The Ethics of Photo Manipulation

October 13, 2013 ·

Charles S. Johnson, Jr.

By Charles S. Johnson, Jr.

We are bombarded with images from television, computer screens, newspapers, and magazines.  There are advertisements, illustrations for news stories, snapshots from social media, and on and on.  From time to time there are news stories expressing outrage about manipulated photographs in advertisements and, heaven forbid, enhanced photos in news stories.  There are rants about “fake” photographs, and prestigious publications such as the New York Times proclaim their purity.  In the nytco web site 1 we find, “Images in our pages that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way.”

Does this make any sense?  Is there such a thing as a fake painting, a fake magazine article, a fake television show?  I think there are fakes, but to me these are things that are meant to deceive, in other words, things that are not what they claim to be.  The problem with photographs is the out-of-date notion that photographs represent reality and have an implied label of nonfiction.  With literature the situation is usually explicit.  We are either reading a work of fiction or nonfiction.  If deceit can be proven for a work of nonfiction, the author and the publisher are in trouble.  For example in 2011 fabrications were found in Jonathan Lehrer’s book Imagine and were widely reported.  Quotations from famous people had been made up to support the story line, and the publisher subsequently offered to buy back copies of the book.  Also, Leherer lost his job at the New Yorker.

Supposedly serious infractions have also been reported in news photography.  In 2006 Patrick Schneider was fired by the Charlotte Observer for changing the brightness and hue of the sky in a photograph of a firefighter on a ladder silhouetted by light from the sun.  A contrary view of this incident, involving a photograph illustrating a feature article, can be found in reference 2.  Schneider’s firefighter photograph along with numerous other manipulated or enhanced photographs from history, advertising, and the news media are shown and discussed on the web site,

I submit that brightness and color are not captured accurately in the first place and are always manipulated either in-camera in the case of jpg images or RAW image conversion after the fact.  A problem exists only if a publication claims that perfect reality is maintained in all of their images.  I think the default assumption should be that all photographic images are corrected or enhanced in one way or another unless there is an explicit statement to the contrary.  The photographer may for example claim that nothing has been moved, added, or removed.  Any claims about brightness or shades of colors should be taken with a grain of salt.

In hindsight I believe the rigid rules of photojournalism were products of the film era.  Reporters would expose a roll of film and have it developed according to instructions from the vendor.  The negatives or slides would be either exposed properly or not, and they were available to editors for inspection.  There was some freedom in the processing of prints and enlargements, but usually this was limited to dodging, burning, and cropping.  In the digital age everything has changed.  We can work in much larger color spaces; and we know how combine multiple images to capture high dynamic ranges, enhance resolution, and to increase the field of view.  The question is then how should we process this data for display in prints and on screens.  Furthermore, it is now possible to carry out some of this processing and manipulation in-camera!

All of this freedom has forced us to accept the fact that cameras produce a limited representation of reality.  Our eye/brain system simulates reality in a self-serving way using visual stimuli from the world around us.  When photographic images are inspected, our mind uses the limited set of image features to construct a pseudo reality.  At best the images reveal some aspects of reality, evoke emotions, and perhaps cause pleasure.  Of course, the reality we experience from viewing a scene is very different from that provided by a photographic image of the scene; and this difference varies from person to person.  Consider the Patrick Schneider’s photograph featuring the sun with a silhouetted fireman and ladder.  An observer would have to use number 14 welding glass, about 18 EV of attenuation, to view the sun more than a second without eye damage.  If the eyes were shielded from the sun, then adaptation would permit details of the firefighter to be seen.  Therefore, a photograph of this scene poorly represents reality; however, with appropriate cropping and adjustment of brightness and color it can be a work of art.  Additional discussion of the perception versus reality problem can be found in reference 3.

Actually, deception in news photographs is much more likely to arise from the choice of subject matter and its framing.  The photographer may focus on the only person injured in a protest or perhaps the only person uninjured.  And, of course, the photographer can select the most beautiful victim to arouse maximum interest or sympathy.  The propagandist can make crowds appear to be either large or small without photographic manipulation.  The accompanying news story can also create a false impression by selection and omission without having to lie.

I am not a news photographer and as far as I know my photographs have not been used in advertisements, so my views are those of a consumer of entertainment and news and perhaps as a victim of advertising.  My personal interests are those of a serious amateur photographer with professional photographers as friends.   I belong to camera clubs, and I enter photographic contests with various sets of rules.  One nature photography club has been quite restrictive on photo manipulation in its contests even though the speakers they invite to address the club usually advocate and even teach photo manipulation. Those who follow club rules to the letter are at a disadvantage in competitions.  Strangely enough, even the strictest sets of rules allow conversion to black and white, alterations of scenes before capture, use of artificial light, purposeful camera motion and change of focal length during the exposure, and often even combinations of multiple images for HDR effects and focus stacking.

