Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Musings on: the ethics of digital manipulation (post-processing!)

(Just a note for clarity: I’m talking below about landscape photography only; there are obviously somewhat wider-ranging ethical considerations in journalism and several other types of photography.)

I’ve read several discussions recently about the ethics surrounding manipulating digital files, whether those produced by a digital camera, or those scanned from an exposed film. I’ve found them all very interesting, but also more than a little bemusing. Essentially: why are people bothered by what others do whilst creating their own work?

That’s a slightly disingenuous question. I have a moderate understanding of the various reasons people object; I’m just unconvinced by the arguments. The most common may be summarised as follows:

  1. It’s cheating. This is very much the idea that photographs should show reality, accurately, and nothing more or less.
  2. It’s deceiving. Similar to the above, but with the suggestion that the photographer has deliberately misrepresented reality to the viewer; an additional misdemeanour to that of altering it in the first place.
  3. It’s not what the ‘master photographers’ have done in the past. The weakest argument, since they very much did, just not digitally.
  4. It should all be done in-camera. This one is simply an argument related to how a goal is achieved, and falls more into the realm of an individual photographer’s personal choices of working method than anything else. It does not, after all, relate to the finished image more than incidentally.

I don’t accept any of these objections, at least not in the context of landscape photography. Rather, I do accept them, and if people viewing photographs want to hold those views, that’s fine (with the possible exception of the second one on deception) but they’re purely personal and shouldn’t enter the realm of telling other photographers how to go about their photography. They also make no difference to the finished image, which means that I, as the viewer, don’t really care how it was made when viewing it as a piece of art, though I may well be interested to know how it was done in order to further my photographic learning process!

I’ll address each in turn.

1. ‘Cheating’. This is predicated on the assumption that a photograph is nothing more than a depiction of something in the real world. Whilst this may be true for certain types of image – accurate renditions of architecture for commercial reasons, perhaps – it’s no more than an assumption, and one which really doesn’t have to apply to landscapes. There is no intrinsic reason not to endeavour to faithfully reproduce a scene, but then, nor is there any reason to do so – it comes down to what the photographer wishes to achieve. If we make the additional leap and consider a photographer to be an artist, then how a scene is portrayed really is entirely down to their intentions or aspirations. Personally, I tend towards making things look credible, but this is no better or worse than people who enjoy obviously unrealistic images. I also do consider photography to be art, which is a handy way of saying that ‘anything goes’.
2. ‘Deceiving’. This is a fair cop, but only if the photographer claims that they’ve not manipulated the image when, in fact, they have done so. I’ve noticed that some viewers will claim that they’ve been deceived when, in practice, they have simply seen an image and later learnt that it’s been ‘manipulated’. I’d argue that, for deception to occur, the photographer really needs to have said that the image is unaltered. It also indicates a misunderstanding of the nature of both film and digital photography, which I’ll come back to, but which is based on the unsurprising concept that a two dimensional image produced by numerous technical processes and then viewed as a print or on screen can never really be what was seen, or what was there.
3. ‘A break from the past’. Essentially, this is simply indicative of a lack of knowledge of the history of photography! Both black & white and colour photographs have always been manipulated. It was considerably more difficult to modify colour than black & white before digital imaging became available, but it was always part of the photographic process. I think this objection arises now since, using post-processing tools, people are able to make images which quite obviously don’t represent reality. Famously, Ansel Adams’ prints were very different in tonality to what was captured on the negative, as were/are those of many other ‘masters’. Adams himself, using a musical analogy, referred to the negative as the score and to the print as the performance. Looked at in this perspective, ‘interpretation’ is an entirely valid part of the artistic process which goes to make up the finished item, whether it’s a musical performance or a printed photograph.
4. ‘It should be done in camera’. Viewed as a finished piece of art, does it make any difference how an image was constructed? There are somewhat abstruse and esoteric arguments to say that it does, but in general most people would concede that the main point is the finished piece, and not how it was arrived at. Personally, I use neutral density graduated filters in preference to high dynamic range (HDR) techniques involving combining multiple exposures. So what? I happen to like to work that way; it’s not intrinsically better in some ethical way.

From another perspective – and this is something of a killer argument which addresses everything above except active deception – cameras, whether film or digital, do not record light in the way that the combination of our eyes and brains processes incoming light and enables us to perceive an image. It seems to me to be almost inevitable that the majority of captures will need some form of manipulation, even if the objective is to come as close as possible to ‘what I saw’. If I look at a scene with shadows in it, my eyes continually adjust both their focus and the aperture of the iris to enable me to see both highlight and shadow detail; cameras can’t do that (at least, not yet, and not without using multiple exposures to achieve it; and even then, it’s a static result, not the dynamic experience we perceive when we are viewing the scene in reality).

