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Digital Post Processing Ethics
My frame of reference

Copyrights Ganesh H Shankar, June 2007.

How much of digital post processing is ethical ? This question often comes up in photo forums more so in nature photo forums. Interestingly to me it appears the basic frame of reference related to ethical manipulation seem to be moving. For those who started photography during slide/print days dodging and burning are part of the development process and may not be so for those started later with all digital workflow. But for the latter group sharpness adjustment, brightness/contrast adjustments, noise removal are just fine. During initial days of digital photography lots of film/slide photographers went through denial phase and the word "digital" by itself meant "un-authentic" - at least in this part of the world where I live. We have come out of this now - even earlier slide/print photographers (I belong to this group) have switched to the digital and the frame of reference on what is ethical got totally shifted.

Do we need to have a standard for what is ethical manipulation ? Is it possible to have one ? Personally I think it is not possible to arrive at a consensus on what is ethical. This is partly due to the fact that purpose of nature photography may be different for different people - Portraying the beauty of nature, document the nature as is, use it for some scientific study and so on. Further with in some of these purposes the moment we frame rules on what is ethical people can arrive at an image which does not meet those rules yet logically appears ethical. Most of the discussions on post processing ethics will invariably end in explicit statements or implicit assumptions about correctness of our own understanding of what is right.

Here is an interesting thread about ethical manipulations. This thread lived for about 10 years now and is still relevant.

I think it is better to know and define for ourselves the purpose behind our nature photography and probably state them appropriately too when we share our images so that images gets correctly received. If I am a biologist then capturing a bird, photographing it in captivity, showing only bird and cloning out every thing else in the image may be perfectly fine. But if my purpose is nature photography then photographing and processing image this way is a clear violation of ethics. Stating the purpose and how the image made and processed solves this issue, more so when an image appears very different or unusual. Personally I ran into this issue couple times in some international nature photo forums. When I posted this image of egret above in one of the international nature forum there were doubts about the image because the lighting appeared unusual. You can see the original unprocessed raw image here. Then I shared original raw image which cleared confusion. I could have avoided this by writing a few lines when I posted it initally. But then for week end warriors like us photography is not our full time work and we often normally don't find time (read lazy) to write lengthy descriptions about how we made each image - but it does some times lead to suspicions when we don't provide all the image details.

Another of my image which often leads to confusion and suspicion is the image of butterfly flying on the top of the flower (the origininal un-processed scan is here) . One can avoid some of those confusions by writing a clear description on how the image is made.

Setting my own framework

After reading a some of the views on ethics and also based on my own practice and thoughts about what is right, at this point in time I would like to separate an image into a few buckets.

- Un-Altered Image (UA) : No editing but for cropping, re-sizing, curves/levels, sharpen/blur, color corrections to bring it closer to what we saw - which need not be literal seeing.

- Digitally Enhanced Image (DE) : UA as above plus dodging and burning

- Digitally Modified image (DM) : DE as above plus digital additions and/or deletions from the image.

My interest in nature photography is in its art form. I don't have interest in documentary nature photography and presenting things literally as is. To me "what we see" does not mean representation of nature as is. I strongly believe nature photography can't be a form of art if we stick to this definition. At times it is abstractly representing motion, creative crops, using natural colors, light, shapes, patterns to capture and or create mood.

The key for me is creation. Nevertheless I would like to use "un-altered image (UA)" principles and in some cases use burning/dodging as a solution to overcome inabilities of medium of capure like 5-stops of exposure lattitude to create my images (I enjoy working in extreme light conditions). Sometimes limitation of the medium like exposure lattitude itself gives us some interesting avenues to explore. What is the difference between creating motion blur using slow shutter speed plus accurate panning vs. using "motion blur" within Photoshop ? There may or may not be any difference but I would like to get that 'kick' of getting everything done before pressing the shutter release.

Often people seem to assume use of digital modifications (DM as above) with art form of photography. I strongly believe this need not be true. We indeed can create artistic images using "un-altered (UA)" principles discussed above just like how documentary photographer tries to portray nature. I have always enjoyed doing this kind of photography which I think is very challenging. It needs enormous time, effort, visualization among other things. We will not make hundreds of images every year but couple of them a month will give enormous pleasure and satisfaction - more so when we are not earning our bread through photography (otherwise couple of images per month may not be sustainable! if one has to live on nature photography).

While I don't have an issue with "digital creations" made using DM guidelines mentioned above, I personally don't enjoy digitally adding or deleting from the frame. I very rarely do this - an example is I don't mind cloning out a plastic bag which I could not manually remove in a wide-angle water fall image. This may not be ok for a natural history photographer. I don't subscribe to the idea that one form of photography is superior to other. But I do think it is important to disclose such editing of the image when we do so.

Back to digitally created art, I have come across people talking lightly about this. I think digitally created art will see increased acceptance in years to come and honestly think such creations are indeed art. Images of nature gives a good starting point to work on. Personally I don't have painting skills so I don't want to persue this form of artistic creations. At the same time I do think resultant images out of straight forward applications of the so called "Artistic" filters of Photoshop or any such editing tool is not works of art at all. I don't think straight forward application of science can create art. Are Mandelbrot's fractal images art ? I don't think so. For more about Mandelbrot you can visit this link.. To me work of art can't be reproduced easily by some one else.

Let me end this with a note that it is better to state the tools used (UA/DE/DM above) when we share images - more so when an image is un-usual or different. Nothing like a symbol (UA/DE/DM) added to each image shared on web but it takes lots of effort to add this kind of information to each of the already shared images. More so for (passionate) week-end nature photographers like me.

- Ganesh H Shankar

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Copyright © 2002 Ganesh H. Shankar - All rights reserved.