Monday, December 29, 2008

To Clone Or Not To Clone

As long as there has been the ability to record images by means of exposing photo-sensitive materials to light, there has has also existed the ability to manipulate that recorded image. It seems that the enhanced ability to change the original capture through the application of digital software has caused the age-old debate over what is and is not proper manipulation to rage even stronger.

I would suggest that there should not be any debate at all. Manipulation of photographic images, whether film or digital in origin, and whether by cropping, spotting, dodging/burning, or cloning, is never ethical in the context of photojournalism or any other context where the image is either explicitly or implicitly represented to the viewer as a faithful depiction of a scene. All photographs used in the context of journalism must represent faithful depictions if we are to maintain trust in those who would provide to us scenes of real life as it unfolds. Other photographs become subject to the "no manipulation" rule when they are explicitly offered as a faithful representation of a scene. In all other cases, the viewer is not entitled to hold the belief that a photographic image is a faithful depiction of the scene captured. Jeff Schewe stated it quite well in his web article appearing in the April 3, 2005 edition of PhotoshopNews entitled "Kate doesn’t like Photoshop – Digital Ethics," wherein he says, "So, how are people expected to judge photographs today? It generally boils down to the context in which the photograph is presented. As a long time advertising photographer I can tell you that in the ad biz, pretty much anything goes. In fine art photography, the only rule is to break all rules." I agree.

I have had the privilege of discussing the topic in some detail with Stephen Johnson (, a professional photographer whom I admire for both his skills as a photographer and printer, and his ability to communicate his vast knowledge of the artistic and technical photographic process to others. He also happens to be a great individual as well. For anyone really interested in reading about photography as an art and as a technical enterprise, I would highly recommend his book entitled "Stephen Johnson On Digital Photography." Rather than risk misrepresenting Steve's position on the subject, I will quote from a portion of his chapter entitled "Photography and Truth-Imaging Ethics in the Digital Age" (page 256): "If you take a photograph so far that it bears little resemblance to the original scene, then I think you cross over that line and are not merely finishing the photograph, but you are into a clearly more interpretive mode. When you change the photograph this dramatically, you have manipulated the image, which is perfectly legitimate to do if the image doesn't pretend to be real." I agree, and I would suggest that fine art photographers are free to cross that line on a regular basis in order to pursue their vision of reality, rather than the approximation that comes from using an imperfect instrument like a camera.

What people tend to confuse in this debate is the difference between adopted ethical standards on the one hand and personal beliefs on the other hand. While many photographers would hold the personal belief that nothing should be deleted from the boundaries of the captured image, such as a cigarette butt on the sidewalk, or a telephone line in the background, that doesn't make the removal of such objects unethical, absent an implicit or explicit obligation to make certain that the scene is a faithful representation. In the case of photojournalism, it would always be unethical to clone such objects out of the scene, even if they have no direct relevance to the import of the scene. At least one photojournalist was fired because he removed a pair of legs that appeared behind a banner hanging on an outfield fence. His reasoning was that the legs were distracting and had nothing to do with the message of the image. It doesn't matter how trivial in the context of photojournalism.

When it comes to fine art photography, ethical standards are not even relevant. We can debate personal beliefs and the soundness of those beliefs as a cohesive set of rules governing one's photographic conduct until the end of time, but there is nothing unethical about a fine art photographer using the initial capture of the image as simply a starting point. Fine art is fine art, whether the medium is paint or pencil or clay or pixels. If you are not a photojournalist, but instead are drawn to photography by your desire to create your version of "art", then you have every right to make choices as to how best to convey your vision.

Pedro Meyer, another well-known photographer and outspoken supporter of photographic manipulation, has written many editorials on the subject. On the zonezero website ( in April 1997, he wrote an article entitled "Who has Manipulated What and When?" In that article, he concludes his discussion about digital manipulation with the following statements: "I find the idea of placing a symbol next to a picture to indicate that it's been manipulated to be a simplistic solution to a complex issue-namely who has manipulated what and when? I suggest, on the other hand, that the more people are aware that photos have long been manipulated and still are-whether they're digital or not-the better we'll be." Our focus, in the context of photojournalism and photorealism, should be on the ethics of the photographer and not on the tools available to that photographer.

It is absurd to claim that any photographic image is devoid of any manipulation. Every decision made at the time of capture represents a manipulation that carries with it the possibility of creating a "misrepresentation" of the original scene. What is intentionally deleted from within the boundaries of the image, either through the choice of camera format, orientation of the camera, or lens length, represents a conscious choice that manipulates the scene. The exposure settings determine whether the final image is a silhouette of shapes or deletes information within blown out highlights, deemed more or less important by the photographer, and necessarily acknowledge the limitations of the camera over the ability of the human eye to absorb a much greater range of lighting of a single scene. For those who shoot jpeg files instead of raw, the settings for sharpness, saturation, and contrast made in the camera, either by default (i.e., the camera manufacturer's view of "correct") or by choice, represent manipulations.

