Fine Art Photography vs. Documentary Photojournalism

by Ernie Mastroianni | December 10, 2008

NatureScapesIf you own the unrestricted rights to a wildlife image, then by simple definition, that image is yours to alter, modify and display as you see fit.

It is your right to express yourself through photography. In the USA, this right comes with the full backing of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

As long as you don’t break any laws, you are free to pursue your artistic expression. And although it is NOT against the law to digitally alter a photo, doing so to mislead or obscure could cause you trouble. Consider…

Free Speech, Using Fine Art

Let’s suppose you took a digital picture of a Great Blue Heron in flight at sunset at a well-known wildlife refuge, and after you see the image on your computer screen, you’ve decided that you could sell it for a profit. It’s a remarkable photo. The lighting is great. The focus is sharp. The detail is extraordinary. The bird is in flight, and there’s just something about the composition and that makes your picture of a common bird an uncommon work of art.

So, after studying the image, you decide to increase the contrast, to sharpen the lightness channel, to fix the color to match the warm evening light and to clone out a few stray branches in the foreground. You also repaired some unsightly and flawed plumage on the bird. The out of focus telephone pole in the background is removed and a couple ducks on the water surface are removed because they are right below the bird’s neck.

You pay a printing lab to make a finite number of archival prints using high-quality inks and archival paper; you sign and number the images.

If you have an arrangement with a gallery, either online or in a real building, you can hang the photo up for potential customers to see, and if your instincts about the image are right, you’re soon selling them to customers and making a profit.

Free Speech, Using Photojournalism

Let’s suppose that you’ve found out that a national magazine needs a Great Blue Heron photo. More specifically, you’ve found out that the editor needs a shot of heron in flight, in evening light, taken at the very same place where you took your top-selling image. The story is this specific national wildlife refuge, so a dramatic, sharp picture of a bird at that location would be perfect for the story.

Great, another sale, you think, and send along the version of your image that has been a successful seller as a limited fine art print.

But the editor (ED) makes some demands. ED does not want your fine art print. ED wants the original frame, as it was seen through your viewfinder. ED does not want any branches taken out. And ED wants that telephone pole back in the shot; ED is not interested in perfect plumage, just the plumage that was on the bird at that time. And put those ducks back in the shot, too.

You know the image won’t look nearly as good. Why would a national magazine want an image that was flawed and imperfect? If this image sells well in a gallery, why would it not be good enough for far less money in editorial display?

The reason is simple. Accuracy.

Your editor is looking for an image that accurately documents the wildlife refuge and the birds within. He or she knows the telephone poles belong in the scene. The readers know all about flawed plumage because that’s what they see through their binoculars.

An editor is not looking for a sample of fine art, nor does this editor want to purchase your gallery print. The story is about the refuge, not about your artistry. And unless you own the magazine, editors have as much right to put the image of their choice on display as you do to hang the image of your choice in a gallery.

Above all else, editors demand accuracy. An altered photo is considered to be a document whose accuracy cannot be verified. It is like making up a quote and attributing it to a real person. Altered images are usually not what editors want for editorial display.

The Line on Digital Alteration

A. Digital changes that are widely accepted in pictures intended for editorial display:

  1. Adjustments (no pixels added or removed)
    • Brightness
    • Contrast
    • Color Balance
    • Sharpness (don’t overdo it)
    • Saturation adjustment (don’t oversaturate)
  2. Alteration (some pixels added or removed)
    • Cropping (but please leave some room)
    • Cloning dust marks and digital noise such as hot pixels
    • Fixing red-eye (although how it can be fixed is arguable)

That is it for documentary photography.

B. Digital alterations that editors might accept as documentations of reality, but an explanation in the caption would be wise:

  1. Composites: these include photos made from separate frames stitched together to form panoramas or virtual reality images. An explanation should accompany the image if its nature is not evident. If the composite is to be considered a credible document, then each element that makes up the composite must be unaltered. The composites should be made at the same scene and in the same time frame.
  2. High dynamic range images: your eyes and brain can process a broader range of light levels than a camera. Combining separate exposures from shadows and highlights is a composite, but can be considered a document of record if the composite elements were made at the same scene and in the same time frame. A note in the caption should explain the technique. HDR images can sometimes appear to be unrealistic.
  3. Extreme depth of field: an example would be a combination of several frames to create a sharply focused photo from foreground to background. Again, the composite elements should be made at the same scene and in the same time frame.
  4. Perspective control: wide-angle lenses introduce distortion, such as converging lines when pointed up, especially in city landscapes. In the old days, a view camera could be adjusted with swings and tilts to nullify perspective distortion. Today, this can be done with software. But care must be taken to avoid introducing new distortion as you try to correct for the old.

C. Digital alterations not acceptable in documents of record or for editorial use:

  1. Removing something, e.g., branches, telephone poles, wires, trash, other wildlife
  2. Cloning something from one part of the frame to another, except to cover dust marks or faulty pixels
  3. Combining or adding elements of one image to another – i.e., adding clouds, animals or landscape features to enhance aesthetics or to clean up the composition
  4. Changing the color of a picture element, i.e., greening up brown or dying vegetation
  5. Stretching or compressing a part of the image (as opposed to fixing a lens distortion with perspective control)

Why we should care about digital alterations

It’s simple. Undisclosed alterations could be construed as deceptive and undermine your credibility and harm the reputation of the publication.

