Monday, November 19, 2018


During my last visit to Colorado this past September, I had a 4-hour lesson with one of my former students. We drove to his chosen location and during the drive he had his first question for me--ethics. We're talking here about the ethics of photography. More specifically, to what extent do we manipulate our images before it reaches the level of "cheating." 

This has become a common question ever since the advent of Adobe Photoshop 1.0 in 1990, and the advent of the first digital camera with a memory card slot in 1995. I first started hearing and reading about this ethics question about ten years ago, with gained momentum the last five years. 

The timing of the facts is not as important as the ethics discussion itself. For this month I will break down this discussion into five camps, or perspectives on the subject.

1) Post processing is photography.
2) The client perspective
3) Today's photography audience--the general public
4) In-camera photography
5) My perspective   

Folks who are convinced that their perspective is the right perspective, see this as a debate, not a discussion. I see it as a discussion because if it works for you, it works for you. If people are buying tangible photographic products or services from you, you are doing the right things the right way that work for you.

So, let's get started. You decide what's right or wrong, good or bad, ethical or unethical for you. You decide how far you are willing to go and still feel comfortable with yourself.

I'm sure there are other perspectives, but for now, let's take a look at these five. My comments are not based on methodically researched studies, with defensible correlation coefficients. They are based on what I have seen and read on-line or in magazines, discussions I've had with other photographers, and observations I've made from teaching literally hundreds of photographers at all skill levels throughout my career.

First perspective: Post processing is photography.

Some photographers who picked up a camera for the first time around the advent of digital photography and Photoshop, or some who love to spend hours in post-processing, do not see a demarcation between photography and post-processing. To them, the camera is just a tool to "take" the picture. The real photograph is created in post processing. Therefore, everything that follows is photography, and therefore is ethical. It's not cheating.

This is exactly the same perspective Ansel Adams took with his photography. He was "photoshopping" before Photo Shop was invented. He created improvisations in the lab to "photoshop" his images, including dodging and burning and even "spot healing"--getting rid of unwanted objects in the original photo. A good example is "Moonrise Hernandez," where he eliminated undesirable clouds.    

Some photographers in this camp did not learn photography during film days. Therefore, they never had to learn how to get it right in camera. Several of my photography students, even advanced photographers, did not know how to use the exposure compensation dial. Yes, even that is done by some through post-processing. One professional-level student did not know how to engage BULB on his camera, and got upset when I tried to help him. 

To summarize, for this camp of photographers, there is no difference between photographic skills and post processing skills. To them, taking a picture, coupled with post processing is photography.  

The client perspective.

"Client" here is defined as the buyer of prints or folks who pay for photographic services. The list is too long to include here, but they include purchases for wall decor or businesses who need commercial photography, hospitality, etc. 

This one is pretty straight forward. As I say in my "How To Make Money With Your Photography In Your Spare Time" class, if someone pays you for your prints or services, it was good enough for them. This area of photography is not about us--it's about them. I have sold prints of images which I didn't think were necessarily my best efforts. Businesses have paid me for photographic services, i.e., images which they asked me to adjust, which I didn't much care for, but, it's about them, not me. 

Sometimes I make suggestions, but need to still let them decide. On the other side of that, some have left it up to me, saying, "I'll leave it up to you. You're the photographer." But when they see the results, they frown. That can be very frustrating. I have learned to ask them to give me an idea of what they want; what they expect. Even when they don't know, I continue to quiz until I get at least a hint. Sometime they just don't know what they want until they see the results.  

Some clients prefer that the images we take reflect their property or product as accurately as possible--nothing fancy; not overdone. The photography translation is, not too saturated or overly sharpened. On the other hand, some clients just want to get potential buyers' attention, regardless of whether the final image looks "real" or not. As one real estate developer once wrote, "We don't sell buildings. We sell fantasies." 

Bottom line, they are seeking our skills, but the final "look" is for them. We can only guide and suggest, but not decide for them.

Today's photography audience--the general public.

I was teaching a photography class in Dallas, Texas in the mid 1990's. A student asked me what I thought of the future of digital photography. I told her that photos will have a different look about them, but we will eventually become to accept the new norm and get used to the new look.

From what I see today, the general public doesn't care, or even know about, the distinctions between in-camera photography versus highly post-processed images--they just like the wild, the unique, the outlandish--without questioning or caring about how images are created. I see that in many on-line social media platforms. 

