Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Ethics of Digital Photography

This is my last post from last session's ENG1010 Composition and Language class. If you see any mistakes, be sure to point them out to me so that I can learn and correct them for future readers.

Ever since the advent of digital photography, people have been claiming that digital photographers should be bound by a tighter set of ethics than traditional film photographers. The reasoning behind the call for stricter guidelines is based simply on the media. The perception is that digital media allows for a wider variety of manipulations in much less time than film in the darkroom hence it should be controlled. Do the unique qualities of digital photography warrant a change in the rules? Should digital photographers be held to a more stringent set of ethics?

So what exactly are 'ethics'? Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines ethics as "the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation" ("ethic"). The ethics of photography are situational. The ethics are weighed against the context of the situation. Photojournalists should be held to the highest standards while artists should have little to no restrictions. Every other type of photographer falls somewhere in between.

The media are as different as their editing environments but the same ethical questions arise in both film and digital photography. Should photographs that are destined to be used for journalism, documentaries, or contests be modified? What types of changes should or should not be made? How much post-processing is too much? While it is often easier and less time consuming to edit digital images than it is to make film manipulations in the darkroom, the same
types of manipulations can be made to both media and therefore, the ethics of digital photography should be the same as those for film photography.

The ethics of digital photography begins at the camera. "The fundamental fact that we usually forget is that when we take a picture we do not make a perfectly object recording of reality. What we make is an interpretation of reality" (Lodriguss). Cameras capture a different version of reality than we see with the naked eye. Lenses introduce alterations: the perspective is shifted, objects can appear closer together or further apart, and other distortions can appear. Apertures introduce changes in focus: small apertures give larger areas of focus while larger apertures result in smaller depth of field. Shutter speed can freeze time or exaggerate how long an event lasted (Henshall). Film introduces grain and digital sensors introduce noise both of which limit the detail that can be made out in the final picture. All photographs are altered versions of reality as soon as they are taken, no matter how careful the photographer has been in capturing the image. The ethics of using a camera for its intended purpose, to capture a moment in time, has not being called into question so why should digital photography have this stigma about it?

A posed photograph is an altered version of reality before the shutter is ever activated. Does that mean that photographers, who position the subjects of their photos, are unethical? Perhaps or perhaps not, the ethics of staged photos depends entirely on the context in which they were taken. A staged photograph that is purportedly of a newsworthy event destined for the newspaper is unethical while one for a family portrait is not. The authenticity and ethics of Robert Capa's "Falling Soldier" (above) from 1936 is still being debated because it is unclear whether or not it was staged (Marsh).

Paul Burwell points out that, "Photo manipulation has been happening since the medium was invented in the 1800's. One of the most famous images of US President Lincoln is actually a composite of Lincoln's head pasted onto John Calhoun's body". Was this an ethical edit? That all depends on what purpose the photograph was intended to serve. Photographers who get images of someone as they are killed or right before have to be at the right place at the right (wrong) time or collaborate with the person or people responsible for the death. Eddie Adams took such a photo during

the Vietnam war when a Vietcong suspect was executed by a South Vietnamese police officer (above). The Vietcong suspect would not have been executed had Adams and the other journalists not been there. Farah Abdi Warsameh, an AP photographer, captured another similar situation in Somalia when a man who had committed adultery was stoned by a group of Islamist insurgents. Had Warsameh not been the adulterer would still have been stoned but he had to have collaborated with the insurgents. Were these photographs ethical? Yes and no. They both captured the reality of the moment while still being staged (O'Hagan).

It is generally accepted that basic changes for exposure and white balance can be made. Where does the line get drawn though? At what point is it enough? For photojournalists, forensic photographers, documentary photographers and anyone else required to express the truth, the editorial content must be preserved in order for it to be considered "fair and accurate reporting" (NPPA). This means that photos intended for these uses cannot be altered in a way that changes what is being represented. Nothing should be added or taken away from the photo. Cropping should be used sparingly, if at all, as it can alter the content.

Portrait photographers typically limit the scope of their edits. For the most part, people want to be portrayed truthfully. They do not mind having temporary blemishes removed; however, people want to keep their scars, birth marks, moles and yes, even wrinkles because they are a part of their persona. Would it be ethically wrong to remove those features? No, it is not a question of ethics but one of business, knowing what your clients will find acceptable. Now digitally compositing photographs to put people into compromising positions is another story altogether. That is bad business as well as bad ethics.

