Category Archives: Ethics

Art, Photography, and “Manipulation”

Creosote Bush, Dunes, Morning
A creosote bush among sand dunes, morning

Imagining that a photograph that is “straight out of camera” is better than one that has been “manipulated” in post is equivalent to imagining that the words coming straight out of one’s mouth are better than those resulting from careful and thoughtful editing.

While there is an art to extemporaneous expression, there is at least as much art in carefully crafted work. Continuing to refine and perfect the content and its expression is not remotely unethical. The objective is to produce a pure, clear, concise, more powerful and direct expression of the artist’s truth.

This is true of essentially every mode of human expression: painting, sculpture, movie-making, writing, music, and on and on. Even the seemingly extemporaneous expressions (jazz, etc) are the result of long preparation and practice and planning and are ultimately not simply things that happen in the moment.

It is nonsensical to imagine that photography should be the one art that eschews careful refinement and thought and the distillation and perfection of expression that can make it truer and more powerful.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Photographs and Reality: A Complicated Relationship

Over the past few weeks the arguments about “photoshopping” and “manipulation” have again come to the fore, this time as the result of the so-called “scandal” around alterations to some photographs by Steve McCurry. The discussions have evolved in all sorts of ways — as they typically do — some of which I regard as unfortunate: pronouncements about which techniques are “ethical” or “unethical,” declarations that photographs must be “true,” the usual stuff about “getting it right in the camera,” and more. In my view, much of this is naive and unrealistic.

Sierra Nevada Trees And Granite
Sierra Nevada Trees And Granite

At the heart of the issue are some problematic notions, including the following.

  • The camera sees accurately, and any modification of what comes out of the camera subverts the camera’s truth. Some assume that the way the machine “sees” is more accurate than the way our eyes and brains see, and that it is the preferred mode of seeing. There are huge problems with this assumption, beginning with the fact that people and cameras see in very different ways. (I’m more interested in how people see.) The eyes scan a scene, adapting to localized elements of the subject, and the full image never exists aside from a kind of mental abstraction of it. The camera non-selectively records light levels from the entire scene at one instant, all with the same “settings.” There’s much more to this, and the subject is far too big to fully deal with here. Suffice it to say that your eyes/brain are not a camera, and this makes a very big difference.
  • Modifying photographs in post-production (or  “post”) makes them less honest and accurate. Some think that modifying what comes from the camera is dishonest. In fact, if the way that humans see is our model for accurate seeing, as I believe it should be, the way the camera sees is often quite inaccurate. (Who sees in black and white or telephoto or with tilt/shift adjustments or with colored filters or constrained to rectangles?) In order to render an image that is more faithful to the way humans see, it is often necessary to massage the image that comes from the camera.
  • The use of techniques for “manipulating” or “photoshopping” photographs is unethical. Some take the position that “manipulating” images is wrong, but it seems absurd to make such a blanket statement. If your photograph was slightly underexposed, how is it unethical to increase the brightness in post so that it looks exactly as it would have looked with a slightly longer exposure? How can it be OK to use a telephoto lens but not OK to crop in post? Why would it be OK to use a tilt/shift lens but not to adjust perspective lines in post? Are the “rules” the same for photojournalism and for photographic abstractions?

People often want to see this set of issues as a binary, where things are either right or wrong, but it is nothing like that at all.

Before I offer an example, I would like you to try an exercise — and doing it and considering the results is very important for understanding what follows. Go look at some subject in the bright sun that includes some shadows. As you do, look at the brightest areas in the scene, and consider whether you can see any details, however faint, in those brightest areas. You should be able to. Now shift your gaze to a shaded area. You should be able to see some detail there, too. (Your pupils likely closed down a bit when you looked at the bright area — in photographic terms, you used a smaller aperture — and they likely opened up a bit when you looked at the shadow area.)