The bottom line is that fine art photographers, and hobbyists, are free to create final images that may barely, if at all, look anything like the original scene. Just as a painter picks from the scene in front of him or her those elements that further the painter's vision, a photographic artist, as opposed to a photojournalist, is also free to clone to his or her heart's content and, heaven forbid, even arrange elements within the physical scene to aid in the creation of the final image. The original capture is merely the beginning canvas.

Next week: My Personal Experiences with Photography Workshops

Monday, December 22, 2008

Creative Use of the Clarity Slider

There always seems to be a new "flavor of the month" in photography. Most recently, it seems to be a fascination with HDR (high dynamic range). I have to admit I have toyed with Photomatix, both to create unrealistic, but interesting images, and to use it for its more mainstream purpose of being able to capture both shadow detail and highlight detail in a scene that extends well beyond the eight or so stops of exposure that today's cameras can accommodate.

Another "flavor of the month" has been infrared images. I have never captured infrared images, either with film or digitally. That doesn't mean I don't find many of them to have an ethereal beauty. I just find enough to keep me occupied with more straightforward photography. What I discovered with the release of Lightroom 2.0 is a way to approximate the infrared look without using a number of steps in Photoshop (e.g., see Tim Grey's Photoshop-based approach at

Beginning with Lightroom 2.0, the Clarity slider has been revised to allow settings anywhere between -100 and +100, whereas in the earlier version, the slider only went from 0 to +100. The following three images, beginning with the original capture, through a conversion to black and white, and ending with a -100 Clarity adjustment, show the steps I take to create a pseudo-infrared image. This particular scene was captured in the Brazilian Amazon in April 2007.

To my eye, this last image has the same dreamy quality as a typical infrared image, but without much fuss in creating it. As would be expected, this simple technique doesn't work for all images, but if you are looking for an easy way to approximate the infrared effect, the Clarity slider pushed all the way to -100 may do just fine. Enjoy!

Next week: To Clone Or Not To Clone

Monday, December 15, 2008

Welcome to my Blog!

Welcome to my new photography blog. I am a photographer, living in Northern California, and the purpose of this blog will be to share discoveries that I have made about places to capture images, technical issues, and other topics of particular interest to photographers.

I started in college with a 35 mm camera and the use of the college darkroom. After graduating, I maintained my own darkroom while attending law school in Washington, D.C. Eventually, I moved to color film and chromes, using the Nikon F4S, a wonderful camera. The poor quality of commercial labs drove me away from photography because I didn't have the time or space to do black and white work any more. Finally, with the advent of digital photography, I returned to the world of photography in 2003 with the purchase of a Nikon D100. In this way, I could take advantage of all of the Nikon glass I already owned. However, the siren call of the full-sized sensor caused me to leave the ranks of Nikon users in 2003 with the purchase of the Canon 1Ds. I sold most of my Nikon lenses and bought all new Canon L lenses.

Of course, with the release of the Canon 1Ds Mark II it was time to upgrade in 2005. That lasted until Nikon came out with its D3 and the ability to capture images at high ISO with minimal noise. As a result, I am the proud dysfunctional owner of a Canon 1Ds Mark II and a Nikon D3. The good news is that I fit in with just about any shooter and understand the strengths and weaknesses of each of these major camera manufacturers. The bad news is that it is expensive and inefficient. I am inching closer and closer to returning to my Nikon roots. In the meantime, I will continue to attract stares.

Some background so that you can assess my biases. As mentioned above, I use only digital 35mm equipment. I rely predominantly on Lightroom for post-processing of images and I have been a loyal Epson printer since the beginning, having lived through the 1280, 2200, and R2400 (the very first fine art quality inkjet printer in the small format). Now I rely on the wide format printers produced by Epson.

I have been active in juried shows, as well as group and solo exhibits of my photography. I have also had the pleasure of attending a number of photography workshops with the likes of Jay Maisel, Stephen Johnson and Moose Peterson. In future blogs, I will recount my experiences with these instructors, as well as others, so that you might avoid potentially unrewarding experiences. I am very active in a local photography gallery, Viewpoint Photographic Art Center (, and through that organization I have had the opportunity to present workshops of my own on Lightroom and on Photoshop techniques for photographers. It is a wonderful organization, comprised of many very talented photographers, including one of Canon's Explorers of Light, Lewis Kemper. I will be participating in a group exhibit at the Viewpoint Gallery in Sacramento in May 2009, entitled "A Sense of Place" and encompassing my Brazilian Amazon prints, Antarctica prints prepared by Larry Brenden and prints from Venice created by Dolores Frank.

Well, that completes my introductory post. I will post each week by Monday morning, so please come by and see the latest. In the meantime, stop by my website and see a sample of my work ( My most recent work can be viewed at

Next week: Creative Use of the Clarity Slider