As Sandra Gavard points out, regardless of the media in which they are represented (magazines, TV, internet, etc), models are manipulated after a photo shoot, "picture editors and art directors casually manipulate skin tone, eradicate wrinkles and blemishes, change eye color, scrape off excesses fat, and erase even basically human characteristics such as pores or bags under the eyes. Today, after a photo shoot, fashion photographers often retire to their computers and rearrange their pictures. Faces can become wrinkle free, hair more lustrous, irises more brilliant, eye whites whiter. Eyes may move, ears may shrink, mouths may widen, and necks and legs may lengthen. Models might find that they have miraculously lost weight in various places... and gained it in others. Electronic surgery is far cheaper, quicker, and less painful than the real thing." These editors and directors see their work as art but the problem is that the public generally see it as reality. "Although the editors claim that there is a clear difference between a photograph and a photo-illustration, it is apparently still doubtful that the difference is that obvious for the lay public" (Gavard).

Photographers working in most of the other specialties usually have no qualms about altering the reality in their photographs. Their work is considered art and can safely exist outside of reality and ethics. Each photographer has their own set of rules that they follow. Scott Kelby, Photoshop guru and president of NAPP, will remove elements of a photo, duplicate elements of a photo but will not add anything to it. He has no qualms about changing the colors of elements in a photo to make it look better. He will take multiple photos of a scene exposing for foreground in one and sky in another so that they can be combined. He wants to make people "look as good in print ... as they do when I met them in person" even if that means using "each and every Photoshop retouching trick" (Kelby). Ansel Adams, a photographer renowned for his black and white landscape photography, was not opposed to removing things from his photos such as the clouds in Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941 or even the big white "LP" from Winter Sunrise, The Sierra Nevada From Lone Pine, California. Brower recalls the event, "I remember the print of Lone Pine on Adams's table. I have a vague recollection that the photographer was less than proud of having excised the "LP." My father recalls otherwise -- that Adams simply thought the town's initials messed up his picture and he wanted them out of there."

It does not matter if the pictures were captured on film, CompactFlash (CF), Secure Digital (SD) card or other digital capture device. It does not matter that it is quicker or easier to edit photographs digitally. What does matter is that each situation is bound by the intent and usage of the photograph being taken. An image for use in a newspaper story should convey the truth of the scene. A portrait destined for use in a biography should express how the subject looked when seen in person. A photograph of an animal in the wild that will appear in a nature documentary should show the reality of the situation being captured. Artists will be artists; they will do whatever it takes to show their own version of reality.

None of the situations change based on how the images are captured nor do they change based on whether the photographs are developed in a darkroom or on a computer. The unique qualities of digital photography do not warrant a change in the rules. Digital photographers should not be bound to a more restrictive set of ethics. The ethics and ethical situations are exactly the same for digital and film photography.

Works Cited

Brower, Kenneth. "Photography in the Age of Falsification." The Atlantic Online. The Atlantic Monthly Group, May 1998. Web. 27 Mar. 2010. <>.

Burwell, Paul. "The Ethics of Digital Photo Manipulation." WildShots. WildShots, 12 Aug. 2009. Web. 20 Mar. 2010. <>.

"ethics." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster Online, 2010. Web. 24 Mar. 2010. <>.

Gavard, Sandra. "Maybe She's Born With It... Maybe It's Photoshop: Image Manipulation and the Simulation of Women." 100dr4. Sandra Gavard, 1997. Web. 27 Mar. 2010. <>.

Henshall, John. "Beware False Reality." Electronic Photo-Imaging at the EPIcenter. EPIcentre, 1998. Web. 22 Mar. 2010. <>.

Kelby, Scott. "My Photo Editing "Code of Ethics"." Scott Kelby's Photoshop Insider. Kelby Media Group, 29 Oct 2007. Web. 21 Mar 2010. <>.

Lodriguss, Jerry. "The Ethics of Digital Manipulation." Catching the Light. Jerry Lodriguss, n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2010. <>.

Marsh, Bill. "Faked Photographs: Look, and Then Look Again." The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 30 Aug. 2009. Web. 23 Mar. 2010. <>.

