Plugged In: Beware misuse of photo manipulation

By Joe Kashi for the Redoubt Reporter

When does a supposedly straightforward documentary photo-graph become so manipulated or “Photoshopped” as to become dishonest?

That problem’s been around since the beginning of photography. Many famous Civil War photographs were “improved” by moving and posing the bodies of dead soldiers. From our modern perspective, that practice seems ghoulish and lacking integrity. Perhaps, though, this was more understandable at a time when cameras were not mobile and the photographer wanted to make a point that was otherwise impossible, given the primitive technology of the day.

Later, Stalin became known for causing official photographs to be altered by airbrushing out the faces of generals and others who fell from Stalin’s favor after the shutter clicked. Being airbrushed out of photographs and rewritten out of history was usually only the first step on the road to being “rubbed out” by Stalin, who ruthlessly eliminated any potential rivals, not just photos of them.

Figure 1 — “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange.

Figure 1 — “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange.

More recently some of the classic, emotionally charged Depression-era photographs of starving mothers and Dust Bowl poverty have been criticized by scholars as posed images rather than truly spontaneous documentary snaps. Figure 1 is Dorothea Lange’s image of a migrant farm worker mother with seven children, while Figure 2 shows Arthur Rothstein’s image of a 1930s Dust Bowl family taking shelter from a dust storm. These images remain iconic as part of our culture, as well as controversial among scholars.

No one denies the lasting emotional power of these images but the possibility that they were not truly spontaneous documentation does raise some concerns because they were widely used to bolster public support for President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I did some digital cleanup of this week’s public-domain images by running them through Lightroom. I increased contrast and better separated the black and white tones so that these photos would reproduce more effectively on low-resolution newsprint.

Figure 2 — “Dust Bowl” by Arthur Rothstein.

Figure 2 — “Dust Bowl” by Arthur Rothstein.

Does that level of manipulation exceed permissible documentary bounds? Probably not, for several reasons. These photographs are no longer used to persuade people to support the New Deal, so they’re no longer offered as pure documentation. Instead, they’re now famous primarily as art and as a moment in American history. My minor alterations are basically contrast enhancements, not larger corrections that change the overall emotional tenor of the images.

Sometimes, though, even apparently benign enhancements of this sort become controversial when altering light and dark tonal patterns results in a totally different emotional impact. Whether this sort of manipulation causes a loss of documentary integrity seems to depend on the facts of each individual case. It’s a hot topic at the moment, due to recent accusations that prominent Swedish photojournalist Paul Hansen exceeded accepted manipulation limits to win the most recent world press photo competition.

No one alleges that Hansen faked anything shown in his winning photograph, merely that he gave it more impact by altering contrast, color saturation and tonal values beyond accepted limits. Unfortunately, no one seems to know exactly what those “acceptable” limits are because they’re neither written down nor generally agreed upon.

To further complicate the question, every image file from every camera is by definition something of a compromise in terms of accurate documentation. Every decision made by photographers about what information and subjects to include or exclude is an editorial decision that affects the documentary integrity of an image. Include too little and we have eliminated surrounding information that places an image in context. Include too much and your subject and point of view are buried in the clutter of a bad image. There’s no bright-line rule here.

JPEG images straight from your camera or phone camera are automatically processed to appear such as some engineer thought most pleasing, given the limitations of that camera’s hardware. RAW image files are similarly interpreted by Adobe Photoshop or other software to appear however Adobe’s engineers, and then you as the RAW software user, believe best. In fact, most consumers find accurately natural images to be rather lacking in contrast and color saturation. As a result, most camera makers tend to increase the default contrast and color saturation of their products in order to please consumers and sell more cameras than the competition.

Suppose, though, that I actually moved pixels within the images, copying and recopying some strong patterns to result in a more striking photo? Something rather like that happened a few years ago in a famous digital photo of what appeared to be wall-to-wall zebras. It turned out that many of the zebras were cloned — not biologically, but photographically using Photoshop. That sort of manipulation is generally considered to be excessive and unethical, at least in what purports to be a documentary or news photograph. It’s not uncommon to read of photographers being fired when their “enhancements” are found out. In egregious instances, photo editors’ heads have rolled as well for failing to spot obvious factual distortions.

Some pixel moving is clearly benign, so moving pixels is not inherently dishonest or unethical. For example, it’s common to find annoying dust spots in sky areas due to dust on your dSLR’s sensor. I have no objection to eliminating those sensor dust spots. That sort of moving pixels simply fixes a technical problem that bothers everyone from time to time, without adding to or subtracting from the information contained in a photograph. Cloning out distant aircraft, though technically identical to cloning out sensor dust spots, would be wrong, particularly in a combat zone photograph. You’re removing potentially important information.

When photographs are used as legal evidence, then some other requirements apply. It’s necessary to ensure that a photograph accurately depicts the subject in as neutral a manner as possible. As examples, you must ensure correct color balance or visually accurate optical perspective when that’s critical to proving some factual point. The conundrum, of course, is that we use photographs to prove some fact, but we’ve got to prove the photograph. There are techniques to do this, but that’s for another day.

