Abusing Digital Tools

©jmillerphoto.com – Northern Cardinal (Female Adult)

Bob Zeller, a friend of mine and fellow photographer, wrote a quick blog entry a couple of weeks back about having to defend his honor regarding a beautiful image he made of a Great Blue Heron that was in the act of consuming a small catfish.  The crux of the matter was that someone who saw the image accused him of faking the shot.  Having seen the image and knowing Bob, I know that this was a patently false and unfair accusation by someone who didn’t know what they were talking about.  It was a fantastic shot, but certainly within the realm of his skill, talent, and equipment.

But in this day and age of digital photography, there are a number of people who have no qualms in faking shots.  I guess I should clarify what I mean by faking a shot.  My definition is that if you are doing something with the shot, beyond light sharpening, that you could not do in a traditional wet darkroom, then you have faked a shot.

Having said that, most people don’t understand how much could be done in wet processes to modify images.  As an example, Stalin was notorious for removing people from images when he wanted that person “erased” from history, and this was done with wet processes.

But Adobe Photoshop makes tasks such as these much easier, hence it is more likely to be done if it takes 15-20 minutes on a computer as opposed to hours and hours inside of a wet processing situation.  It is very common for nature photographers, with bird photographers being the biggest culprits, to remove significant elements from an image in an effort to make a better image.

My philosophy is pretty simple.

  • Cropping:  Absolutely okay.  We crop manually with our feet or with our lens selection.  If you shoot in a traditional 4×6 format camera (24x36mm for film), then when you make an 8×10 you have cropped the image.  I have zero problem with this.  Heck, if it was in the old Cub Scouts Bear manual as a way to make better images, who am I to quibble?
  • Adjustment of brightness/contrast:  Absolutely okay.  We would adjust expsoure in a wet darkroom without even contemplating the ethics behind it.  Photoshop and Lightroom make it much easier and much more precise, but it is the same techniques.  Contrast took sometimes a little more magic, chemical mixing skills, and paper selection, but we could do the same thing.
  • Color balance:  Sure–no problem.  Again, in color processes there were tricks that could be employed as well as selection of film.  No worries
  • Sharpening:  Certainly.  Digital cameras, even when focused properly and sitting on a tripod, can still come out a little soft.  A small dab of unsharp mask and away we go.
  • Masking:  Yes, but only to a point.  I was blessed to see my dad work in a traditional b&w darkroom as I was growing up and some of the things that he could do in the darkroom with traditional masking was incredible.  A couple of his best of show images were done with this technique.  Photoshop allows us to do it as well.  But there is a line that can be crossed where you are altering reality and I start to have a problem with it.  As long as the masking is not introducing new elements, then I don’t have an issue with it.
  • Removing dust spots:  Absolutely okay.  Digital SLR’s are dust magnets and I don’t have a problem with removing dust spots from an image.  There were certainly techniques inside the traditional darkroom where could do similar with spots on the negative.  I don’t have a problem with it.
  • HDR:  Okay, to a point.  HDR, or High Dynamic Range imaging is one I don’t have a problem with.  By doing this you are not removing or adding elements.  What you are doing is allowing the image to show the range of light and color that we can see in nature but the camera cannot caputre.  It can be done to extremes and when it gets to the point of very artsy, then I’m not a big fan.  But with HDR you’re not actually adding anything that was not there in the first place.
  • Adding Elements:  Not okay with me.  If you’re introducing a second bird into an image where it didn’t belong, you no longer really have a photograph.  You have a manipulation.  It is still pretty, but it is not a photograph.  Yes, in wet processes you could add elements to an image.  But ethically it crosses the line.
  • Removal of Elements:  Small elements like a cigarette butt or a piece of trash, absolutely okay.  Removing elements that nature put there (i.e. a branch or a grouping of grasses or something), no–that crosses the line.

As for me and the images that I present for sale and exhibit, I follow the above rules to the letter and beyond.  I’m not a big fan of masking so I don’t use it much.  I have not presented an HDR image yet, though that day is likely coming soon.

Image:  Northern Cardinal (Female) © jmillerphoto.com — Some photographers would have removed the two long blades of vegetation extending above the tree branch.  God put it there, so who am I to remove it?

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~ by Jim Miller on Thursday, 19 November 2009.

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