NPPA Board of Directors. "Digital Manipulation Code of Ethics." National Press Photographers Association. NPPA, 1991. Web. 27 Mar. 2010. <>.

O'Hagan, Sean. "Viewer or Voyeur? The Morality of Reportage Photography." Guardian News and Media Limited, 8 Mar. 2010. Web. 23 Mar. 2010. <>.

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I'm still playing catch up. Here is another essay that I wrote for ENG1010 Composition and Language this last session. If you see any mistakes, be sure to point them out to me so that I can learn and correct them for future readers.

Knowing how to balance the three elements of exposure is one of the challenges that a new photographer has to overcome. The ISO number is a guide for how sensitive film or digital sensors is to light. The aperture is simply a means of controlling the amount of light coming in through the lens. The shutter speed is the length of time that the shutter is held open. By varying the ISO number, aperture and shutter speed, photographers can dial in the perfect exposure but each control has side effects to be aware of and use creatively. "The term "stop" in photography refers to a change in illumination, whether the shutter speed or the aperture is changed to achieve it" (London et al. 18).

ISO can vary from as low as 50 to well into the tens of thousands with today's high-end digital SLRs. "The higher the ISO number, the less light is required to produce an image" (London et al. 82). What London, Stone and Upton neglected to point out is that each increase in ISO is one stop faster; e.g. ISO 100 is one stop faster than ISO 200. Rowse says that "ISO 100 is generally accepted as 'normal'" but many digital cameras start out at ISO 200 ("ISO Settings in Digital Photography" 2).

The higher the ISO number, the grainier the images will appear when using film. ISO 800 film is the highest that does not suffer from unreasonable amounts of grain. When using digital, a higher ISO results in more noise in the digital image. As digital camera sensors improve, the maximum ISO number continues to increase. The latest offering from Nikon, the D3S, has a normal ISO range of 200 to 12800 but through digital processing, the ISO range can be extended by one stop at the low end to 100 and three stops at the high end to 102400 (Nikon Corp.).

Aperture, or f-stop, is a rating for the amount of light that the lens will allow in when the shutter is opened. Aperture is not a fixed size, it varies from lens to lens based on the focal length. Regardless of the focal length, the same f-stop will allow in an equal measure of light. "Stopping down" refers to decreasing the size of the aperture. Each stop down in size (up in number) lets in half as much light as the one before it so an f/8 allows twice as much light as an f/5.6 but half as much light as an f/11 (London et al. 24-25).

The aperture, at any given focal length, determines the size of the depth of field or the range where objects in the frame are in focus. Larger apertures result in shallower depths of field whereas smaller apertures result in deeper depths of field; e.g. a 50mm focal length lens at f/1.8 would have rather shallow depth of field while at f/22, the depth of field would extend to infinity.

"Adjusting the length of time the shutter remains open controls the amount of light that reaches the light-sensitive material, " according to London, Stone and Upton (18). Shutter speed is measured in seconds or fractions of a second. According to Rowse, each setting approximately doubles the shutter speed ("Introduction to Shutter Speed in Digital Photography" 1). Each decrease in shutter speed results in twice as much light hitting the film or sensor or one stop so decreasing from 1/15th to 1/30th gives an extra stop of light.

Shutter speed can be used both to show and freeze motion. Slow shutter speeds will show or even exaggerate movement. Fast shutter speeds will stop time for all eternity (or at least the lifecycle of the image). At a speed of 1/30th of a second, an image of a car driving down the road would be a streak with wheels. At 1/500th or faster an Indy car in motion will look like it is standing still.

The intended effect (grain/noise, motion, depth of field) steers the initial decision but adjustments in one value require an equal adjustments in the other two values. This knowledge is the key to the perfect exposure. Exposure is the result of ISO, aperture and shutter speed working together to control the amount of light that hits a piece of film or a digital sensor when a photograph is taken.

Works Cited

London, Barbara, Jim Stone and John Upton. Photography. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2008. Print.

Nikon Corporation. D3S | D3X - Exceptional Image Quality. Nikon Corp., n.d. Web. 17 Mar 2010. <>.

Rowse, Darren. "Introduction to Shutter Speed in Digital Photography." Digital Photography
School. Digital Photography School, n.d. Web. 15 Mar 2010. <>.

