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Photography

How Much Post-Processing Is Too Much?

This post is part of a series called Documentary Photography .
Creating a Meaningful Photo Essay of a Marathon
Stealth Mode: How to Take Wedding Pictures Like a Reportage Photographer

Background: The Controversy

Since 1955, the Dutch photography organization World Press Photo has hosted an annual international contest in visual journalism. According to WPP, the goal of the foundation is "... supporting and advancing high standards in photojournalism and documentary storytelling worldwide."

Unfortunately, in this year's contest 20% of finalists were disqualified for unethical image manipulation. Furthermore, the grand-prize winner, Giovanni Troilo, had his award stripped when it was discovered that he had provided falsified information.

Adding fuel to the fire is the organization's refusal to release the disqualified photos as examples, making a fruitful discussion of "how far is too far?" very difficult.
In response, editors of major media outlets as well as photojournalism organizations have called for either the WPP or the photographers themselves to release the disqualified images. Editors, organizations, and photographers want to know where the line is as photographic technologies advance and storytelling methods become more sophisticated.

Not the First WPP Scandal

WPP isn't new to image-manipulation scandals. In 2013, Paul Hansen's winning photo "Gaza Burial" was strongly criticized by those who claimed it was faked. Forensic analysis failed to convincingly conclude that the submitted image was manipulated beyond global and localized tonal adjustments. His award still stands, but the controversy caused WPP to change its rules, including required submission of the RAW or Straight-Out-Of-Camera (SOOC) image when requested.

In light of these rules, entrants still submitted photos that broke the ethical standards of journalism and the contest. This significant disqualification of finalists raises questions about the current climate of visual journalism and whether contests like WPP are beneficial or harmful. If finalists were wilfully lying about their images, what does it say about the journalism we see daily? To some—perhaps significant—extent, the integrity of visual journalism is at stake. 

The Current Climate for Visual Journalism

Nowadays, being a visual journalist is very challenging. The news industry continues to implode, with large layoffs, pay cuts, tighter deadlines, and a 24-hour news cycle that must be pushed to print, website, mobile devices, and social media. Staff positions have been liquidated, creating a large pool of freelancers and reporters with smartphones. The combination of a poor economic situation, ignorance, technology, and pressure to perform can make ethical standards difficult to maintain.

Photo contests and social media have become powerful influences over journalists looking for their next gig to support themselves. The result is a climate where winning and recognition become more important than ethics because it could mean you get better pay.

Running parallel to the economic challenges are technological advances in photography and visual storytelling that are challenging the rules to the point where they may need to be changed. Manipulation is so easy, fast, and at times done within the camera! So, why not?

Can vs. Should

"Because you can, does not mean you should," said Keith Jenkins, general manager at National Geographic Digital and 2013 WPP multimedia chairman. This is an important thing visual journalists need to remember when doing their jobs, especially if they come from other visual fields where certain practices are used that aren't acceptable in the news world.

Techniques and approaches that are completely valid in portrait, wedding, event, fashion, product, landscape, or commercial photography could be career-ending violations in visual journalism. So, think hard about a new feature in your camera or software before using it on a job. If you're unsure, ask your photo editor.

Ethical Post-Processing in Journalism

Ethics in visual journalism (photojournalism) begins with your mentality and approach to a story. These underpin your work from end to end. They influence what stories you cover and how, where to aim your camera, composition, captioning, and so on. You need to be aware of your personal bias, and be hyper-aware of it when you're doing a story where your passions can get the best of you. Keep them in check to avoid being a propagandist.

"Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images' content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects." (National Press Photographers Association, Code of Ethics)

The other part is technical prowess with your camera and post-processing applications. Because of the usually tight deadlines, you need to nail the image in-camera so that post-production is either extremely fast or unnecessary. Even when shooting RAW, pretend you're shooting JPEG. This not only cuts down on your workflow time, but also covers you if questions are raised about your work. So, know your tools and how to use them.