This presents a classic photographic problem. Virtually no digital camera and no film can handle the widest dynamic ranges of common scenes that we photograph. Producing a realistic photograph of such scenes requires “manipulation,” and without it the scene will not correspond at all to what we see.  Continue reading Photographs and Reality: A Complicated Relationship

About That Free Use Thing…

Anyone doing work in a creative medium has had a conversation like one that someone I know just told me about. A person, perhaps a friend or acquaintance or possibly someone with a “cause” that is interesting and worthy, asks to use a photograph for free “just for my own personal use, and maybe to share with a few friends. I’d like to print up some cards and use it on my website. Just send me a high res file…”


This is one of the toughest requests to deal with, especially when it comes from a friend or valued acquaintance. The request seems so innocent, especially when it comes from people we know and especially when they are generally well-meaning. In fact,  they often regard their interest in our work as a compliment. And it is a compliment on some level, and artists do appreciate it when others are moved by their work and are willing to say so.

(In truth, there are occasions when it is appropriate to ask, and there are some when which it is appropriate for us to say “yes.”)

From the perspective of the person making the request, it probably feels something like this:

I love your beautiful work! It moves me and I would like to share it! It is so beautiful that I would like to use it for my [insert proposed use here]. I want others to see your work. Can you send me a copy of the image that I can use? A high resolution file would be great! It will just be for “personal use” (broadly defined… ;-), so can I use it for free?

Here is what the artist hears:

I love your work! It moves me and means the world to me! It is wonderful and powerful and beautiful! But it isn’t worth anything and I think you should give it to me for free! And because I know you, I think you’ll feel obligated. Continue reading About That Free Use Thing…

Gray Areas

This post derives from something I wrote elsewhere in a discussion about a photograph that included something that wasn’t originally in the scene, a discussion that became rather polarized. 

“Not everybody trusts paintings but people believe photographs.” 
― Ansel Adams

Imaginary Landscape - Death Valley
An imaginary landscape derived from subjects photographed in Death Valley National Park.

All photographs lie. But all photographs carry a burden of reality.

Except for photographers who overtly and obviously manipulate reality in major ways as a central concept of their work — see Jerry Uelsmann, for example, or some work by John Paul Caponigro, among others — viewers come to photographs believing that the images had their genesis in the real. Photographers can respond to this basic presumption in photography in a number of ways, and perhaps in landscape photography the response has even more implications.

Let’s say you are Caponigro or Uelsmann and a major point of your photography is to produce visual art that derives from and references the landscape but then combines it with non-landscape elements or takes those elements and fundamentally rearranges them so that they intentionally no longer can be taken to represent the real landscape. These photographers openly embrace and build their work on creating imaginary fantastical worlds out of materials derived from the real landscape, creating what I refer to as “imaginary landscapes.” The photographer and the viewer are on exactly the same page here – both accept and embrace the fantasy and the sometimes more ambiguous line between the real and the imagined. This work seems completely honest and genuine.

On the other hand, let’s say you are a photographer who builds and bases a reputation not on the creation of visual fantasies — things we all know are not and cannot be real — but instead on going to great lengths to travel to “special places,” often telling stories of finding special places and special conditions that less focused and dedicated photographers do not find. Continue reading Gray Areas

“Secrets of Photography.” Not. (Morning Musings 9/16/14)

Bricks, Windows, Sky
Bricks, Windows, Sky

Earlier today I saw the notion of “photography secrets” come up in an online discussion. There is, I think, a lot to say about this concept — too much, in fact, for me to fully deal with in this little “morning musings” blog post. But I do want to consider a few aspects of the concept of secrets relative to photography.

The word “secret” can be used in several ways — a bit to my surprise, since I began this morning with more or less a single idea of what the word implies in mind. (A look at a dictionary often sets me straight about such simplistic assumptions!) My original definition was, more or less: important information that is kept from others. Or, as one source states, “Kept hidden from knowledge or view; concealed.”

