Seeing the Wood Through the Photoshopped Trees

You have been shooting for a while and you think you are pretty good, you have a blog, Facebook page, website. Maybe but you want more exposure, you need something to shine the light towards you. Competitions are a great way to do this, they are always going on and as long as you read the rules and the terms carefully they can be a big deal. Usually a competition is run by a company wanting to bring attention to themselves, this normally means the winner will have some media exposure after the competition. It is this attention you are wanting, along with the possible gallery show for the winning entries. Even if you don’t win your work has been seen. If the judges didn’t like it at least one might have and they may tell someone and the spotlights periphery shines on you.

This is all great, but how much do you Photoshop your images. This is now a question that needs to be asked of your work and your work flow.
With the beginning of digital photography it was no holds barred as we looked to see how far we could push to create a seminal image. Why not? The dark room was the optical magicians office.
I remember the first time after trial and error with a few tweaks to a plan I took two images and merged them together side by side on a print. The images were of four saints taken in my local church. The pairs of saints were separated by an altar, yet I was able to print them as if they were next to each other. Reality like light can be bent. In Photoshop reality cannot just be bent but twisted.

The lines are being drawn in the sand about what is a photograph and what is a photoshopped image. The lines are being drawn everywhere due to everyone having a different perception of what should be acceptable. For some it is not the adding of foreign elements or the use of graphics in an image, for others it is the removal of objects or aggressive use of lightening and darkening of an image. My dictum has been since I moved into a virtual darkroom; if I could do it in a darkroom why not in Photoshop. This has meant that I can justify creating wet emulsion look to images as this is a traditional technique that I have transposed to the computer.

The positions of the lines in the sand are becoming more relevant now as competitions are becoming stricter about the amount of use of Photoshop in an image, but why?


The lines are being drawn

The average Jane and Joe have become more sceptical about the reality of photographs as digital photography has further democratised the photographic process. They have seen how images can be made, and how Photoshop tricks can take their “normal” images and transform them into “amazing” photographs. Think Instagram filters and coffee.
Competitions don’t want to reward (sometimes with a nice sum of money) for people who are computer savvy but for people with skill. They want the competition to be about the image; the composition and lighting with the balance between light and dark and how this can help tell a story or an idea. An average image with flat tones and poorly composed will not cut it after a photoshop session.

The point about skill is contentious as Photoshop does have a steep learning curve and skill level, the more you work and understand it, the more you can creatively use it and the more skill is required to make this seen natural.
A prime example is selective colouring, a very popular a few years ago.  Create a black and white layer, apply a hide all mask, reveal in mask via painting the selected colour. The crudeness of these images was sometimes that the single colour did not work with the scene, the colouring looked to obvious and did not smoothly blend with the image.


Overly photoshopped image, but still quite nice.

The issue now for a photographer is knowing where the line is and how to see it. Competitions give vague rules for example; “not edited beyond the industry standard” but looking at the photography industry what does this mean, the same as “not heavily photoshopped”, they are ambiguous statements.  There needs to be a common consensus about what is considered too photoshopped and what is considered an acceptable amount.

The most logical way to see the line is to look at which images have crossed the line, having been disqualified.

Harry Fisch claims it was less than a second that made him win and lose the National Geographic Photo Contest 2012 in the category of Places. The email informing him of his win was a shock and just as it had sunk in the title had been stripped away. On being informed of his triumph he filled in the appropriate copyright and licensing forms and of course sent in a digital copy of his photo. It was 72 hours later that he was then informed that his image had been disqualified.

fisch winning image

Harry Fisch Winning Image

What had he done? He had removed a plastic bag on the right side of the image.

To add insult to injury if he had cropped the right side of the image the picture would have been allowed, the same as if he had burnt the bag in. National Geographic are strict with their rules and the rules state for objects not to be added or removed from the image.
On contacting Tino Soriano National Geographic photographer in Spain, Fisch was informed that the image would not be allowed in their competitions but if this image had been put on the editors desk for publishing it most likely would have been published.
Fisch looking to save his title and win, contacted the editor of National Geographic and after an anxious wait received the response;

“.. it is unfortunate you did not crop the bag or just leave it  in, as it really had no impact either way….”.

When looking at the image in the first instance I could not see the difference, it was like playing a game of “Where’s Wally”, but once I saw the bag I understood Fitch’s reason from removing the bag from the image.

fisch original

Harry Fisch Original Image

The bag interrupts the composition and the flow of the image. The focus of the image is the fire and the people standing around it. The fire lies on the convergence of the lines of third on the left and bottom of the image. The light in the image flows from the bottom right flowing to the fire where its intensity increases and then flows losing strength to the top of the image. The land to the right which includes shadow detail is used as a composition object using the contrast of this dark area guiding the eye to the light of the fire and the focus of the image.
In my opinion the removal of the bag was fine as it did not change the context or reading of the image but made the image more balanced with an overall cleaner in look.