Beyond that, what is defined as ‘manipulation’? I happen to record RAW files; they contain just data, not a photograph in any meaningful sense. These data have to be converted into a usable image in a format capable of being displayed or printed, and in doing this conversion I am manipulating the photograph (through settings in the RAW converter) even before I do any dodging and burning of the image itself! Were I to record JPG images in the camera, I could copy them over to a computer and view them immediately, but then I’d have previously chosen the JPG settings in the camera, which is simply very-early-on manipulation of the finished image… After conversion, I lighten and darken areas of some photographs to control how the viewer’s eyes move around the image – equivalent to dodging and burning black & white prints. This is unequivocally manipulation, but I’m attempting to represent how I saw the scene to a third party, and the technique undoubtedly helps in that. Again, this is aiming to be art, so conveying how I felt, how I saw the composition, is part of that art.

In conclusion, I would find it bizarre if I were to learn that professional landscape photographers did not, at the very least, dodge and burn images before completing them. If we assume that photography is an art form, then surely the vision of the photographer should determine what may appropriately be done to the raw material in producing the finished picture?

Of course, all of the above is purely opinion. I’m not remotely saying that anyone’s view on the ethics – to be somewhat grandiose – of manipulation is right or wrong, merely expressing my take on it. Personally, I’m happy to dodge and burn, but have never yet cloned anything out, or in – and I’m pretty confident that I wouldn’t do so; but that’s just my personal take on photographic ethics … I wouldn’t, however, deny that I’d ‘manipulated’ the image – what would be the point?!

What’s your view? I’d be interested to hear more comments and discussion on this.

5 Responses to “Musings on: the ethics of digital manipulation (post-processing!)”

  1. David Barrett

    A very well considered and written piece on this perennial “debate”, Mike.

    The parentheses in that last sentence are there to indicate awareness that we seldom have this discussion with photographers and peers who are any significant way along the absolute-beginner-to-advanced-amatuer/professional spectrum. But we can guarantee that it’ll come up in a mixed audience.

    The other day, for example, while I was shooting brochure stock for a holiday company, I had a landscape portfolio slideshow running on a table in the Hotel’s bar in the evening. The majority of five viewers asked the question. The best being: “Have you fiddled with it?” My usual first response is to ask the viewer to take a good look at the image and ask them how it makes them feel; if it reminds them of anything. Only then, if they remember, do we have to make comparisons between modern and former darkroom/lightroom (sic) conventional wisdom.

    On cloning: I think you may being a bit too fundamentalist or I may be taking you too literally. Certainly, I would not remove landscape elements. But if I failed to see a piece of litter or neglected some essential “gardening” before the shot (and I couldn’t go back and shoot again), I think cloning or its bigger brother Content Aware Fill means I don’t throw away good material.

    All the best

  2. Mike Green - http://www.mikegreenimages.co.uk

    Thanks, David.

    As you say, this comes up all the time in a ‘mixed’ audience. Maybe one day people will stop seeing photography as something which should reflect ‘truth’, and accept that it pretty much couldn’t if we wanted it to? Somehow, I doubt it though. I like your riposte asking “how does it make you feel”; I may try that sometime – more precisely: next time!

    I wasn’t intending to sound quite so fundamentalist on cloning ;-) I don’t see a problem with minor litter removal and such. I think I would personally draw the line at putting anything into a shot, as distinct from removing small things. I haven’t had cause to remove anything yet (other than by cropping), but I’m sure I shall find a plastic bag or something lurking in a frame one day, and I shall certainly remove it if the capture is otherwise good. And thanks for the pointer to ‘Content aware fill’ – I’d not found it, and it’s certainly a tool worth knowing about. Astonishing what a good job it can do (I’ve just deleted a few sheep from an image, just for the sake of it and as a test – perfect result).

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.


    • David Barrett

      Yes, it’s not my personal Facebook wall but one of the new Facebook business “pages”. (Don’t you just love the simplicity and ease of getting your head round of the Facebook user interface!?). I’ve used a business page rather than my personal Facebook account to maintain sensible professional distance between clients and family and friends. I’ve been meaning to find the time to do the same with Flickr, too. Not that there’s never any mobility between the two of course. The upshot is that to post on a page such as this you have to press the like button, which, I promise, is not why I posted your piece there! I did the latter because your article answered well that question we all get a lot of the time.


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