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The Myth of Photographic Reality – Part II

by George Murphy on July 25, 2010

The Myth of Photographic Reality
…or, What Exactly Is There About Any Aspect of Photography That Isn’t Manipulated or Controlled?

A Framework for Judging Our Work in the Digital Darkroom
We explored in Part I of this article how the truth of an image depends on so much more than just what happens in the darkroom (digital or chemical). The ever increasing capabilities of digital tools, however, continues to focus attention on the ‘post-production’ part of the image workflow and fans the fears of editors and publishers, almost to the point of obsession… not entirely without cause.

Sure, film photographers have always had the ability to manipulate their images in the lab beyond what might be considered ethical for news oriented venues; but the barriers to doing this convincingly were once much bigger. It required more skill, time and effort (not to mention motivation) than the current digital alternatives, where retouched content might easily be passed off as original photography. Basically, it’s much harder now to catch those who would pass off modified images as real.

Where to Draw the Line?
So, despite my emphasis on looking at the whole process of photography, the question still keeps coming back to this one topic: In an age where the boundaries between photographic reality and digital fantasy have melted away to nothing more than a pull down menu or a digital brush stroke, how do we trust the journalistic credibility of images we see before in print and on our computer screens?

It can be a fine line between the manipulation of an image and the manipulation of its content. Are you bringing out aspects of the content that were already there or have you crossed that line into cutting, pasting, cloning or painting elements into an illusion of reality? Even overly aggressive dodging and burning can effectively re-light a scene in a way that changes the subject’s meaning.

Any of these might be valid, depending on the intended context that you plan to present the image. Therein lies the crux. Is it news or is it art, or something in-between? Ultimately, the bottom line is the same as it has always been – the burden of truth remains flatly on the photographer’s shoulders. There is no way around it: it has to boil down to the judgment and integrity of the photographer, and their diligent effort to ensure that the context in which their images are presented matches their creative intent. Unfortunately, this is not as easy as it sounds – a concept we’ll come back to in a moment.

When a photographer abuses this trust, it is damaging in ways far beyond any single incident. It creates a general level of distrust in both the images and the venues presenting the images that erodes the credibility of other photographers, and can rob truly important images of their power to challenge us. However, not every accusation of manipulation is fairly founded, and some photographers may find themselves the victim of overreaction to more sinister attempts at deceit. Some editors seem to have narrowed the acceptable level of “darkroom” work on an image to a standard that so strict it would invalidate a large percentage of photojournalism’s most cherished past works if they were to be presented to today’s gatekeepers.

Still other photographers never intend to create literal images, and are more focused on communicating ideas that are grounded in truth. Without a means to understand their intent out of context, or if their images are presented in the wrong context, such works can also be unfairly branded as misleading.

In our fear of the worst, we are in danger of denying the power and craft of photographers to take what is a blatantly manipulative medium and still somehow create images that present truth with a clarity and insightfulness that is very real. What’s missing in all of this is way to clarify the nature of the images we see, regardless of context or medium; to regain our trust and to allow viewers to understand the difference between presentation and deception.

The Influence of Context
Years ago I thought that the advent of the digital darkroom called out for the establishment of an image labeling standard that would help everyone understand the nature of the images they were looking at regardless of context; a way to keep honest images from being diminished by unfairly branding them with the same label as more illustrated approaches; and conversely, a way to keep synthesized realities from being passed off, out of context, as documentation of real moments.

As it is, so much of how we judge an image is based on the context in which we see it. I know that I will react very differently to a fantastical or rare moment captured in a news photograph, than I would if I were to see the very same image in an advertisement. Certainly I would automatically question the reality of the content more immediately in the ad.

The filters that we apply to image content are informed by all of the things that “package” the image. The publishing venue provides the basic foundation; however, additional information can be just as important: The caption that goes with the image, any other accompanying pictures that fill in our understanding of the subject and it’s context, and of course, any supporting details provided in an article or story. All of these things can dramatically alter our perception of an image and the nature of the subject within it. But when an image is isolated from all of these additional qualifiers, it can become harder to assess, leaving you only with the venue that the image is being published in, to come up with a framework in which to judge it.