This implies that the existence of secrets is the result of intention — “people in the know” possess special knowledge and they act to control and conceal that knowledge so that others will not obtain it, thus giving themselves an advantage over others. It is not just that most people don’t know the secret, but that it is “kept hidden” intentionally by those who do. A related description is: Known or shared only by the initiated. This takes the concept just a bit farther — not only is the information “kept” secret, but it is also shared among a special, select group. 

In photography, the mystery of secrets takes several forms. Continue reading “Secrets of Photography.” Not. (Morning Musings 9/16/14)

Photographic Myths and Platitudes: No Post-Processing!

(The following is another (more or less stream of consciousness) post that I wrote in reply to a comment I read somewhere else, in this case suggesting that photographic history implies that post-processing or manipulating photographs after the shutter has been clicked is ethically questionable and should be avoided. I’ll start with a modified version of the message I saw.)

…it is invalid to claim that Adams was a modern photoshoppe[r]… 

I… recommend to every beginner to do film… to develop a better feeling for composition… The most difficult in digital is to restrict yourself to [taking] a limited number of photos… in the beginning…

…I want to leave my photos as natural looking as possible…

This is an important conversation, for the beginner and for people who have been making photographs for a long time.

When people make pronouncements about how photography is supposed to be done or has been done based on notions about what great photographers do or have done, it is important to check those notions against reality. In photography there is a frequent mantra about “no post processing” and “get it right in camera” that has been, in my view, perverted to suggest that photographs are created in certain ways that do not correspond to reality – and worse, that other photographers should adhere to these false “rules.” It obviously is important to develop an eye for composition and an ability to operate a camera, but that is most certainly not the end of it, nor is there much of any evidence to indicate that great photographers have felt that photography is limited to what happens in the camera.

Did Adams ever make a “bad” negative look good in post? That depends on what you think of as bad. I’m can’t think of photographs that were poorly composed and where post-processing compensated for this. (However, there are some negatives that were damaged in the fire at the Yosemite studio very early on, and in which the composition is affected by this. I’m pretty certain that “Monolith” was burned along its top edge, which is partly responsible for the crop with which we are familiar today.)

Adams did, by the reports that I have heard first hand from people who knew him, make a good number of banal and boring exposures. In fact, like photographers today, he made far, far more uninteresting and forgettable photographs than great ones. His famous statement about a dozen successful photographs in a year being a good crop is a partial acknowledgment of this truth about photography.

Some of Adams’ most famous, most successful, and most universally admired photographs would have been forgettable without extensive work in post. It still surprises me how many photographers don’t know this and, in fact, believe that the opposite is the case. A number of other photographers who knew and worked with him regularly point this out in their presentation on Adams. One of their favorite and most compelling examples is the iconic “Clearing Winter Storm” photograph of Yosemite Valley. There are three powerful pieces of evidence in this case: the straight prints of the negative (which has been printed by others), Adams’ own shorthand instructions for his extensive dodging and burning of the image when producing prints, and the profoundly different appearance of the print we all know, in which clouds that were almost uniformly near white become a dramatic mixture of very contrasting tones. Further, Adams made a number of exposures of this exact composition – most of which are not as spectacular – but he selected one from which to create the brilliant print in post that became so famous. Continue reading Photographic Myths and Platitudes: No Post-Processing!

Petroglyphs Stolen: An Ethical Lesson For Photographers

I just read the stunning and deeply disturbing story of the theft (not “merely” the all-to-common defacing) of a number of petroglyphs from a California location. (See “Petroglyph Thefts Near Bishop Stun Federal Authorities, Paiutes”) Apparently a group of depraved individuals hauled rock-cutting equipment to the site and sawed out the rocks holding several examples of native rock art, defacing and destroying other examples in the process. Anyone who has visited the better known examples of rock art is aware that a certain pathetic sub-group of the human race finds itself unable to resist the temptation to add their own “art” or deface that which is already there, but this incident represents a new low.

