
And just to spread my quotes more evenly around
the world, here is what the ANZANG (Australia, New Zealand,
Antarctica and New Guinea) nature photography competition rules
“Images must not be adjusted beyond a
level that would be applied in conventional optical printing techniques.”
Let’s think about that last quote for a
minute. Only changes made that could be done with conventional
optical printing techniques…well I was a pretty dab hand
in a darkroom, and there are plenty of people who are absolute wizards.
Jerry Uelsmann’s images are created entirely in a darkroom
using “conventional optical printing techniques”, they
no more depict reality than Star Trek does, but under this criterion,
his images could be entered in the ANZANG competition.
It seems that everything is open to interpretation.
As you would expect photographers opinions cover
the entire range, here are some examples from four of the world’s
top nature photographers.
Richard du Toit
“I really dislike the digital manipulation of wildlife images.
For me it destroys the authenticity of the image, and is damaging
the public’s perception of nature photography…I want
my images to be an accurate record of the behaviour of animals
as captured by the camera in the natural environment. I believe
that’s what the public want also.”
Joe & Mary Anne McDonald
“To me, a digitally enhanced or computer manipulated image
should imply creating an image with elements not originally present
in a scene. Adding penguins to an iceberg, for example, or flying
birds over a landscape. Just as photo 'sandwiches' … should
be labeled, these computer images should be, too. But if a photographer
is simply using a computer to truly capture what your eye can
see, using the computer as a sophisticated and highly advanced
ND filter, I'd argue that that is not digital manipulation. At
least not in its purest form.”
“I believe that manipulation is acceptable so long as the
basic integrity of the original picture is maintained. I wouldn’t,
for example, change a picture so that an animal is shown in the
wrong environment or doing something that was completely out of
Let’s take the case of Steve Bloom’s
Polar bear cubs playing on their mother.
My initial response was “what a great shot”,
but then I looked closer. There was something not quite right about
the image, and eventually I realised what it was. The light source
is different for one of the cubs than for it’s sibling and
mother. It appears to be a fabricated image; the animals are not
“in the wrong environment” or “doing something
completely out of character”, and I’m sure that the
cubs were indeed playing on their mother at the time, but this scene
was almost certainly never captured by the photographer in one decisive
Steve Bloom is without doubt one of the world’s
finest nature photographers, but I now find myself wondering about
his images. I emailed Steve and asked him to comment, but as yet
have received no reply. Rightly or wrongly my confidence in his
images has now been eroded.
Do you want your viewer to lose their confidence
in you images?
Do we need a labeling standard to indicate that
an image is as it appears? Maybe, but it’s been tried before.
Previous image-labeling standards
To my knowledge there have been two serious attempts to provide
a standard by which photographers can tag their images as being
un-manipulated, Foundview and Trustimage.
Foundview was created in 1997 as a method of indicating to a viewer
that an image was not manipulated.
According to their, now defunct, website…
“The FoundView checkmark is their [the
viewer’s] guarantee that post-shutter manipulation, if any,
was limited to tonal variations (contrast, brightness, intensity,
hue) and that no one involved in producing a FoundView photograph
moved, added, deleted (except by cropping), or otherwise altered
any forms or shapes in that photograph after the shutter was clicked.”
The Foundview logo could be placed on any photo
that satisfied the criteria. As those trying to hoodwink the public
will not accede to any form of disclosure, it seemed reasonable
to provide a method by which those who don’t unduly manipulate
can indicate that fact.
Foundview never took off.
Trustimage has grown from the Foundview standard and is aimed more
at the reportage arena. Trustimage has a large procedure that you
can follow to determine whether an image qualifies or not. It’s
way too complicated to repeat here, however there are two basic
Qualification #1. The photograph was made from
a single uninterrupted exposure, and all forms and shapes within
the photograph remain exactly as they were recorded during that
exposure (with exceptions made ONLY for cropping, sharpening,
and changes to tones and colours).
Qualification #2. The photograph and its presentation
meet newspaper reportage standards for non-deception and non-misrepresentation.
This applies to both the appearance (including tones and colours)
and the circumstances of the original scene as it was while the
shutter was open.
Because Trustimage is aimed at reportage they
don’t appear too worried about some technical issues that
would ordinarily disqualify an image as being un-manipulated. For
example, they allow the removal of flare from the photograph. This
of course has no bearing on the believability of the image when
viewed by the average newspaper reader. However flare in a photo
is normally a fundamental error; surely this should have been noticed
by the photographer and dealt with pre-exposure.
FoundView does allow for “similars”
with different exposures to be combined, whereas Trustimage states
that the image must be ”from a single uninterrupted exposure”.
Neither allows for stitched panoramas, something
that I believe should be considered straight.
Coming from an engineering background, I realise
that standards are very important, so much so that I’ve decided
to create my own.
The problem with labeling systems as describe above is that they
only distinguish between “genuine absolutely untouched photos”
and “everything else”. This lumps the “removed
a blade of grass” image in with “added a sky, duplicated
several impalas, and dropped a mountain in the background”
photo. Not fair in my view.
I propose a four-level scale, ranging from absolutely
untouched, to a totally fictitious montage.
