Policy on Photographic Editing
What is “truth” in the photographic sense? Some recent scandals in the journalistic world—including a Time cover of O.J. Simpson and a National Geographic cover of the Egyptian Pyramids—have caused photo editors to develop a set of standards for manipulation of images in the digital era. But should these same journalistic standards be applied to artistic images? What exactly are the ethical standards for artistic photography?
Photojournalists have a responsibility to accurately report on the truth using their images. Artists, unlike journalists, are obliged only to share their vision—their own version or interpretation of a photographic scene. However, the lines can frequently be blurred. The example of National Geographic choosing to “move” a pyramid in an image to achieve tighter composition on a cover is a case in point. Was the cover an artistic interpretation or a documentary?
Unlike other artistic mediums, photography is commonly used both as a documentary medium as well as an artistic one. Should a fine-art photographer leave an annoying power line in a dramatic scenic just because it is there? What about a painter capturing the same scene? Must hues and tones remain unaltered from those captured and interpreted by the camera? Is adjusting saturation in the camera or in Photoshop any less “real” than choosing to load a highly saturated film chemistry into your camera?
With the common acceptance of digital imaging into society, photo manipulation has become easier. No particular skill is required to “clone out” an unwanted detail in an image. One of the most common questions I get is, “Are those colors real?” This is a question that was almost never asked before the advent of digital (though perhaps it should have been).
Most photographic artists choose not to disclose exactly what is involved in creating a particular image. Generally, they are concerned that disclosing the “craft” behind their photography will lessen the impact of the images. Photojournalists, by contrast, must preserve the public’s faith that photographs present a reliable interpretation of actual events.
Here is a summary of the photojournalistic guidelines adopted by the AP and the Washington Post:
- Adjustment of tones including burning and dodging is acceptable as long as neither foreground nor background objects are eliminated
- “Cloning” out scratches and dust is permissible. Cloning out extraneous objects such as tree limbs or people is NOT acceptable
- Cropping images to remove extraneous detail is allowed
- Correction of color to improve accuracy, e.g. white balance, is permissible but should be used with caution since modifications to color can dramatically alter the tone of a photograph. No other adjustments to color, including excessive changes in density and saturation levels are allowed.
- Backgrounds can not be eliminated (“burned down”) or aggressively toned.
- Adjustments of contrast to improve printing and presentation are acceptable.
As a fine-art photographer, I allow myself the following additional license:
- The use of multiple exposures or graduated neutral density filters to broaden the dynamic range of the camera.
- Limited adjustment of color saturation in order to more accurately capture my vision and memory of a scene.
- Adjustments to exposure, brightness, contrast, and curves for various artistic uses, including more accurate printing (e.g., accounting for the limited contrast range and lack of neutral color casts of various paper media).
- Improvements to acutance using various unsharp mask techniques.
- Correction of distortion introduced by photographic lenses.
- Use of fill flash and artificial lighting as appropriate.
All of these techniques I use without disclosure as they are commonly accepted practices outside of the journalistic world. If I feel that a particular photograph requires further manipulation-such as cloning out unwanted elements or combining the content of multiple images-I will disclose the details in the description of the image.
Because photojournalism and fine-art photography are inextricably bound together by the use of a common toolset, I believe that fine-art photographers, like journalists, should adopt an editorial policy regarding their images. This will help preserve the value of photography as an art form by increasing society's faith in the medium.
- Jared Willson