So the question is how should I view and deal with photographic enhancement and manipulation?  To aid me in facing this ethical problem, I sent out an informal questionnaire to a group of photographers, mainly nature photographers, both amateur and professional.  I prefaced it with a link to Alain Briot’s article, “Creating Meaningful  Photographs” on 4

Briot says, “In effect, you usually have to bring more to the subject than the subject brings to you. This means transforming the subject from what it looks like to everyone into what it looks like to you specifically.” In his essay he discusses the modifications Ansel Adams made to his photographs limited by the technology at his disposal.  He calls these changes “Ansel Adams Moves” and then proceeds to describe the vastly expanded set of photographic manipulations available to us in the 21 st century.  Briot expands the Adams list with a set of the moves he uses in his work and calls the new set “Alain Briot Moves.”  I asked the nature photographers if they thought Alain Briot’s list was a first draft of a nature photographer’s manifesto.

Our ideas are changing in the context of widely available photo enhancement software and the standards that are now being routinely applied by professionals in the field.  However, at this time most nature photographers are rather conservative; and I found a wide range of opinion.  Here is a list of the responses from email and from private conversations with some paraphrasing:

It is art and I do anything I want.

I prepare photographs to match the scenes as I recall them.

Use of artificial light and preparation of the scene before making the picture is acceptable.

I enhance images and remove distracting items but I don’t add things.  If I were suspected of putting extra birds in a scene the customer would walk.

I do not want it to be a possible cause of misunderstanding or misrepresenting some aspect of the natural world.

Thinking about news photography in particular, I’d draw the line at adding or taking away something substantial, but I’m fine with just about anything else.

And from a retired news photographer:  The image should be real not altered at the moment the shutter snapped…..but the image could be burned and or dodged or a little color added and or cropped to fit the column. 

My view is that photographs, including nature photographs, should be judged as works of art in the same category as paintings; and realism should not be assumed.  However, in the present context in which photographs are assumed to represent “nonfiction,” it is appropriate to label photographs containing major relocations and/or combinations of two or more images as composite images.  There are still fuzzy areas such as minor cloning, removal of distractions, and content aware scaling; and without a disclaimer of some kind the photographer can be challenged for authenticity.  Perhaps some other word or phrase should be adopted to indicate artistic license.

So how does this mesh with current practice?  Take Artie Morris, the well-known bird photographer, as an example.  He uses technology to enhance images, he reconstructs clipped bird wings, and he composites images.  In defense of his work he says, “I caption my images truthfully and let folks know what I have done.”  On the other hand Jim Zuckerman labels himself a special effects photographer and everyone is forewarned that anything goes.  He excels in realistic compositing, blending, cloning, etc.  I think few people are deceived by his work, and it is a pleasure to see his dinosaurs walking the earth.

As an example from my work I submit these photographs taken on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. 

 Figure 1:  (a) A night time photograph with standard post processing to enhance the image. (b) A composite image that combines two images with considerable post processing.

Figure 1a shows the lighthouse at night.  The light was blinding, and I attempted to subdue it with gradient filters in post processing along with some, but not complete, straightening of vertical lines.  The photograph in 1b is a composite that takes advantage of a photograph taken before dawn when the lighthouse was still lit, but the sky was much brighter.  This was combined with a night shot of the sky taken close to the same location but with a field of view shifted about 30 degrees to the left to get a more pleasing display of the Milky Way.  Finally, there was some work to turn the light into a pleasant sun burst.  Figure 1a received standard post processing and I would not comment about that, but I would label Fig. 1b as a composite.  My friends like 1b better than 1a and so do I.

As a final thought about photographic reality, I close with Richard Kehl’s story about Picasso.

Once, when a GI was visiting Pablo Picasso during the liberation of France, he said that he could not understand the artist’s paintings: “Why do you paint a person looking from the side and from the front at the same time?” Picasso asked, “Do you have a girlfriend?” “Yes,” replied the soldier. “Do you have a picture of her?” The soldier pulled from his wallet a photograph of the girl. Picasso looked at it in mock astonishment and asked, “Is she so small?

I hope this provides much food for thought.

Acknowledgements:  I thank numerous friends for comments, corrections, and encouragement.




3. /what-we-see/


© Charles S. Johnson, Jr.
May 2013

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Charles S. Johnson, Jr. received a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from MIT. He taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana, Yale University, and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he is now Professor Emeritus. He has published approximately 150 papers on magnetic resonance and light scattering as well as books on laser light scattering and quantum mechanics. His interest in photography goes back to the 1950's; however, for many years his career in science left little time for serious photography. Now he is an avid nature photographer, and he blogs about photography here. In addition, he is making use of his scientific background to research and write about the physical and psychological bases of photography. His recent book, Science for the Curious Photographer, 2nd Ed, includes discussions of light and optics, sensors, factors that determine image quality, and the human visual system.

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