Level 1 – absolutely
untouched, except to overcome the most fundamental limitations
of the medium, (equivalent to typical procedures when shooting
with slide film).
When I moved from using 5x4” sheet film
in darkslides to pre-packaged Readyloads I thought my dust problems
were over, and then I discovered digital. Until the manufacturers
solve the problem, dust is a fact of life for digital photographers.
It’s only fair to allow dust spots to be removed post exposure.
Similarly, sensors often seem to produce a raw image that is pretty
insipid and doesn’t accurately depict the scene at all in
terms of tonal range and colour. Therefore the photographer should
be allowed to apply global changes to contrast, density, colour,
Moderate sharpening is allowed as this is also
a limitation of the medium, digital cameras have a low-pass filter
placed before the sensor to reduce moire patterns, this slightly
blurs the image, and the photographer should be allowed to rectify
Panoramas are allowed, the fact that the image
is a composition of several exposures produced within seconds
of each other is irrelevant. As long as the resultant stitched
image has no undue manipulation performed on it, the image qualifies
for Level 1.
A Level 1 photograph is the truest test of the
photographer’s art in the sense that we have known it until
recently. Certainly the ability to adjust exposure, colour balance
etc. after the event gives the digital photographer an advantage
over his slide film counterpart, but this is about as close as
we can get to shooting transparencies.
With the exception of panoramas, photos at this
level can be entered in all major competitions.
Level 1 photos can be considered a true likeness
of the scene as it appeared in front of the camera.
Level 2 – some minor annoyances
removed, selective adjustment of tones, similars combined, (equivalent
to using typical darkroom procedures to make a print).
Some grass poking up in front of the subject
has been removed, an overly bright rock has been dulled down a
bit, the shadows have been lifted, and contrast increased in the
bottom right-hand corner. All these manipulations can be done
in a darkroom, and therefore, should be allowed in the lightroom,
with the results still being accepted as a straight photo. The
only difference is that these changes are now easier to do.
Similars with different exposures or focus points,
which have been combined into a single image with a larger tonal
range or depth of field, are allowed. This is the digital equivalent
of various masking techniques in the darkroom.
There is no trickery here, just craft.
With levels 1 and 2 the finished result still
depicts a scene or event that actually happened, and which is
in no significant way different to the original scene.
When I sell a wet-process B&W print I don’t
say, “well of course I darkened that rock, lightened some
of the shadows, and retouched a white pebble on the shore”.
The photo is accepted by the purchaser as being un-manipulated,
it should be the same with Level 2 images.
Level 2 photos do not deceive viewers, and should
also be considered “straight”.
Level 3 – major work done, important
items removed and/or added.
At this level, trees, buildings, or even whole
towns can be removed. Now we are getting into the realm of deception,
if a pristine rolling hill is only such because you cloned out
a rubbish tip, then you are deceiving the viewer if this fact
is not disclosed.
You can also add items at this level. Most commonly
this would be used to improve a bland sky by dropping in some
nice clouds, or fill in an empty position in an otherwise perfect
row of trees.
However, a Level 3 photo may have, for example,
had a small herd of animals cloned to produce a mass migration,
or a lone canoeist dropped onto a pristine lake. At this level
the event or scene was not present when the photographer made
the exposure, the image is no longer a photo, but a “photo
illustration”, indistinguishable from a straight photo maybe,
but not real.
Of course you can argue semantics here, for
example, if you cloned a green field over a rubbish tip, did you
add grass, or remove rubbish? For this reason, although I originally
differentiated between adding and removing items, I now believe
that both actions are essentially the same.
Level 4 – open slather, what you see is what I wanted
you to see.
This level is probably superfluous because,
with any image having this much work it will be quite obvious
to the viewer that they are not looking at a straight photograph.
Of course there are many grey areas here. What
about deliberately darkening the whole image to a point where some
detail is lost, thereby effectively removing it? What if the details
were lost as a by-product of poor reproduction in a magazine? In
either case a Level 1 photo suddenly turns into a Level 2 or 3.
Just exactly how many blades of grass can be removed
before a Level 2 photo becomes a Level 3?
I can’t answer these questions; fortunately
I don’t have to.
When I started shooting digital I spent ages on just about every
image, lightening a shadow here, tweaking the contrast there, selectively
sharpening somewhere else, etcetera etcetera.
These days I just do the minimum required to produce
a pleasing image; I try not to overly manipulate for two reasons.
Firstly, I aim to produce high quality “straight” photographs
of scenes and events. Secondly, it takes a lot of time to manipulate
an image; I simply don’t have that much time. I can easily
shoot 2, 3, 4, or even 500 photos in a day; even without making
many adjustments it will take me all night and half the next day
to import, adjust, catalogue, and backup those photos.
I have presented some arguments here in the hope
that it will cause you to think about the issues. I will soon start
to implement the above four-level standard to my own work, but I
do not expect anyone else will use it. Once again, I just hope it
will provide you with some food for thought.
Manipulation is here to stay and there is
absolutely no chance of imposing standards or forcing disclosure.
In the end it boils down to trust; the viewer must be able to trust
the photographer. Photography’s unique position as an art
form that closely depicts reality should not be discarded lightly.