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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Ethics of Image Enhancement and Image Manipulation

If you were to ask any serious photographer for the top five tools they use to create images, besides their camera, I bet Photoshop would be high on that list.  Think of it: how many times have you used Photoshop for simple color correction, increasing sharpness, and/or removing unwanted elements such as a person, a bemish on a face or unwanted shadows from an image. And while Photoshop or photo enhancing tools are a blessing for today’s image makers, a question often debated is whether or not it is ethical to alter images.
Do photographers need to even think about this? If so, what type of photographer should take note: advertising photographers, photo journalists, fine art or editorial photographer, portrait and beauty photographers, celebrity paparazzi?
There are purists who believe exceptional photographers use the light at hand (natural or studio) and crop images while setting up a composition in the viewfinder; those who do everything in their power to create the perfect image in camera. Does that still apply in today’s world of digital imaging, and where does photo enhancement come into play?
What is your stance on the Ethics of Image Enhancement and Image Manipulation?
If we define photo manipulation as the application of image editing techniques to photographs in order to create an illusion or deception and photo enhancement as techniques to enhance or correction an image–it is photo manipulation that most likely rises to the top of heated debates.
For example, should a photo journalist adhere to a set of rules when portraying their images? And does a commercial photographer need to adhere to the same set of rules or have their own–if any at all?
A photo journalist is expected to follow a set of rules and ethics and in return viewers come to respect and trust their images as truth. Click here to view The National Press Photographer’s Association’s Code of Ethics on Digital Manipulation.   It begins like this: “As journalists we believe the guiding principle of our profession is accuracy; therefore, we believe it is wrong to alter the content of a photograph in any way that deceives the public.”
While there are many cases that have come to light over the years for photo manipulation used for deception purposes (such as propaganda, advertising, the Loch Nest Monster and UFO’s), some usage of photo manipulation is widely accepted as an art-form, for example fine-art photographers have free range to alter images to make their visual statements, and illustrative techniques such as photo montages and collages are standard fare for today’s image makers–often with results that are obvious.
Photomontage by: Mmxx on Wikipedia
In our ever growing digital realm, faked images are becoming harder to detect. It was very easy for the creator of this image to super impose two images to create one that become a widely popular and highly “shared” image known as the “Helicopter Shark,” which was widely circulated as a so-called “National Geographic Photo of the Year” and later revealed to be a hoax.

What about commercial photography? Do you think advertising photography should have free reign to leverage all manner of photo enhancement or manipulation? Is it acceptable to retouch the face of a 50-year old woman, removing all wrinkles and blemishes who uses Brand X facial cream vs. showing a real woman with exceptional skin, wrinkles and all?

Is it possible to create a code of ethics for all photographers and image makers when it comes to photo alterations? Does it even matter? Is there a line to cross between alterations to make an image more pleasing verses image manipulation to deceive?
What are you thoughts? We’d love to hear from you.