Crop

Deciding what to include within the frame you shot and within the frame you present to your editor needs to be ethical. Cropping too tightly or in such a way that it changes the material meaning of the story is a "no no". Cropping out a person or thing because "I don't like them" is also not a good idea.

You can crop an image for compositional or technical reasons. For example, you might do this if your subject was really far away and you couldn't zoom in enough or there was a technical reason (i.e. exposure issues, extraneous background, etc.). Sports and nature photographers do this all the time and it's fine. Be careful, however, to keep any parts of the that are integral to the story. Exercise extra caution if cropping an element of the image might falsely represent what actually happened.

Full Frame of a ceremonial sprinkling of the ashes - Daniel Sone
Here is the full frame shot of a ceremonial sprinkling of the ashes. (Photo: Daniel Sone Photography)
Ethical crop of ceremonial sprinking of the ashes - Daniel Sone
Although this is an aggressive crop, removing over half the image, it doesn't remove elements that mislead the viewer or are deceptive. This is akin to many crops that sports and nature photojournalists do. (Photo: Daniel Sone Photography)

Tone and Color

This part refers to the exposure, contrast, and color settings you may adjust in post production. It's fine to adjust the exposure if you messed up the initial capture, the white balance was off, or the image looks a little flat. However, going to extremes on any of the adjustments could land you in hot water, especially if they change the material meaning of the image or begin hiding important elements within your frame.

The human eye has a very wide dynamic range—greater than a camera—but it cannot process that entire range at once. So flexing the image to express a tonal range far greater or lesser than what the eye would naturally perceive is problematic (i.e. Paul Hansen's "Gaza Burial").

From-camera photograph with improper white balance
This is the RAW file from my camera. I accidentally used the wrong White Balance. The colors are unnatural and erroneous representations of the scene. Submitting this photo as "true" would be unethical.  
Color-corrected image
This is the processed version of the photo where I applied natural color and tonal corrections so that the image is honest.

It's important to make a distinction here between correction and adjustment. Correction is the process of bringing an image to a neutralized, balanced, correctly-exposed state. Correction makes an image easier to read. Adjustment is the process of creating a stylistic "look" to an image. Adjustment can add visual qualities to an image that were not present when you created the image. Most correction is trouble-free and easy to defend. Adjustment, on the other hand, is tricky. 

An adjustment, whether subtle or extreme, is a change to the image meant to provoke a specific emotional reaction in the viewer. This emotional element isn't purely based on photographic content, but plays on the way humans perceive visual information and our acculturation to images. This emotional tactic is one of the most powerful dynamics in photography and a key tool for effective visual communication. The way you adjust images is also a main ingredient in your personal photographic style, which is in turn a big part of getting noticed and hired. Used wrongly, however, and adjustment very quickly becomes manipulation. 

There is a very fine line to walk with adjustment. Acceptable levels of adjustment vary depending on the client, the nature of the job, and the technical aspects of your work. The reality of photography is that some adjustment is expected. The trick is for you to know how much is acceptable for a given situation.

So, practically speaking, stick with correction to start. Most of the time if an image is a good one it can stand out without much adjustment at all. If you're in Adobe Lightroom, use the ClarityContrastCurvesSaturationHue/Saturation/LuminanceWhites and Blacks sliders sparingly. This is especially true with the Clarity slider. It is easy to make someone look worse than they do with a high setting. Same goes for negative Clarity, where blemishes and wrinkles can be eliminated.

Ethically processed portrait
Here is an ethically processed portrait. It is a very natural rendition of this person and how they look. (Photo: Daniel Sone Photography)
Over-processed portrait
This is an unethical processing of the above portrait. Here I boosted the Clarity in order to emphasize his wrinkles and weathered skin. This makes him look older and grittier than he really is. (Photo: Daniel Sone Photography)

Vignettes and Chromatic Aberration

Many lenses have a natural vignette and chromatic aberration, especially at wide open apertures. Their correction needs careful consideration. Using the in-camera or post-production vignette correction (removal) such as Lens Corrections in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop is OK, but it must not be done to conceal elements in the image.