This is where some kind of simple standardized image label could cut through all of the confusion and make it clear what the nature of the image is that we are looking at. There have been a lot of suggestions over the years on how to do this and little consensus. In part, I think this is because we continue to deny the reality of modern image workflow, and yes, the inherently manipulative nature of the process that I keep harping on about. We are trying so hard to pretend that there are only either “pure” images or “soiled” images, that we inadvertently trash a lot of honest photography for doing what photography does – present the subject in a focused way as interpreted by the photographer.

Proposing a Standard for labeling Images
So, what exactly would make for a good universal image labeling standard? Too “black & white” an approach to such labeling would condemn many essentially honest images to the same stigma as a fully composited mash-up. Too granular an approach would be cumbersome, confusing and, frankly; no one would use it.

While I’m not naive enough to think I’m going to bring about any consensus here: I would like to offer some proposed objectives – basic concepts, I believe, should go into shaping any image labeling standard:

    1) It needs to be simple enough that it can easily be understood, adopted and implemented
    2) It needs to be granular enough to be useful in identifying the nature of the images being labeled, but not so granular that it becomes complicated (See item no. 1)
    3) It needs to acknowledge that, in modern photography workflow, the digital darkroom is an extension of the camera, and not penalize images unfairly just because the way we make images has changed from how we did it in the past.
    4) It needs to acknowledge the difference between what is the subject of the photograph and what is introduced to our view of the subject by the camera or the digital extension of the camera in modern workflows.
    5) As a corollary to that, it needs to distinguish the difference between “presenting” a subject, enhancing a subject, and retouching or fundamentally changing the subject.

There are probably more qualifiers we could come up with, but these are enough to get the ball rolling. What follows is what makes sense from where I sit. You might have a different opinion, and that’s where this can become a productive discussion. Let’s be real and acknowledge, that one standard isn’t going to make everyone happy; but I’m hoping there might be a reasonable compromise to be made out there.


This scheme is composed of Categories and Modifiers with the intent of describing the nature of an given image’s content. The categories define main types of images and the modifiers help distinguish shades of grey, helping to keep down the number of core categories.

While the general concepts described here accommodate any photography format or medium, for the purposes of this article I have biased this particular framework to help break down the digital workflow in a way that helps to communicate the nature of the resulting images. Even so, the categories and modifiers apply pretty solidly if you focus on the results of a given process and not whether you arrived there chemically or electronically. However, doing so may challenge your current concepts of those more familiar processes.

P0 – Raw FIle
This is the raw image data – a file – the digital equivalent of unprocessed film.

    • The act of creating a viewable version of the raw data file requires the application of a data conversion process and color profiles. This occurs even when you are “browsing” raw files in a directory on our computer.
    • Because of this, I consider the resulting viewable version of this data with its very basic processing, and not the raw file described here, to be the only meaningful, viewable “Original Photo” and it lives in the next category.

P1 – Original Photo
The viewable image that results from the very basic processing of the raw file – the equivalent of original slides, the images in a properly made photo contact sheet, or proof prints from a negative. Scanned film, properly balanced to match the original image, would live here as well.

    • At minimum involves the application of a ‘raw processing engine’ that can read the raw file data and a color calibration profile that puts the image data into an intended color space
    • Very basic exposure and color balance corrections
    • While some photographer’s may opt to avoid any adjustments at this stage, this is virtually the same as picking a film balance and a film processing time
    • The ‘color calibration” profiles are required to convert the very non-human linear image data into something that looks more like what we saw with our eyes. Think of it as the digital equivalent of different film stocks, but more versatile.

P2 – Optimized Photo (alternately: Processed Photo)
Basic camera and darkroom work that presents the subject without altering it. This category focuses on aspects of a single image that represent the camera’s and photographer’s influence on that image; as well as the virtual extension of the camera into the digital darkroom.

