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STORY BEHIND THE IMAGE: Questioning the Ethics of Photo Manipulation in Digital Photography Today

200802250827cr2_BlogNikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 lens / ISO 100 / f/8 / 1/2000th sec

Perhaps one of the most interesting issues facing the photo world today is not just the ubiquitous manipulation of our digital photography, but our changing tolerance to and even acceptance of it. Ever since Adobe Photoshop 1.0 came to market in 1990 (and to a lesser extent before then as well), photographers have struggled to find their footing on the slippery slope that is editing, processing and altering their pictures, not only to improve image quality but sometimes also to compensate for technical shortcomings experienced in the field.

Today even our smart phones boast high-powered editing software. In other words, manipulating photographs has never been easier or more widespread. Subsequently, it seems as though our values as photographers are also being pushed and tested alongside the speed with which new photo technology, equipment and software emerges.

When launching into any discussion about ethics, it’s important to begin with a foundational premise and go from there. And for me, this very nuanced, complicated issue begins and ends with two rock-solid principles: Full disclosure and integrity. In today’s world of “truthiness,” it’s important to be honest and open about manipulations made to photographs that go beyond what are now (although weren’t always) considered conventional adjustments such as tonal work, dodging and burning, spot removal, darkening of skies, white balance, color correction, and so on.

This is a composite photograph of Mikey Weir carving a turn at Heavenly Mountain Resort that I produced for the mountain’s commercial/advertising purposes. Is the snowboarder depicted here really Mikey Weir? Absolutely. Do these stark, memorable trees really exist like this at Heavenly? Absolutely. But did Mikey carve this exact turn around this exact tree?

Not exactly.

Every season for the past 11 years, I’ve been tasked with shooting amazing ski and snowboard action images at Heavenly Mountain Resort close to my home in South Lake Tahoe, California. The first few seasons I spent shooting here was like shooting fish in a barrel. But as the years went on, I realized I’d plucked all the low-hanging fruit. I needed to push myself further, farther, higher. I needed to find a way to see and capture the mountain from a new perspective.

I’d always noted this particular stand of trees, scorched from a wildfire, and thought they would look really cool from a high-angle perspective. A few years ago I rented the relatively “affordable” Robinson 44 helicopter to shoot Heavenly from the sky. One of the main challenges you face when hiring a helicopter is time. You’re charged by the minute as soon as that engine turns on and those blades start spinning. Therefore every inefficiency, every idle moment, is money down the drain.

When I’m actually staging a shoot on the ski hill, I’m skiing with a group of three athletes: one male skier, one male snowboarder and one female skier or snowboarder. I knew that if I were to shoot from a helicopter, three athletes would be too few. The turnover time—getting the skier from the bottom back to to the top—would be too long. So I actually hired 20 skiers and snowboarders. The day before I conceived about 18 or 20 specific shots I wanted, and assigned each athlete a specific shot / location. That way, everyone could get in place and have a general idea about what they would be doing, and we’d minimize the wasted time.

Of course I communicated with everyone via radio. However, it’s quite difficult to communicate clearly and articulately when I’m hanging out the door of a helicopter hundreds of feet in the air with wind and rotor noise blasting into my radio’s mic. The world looks very different up there, too. After all, that’s why I’m there.

When it came time to shoot this stand of burned trees on the north side of Heavenly Mountain, I spent some time building the exact right composition, snapping test frames and picturing exactly where I wanted my athlete—in this case, Mikey Weir—to carve a turn. The composition was better than I’d imagined. I always knew these burned trees would be interesting, but I was still surprised by how everything looked just so linear, clean, simple and aesthetic. It was all somehow painterly, like a work of abstract art.

Sure enough, I had a tough time articulating to Mikey exactly at which tree it was that I wanted him turn, but I did the best I could. Still, “Forty feet above the burned tree to the left of the really short burned tree and downslope approximately 600 feet from your stance, if you look skier’s left…” was tough to decipher.

Having a conversation like this over a radio felt a little bit like talking to your $350/hour lawyer who spends 15 minutes talking to you about his cousin’s short game on the golf course. You grit your teeth and try to get him back on track. Similarly, I could feel dollar bills being burned by the helicopter. Really I just wanted to get Mikey moving, get some shots, and move on.

“Dropping! Dropping!” Mikey’s partner announced over the radio. “Mikey’s dropping in.”

Staring through my viewfinder, ready to hit the shutter at the decisive moment, I prayed that Mikey understood my directions, and by some miracle, actually carved his snowboard across my amazingly composed frame.

Ten seconds later, still no Mikey. Huh. Sure enough, Mikey was way left of where I had wanted him. Dammit. It didn’t work. I didn’t make the picture.