Sean D. Elliot, former President of the National Press Photographer's Association, says:  "Adding a vignette in post processing ... really should be frowned upon as favoring aesthetics over ethics. Sure, it may not cause any distinct deception, but it’s an addition to an image after the fact and only adds to the slippery slope of manipulation."

In this black-and-white photo, no vignetting was applied in post-production. The vignetting, if any, is due to the optical characteristics of the lens. (Photo: Daniel Sone Photography)
Strong vignettes, bottom photo, should be avoided. Try to find other, compositional ways to "trap" your viewer's eyes. If you do use a vignette, keep it subtle. I used the Lasso Tool, Curves, and Masking to create this vignette. (Photo: Daniel Sone Photography)

This means you should avoid adding a vignette to your images, especially a strong one. This also applies to the Gradient and Radial Filters in Lightroom or other tools that can achieve similar results. It's not forbidden, but it raises ethical concerns.

Cloning and Retouching

There isn't an ethical way to clone or retouch your image for journalism. Completely avoid the Clone Stamp tool and the Healing Brush tool, even to remove sensor dust. Adding, deleting, copying, shifting, or anything that physically moves pixels around is 100%, big time, prohibited. This means no Liquify, Warp Tool, Puppet Warp, Content Aware features, Skew, and nearly the entire Filter menu in Photoshop.

Un-retouched photo - Daniel Sone
This photo doesn't have any Cloning or Healing Brush done to it. Even though there are a few distracting elements in the background, like the microphone in the top-left corner, it's fine. (Photo: Daniel Sone Photography)
Unethical use of Cloning - Daniel Sone
As inconsequential as that microphone was, removing it via cloning or other means beyond cropping is dishonest. Same goes for pimples, lint, birds, power lines, photo-bombers, and other things you captured. (Photo: Daniel Sone Photography)

While this may seem very restrictive, it has many benefits. Firstly, your image is 95% done in-camera and therefore you're spending very little to no time in post-production. Secondly, you're not violating journalism ethics or misleading anyone. Third, you keep your job.

High Dynamic Range, Multiple Exposures, and Panoramas

High Dynamic Range (HDR), multiple exposures (in camera), and panoramas fall into a gray area. Some media outlets and editors accept them while others do not. And if accepted, they must be within limited circumstances and acknowledged.

HDR is a relatively new photographic technique and seldom employed in journalism. In those rare instances, it is acknowledged as an "exposure composition"or "photo illustration" and is used with completely stationary subjects like landscapes and buildings. Even so, any blur or ghosting cannot be removed, even with Layer Masks. Many editors will reject an HDR image because of the aesthetics and the potential ethical problems it presents. However, it can be permissible if it's not a misleading representation and is acknowledged.

HDR image of countryside
This is an HDR photo of rural hills in Northern Virginia during autumn. Three photos were taken using Auto-Bracket-Exposure (AEB) and then merged using Photoshop's 'Merge to HDR Pro...' script. (Photo: Daniel Sone Photography)

Multiple exposure compositions have a very narrow range of acceptance. They must be acknowledged and not deceptive. For example, you cannot photograph a building, and then swing around to photograph the moon, and make it appear as if it was above the building all along. You also cannot use it to create reflections that do not exist, even to illustrate a story or emotion. Because one would usually be combining separate moments and altering the composition, it is hard to find a situation where such an image wouldn't be misleading even if it wasn't the photographer's intent.

Double Exposure of Lincoln Memorial in DC - Photo Cameron Russell
This is a double exposure of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. While this may be accepted as a conceptual image, it won't pass muster for documentary and reportage photojournalism. (Photo: Cameron Russell | Flickr, Creative Commons)

One of the few exceptions is sports photography, which utilizes stroboscopic flash. It is always acknowledged in the caption and demonstrates the actual path or movement the subject took.

Stitched multiple-shot panoramas are also considered manipulations, but if they're acknowledged and accurately represent a scene, then it shouldn't cause hesitation when publishing. However, you have to execute your panoramas very well because correcting perspective distortions is prohibited.