    • Refined exposure, brightness and contrast adjustments
    • Color temperature balancing
    • Modest saturation and vibrancy adjustments
    • Dodging and burning
    • Dust spotting
    • Lens corrections (distortion, vignetting, chromatic aberration, lens sharpness)
    • Perspective corrections
    • Focus corrections (both sharpening and modest defocusing)
    • Noise reduction
    • B&W conversion
    • Basic grain addition (within the limits of comparable ‘normal’ film grain)
    • Non-destructive reduction of camera based artifacts (lens flares, sensor noise artifacts)

P3 – Special Photo
True subject content created using multiple images in time, composition or exposure; or through non-standard photographic processes.

    • Image tiling or panorama stitching
    • Multiple exposures combined (of the same subject)
    • HDR photography
    • Infrared
    • Focus tiling

P4 – Photo Illustration
Manufactured content, created through either the assembly of disassociated image elements in post, or the staging of elements before the camera to create fictional or illustrative subject matter.

    • Cutting, pasting or painting
    • Elements assembled from multiple, disassociated images
    • Image reconstruction
    • Set-up or staged photographs


Label Modifiers are used in conjunction with the main labels above to add granularity to the system, but are only meaningful to to P2 (optimized) and P3 (special) categories.

“e” – for Enhanced Photo
The aggressive end of all of the same processes we might use in the P2 (optimized) category above, but pushed to the point that our presentation goes beyond a reasonably literal view of the subject.

    • Non-destructive modifications that are based on manipulating our view of the subject and not the subject itself
    • Modest HDR or exposure blending that retains a natural view of the subject (More aggressive HDR lives elsewhere in this scheme)
    • Aggressive color or contrast adjustments that do not modify the subject or the spirit of the original lighting
    • Aggressive focus and depth-of-field adjustments

“m” – for Minor Modified Photo
Minor touch-up of image content that does not meaningfully alter the main subject, but must be called out for full disclosure.

    • The modest touch-up of background and non-essential elements
    • Significant wrinkle retouching, eye bag removal and skin enhancement on portraits
    • Retouch clean-up of camera-based artifacts that goes beyond spot retouching (i.e. lens flares)

Here are some usage examples of Category labels with Modifiers.

    • P2 – An optimized photo
    • P2e – An optimized photo with enhancements
    • P2em – An optimized photo with enhancements and minor modifications
    • P3m – A special photo with minor modifications


There are a couple of areas where I am on the fence about how we might label an image. Focus manipulation is one, and portraits is another.

Respectful Portraits
Photography can be less flattering than the human eye, with regard to portraits. Regardless of whether they are formal or “candids,” our rigidly honest images can expose a famous personality to unfair criticism in their blunt portrayal; or draw equal criticism if brandishing a “modified” or “retouched” label. Neither seems fair to the subject, when they have allowed us to enter into their private lives to document them. You can see sad examples of this every day in the racks, at the grocery store check out counter (at least here in the U.S.).

This is the one area that I favor some allowance, however conservative, for reducing blemishes and under-eye bags in portraits, without branding them as “retouched.” Obviously there is a line to cross, where you simply have to consider it modified. Just, how black and white should the conservative side of that line be?

To me it’s a question of respect for the subject. I am very inclined to believe that there must be a minimal degree of special allowance for editorial portrait work, but it’s worth some real world discussion to establish just when this would not be acceptable.

Focus & Depth-of-Field – After the Fact

When it comes to controlling where a viewer’s attention goes in an image, focus and depth-of-field are two of the most critical factors. In the past, our control over these qualities was locked at the time of exposure; being dependent on choices we made with regard to the lens focal length, aperture and distance to subject, and if motion was involved, how we used the shutter speed to track or freeze the subject. We might have applied even further control through the use of a tilt-shift lens, or the tilt and shift controls offered by a view camera.

An important point here is that, whether it’s the shallow, angled slice of a tilt-shift lens, the infinite focus of ƒ64, or the bokeh from an ƒ/1.2 lens… the concept of focus in a photograph is introduced entirely by the photographer and the camera through our manipulation of the photographic tools and process. And while not entirely independent of the subject, as it is tied to the subject’s physical geometry, the concept of focus is not inherent in the subject of our image.

