Peter’s Photo Processing Ethics 101

Death Valley from Furnace Creek Inn HDR

I remember showing someone one of my “red” sunsets of downtown LA and they said, “Nice Photoshop job.”  I replied, a little annoyed, “What do you mean?”  They responded, “Well, the sky really wasn’t that red…you manipulated the color.”  Not only was I insulted, they were patently wrong.  The key to making a great image is to make one in the field, i.e. one that has a great composition; is focused and sharp; exposed well; and finally invokes some kind of emotion in the observer.  If you do not have a great image out of the camera, “photo-shopping” it, is not going to help.  The commonly held idea that you can take a poor image and “fix” it in Photoshop is misplaced and shows a lack of understanding of the powers of Photoshop and the ethics of photo processing.

I follow four main ethical rules when I process photographs:

1.  Labeling – broadly speaking, you should not name something in a photograph incorrectly or in a misleading way.  A couple of years ago, a photographer claimed to have an image of a polar bear from the South Pole.  The problem is, of course, there are no polar bears in Antarctica.  If you make a photograph of an animal at the San Diego Zoo, do not claim it was made in the wild.  If you create an image with five photographs processed using High Dynamic Range software, say so.  Lastly, and less of an issue is story telling.  Don’t tell a story about making a photograph serendipitously when you planned the shot for weeks.  This is a HDR image of Death Valley.  Because it is black and white, I am sure that I could get away with not telling anyone.  I think that is wrong.

2.  Processing Rule 1 – taking stuff out.  My personal ethic is that you can take things out of a photo.  I regularly take out brown sticks that are in the middle of a white river.  I take out street signs in the middle of Death Valley.  I also take out distracting elements like a small tree at Mono Lake, or a bright spot light in the middle of a low light sunset.  The one I sometimes have problems with is people.  I take out people all of the time because they are a distraction to the natural landscape image I am trying to create.  In the poppies photo from Antelope Valley, I took out the crowd and increased color saturation.  What do you think?

Antelope Valley Poppy Field with People
Antelope Valley Poppy Field without People








 3.  Processing Rule 2 putting stuff in.  I have NEVER put anything into a photograph that was not there in the original scene.  I would never put a full moon into a photograph, even though it would look cool.  I would not put in a rainbow that was not there.  I would not put a soaring eagle in a photo of the Grand Canyon.  The difference between putting something in and taking something out is the former is meant to fool, while the latter is meant to make cleaner or clearer.

4.  Processing Rule 3 – changing a file out of your digital camera is not manipulation – it is processing.  All photographs need to be processed AND have always needed it, from basic film, to Ansel Adams’ fine prints, to digital SLRs.  The best rule is that “you should process your photo so that it looks like what you saw.”  A major issue for all of us is that our SLR sensors can only “see” 5-9 stops of light, while our eyes (the best lens in the history of the world) can see up to 21 stops.  That is why it is so frustrating in low light situations where you just can not get an image the way you see it.  At any rate, almost any image will improve if you increase brightness, increase contrast, and increase saturation.  Anyone who has processed a digital file knows that you can over do any of these and it is immediately apparent that the image looks wrong and/or fake.  There are many special effects you can use now to change your photograph.  In my opinion, they are more like art, than photography.  Below is my raw image out of the camera and after processing of a southwest sunset in LA.  As you can see, the sky really was that red.  I processed the photo to make it look better, but I could not have created colors that were not already there.  I made them look better, that is, I processed the raw file.

LA Sunset Unprocessed RAW file
LA Sunset processed in Lightroom and Nik Viveza

There is a large spectrum of processing ethics.  I know of one photographer who does not use a light meter; only shoots film, and never does anything, but the basic processing.  He believes this makes his photographs more authentic.  Mary likes to take photos with her iPhone and turn them into mini works of art by applying different special effects.  I love them, but there is a point where they leave the realm of the photograph and enter the realm of canvas art, but when and where, I am not sure.  I guess I know it when I see it.

So after all of that, if you really want to, you really can create a composite image that combines a full moon, rainbow, beautiful sky, and great base subject in Photoshop using Layers.  The resulting composite may look like an original photograph, but is more of a collage, rather than a photograph and should be disclosed as such.  As long as it is labeled correctly, I have no problem with this kind of creation a la computer program.  I cry foul when they hide it.  To see more of our photographs, go to


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