We repositioned the helicopter over Mikey, who was now poised above a wide open field of snow. I asked Mikey to make a handful of fast turns. I got some great images of just Mikey, as well as some shots that had both Mikey and the shadow of the helicopter in the frame.

Overall, the day was a success. I made a lot of really great pictures … but I have to admit to being a little frustrated that I didn’t get the shot of Mikey riding through the stand of burned trees.

Fast forward to months later. It’s the end of the season. Time for me to deliver my files to my client, Heavenly Mountain Resort. The issue of cleaning up and manipulating photos has been a subject that I’ve broached with Heavenly over the years, and like many reputable companies, they have thought long and hard about their commitment to Truth in Advertising. I’ve always been impressed by their strong ethic to only using imagery that happened, or could’ve happened, at Heavenly. They are open to cleaning up tracks in the snow and even building composite images. But they draw the line with using images of situations that didn’t exist, don’t exist or couldn’t exist. For example, I couldn’t shoot a skier on one of Heavenly’s ridges and then Photoshop Lake Tahoe into the background, even though both that ridge and Lake Tahoe “exist” in the vicinity. Nor would they ever use a tight shot of, say, someone skiing deep powder in Utah, even though you can’t tell what the location is and even though skiing deep powder is an experience you can get at Heavenly. This is their ethic for truth in advertising.

Often times, when shooting on those perfect, if rare, bluebird powder days, I’ll employ a technique called “farming turns.” This is similar to staging a shot in climbing (a subject I wrote about with this Story Behind the Image on Alex Honnold). What that means, essentially, is that the athletes and I find a field of fresh, untouched snow. One athlete makes one turn. I shoot a burst of photos. We move 10 feet to the left so our tracks aren’t in the frame. Another person makes a turn. I shoot a burst of photos. Again, we move 10 feet to the left. Repeat. Inevitably, in the aftermath I might need to use Photoshop to clean up the tracked snow that appears in the foreground or background. That’s one of the most basic, and common, forms of image manipulation in the skiing world.

Or sometimes I end up working with a snowboarder who (despite my vehement warnings not to) shows up with an AC/DC sticker, or a glaring sponsor sticker, broadly across his helmet. That has to be cleaned up, too, for legal and marketing purposes.

Anyway, I admit that it was bothering me that I didn’t get the shot of Mikey in the stand of burned trees the way I’d preconceived it. Finally I decided it might be worth combining the shot of Mikey making turns in the lower snow field with the test frame I took of the stand of burned trees. In other words, I decided to create the photograph that I had missed in the field.

I suppose the question is, What do you think? Does this bother you? If so, why or why not?

In the world of commercial and advertising photography, most art directors would laugh at you if you ever voiced a pang of concern over the ethics of photo manipulation. There’s extreme (and undisclosed) manipulation to the faces and bodies that appear on the covers of most women’s magazines and men’s muscle rags. So another question to pose might be: where does this snowboarding picture fall on that spectrum? (I would say the two aren’t even in the same ballpark.)

Another point worth making is that I don’t believe I would’ve made this composite if I were shooting for, say, Powder Magazine, Climbing, or Outside —though I must say, it seems as though even their standards have loosened on the subject and more composite photographs are appearing in all editorial publications without any disclosure.

That brings me to another funny story about this picture, and an observation about the nature of how photography is disseminated and perceived by the general public. Somehow this picture found its way to a judge’s computer, where it ended up winning a minor photo contest award. Subsequently, it was printed in a magazine, of course with no mention about it being a composite, and no knowledge on my part whether that fact would’ve even been problematic to the photo-contest rules.

It’s easy for me to sit here and preach about “full disclosure” but the reality is that pictures stand alone, with or without captions. As the old saying goes, pictures say 1,000 words, and they do. Couple that with the fact that today’s average viewer begins with the assumption that the photograph he or she is looking at is real. This is where the problem begins.

Because I rarely have control over what the caption reads for my image, it’s easy for me to sit on my high horse and talk about “full disclosure” only to pass the blame onto the magazine for running my photo and not explaining that it is a composite, or blame the viewer for having the romantic notion that all photography comes “straight out of the camera.”

Some questions are: does full disclosure even matter? We know what the dangers are in believing all photography is real, but what are the dangers in viewing all photography cynically? Is that where we’re heading? And what will that change?

I come from a background in photojournalism where you do not manipulate photographs. I’ve worked for newspapers. I shot Fuji Velvia for years, and most of the photographs in my portfolio, on my website and in the Aurora Photos stock archive are “straight out of the camera” with varying degrees of basic toning and color work done to the digital scans of my slides or the raw digital negative files.