An ethical stitched panorama - Daniel Sone
This is a nearly 180-degree panorama of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Italy. The panorama was straightened, but no perspective correction or Adaptive Wide Angle filer was applied. This panorama would be allowed. (Photo: Daniel Sone Photography)

While these three techniques fall into a gray area, they should not be a regular part of your work. These techniques may be ethical in editorial or creative assignments, but are likely to be rejected in documentary or reportage visual journalism.

Film Emulation

Using film emulation plugins, even if very accurate (e.g. VSCO), should be avoided, says Mark E. Johnson, Senior Lecturer on Photojournalism at the University of Georgia's Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication

"The goal of photojournalism is to make an accurate recording of what was present before the photojournalist ... The goal is to represent both the color and tonal range as accurately as possible. Color shifting, through emulation modes or white balance shifts, will introduce an emotional response that is not native to the scene and should be avoided." (Mark E. Johnson)

To that end, it is a good idea to avoid film emulations that cause extreme color shifts or false colors, like cross-processed films or films that are no longer in production. Settings that add sprockets, scratches, flares, blurs or light leaks would be unethical.

Perspective Correction

This should only be done with specialized lenses (i.e. tilt-shift, bellows, etc.) and in-camera. Adjusting the perspective in post-production is considered deceptive. This sort of perspective correction shifts pixels around and substantially changes what the photographer captured from his or her position. You can straighten a crooked frame, but can't correct the foreshortening inherently in the image.

Additionally, you cannot modify or add foreground-background blur (bokeh) once you've captured an image. So, using Photoshop's Field Blur, Iris Blur, Tilt-Shift Blur, or any other filter to edit an existing depth-of-field (DoF) effect is unethical.

Captions & Context

The accompanying text you provide with a photograph is just as important as the photograph itself, if not more important. With a good caption, you provide context that adds information not readily apparent in the image. Captions can be insightful, but cannot be assuming. Whenever possible, ask who, what, when, where, and why (5 Ws) when writing your captions.

False or presumptuous captions are unethical. The winner of the 2015 WPP contest, Giovanni Troilo, had his title revoked because he said an image was photographed in one city when in fact it was in a different city—a falsified caption. Another example is when writing a caption about an emotional expression or scene, obvious or subtle.

Image of protestors for fair wage for migrant workers - Daniel Sone
Be careful when captioning this image of people protesting to avoid making subtle assumptions. (Photo: Daniel Sone Photography)

Which of the following captions for the above photo is ethical and which isn't?

  • Demonstrators gather outside a Burger King in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, to demand higher wages—a $0.01/lbs increase—for farm workers of the fast food franchise.
  • Migrant workers gathered outside a Burger King in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, to demand pay raises from the fast food giant.
  • Farm workers, oppressed by Burger King's dismal wages, protest outside one of its restaurants in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They demand a $0.01 per pound increase.

All of these captions, except the first one, would be making assumptions, revealing bias, and would be unethical. Generally, they describe the same scene but frame it very, very differently. Be aware of the connotations and tone of your captions. What you write and how you write your captions provides context and influences the viewer's reaction and understanding of what the photo and story are about.

Conclusion

There is a lot to consider when doing visual journalism, but that is part of the job when your images are to be considered an accurate, honest portrayal of an event. The ethics in visual journalism do have some flexibility, but that depends upon the assignment (reportage/documentary, editorial, illustrative) and must not be deceptive or misleading in any case.

It is unfortunate that one of the longest-running and most prestigious visual journalism organizations is making it difficult for all to know where the ethical lines are in order to avoid crossing them and harming the integrity of the profession. With emerging technologies challenging what is possible, we need to examine if the technology is ethical or the rules are outdated. For now, visual journalists must adhere to the core rules and tread carefully when pushing the envelope of photographic technology and technique in journalism.

Being a visual journalist is one of the most stressful jobs one can do, especially in the current job climate. Part of that stress is ensuring that you're being ethical in your approach, capture, and post-processing. However, as an ethical visual journalist, your images will continue to carry the power of veracity that other forms of photography do not always enjoy.

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