Thursday, March 13, 2008

NANPA Breakout Session- Digital Alteration and the Line of Credibility

When I was signing up for my Breakout Sessions at the NANPA Summit, I knew that I needed to go to Ernie Mastroianni's "Digital Alteration and the Line of Credibility. Ernie is the Photo Editor at Birder's World Magazine. He is coming to this subject from a journalistic background.

I've come up through the ranks of the internet online photo competitions. Digital manipulation is common and encouraged. Photos that have not been cleaned up removing distracting elements don't win Photos of the Day as a rule. When trying to make an artistically beautiful image, it makes sense to use the tools at hand to make a visually pleasing end product. My policy has been to make sure I know what the rules at the various contests are and make sure my submission follows those rules. But, I've seen images win at the contests with the tighter rules on manipulation that I KNOW have been altered because I saw the original as it went through the critique process. Most of these changes don't really change anything about the "nature" of the situation.

I am now trying to submit my images to professional photo buyers. I am submitting for commercial, artistic, and journalistic usages of my photos. I had one portfolio reviewer last year tell me that I should be very careful with photo manipulation because if I do it anywhere then I would not be "trusted," or my credibility would be gone. Later in the Summit, I heard one of the presenters at a Breakout Session talk about how he was always honest with his end users. He manipulated some photos for the artistic appeal, but he also submitted non edited photos for scientific use. Another reviewer for a children's magazine has dealt with the issue by having different categories of images: photo altered (minor adjustments) and photo illustration (where components have been rearranged, removed, or images combined.) I left the 2007 Summit thinking that as long as I am honest in my submission as to what I've done to the image and that I am submitting appropriately to the entities that I am being ethical in what I'm doing with my photography.

So I sat down to listen to Ernie's presentation with great interest. I knew before hand that journalistic photos need to be pretty much straight out of the camera. In most cases removing sensor dust is usually OK. But with RAW capture there is a lot of manipulation that can be done without changing the image. And some manipulation is really just adjusting the image to be closer to what your eye actually saw rather than what the camera's technical abilities were to capture the image.

Ernie's policy for Birder's World is very simple and based upon journalistic principals:

Allowed adjustments;
Color Balance
Saturation adjustment

Cloning dust marks and digital noise such as hot pixels
Red-eye (with some caveats)

Additional Alterations - based upon maintaining the reality of the scene
Composites taken at the same scene at the same time frame without altering elements
High Dynamic Range images which allow the information from shadows and highlights to be visible and accurate
Extreme depth of field - used a lot in macro to bring all of the image (such as a flower with petals) into sharp focus
Perspective control - simulating what a tilt shift lens can do

Additional information from Ernie:

Additional Alterations - based upon maintaining the reality of the scene"
These types of alterations can have credibility, but an explanation to the
reader is needed.

For instance, if I was publishing a picture that was a 360-degree panorama,
it would require an explanation, otherwise, how would the reader know how
wide it was. They might think they were seeing a 180 degree view, rather
than a 360 degree view.

Unacceptable alterations
Removing items
Cloning other than removing sensor dust spots
Combining or adding elements of one image to another
Changing color of individual components - such as greening up brown or dying vegetation
Stretching or compressing part of an image (distortion that is not a perspective control)

The best part of the presentation was WHY these are his standards. Photographic manipulation has been around as long as cameras. In doing some research for this blog, I found an image of Abraham Lincoln which was his head and John Calhoun's body. (See links at the end.) I have to wonder in the days of glass plate photography how this was done.

The Cottingley Fairies were photographs that deceived the eye, but apparently at the time led many people to believe that they were real photographs of fairies. To our more sophisticated eyes today they seem to be obviously artistic drawings that were cut out and put into the scene at the time of the photograph. And that kind of manipulation can be done today - adding toys to battlefield images of destroyed homes, adding trash to a scene to emphasize environmental issues, posing people for a news story, etc.

The credibility of photos is probably at an all time low, because people are more aware of how images can be altered. And several publications are trying to restore believability. Even if they have previously published altered images, the standards are tightening up.

