February 11, 2011

I used to tell my advanced photojournalism students that they would never become great photojournalists if they cheated on their taxes. My point is that honesty and integrity are essential qualities of photojournalism. Further, these qualities aren’t the types of things you can turn on and off. Either it’s part of you or it’s not.

However, people have been bending the truth with their photographs since long before there was a Photoshop. The saying that “the camera never lies” has never been true and is probably less true now than ever before, because Photoshop makes it so much easier to alter a photograph.

I consider myself a person of great honesty and integrity. As such, I’ve always been very judicious in the use of Photoshop to enhance my photographs. Basically, I used Photoshop to help my pictures become better much the way Ansel Adams used filters, contrast, selective burning and dodging, and bleach to enhance his own images. The final prints appear to capture the reality of the original scene, but simply put, they’re “better” thanks to Adams’ tinkering.

The saying that “the camera never lies” has never been true and is probably less true now than ever before, because Photoshop makes it so much easier to alter a photograph.

Recently, I’ve allowed myself to use digital editing software more aggressively, to transform an “almost” photograph into a “stunner.” I was photographing landforms in the Mammoth Hot Springs area of Yellowstone National Park when I saw a herd of elk surrounded by a group of photographers. I walked over, made a few dull pictures, but then I noticed a rather large bull wander off from the area where I had been photographing.

I switched to my longest lens as I quietly followed him. For some reason, neither the other elk nor the herd of photographers followed. While watching the bull through my camera, I saw him turn his body, throw open his mouth and bugle. The light was very nice, my composition was fine, and I felt confident that the frame was well focused when I pressed the shutter. But I also saw that there was a sign in the frame. I couldn’t do anything about it. There was no way to get it out of the photograph without cutting off the elk’s hooves .

Elk in Yellowstone, sign removed via Photoshop

In this altered version, the sign has been digitally removed by cloning grass in its place. Which do you think is better?

Later, I was showing my Yellowstone photos to a dear, old friend who used to be a National Geographic photographer. We agreed that the elk photograph was a beauty except for the sign. He suggested that I use Photoshop to clone some of the grass from the bottom right and use it to conceal the sign.  The suggestion immediately raised red flags in my mind as I thought that I could never do anything that unethical.

But curiosity got the best of me, and I had to see how it would look. Five minutes in Photoshop and the sign was gone and a “stunner” was born.  As much as I like the “new” photograph, I just don’t feel good about it. I don’t feel comfortable showing it.

What do you think? Should I just get over my misgivings about ethics and Photoshop and appreciate the lovely photograph? Or have I created a monster—a lie, a deceit, an abomination? How and when, do you think it’s okay to use Photoshop to “enhance” your wildlife photographs?

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