To ensure the integrity of a documentary photograph you can’t move or transplant pixels to add or subtract data that the lens originally saw. Beyond that, ensuring emotional and factual accuracy has few bright-line rules. Every photograph is the product of many decisions and compromises starting when software engineers and camera designers decide how to process the raw data recorded by the lens and ending with decisions about what to include or exclude from the image. In the end, what matters most is the integrity of the documentary photographer and editor.

Snapshots and “fine art” photography have an entirely different, more flexible foundation. When you’re making family snapshots, you’re making photographs for yourself and your immediate family as memories of your own daily life. Ensuring objective accuracy isn’t as important in a family memory. Similarly, there’s no expectation that a “fine art” photograph be anything other than something that is visually pleasing or emotionally and intellectually stimulating.

Influential American photographers, Part II

“The Steerage” by Alfred Steiglitz.

“The Steerage” by Alfred Steiglitz.

During the early part of the 20th century, Alfred Steiglitz was America’s pre-eminent champion that good photography should be considered a fine art in its own right. Before Steiglitz, photographers basically imitated painters and tried to make “Pictorialist” photos that looked like traditional realistic paintings, complete with soft, gauzy details and overt “messages.” Pictorialist images are usually not to our modern tastes.

Steiglitz originally trained in Europe as a painter but quickly switched to photography. He was among the first practitioners of “straight” documentary photography, publishing one of the earliest American photography magazines, “Camera Work,” and showing the work of many photographers in his New York City galleries 291 and An American Place. Figure 3 is Steiglitz’s famous 1907 photograph “The Steerage,” documenting the rough ocean passage conditions faced by European immigrants to America.

In later years, Steiglitz tended toward more abstract photography even as he

“Cloud Equivalent” by Alfred Steiglitz.

“Cloud Equivalent” by Alfred Steiglitz.

encouraged and supported the work of the hyper-realistic photographers forming the famous f/64 group, such as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.

Decades before Abstract Expressionists and similarly nonrepresentational paintings gained cultural traction, Steiglitz postulated that purely abstract photographs could provoke an artistic sense that was “equivalent” to a detailed representational image.   While I personally don’t find Steiglitz’s own cloud photographs appealing or emotive, his equivalents theory does seem to hold water as a general rule. Figure 4 shows one of his later “Cloud Equivalent” images.

Attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website,

Photography contests

  • The Redoubt Reporter is holding another round of its reader-submitted photo contest, this time with the theme, “Capture the Kenai.” We’d like see your take on what makes the Kenai, the Kenai. What images say life on the Kenai Peninsula to you? Is it salmon in the Kenai River? Alpenglow on Mount Redoubt? Your favorite seasonal activity? Potholes in gravel roads during breakup? Moose poop in your garden? We want them all — the good, the bad and the ugly, as long as they speak to the unique character of this place. And as always, we’ll be looking for good photography, regardless of how “good” the subject matter might be. The deadline to submit photos is Aug. 23, 2013. All submissions must be in high-quality digital format. Submit no more than five JPEG images by email to

Entry rules:

1. Our theme is “Capture the Kenai.”

2. Entrants must be amateur photographers who are residents of the central Kenai Peninsula.

3. Photographs can be of any subject fitting the theme but must have been taken of the Kenai Peninsula on or after Aug. 1, 2012.

4. If you submit photographs in which people are recognizable, you must also provide us with their permission for us to publish any such photographs.

5. Please do not submit portrait photos. Do not submit photographs whose content would not be appropriate for publication in a family newspaper. Do not submit photos of illegal subject matter. All such photos will be deleted immediately without notice to you and at the sole discretion of the editor.

6. Photographers must include their name, telephone number, email address, town of residency and each photo’s date, location and description of subject matter.

7. Submitted JPEG images should be of the best possible technical quality. Good technique and technical quality are important, but originality, creativity, interesting subject matter, artistic merit and good composition are even more important.

8. By submitting photos, you agree to our publication of them in the Redoubt Reporter newspaper and on our website. The Redoubt Reporter will have the right of first publication of your photos. However, you will retain the copyright for all other purposes and your name will be listed if we publish any of your photos.

9. Our decisions about what’s published or selected for exhibition are final and are admittedly subjective. Space is limited, and the judging panel and editor reserve the right to choose photos at their discretion.

10. Retain your original digital files of all submitted images. We are not responsible for preserving copies of your digital images.

  • June 4 is the submission deadline for Alaska’s annual statewide Rarified Light fine art photography show. You can get complete information at the Alaska Photographic Center’s website at
  • The Eagle River Camera Club’s 2013 Bear Paw Festival photography contest has a June 14 submission deadline. For more information, contact Marco Gutierrez at, or Bob Martin Speaking of bears, some Alaska Peninsula brown bears recently tried to eat a BBC Go-Pro video camera. The surviving video is seriously cool. You can find that URL here:

1 Comment

Filed under photography, Plugged in

One response to “Plugged In: Beware misuse of photo manipulation

  1. jack sun

    ALL work done in the darkroom CHANGES the image…..

    if all you do is put the neg in the holder and add light then

    you are not changing the original image.. once u add the contrast

    filter and start dodging and burning and any other manipulation

    you are changing the image..

    i dont have any problem with “changing” the image….

    the problems begins when you misrepresent the image with your words..

    art is what the artist says it is…… or so some one once said….

    the idea is to please one’s self with your image, first… all others

    come next…

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