Defaced Petroglyph Site
Defaced Petroglyph Site

Photographers, those who operate photography workshops, and those of us who write about photography need to take this as an opportunity to think very carefully about how much information we should share about fragile places and things and about where and how we do our sharing. A few years ago I wrote about an occasion on which some friends and fellow photographers called me out on this (“Disclosing Photo Locations: How Much Information is Too Much?”), causing me to re-think how and what I write about my photographs and the places where I make them.

Here is the problem, more or less. “Back in the day,” we might well share what we knew about certain places and subjects without much care at all. While we certainly would not blabber about fragile places in front of people who we thought might disrespect or even damage them, we had no qualms about sharing information with trusted friends. And, in fact, the dangers of that kind of sharing in the pre-web world were not really all that great. The word-of-mouth sharing reached very small number of people, and it was unlikely (though not quite impossible) that the information would eventually get to “the bad guys.” We could even argue that we were serving a greater good by sharing this knowledge with others who should know, and whose voices might contribute to the protection of these places and subjects.

However the web has changed everything. Anything that you or I post today becomes cataloged, is searchable, is readily shared and re-shared, becomes linked to other pieces of information about the same subjects… and can be seen by millions of people you don’t know, among them many whom you would not trust and some that you would never share this stuff with. That’s the new reality. Among the people who may see our work and read our descriptions online are thoughtless barbarians who stand on top of fragile arches, who climb on tufa towers, who inscribe their own “art” into ancient sites, who drive all over the landscape, who remove “sailing rocks” from their playa homes, who leave trash in the landscape, who create trails across wilderness landscapes, who harm wildlife, who party in sacred and quiet places, and more.

As photographers who share our work and write about it and even take other people to these places, we have a responsibility to our subjects to do everything we can to protect them, even if this means restricting what we say, what we share, and where we share it.

Using photographs of rock art as an example, I think that responsible photographers should adopt the following policies:

  • When posting a photograph, if location information is not important to understanding the photograph, don’t share such information at all.
  • When some location context is actually important – and sometimes it is – anonymize it as much as possible. Perhaps the name of the 200-mile-square geographical region is sufficient. Perhaps the word “canyon” can be used without naming the canyon.
  • When making photographs of such things, avoid the inclusion of surrounding or background elements that will help the cretins figure out the location. I know this is hard, given the photographic potential that you’ll need to forego – but a your discretion serves a greater good, and you can figure out an effective alternative way to shoot these subjects. (For my part, I enjoy the challenge of trying to work out an effective composition that doesn’t give things away.)
  • If you realize that you have been too open about information, edit your text, remove unnecessary or risky references, or withdraw certain photographs. (There used to be an extensive guide to photographing in Death Valley on this web site – it was removed for such reasons.)
  • When writing about photographs of such subjects, always include some reference to their fragility, their significance, the power of experiencing them, and the responsibility of protecting them.
  • Recognize that everything you share, no matter the online forum in which you share it, will eventually reach a much wider audience – and think about how much you want the lowest-common-denominator types in that audience to know.
  • Exercise caution even when you share directly with those you know. Share only with those who you trust to share your love for and concern about these places, and only with those who will refrain from sharing more widely. Perhaps sharing with “online friends” is a bit to liberal – maybe you want to restrict this to people you really know and work with. Even with direct, personal sharing… be conservative.
  • As tremendously tempting as it is – for financial as well as self-aggrandizement reasons – don’t take your workshops to these places. I’m afraid it isn’t enough to think you have told your students how fragile these places are. Once they leave they will share their photos, they will talk about your workshop, they will give directions, they will brag about the cool thing you showed them… and they’ll do it in that linked, searchable, uncontrollable world of the web.
  • Speak about these issues more openly – with other photographers, online, in your workshops, and so forth.

Our work to photograph these subjects and the photographs that result from this work should be evidence of our recognition of the importance of these places and of protecting them – and not something that will contribute to endangering them.

Update: A few months later the petroglyphs were recovered. Final outcome in the case is not known as of this writing.