The audience discussion was also enlightening. Arthur Morris, a well known and respected photographer, one of the best bird photographers around, pointed out a different set of issues. Imagine a bird photo of a bird on the top of a tree snag with a forked trunk. There are two trunks, both broken and different lengths and one really does not add anything to the beauty of the photo. In today's world, the collective wisdom is to clone out the distraction. In some cases you could have removed the offending branch before you took the shot, but then you are altering the environment. That alteration of the environment can upset the wildlife that live in that environment. There was a case mentioned where a hummingbird was frequenting one particular branch - seeming to prefer it to the other flowering branches nearby. For some reason a photographer thought it was not a particularly photogenic branch, so he broke it off and attached another prettier branch. The hummingbird was devastated. Not fully mentioned is the "gardening" we sometimes to when we are taking flower shots - whether in our own gardens or along the roadside. It might be as simple as removing a distracting rock or a taller stalk of grass. After all, a deer comes and munches on the grass. But . . . if you are in an area where there are endangered plant species, you could be doing irreparable harm removing plant life from your photographic composition to get that perfect photo.

Another sobering aspect of this issue is the fact that a few photographer's careers have been ruined after they made a simple change to a journalistic photo, even changes that really did not change the story in the photo. Their credibility as a journalistic photographer is gone forever.

Here is a practical example of these issues from a photo I took last week. I think you can click or double click to get a larger view.

Here is the original image - taken from the jpg - the only change is resizing for the blog:

Note that the water line is not level (from the time my eye "saw" this image to getting the camera and tripod setup without my hot shoe leveler . . . I had to be incredibly fast to get the shot while there was even the tiniest amount of sun still there) and note the few stalks of marsh grass on the right hand corner. And, yes, there IS sensor dust.

Here is my initial post processing. I've enhanced the colors (similarly to what you might get if you used Fuji's Vevlia film. I've leveled the water line, cropped such that the sun is off centered and the trees and their reflection occupy a larger portion of the frame.  I chose the bottom crop to avoid some of the marsh grass. And after some deliberation cloned out some single stalks of grass in the lower right hand corner. I chose to keep the grass on the left hand side because I felt like it added to the sense of place and kept the reality in the scene.

I submitted this to the Critique Corner at Digital Image Cafe. Now, I respect the critique process. I have learned SO much from having my work critiqued. I agree with and understand the comments made in the context of online contests (and even other artistic venues).

Here is the image with the lower left corner "cleaned up." It may be slightly more appealing to the eye. Those grass stalks do pull your eye a little bit away from the bright colored sky and the silhouetted tree trunks. They do interfere with the illusion of an oval that is created from the trees and their reflection. But here is where Ernie's comments are convicting and compelling: Nature is not perfect. "Real life with all of its imperfection is more interesting." Is it the essence of nature or wildlife or the desire of the photographer?

Ernie's comments from a thread at "A photographer in this thread wondered if the elaborate outside studios, water drips, feeders and perching props used to attract wildlife to the perfect setting are simply another way of altering an image? My answer is no, there is a big difference. As long as that bird is free to come and go, you are capturing an image of a real bird, in real space and in real time. That bird wants to be there and if it sensed a threat, it would leave. The best setups anticipate the desires of the bird, and not the photographer. But if an image is altered after it was taken, it captures the desires of the photographer, and not the bird.The bottom line is always credibility. On occasion, some photographers have sent me altered images, but if they also send me the original unaltered file, their credibility as an editorial photographer remains intact."

Since the conference, these words keep coming into my head as I am capturing my images and as I do my post processing. For myself, I prefer the middle image, because it retains most of the essence of what I saw that night - with a minimal of post processing. If I decide to submit to the online contests I will probably submit the "cleaner" version. If I submit for calendars, I'll probably submit the middle one with a note in the metadata as to the changes I made.

For those that are still interested in this topic after this long blog, here are some other links that are illuminating. Complete with compelling images that illustrate the issues here:

Reuter's Photo Examples

Dan Heller's Digital Manipulation - Responsibility of Photojournalism

Dartmouth College paper "Photo Tampering Throughout History

The Perfect Fashion Model

Extreme Photoshop Makeover

1 comment:

Ron Beam said...

Sounds like ernie's allowable qualifications in Birder World correspond to those of the Cafe. Of course, as a creative art photography site,the Cafe is not so tightly regulated as published photos that identify animals accurately. As for your work on the pond photo, the second version (with the left FG vegetation is much more appealing (and natural) to me. I love how the contour of the vegetation echoes the contour of the reflected treetop line.