---. "ISO Settings in Digital Photography." Digital Photography School. Digital Photography School, n.d. Web. 15 Mar 2010. <>.

JPEG Versus Raw

I'm trying to play catch up. Here is something that I wrote for ENG1010 Composition and Language this last session. If you see any mistakes, be sure to point them out to me so that I can learn and correct them for future readers. By the way, I gave up on trying to get the MLA format citations to render properly in the browser.

All photographers will eventually reach the point where they ask whether to shoot in JPEG or Raw format. There is no right or wrong answer to this question. Every photographer will need to weigh the pros and cons for both file formats before coming to their own conclusion. The JPEG versus Raw debate is one that has been around for as long as digital SLRs and will probably continue for many years to come.

The JPEG file format was designed with image distribution in mind and it follows a well defined standard. The generated files store 24 bits per pixel. That translates into a capacity for storing 16 million (2^24 or 16,777,216) colors. The files store 8 bits per color channel and this equates to only 256 (2^8) brightness levels. To put it into photography terms, every bit of information in the image gives an extra stop of dynamic range. The maximum dynamic range could of JPEGs can be described as 8 stops.

There is no single Raw file format but each of the file formats was designed for image capture. Every camera vendor has their own proprietary file format for each camera that they make and each file format has a specific bit depth. The generated files store 36, 42, or 48 bits per pixel which means that they are capable of storing 68 billion (2^36 or 68,719,476,736), 4.3 trillion (2^42 or 4,398,046,511,104) or 281 trillion (2^48 or 281,474,976,710,656) colors. The files store 12, 14 or 16 bits per color channel which provides for 4,096 (2^12), 16,384 (2^14) or 65,536 (2^16) brightness levels. The maximum dynamic range of Raw files can be described as 12, 14 or 16 stops, as much as twice the dynamic range available in JPEG files!

When a camera produces a JPEG file, it does so from the raw sensor data but only after it has performed some post-processing on the image. Typically the camera will apply the selected white balance, adjust the contrast and color saturation, apply an unsharpen mask and the selected color space (typically sRGB or Adobe 1998). The final step prior to saving it on disk is to compress the image. JPEG compression is not lossless, data will be lost. Cameras usually store a small amount of metadata in the JPEG files such as the date and time the photo was taken but not what camera settings were used. The file size of JPEGs is much smaller than the Raw file of the same image from the same camera which also means that JPEG files do not take as long to save to disk.

When a camera produces a Raw file, it does no post-processing; it simply dumps the unmodified sensor data. The camera settings, such as aperture, exposure time, and focal length, along with a JPEG version of the image will be stored with the rest of the metadata in the final Raw file. The image files may or may not be compressed. All of the compressed Raw file formats use a lossless compression scheme so no data will be lost during the compression phase. Raw files are larger than JPEGs so they take longer to write to disk.

JPEG files are usable in virtually every image viewer and image manipulation software available. They can be used straight out of camera (sometimes abbreviated as OOC or SOOC), if desired, because the camera has already performed the post-processing. JPEGs can be further post-processed; however, there are limitations. The image is a subset of its original form so color space changes may not be as accurate as they are with Raw files. Over- and under-exposed images can only be repaired to a small degree. Also, any time that a JPEG is saved with compression, it will further degrade.

Raw files are only recognized by a small subset of the available image manipulation and viewing software so the files require conversion before they can be used. It is quite common for them to require changes to white balance, exposure, brightness and contrast. Color space changes are often able to be made flawlessly due to the sheer number of available colors in the images. Severely over- or under-exposed images can be restored with great success. The only limitations in the post-processing exist in the software used for the post-processing and the imagination of the person performing the edits.

Ultimately, the decision of which file format is best will depend upon the needs and wants of the individual photographer, but the decision must be based on many factors such as how the image will be distributed, what level of post-processing will be done and the final purpose of the image. Again, there is no right or wrong answer to this question and the decision will need to be made for every photo shoot.

Works Cited

Goldstein, Jim. "RAW vs JPEG: Is Shooting RAW Format for Me?." JMG Galleries. JMG Galleries, Web. 7 Mar 2010. <>.

Reichmann, Michael. "Understanding Raw Files." Luminous Landscape. Web. 7 Mar 2010. <>.