Pictures: Asilomar State Beach, Pacific Grove, Monterey Peninsula, California. The first is a straight RAW file; the second represents my standard image processing, which took less than 30 seconds, and the third is a “hyper-processed”, highly-saturated image like might often be seen on Flickr.
Processing note; the only other manipulation to these images was a conversion from Adobe98 RGB to sRGB, and a slight hue modification to account for and correct the shift from blue toward cyan during the colorspace conversion process. Click the picture to see it larger. Use your browser’s BACK button to return to this page.
How much is too much post-processing on an image? When does an image cross the line from being a natural representation of a scene to something so processed that it’s now unnatural, i.e. an artistic interpretation?
Much debate continues to swirl around this issue, and involves ethics, credibility, and responsibility. The debate has raged in some form or other for many years, back to when the National Geographic decided to move one of the Great Pyramids of Giza to make the cover look better. Yes, they were nailed to the proverbial cross, and eventually issued a statement promising never to do that again. However, the advent of digital photography and the proliferation of digital cameras has led to more and more people discovering RAW post processing techniques, including things like HDR (High Dynamic Range) techniques.
In the field of nature and landscape photography, more so than in most other genres of photography, except for photojournalism, there is often thought to be an implied or implicit trust factor between the photograph(er) and the viewer. The reason is simple; we expect the natural world to be presented to us, well…. naturally.
Back in the mid-1990′s, when I was working for Galen Rowell, he called several of us into his office one day. He proceeded to throw open a copy of Art Wolfe’s book, Migrations. Galen proceeded to have us take a closer look at some of the photos. He suspected that some of the photos in the book looked too perfect, and that some of the animals appeared to have been cloned. My co-worker at the time took it upon herself to make a bunch of 11×17″ xerox copies of suspect photos, then using a lupe with the book, used colored marking pens to identify animals or parts of animals that had been cloned. Galen was so impressed with her detective work, that he included those xerox copies in his Outdoor Photographer column in which he exposed Art’s previously undisclosed ‘artistic’ manipulations.
The cry for both integrity and disclosure in regards to altered nature photography rages on in many areas, including magazine editors who won’t use a photo if a single branch or leaf has been cloned out of a bird shot.
Even today, the debate continues in numerous circles. On an extreme end, there is currently one person (or small group of people) who have set up an entire web site devoted to attacking an individual photographer, claiming that the photographer isn’t being truthful with regard to how he chooses to render his interpretations of the natural landscape. The basis for their argument is that so much digital post-processing is used that the scene can no longer be called natural. Unfortunately, rather than making reasonable and civil discussions, this person (or group) has made their attacks so personal and vicious that I refuse to name names or post a link here. Nonetheless, as disgusting as it is, it shows the extremes that some people will go to based on their passionate beliefs regarding the need for truth and disclosure regarding nature photography, and the blurred zone leading to “art”.
In a more civilized vein, the debates about post-processing are also being applied to photojournalism. Most recently, three photos were disqualified from a Danish photo contest when the judges decided that the photographers had applied so much post processing techniques, that the submitted entries no longer fit the definition of what the thought should be a found natural scene. Here is an example of one of the images in question, showing the finished shot as submitted to the contest, and then the RAW file before any post processing had been applied.
Personally I have a hard time coming down hard on the photographer, since only color and exposure controls were manipulated during the RAW conversion, and nothing was removed, and no visual elements were added to the scene to alter the context of what was in front of the lens. And as color is a subjective perception, and varies in tone and density based on exposure, how can we clearly define when too much is too much, and when is the line crossed? There’s certainly no doubt that with the boosted color and added contrast, the processed image is much more dramatic. But is it still a truthful photojournalistic scene?
So tell me… what do you think? Do you know where the line is? Is it like pornography, where you can’t really describe it, but you know it when you see it? Should the contest entry have been disqualified for being ‘untruthful’? What about nature photography; is there a clear distinction for you when processing takes something beyond a natural rendition and turns it into more of an artistic expression?
Come on… someone’s got to have a definitive answer. Right? Wrong?
Edit: Not long after posting this, I found this image on Flickr as a shining example of a hyper-processed photo with colors saturated beyond belief.
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