The Integrity of the Image

With the continuing debate over the disqualification of around 20% of the entries that reached the later stages of World Press Photo for excessive manipulation I think it is well worth reading the WPP’s Photo Research Project ‘The Integrity of the Image‘ by Dr David Campbell.

It’s a subject I’ve written about myself on various occasions, and tried to do so from the perspective of a working photographer, someone who does their own image processing in Lightroom and Photoshop.

I’ve always felt it’s basically a straightforward issue. The key concepts are integrity and intention, and my view can be summed up very briefly:

Correction – Fine; Emphasis – within limits; Alteration – Never.

Of course its a statement that requires interpretation, and back in 2010 I published my views on what was and wasn’t acceptable when processing an image. I think it bears repetition (with some minor changes and additions to clarify) :

Always appropriate (as necessary)

  • dust removal (scratch etc removal from film
  • level correction
  • colour temperature correction
  • exposure correction
  • brightness correction
  • minor contrast correction
  • marginal cropping
  • image rotation
  • highlight removal
  • image resizing
  • image sharpening
  • lens distortion and aberration correction
  • image noise reduction
  • Vignetting reduction/removal

Often appropriate (within limits)

  • Curve adjustment
  • Local dodging
  • Local burning
  • flare removal
  • local contrast adjustment
  • perspective correction
  • saturation / vibrancy adjustment (including conversion to black and white)

Sometimes appropriate

  • Deliberate blurring/pixellation of detail (eg where necessary to hide identity)

Seldom appropriate

  • radical cropping
  • excessive vignetting
  • colour toning
  • graphic effects

Never appropriate

  • Content sensitive fill
  • Removal or addition of important image elements

Of course many of these require judgement as to what level of use is allowable. While it may be appropriate to emphasize some elements of an image and de-emphasize others, dodging or burning certainly shouldn’t eliminate them.

Some photographers attempt to justify excessive manipulation (or colour casts etc) by saying that it was how they saw the image when they made it; its seldom an argument that convinces me; images have to be believable to the audience, and the techniques we use appropriate to the purpose.

One aspect I’m pleased to see included in Campbell’s report, in his list he describes as a  ‘general consensus’:

  • Photos cannot be staged, posed or re-enacted.

As the report states:

“This consensus applies most directly to news and documentary images. Our respondents noted that they generally regarded nature and sports images in the same way as news and documentary images. Fashion and staged portraits were a different matter altogether. In those genres, there were no policies, and in fashion especially the prevailing attitude was that anything goes and all is permitted.”

I’m all in favour of keeping ‘news’ news, of keeping sports real and stuffed squirrels out of nature photography.

4 Responses to “The Integrity of the Image”

  1. ChrisL says:

    My goodness doesn’t it take some time to get there? I really wanted just the abstract.
    I did loose a lot of confidence when on page 8 he states: “The only on camera settings that have an effect on the captured pixels” (and I assume he means the output from them not them literally) “are the ISO speed, the shutter speed and the aperture setting.”
    So the white balance setting which although manipulatable later is carried over as are lens corrections, user accessible Exif fields and the bit depth of the saved RAW all set in camera, and no doubt others, don’t count? These days RAW is very far from raw.
    So it takes us 20 pages to be told the difference between minor and excessive changes is open to interpretation and comparisons to darkroom manipulation, which I have not read as being invoked as a justification for a long time are not valid.
    As ever the link is appreciated but Pseud’s corner may have been more appropriate.

  2. I think he is right about white balance (though I have doubts about some other things) as I don’t think the WB setting alters the actual byte values. Bit depth (as you say) and compression do alter these, but although cameras may do various other processing to the raw data I think the user control only actually extends to the conversion to jpegs. In raw files things like WB, sharpening etc are I think just metadata.

    But certainly I agree the report shares the usual failings of the academic approach in saying very little at great length and obscuring rather than illuminating the issues. However it does show the thinking that lies behind the WPP decisions – and the point I bring out at the end of my piece I think shows an important change in their thinking since the Paolo Pellegrin Rochester photo story controversy i n 2013. I think they would now come to a different conclusion.

    I think the analogy of the darkroom is still a very useful one, at least for those of us who grew up in the darkroom. There was a certain intransigence about silver printing which made it difficult to stray to far from the straight and narrow – and made it fairly clear when you were doing so. If it takes a bottle of whisky and most of the night it’s wrong, even if you are Gene Smith.

    But the reason I wrote my list in 2010 that I rehashed above was that for many the darkroom was now meaningless. Their darkroom was Photoshop which has few if any inbuilt restrictions.

  3. ChrisL says:

    Indeed they, WPP, do appear to have caught up with what most responsible photographers and agencies knew, that some manipulation was too far for photojournalism.
    Could there be case for a Photoshop/Lightroom that limits the type and degree of adjustments possible that forensically, which I found the most interesting part of the paper, could be proved to be used and be mandatory?
    And yes some settings are in metadata and not accessible, all part of the digital black magic.

    • I have a feeling that in the end it comes down to human judgement rather than a technical fix. And given the range of conditions we work in some pretty extreme adjustments are sometimes necessary. I’ve just been using some to minimise the effects of water droplets on the front element and condensation inside the lens.

      I think by default that Lightroom writes an audit trail into the metadata when it outputs a jpeg, recording all the manipulations – I know that I had a problem with image sizes for the web until I got a plugin to strip it out. Certainly it gets written into the XMP files that I now save along with my raw files.

      Film of course had its own black magic, largely hardcoded into the spectral responses of the different dyes used and the other secrets of emulsion technology. Digital is I think far more transparent in that respect.

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