Consider this post that I made on last year as part of a thread on the ethics of alteration. The bold face and italic marks are mine.

If I want to post a photo in the Naturescapes bird photography forum, I must own the right to do so with that particular photo and follow this website’s guidelines, quoted here.

“Be sure to include technical data, such as what equipment was used and the settings, as well as location information, in your image post. For captive subjects it is recommended a © be placed after the subject title text, as well as in the message text. It is also suggested that significant post processing steps be mentioned, such as approximate crop percentages and changes in content.”

That’s about it.

Naturescapes does not narrowly define”significant post processing step” nor do they prohibit any post processing, and that is a good thing. If I own the photo, it is my right to do what ever I’d like with that image and post it here. The owners of this site very politely ask me that I explain any post processing techniques used in making that image.

So it’s not unethical to present altered images on this website, but it could be considered unethical and impolite if I do not disclose the alteration to everyone.

If you’ve cloned out branches, removed some background birds or put a better head on a more dynamic body, then the picture has become a work of art and is no longer a credible documentation of reality. As an editor, I value credibility above all else.

A photographer in this thread wondered if the elaborate outside studios, water drips, feeders and perching props used to attract wildlife to the perfect setting are simply another way of altering an image? My answer is no, there is a big difference.

As long as that bird is free to come and go, you are capturing an image of a real bird, in real space and in real time. That bird wants to be there and if it sensed a threat, it would leave.

The best setups anticipate the desires of the bird, and not the photographer. But if an image is altered after it was taken, it captures the desires of the photographer and not the bird.

It’s not just editorial

Editorial display is just one small arena where a photograph is expected to reflect reality. Consider these scenarios:

  • US Fish and Wildlife photographer – Would you remove trash from the foreground to make your setting look pristine? Would you add trash to try and get more funding?
  • Sports photographer – Would you move the baseball closer to the catcher’s mitt, to make a home plate shot more exciting?
  • Medical photographer – Would you alter an x-ray to make a sick patient appear to be cured? Or to cover up a medical mistake or justify a costly procedure?
  • Research photographer – Would you alter photographs of cells to support your hypothesis?
  • Industrial photographer – Would you alter construction photos to delete evidence of mistakes?
  • Military photographer – Would you alter a battlefield photo to make a dangerous area appear to be safe? Would you alter a reconnaissance photo to give the illusion of weapons of mass destruction?
  • White House photographer– Would you clone out a person standing near the President who later fell afoul of the law?
  • eBay – Would you clean up the scratches on your 500mm lens to fetch a better price?

It’s not all bad

Photoshop is a powerful tool and is used by talented artists and photographers to make great images with high artistic merit. And many images in advertising are altered, but they do not purport themselves to be reflections of reality. Digital alteration for artistic reasons and commercial use is another matter entirely.

Digital composites sell very well, say owners of stock photo agencies, but even agencies that sell altered work are up front about their images, and label their images as such.

If an airline wants to alter a wildlife shot to fit better on the tail of an airplane, that is their right. Pacific Life digitally adds a whale to their television ads. The company might be fooling some folks, but their intent is to set a tone and illustrate a company philosophy. They aren’t trying to say that you’ll see a whale if you go fly-fishing at a certain spot.

The bottom line

You have a right to express yourself, no doubt about it. And you can alter your image in any way you choose. But if you want to sell your work in the editorial arena, you must understand the rules and know the expectations of your customer. By doing this, you’ll maintain your credibility and reputation. It is always best when the photographer, buyer and viewer all understand how an image was made.

About the Author

Ernie Mastroianni is a Milwaukee-based freelance photographer. He served as photo editor for Birder's World magazine from 2005 through 2008.

2 thoughts on “Fine Art Photography vs. Documentary Photojournalism

  1. Obviously for editorial. But do you know there are people out there who think editing photos is not photography at all? People who don’t understand that all you can do in camera is get an exposure? Either that or with jpeg you are doing the post process contrast and lighting adjustments in camera which is exactly the same thing as editing in post except it’s more like a preset with no control. So do you realize that shooting in jpeg and not raw is technically manipulating the images in the unacceptable ways mentioned by this article? But that controlling the manipulation so that you clear up the image simply makes it look the way your eye sees it that the camera can’t because it’s just an imperfect device only meant for capturing exposures? That’s literally all the camera does. Reproducing what the eye sees is done in post processing. Human vision is dynamic range 20. Most of the best cameras have the highest dynamic range of 15. And therefore, an image straight out of camera is also an impermissible alteration of nature.

    • My point is that images straight out of the camera make the world look worse than what it really looks like and that is a disservice to people viewing the picture. It’s inauthentic. Pictures need to be corrected in post processing to reveal the reality of the subject from the falsification created by the inaccurate capture of the camera. Presenting desaturated in camera images as true to life is just as inaccurate as over editing.

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