Currently electronic workflows offer us some ability to recover sharpness from a soft image and a large degree of control to reduce the focus of parts of the image with very natural focus blurring in the image editing stage. In doing so, we are in effect simply modifying our decisions, after the fact, about lens and focus choices made at the time of exposure. The catch is that we can go beyond what reasonable optics might actually produce, at which point we are fabricating a stylized image that is no longer a “photographic” view of the subject and might fall within the bounds of an “enhanced” or “minor modified” label modifier, or even a P4 (Photo Illustration) label.

Staying within the bounds of reasonable optics – is tuning the image focus in post, any different than selectively dodging and burning exposure on parts of the image? Both serve the same purpose – to bring clarity to our main subject and direct our viewer’s eye to the part of the image that we want them to focus on.

Sticking with currently available workflows, I am inclined to consider modest focus tuning no different than other image optimizing control and place it in the P2 (Optimized Photo) category, above.

If that feels uncomfortable to some of you, then consider what the future is about to bring, as I remind you that our definition of photography as a method for capturing the world, is continually evolving. Case in point – In the not too distant future, focus and depth-of-field will remain “live” in the raw image data. It’s called Plenoptic photography (also known as Light Field Photography) and you can find a link to more info about it at the end of this article.

The impact of Plenoptic photography is that, when making a photograph, we will decide what we want to be the point of focus and how much else remains in focus, after the image is made – not at the time of exposure. This is just one more example of how the digital darkroom will continue to evolve its growing function as a virtual extension of the camera.


Bringing it back around to our image description labels: Photography, or what we currently call photography, HAS changed and will continue to evolve in ways we can’t yet imagine. Even now, simply getting your head around the idea that a camera is no longer a static device, but a process… it requires a major shift in our thinking.

An image labeling standard would go a long way toward helping establish a baseline that allows us to separate our understanding of the subjects we photograph from the actual process of photography itself. It would give us a framework for accommodating the changes to the way we make images and prevent us from unfairly discrediting important honest works; while also allowing us to properly exhibit our more creative efforts without fear of anyone confusing our intent.

Another Option: Leveraging Digital Media Opportunities to Build Trust
There is an interesting phenomenon that seems to have happened, based on many editor’s, publisher’s and photographic purist’s general distrust of the digital process. It is the trend to brand any image that has had any processing done in an image-editing program as being “photoshopped.”

This bastardization of the name of the popular image-editing software has come to be synonymous with aggressive image manipulation, and bluntly aims to brand images with a ‘scarlet letter’ that implies the photographer has engaged in some kind of cheating. It doesn’t matter that all you may have done is use Photoshop™, or some other similar program, to convert your raw image file into a JPEG file, applying some very basic exposure and color balance adjustments along the way.

This label has grown out of some’s disdain for all things digital and is propagated by a narrow understanding of the digital workflow. It’s a label that can instantly call into question the integrity of your content; a form of digital slander that has already infused itself into the common culture, and can be unfairly damaging to the credibility of many fair and honest works. It’s like a hanging accusation, without the burden of proof that any crime has been committed, and is intended to breed doubt.

The Image Origin Labels I proposed above, or some other similar concept, might go a long way toward helping us move beyond these shadows of doubt and build trust with those who view our work. But such a standard will take time to find it’s way into widespread use. So, what can we do now that will give viewers a framework to understand that there is more to digital processing than some preconception they may have of manipulative deception? One immediate and powerful way is to take advantage of the open real estate that digital publishing allows and make available original versions of our images in addition to our primary published images.

A few online photojournalism outlets are already doing this – sometimes offering a link to an original photo (in the caption) and even asking for viewer feedback on whether the “published” version was too changed from the original. What’s great about this is that it involves the audience in the dialogue about how we process and present images of a journalistic nature.

While the advent of digital media may be one of the major causes for all of this visual distrust, it also offers unique opportunities to regain that trust. With the thoughtful addition of original media links, we can build wider understanding of how our use of the digital darkroom can bring focus to our subjects without misrepresenting them.

Conclusion – So Is It Manipulation or Presentation?
Photography is a language. Languages change with time and culture, and in this case, as a result of technology too. While the advent of electronic imaging has dramatically changed many aspects of how we make images, it has not changed the fundamental purpose of photography in capturing the world around us, with its aim of communicating the photographer’s intent.