I have heard peoples' comments about both paintings and photos, like "Oh cool." Some get all excited about "interactive photography" which, through the use of apps, can show movement in a still photograph. Again, the unique; outlandish.  

I have posted what I considered some of my best landscape images on social media platforms, but only got mediocre-to-average attention from readers. But, when I posted this photo of a rooster, the "hits" went wild! It confirms my observations about what the general public likes.


In-camera photography.

Many photographers, ranging mostly from amateur to advanced; from millennials to baby boomers, prefer to learn as much as they can about what they can get out of their cameras and lenses. They learn about all the useful tools already designed into camera bodies and lens design. Three of the most commonly discovered tools which my students comment about are: 1) How to create in-camera double exposures, 2) Spot metering, and 3) The BULB setting. All three are tools which some more advanced photographers either don't know about or never, or seldom, use.

A lot of photographers, especially advanced and professional photographers, who learned photography during film days had to learn how to get the best in-camera images possible. They did that by understanding the inner workings of the tools mentioned above, and other tools, which helped them with both technical quality (left brain) and creativeness (right brain).       

Some photographers in this camp also delve into some post-processing to fine-tune their images. 

My perspective.

My perspective on the subject is somewhere between the above perspectives,
leaning toward creating the best possible images in-camera. I know my camera and lenses and what they are capable of creating. I already have a lot of great tools at my disposal, literally at my fingertips.

In addition to the great camera tools mentioned above, throughout the years I have  experimented with creative use of certain tools (cameras, lenses, and filters), using techniques which the engineers did not have in mind. I spend a lot of time talking about this in my new book, RIGHT BRAIN PHOTOGRAPHY (Be an artist first). You can also see a cross section of my photography on my website

That said, I also know that lenses, cameras, sensors, and memory cards aren't perfect. In the past, from the days of Daguerreotype photographers in the 1800s through the 1990s, we had to do the best we could with what we had. As mentioned before, Ansel Adams, and others before him, improvised with what he had at his disposal. 

Today, we have additional software tools that can add to what our tangible tools cannot accomplish. The best example I can think of is the built-in reflected light exposure meters. The best in-camera light metering systems cannot give us the desired exposures on every area of the scene we are photographing. Notice I said "desired," not "correct." 

However, some photographers use these software tools in lieu of the tangible tools we have. I prefer to use them to fine-tune my photography. I try to get 80%-90% of what I want in camera, then fine-tune the other 10%-20% with the software I use. These are estimates, of course. For some images I do little to no software fine-tuning. At the other extreme; especially commercial commissioned photography, I might spend 30 minutes or more on an image.

I don't do much software fine-tuning on my landscape images, and I never use HDR on them. I prefer to get it right the first time, and fine-tune them later if needed. For my landscape work, I estimate that I spend 5-20 minutes on 80%-90% of my images. Now, some photographers may ask, "What? Is that all?" There are several reasons why I don't spend an hour or more "post processing" my images. 

1) I know how to get the most mileage out of my camera, lenses, and filters.  
2) I am not anal--my images don't have to look "perfect." They must look extremely good, 
    but not necessarily perfect. And, besides, "perfect," to me, can look too mechanical, and
    sometimes even "flat," i.e., every single inch of the image looks identically exposed. 
3) I prefer a nice three dimensional feel to my images. I don't mind a few shadows here and
    there. They add interest, depth, and help direct attention to my center of interest.
4) Like all photographers, I want my images to look great. At the same time, I don't want
    them to look unreal--greens not found on the color wheel; over-sharpened mountains    
    that are a mile or more away.

Sharp quality lenses, especially if you know how to use them, minimize the time needed on the use of photo editing software, i.e., "post processing." I shoot primarily JPEG large/fine, and convert them to lossless TIFF before I fine-tune them. Sometimes, if JPEG doesn't give me what I want, I might shoot TIFF. The only time I use RAW is for extremely low light situations, like the cover of my book, RIGHT BRAIN PHOTOGRAPHY. The comparisons below are all at 75 ppi.   




I hope this discourse on the subject of photographic ethics has helped you assess your own shooting style and to also help you decide what works for you, based on what you want to accomplish.

As always, if you have any questions, please contact me, visit my website, or checkout my Facebook business page (Eli Vega Photography)

Keep shooting. Keep practicing. And, most of all, don't take yourself so seriously--have fun with it!!