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Creating images that last beyond the day has been Mike’s mission in settings as diverse as National Geographic magazine, The White House, several books, various newspapers and even pdxcross.com…

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Where’s the line on toning photos, especially for contests?

My aunt asked me for recommendations of software that would easily allow her to remove people or objects from photos. At first, I fired up an ethically infuriated head of steam. How dare anyone remove objects from a sacred image?

Silly reaction, no?

Then I got to thinking: Wouldn’t it be nice if there were universal agreement about how much post production application to images is acceptable, especially as it applies to contest entries?

That’s like saying, wouldn’t it be nice if we all agreed about who makes the best car? There are people who don’t think we should be driving cars, those who are emphatic about a particular brand being the best, others who are oblivious of the nuance of cars and yet others who could care less what they drive, as long as it drives.

And so it is with post production of images. Some people think there’s a line in the sand that can’t be crossed, others don’t see the line, others think there shouldn’t be a line and others yet think the line swerves here and there depending on where you cross it.

There are so many layers to the issue that it’s like trying to hold a swarm of worms in your hands when all you want to do is put one worm on a hook and go fish.

Those in the art and commercial and advertising worlds must think this a paltry, pointless discussion. And yet, even in those worlds, the further the path strays from some form of reality, the less likely the message falls on willing ears.

The core principles in the story telling realm seem to be tied to the notion of altering physical reality, falsifying the truth, presenting a situation not as it appeared to be.

But these days, most debate noise comes from adjustment of images and it’s a negative action mostly if the adjustment happens after the image was made. I’ve heard many an argument against instagram and hipstamatic images from the iPhone because they alter saturation, shadow density, exposure and such things after the image was made. It is post production and therefore changes the real image. That argument is absurd.

The core determinant, for me, is whether objects were moved, people’s faces were changed, images were combined in a way that altered what anyone would have seen in the setting, or if things were removed from the frame. The Washington Post has run a few HDR images of scenes, which by their nature combine multiple exposures into one frame to get a higher range of detail than cameras can now record. I’m ok with HDR.

The degree to which people get pissed off about this issue is astounding. It’s as if clinging to an extreme set of rules that say never do this/always do that somehow elevates their work and protects them from innovation and evolution. Having rules in photography is like trying to rigidly control traffic in a Rome traffic circle.

I’d rather follow principles than rules. Forget rules such as: You cannot alter the saturation beyond 5 percent of the original capture; you can’t put frames around photos, their is no post production allowed that presents an extreme of the actual setting.

Instead, follow guidelines or principles and practices that seek to accurately reflect your impression of what you’ve photographed. That impression is ideally formed through your connection with and understanding of the subject. The goal is to elicit responses from photographs that convey a quality of the subject photographed.

There isn’t a set of rules that could contain the breadth of what’s possible in the photographic medium. So why put them out there, except at the extreme end of what happens - adding elements that were not in the scene, changing the physical structure of elements.

Then it’s up to the individual setting to determine if a given set of photos is appropriately handled. If that’s a scary proposition, then loosen your sphincter.

Reader Comments (3)

Great article, Mike. Your overall outlook on this topic shows the broad-mindedness, flexibility, fairness, and wisdom of a good liberal--whether you are one or not. :-)

I've written the rules for the Charlottesville (Virginia) Camera Club along the same lines, wherein images that have undergone major alterations in Photoshop are relegated to our "Creative" category. However, with regard to deleting objects from an image, we say, "As a general rule, you may remove those items that
• You would have removed but could not remove or avoid at the time of capture
• You would have removed or avoided if you had noticed them at the time

Seems to work well for us, but I'd be happy to have your opinion.

And by the way, the correct usage is always "couldn't care less" and not "could care less." (I'm an editor and I just can't help myself!)

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGerry Bishop

Perhaps one of the great advantages of shooting RAW is the fact that you can adjust your images after you have downloaded them from the camera and are able to evaluate them on a bigger, higher-resolution screen. How far you should go in postproduction, in my opinion, depends on how much your clients/viewers are willing to accept.

February 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHector Ulloa

I don't contest any more. I used to in the very early days of digital. No time for it anymore. But here we go - it all depends on who defines the boundaries in a competition. Is it a Photoshopping romp or is it photography? Which, in its purest essence, is all about the light and not much more technically. Primary is the message or feeling that an image evokes. Frankly I would like to see composites barred from entries. Then on the other hand, you'd exclude people like Dave Black. So there's no easy answer here. Maybe someone should start one up and call it Camera Art instead of a photography competition. That unfortunately invites a whole new segment of bottomfeeder submitters though unless the entry fee is reasonably steep. Frankly in the competitions that are more geared to mass consumers with their digi Rebels, if you didn't allow post processing, no one would win. ;-)

If I was to enter a competition today I would pick one properly suited to my own genre where I could play with the best. Then I could really see where I stand. I'd read the rules and equally as important, the sponsor's usage rights.

I read the stuff about the HDR that appeared in the Post. Some get an HDR program and run amuck with it. And that's just bad for everyone because as you know. Oh! My eyes! Because you can output some pretty ugly crap with canned settings. I've been using some HDR plugins the past year myself. I've been able to recycle some very old images and give them some new life. Because back in the 1998 world of digital, the cameras pretty much sucked as well as the available software support. But here's the thing - when I use the HDR stuff the applications are usually so mild that no one notices - the just think it's a nice or hopefully amazing photo. If the image does not look at all like the typical over the top Photo On An Acid Trip stuff, who is to say that a software plugin that just happens to be HDR capable can't be used in a post processing workflow for a journalist? Who defines which tools I can and cannot use if I work for a news outlet? Is the the photo of more or of less benefit to the news consumer if they have a better idea of what the weather was that day when the shot was taken? Now here are some interesting questions...

It seems to me we need better training in journalistic ethics on the part of both some news shooters and some editors. Case in point the recent firing at the Sacramento Bee over the bird photo. Truly a comedy in my eyes. I'm not saying the photographer was right or wrong in altering the bird photo, but the web reaction to it all was pretty entertaining. Although it is too bad that so much bandwidth was wasted on it instead of addressing the real issues that effect both shooters and and the news outlets.

February 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLibby

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