In photojournalism, that intent is an honest documentation of the world; but even here that documentation must find it’s way to an audience through presentation. For example: the use of black-and-white imagery in photojournalism underscores the way in which photographers use presentation to focus in on the heart of a subject. In a black-and-white photograph, shadow and light are manipulated, and distracting color information is stripped away to simplify and clarify our view of the subject. The photographer’s point of view is enhanced, and yes – the truth of the subject may be more easily understood.

By definition, a black-and-white image is not a literal view of the world. It is simply not the way we see. Yet ironically, we identify with black-and-white images as some of the most truthful photography going. Why is this?

One reason may be because, whether we admit it or not, we connect with such crafted images more readily than we do with too literal a view of the world. And without that connection, an image falls meaningless to the wayside of public awareness.

The black-and-white imagery of photojournalism underscores that there is an acceptable place, somewhere between ‘matter of fact’ and ‘modified’ that allows a photographer to bring clarity to the subject without misrepresenting it. Where the skill and artistry of the photographer allow a viewer to see beyond the surface and into the spirit of the subject.


In many ways modern digital workflow makes it easier to grasp what has been difficult to see before, offering us a better framework for understanding the difference between what is the subject versus what is introduced to the image by the photographer and the photographic process. Once we actually understand this, we can also more effectively judge what can be considered presentation and what should be understood as a modification of the subject.

In the end it’s simply about understanding the nature of the content before us – is it real or is it fabricated? Is it news, editorial or illustration? From the camera through to the darkroom (analog or digital), how has the manipulation of the presentation of the subject affected our view of the reality that was before our cameras at the time of exposure?

Only when there is finally a way to communicate this, one that is independent of context (such as an Image Origin Label), will audiences have a true gauge to respond to our images for what they are, allowing important and meaningful photographs to convey their power without suffering the dilution of doubt.

Lastly, there will always be photographers or publishers who will try to deceive audiences, for whatever lame motives they may have. We should not let this minority drive us to such a narrow definition of photojournalism that it relegates the photographer’s roles to something only slightly more glorified than a mobile security camera in our effort to achieve objectivity.

Effective photojournalism has a point of view, even if that point of view is simply the truth. It is insightful and when it draws upon the rules of composition and lighting and a photographer’s “eye” to bring it focus, while it is not intended as “art,” it can have the power to communicate its subject more clearly.

Fear of abuse must not drive how we craft our images, nor make us shy away from new (or even old) ways of using photography to communicate an awareness of the world around us. Photography HAS changed, and embracing – or at least acknowledging – that with the digital workflow comes a shift in the paradigm of how we make images, will allow us to move on from the “Digital Witch Hunt” and focus our attention on how well we are using this diverse and powerful medium of the frozen moment.

– END –


Postscript & References
Just a few of the many valuable references to be found on the web about the ethics of photojournalism:

• National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics:
NPPA Code of Ethics

• National Press Photographers Assoc. article on ethics in photojournalism:
NPPA Photojournaism Article

• Articles on the World Press Photo organization’s disqualification of winning images by photographer Stepan Rudik from their 2010 contest:
NY Times: Behind the Scenes: Altered and Out
PetaPixel Blog: Stepan Rudik World Press Photo Contest Entry


• foto8 Article on Documentary Photography by Max Houghton:
Uprooted from the Real: Photographers Without a Stance


This article in American Communication Journal by Peggy J. Bowers, had interesting insights into the dillema of news vs. art:
Through the Objective Lens: The ethics of expression and repression of high art in photojournalism

The Plenoptic Photography technology behind refocusing images after the fact (also know as Light Field Photography) can be found here, in the Stanford paper that first caught many reader’s attention:
Light Field Photography with a Hand-Held Plenoptic Camera

Light field technology is already a real product that is bound to find its way into this discussion. As proof of this, check the Raytrix company website where they offer several options for light filed cameras:
Raytrix Plenoptic Cameras


One response to “The Myth of Photographic Reality – Part II”

  1. Very good article! We will be linking to this great post on our website.

    Keep up the good writing.

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