But again, I return to this idea of how our tolerance and acceptance of some of these Photoshop techniques has evolved over the years, and is rapidly becoming more liberal. With so many photos “filtered to death” on Instagram, for a photographer to darken skies (as opposed to using graduated neutral density filters) or build an HDR composite (as opposed to just shooting in better light) somehow became the New Normal. And I wonder if this slow creep of changing values will ultimately lead to the death of photojournalism … Or will it lead to a world in which we praise photographers for taking the latest technology and using it creatively, inventively and creating stronger images that arguably convey greater truths than anything the old world of photojournalism could ever produce?

My sense is that future will fall somewhere between those two extremes. Besides, what is photography but a recreation of reality itself? No picture can or will ever tell the full truth. Photos will always be just one impression of it.

One more thought: There has to be different ethical standards for different disciplines of photography. Commercial / advertising photography can’t be held to the same standards as photojournalism. But really, what that means is that to make it as a photographer today requires being well rounded, open and accepting to all of these ideas and techniques. It’s important for us as filmmakers and photographers to experiment, push our skill set and ultimately be comfortable working with the latest technology at the highest level possible. Because from that comprehension and expertise, then we are able to think about these issues, and work through them well with some real mental clarity. Only from deep reflection and real-world experience will we know what feels, viscerally, right or wrong.

This shot of Mikey at Heavenly Mountain could have happened; it just didn’t. And for that reason I have no problem with this composite so long as I’m always forthright about how I created it.

I always enjoy these ethical debates, but I think it’s also important not to lose sight of what is truly important. For me photography isn’t just about “getting the shot,” even in the aftermath. Photography is a passion and I enjoy the experience of capturing images just as much as I enjoy seeing the final product and showing it to an audience. On that simple level, this picture fails. Why? Because for me, the best feeling in the world comes after pressing the shutter button, looking down at the display screen and seeing a perfect shot. Those are the moments it all comes together: all the technical skills, the joy of the experience of being out there in the moment, and the pure satisfaction I derive from making a great picture.


  1. Very well written post. I believe that true photojournalism will maintain its standards of no manipulation at all is allowed (besides color, contrasts, etc). I read recently of someone getting his first place prize taken away of a photo of kids playing soccer in a street in eastern Europe because he removed a foot that was barely hanging in the frame. For the commercial world, of course all restrictions are lifted, but I’m happy knowing that photojournalism still has a dedication to a true truth.

  2. Yes … Keep it real.

    Your images are good enough, you don’t have to “make-up” any images. We have all “missed” the shot, that is part of the game. It is also the reason we go back out day after day … To get that shot in our head.

    I know you – of all people – can “get this shot” …

    Have fun,


  3. What I dislike is edited photos that fail at being photorealistic. The minute you edit a photo you are creating an alternate universe. If the rules in your universe don’t match up with the rules in ours then we will never truly believe that it’s real. Editing a photo is playing god, and I think that is why people have an ethical problem with it.

  4. Having run a niche stock agency for a famous adventure photographer over the course of a decade, we had the very clear dividing line on what the rules were regarding the use of his photos.

    If you were trying to show a place editorially, or doing anything photo-journalistic, you used the shot, as is, out of the camera; period. No ifs, ands, or buts.

    If on the other hand you were company doing commercial advertising, we didn’t care if you put a flock of digital penguins flying over a Kansas prairie. All was fair in love and advertising, or money and advertising as the case may be.

    In a case like yours described here, I think you’re personal ethos is probably much stronger placed or rooted in authenticity than your clients. They probably love the shot and are happy to use without a hint of disclosure, whereas for you and your own portfolio, I probably wouldn’t worry about mentioning it was a composite since it was a commercial shoot for a commercial client. Compositing images in the commercial world is simply NBD. But if asked in a public speaking engagement, I certainly wouldn’t try to hide the fact that it was a composite, and explain why as you did here. The slippery slope here (pun intended) is if your client is trying to show the mountain with an editorial level of accuracy for their advertising campaign, but opting to use composites to achieve that goal. That reflects on them and their decision-making, but you’re right to be on guard for your own level of ethos, as the potential for blow-back (though slight) still does exist.

    – Gary.

    Btw – You know…, a flock of flying penguins in this shot could really make it stand out even more. 😉

  5. Great article Corey! I agree on all counts. However, the image screams composite because the shadow of the tree is under the snow spray. A real shadow would be on top of the spray. Shadows and reflections are the bane of photo compositors.

  6. If the photographer does not edit the image it seems like the editor should receive photo credit, and even copyright rights, on an equal level or slightly lesser degree as the photographer. Thoughts?

    I’ve never seen a photo credit like this, stating both artists.

    Didn’t Ansel Adams say “exposing the film is writing sheet music, developing the film is conducting the orchestra” or something like that. In the orchestra the conductor gets a ton of attention where the editor is the man behind the curtain.

  7. gregorylent says:

    it’s all just pixels ..

    so is “reality” … just electro/chemical impulses into a mind that only sees itself

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