If you are not allowed to remove objects what about lens defects, dust, or scratches. In a general cleaning of an image, as I would recommend to anyone printing an image, then should they all be disqualified as well? The bag could have been darkened but would this not have been more of a distraction when your eye saw the slight difference in that area of the image.

If the image had been cropped as the editor of National Geographic had surgested then the image would have lost its compositional strength and the image would have been weaker.

For me Fisch’s editing this was acceptable.

Stepan Rudik, Russian photojournalist had his 2010 winners title stripped after his image was disqualified from the World Press Photo contest. The image “street fighting, Kiev, Ukrane” was accused of being digitally manipulated. The manipulation was the removal of a foot in the background of the image.

stepan final

Stepsm Rudik Winning Image

For me the surprise of the decision is not that it was disqualified but the reason they gave. Stepan has been quite open in sharing the original image and saying;

“……… the original photograph, from which it is clear that I haven’t made any significant alternation nor removed any important informative detail. The photograph I submitted to the contest is a crop, and the retouched detail is the foot of a man which appears on the original photograph, but who is not a subject of the image submitted to the contest.”

The final image is about an 8th of the original image. The image has been cropped with a heavy vignette added to the image, a strong contrast black and white conversion with a heavy amount of grain. The image does have the feel of a fast ISO film that aesthetically adds to the grittiness of the image. These editing choices for the World Press Photo contest were not a problem but the removal of the foot in the background next to the thumb was.


Stepan Rudik Original Image

The removal of the foot is similarly as aesthetic as the vignette and the grain. The foot is a distraction in the image, you are not sure if this is part of the hand or some clothing. In removing it Stepan has reinforced the focus of the image. The fact that the contest was happy with the cropping and the editing it seems ridicules for them to disqualify it based on a small bit of cloning.
Cloning is an accepted practise in photojournalism according to the NPPA. This edit would have been seen as an accidental change (meaning there has been a change but it has not altered the reading and understanding of the image), opposed to essential change (where a change, changes the context reading and understanding).

Once again it seems that adding and removing artefacts from an image is the charge for disqualification, not the aggressive editing.

Tracy Woodward is another photographer who has be caught out by photoshopping and had her winning image for the “White House News Photographers Association’s “ Eyes of history” stills photo contest”” disqualified. The image was originally shot for the Washington post.


In the winning image Tracy had edited out the referee behind the celebratory wrestler. Why we cannot be sure but I think it was to have the image cleaner with less distractions. It does not appear on close inspection that she cloned out the ref, as his trousers are still visible but, darkened the ref burning him into the back ground. Such actions with national geographic would be acceptable.
The editing is not neat and is quite obvious when you spend time looking at the image, especially when we look at the top of wrestlers right arm where is a slim sliver of pink.

What is more amusing is that for the Washington Post this image being in the contest did cause a problem until it was noticed that the image was not the same as the photo originally printed by the paper. By editing the picture Woodward had breached the papers own policy. The Posts  photography director Mary Anne Golon gave the papers side of the story saying;
“Once Post editors saw that it had been altered from what had originally been published in The Post, we withdrew the photo from consideration. The Post’s ethics policy prohibits the manipulation of photographs, and we have taken action in accordance with that policy.”

WoodwardfianlThis example is much different from those before. This image in my opinion did not improve with the referee being removed due to the lack of skill. If you are going to remove it, remove it. If you are going to darken it, do it with skill in such a way that highlights the areas you want highlighted. The second difference is that her actions went against her own employer’s policy.

Finally and most recently David Byrne had his title of Landscape Photographer of the year 2012 stripped. The contest run by Epson, The Daily Telegraph magazine and the National Theatre is one of the most prestigious contests in the UK. David Byrne apart from having his title removed has had to give back the £10,000 prize money.

The image was questioned by other photographers, about the amount of photoshopping to the image after pointing out that the clouds had been added to the image as well as aggressive dodging and burning to the image. Byrne defended himself by saying;
‘The purists out there were not happy. Messing about with pictures has been done for over 100 years. I treat my photography as art and I try to make the best looking picture.’

Lindisfarne Boats David Byrne

David Byrne Winning Image

Byrne’s argument is one that harks back to the old favourite, what is photography? How far is too far? We can justify removing a bag from a landscape but what about enhancing the sky or adding a different sky to make the image more dramatic?
The point is, where do we stop? I will not argue that in the history of photography manipulation did not happen and that it is part of history, many people will jump using Ansel Adams as a reference.
Is there not a point when a photograph is no longer a photo, and something else?

It is these lines in the sand that Byrne himself has drawn for himself, which cause the confusion. Though he does state at the end he tries to make the best looking image. Could not some of this have been done in camera, like using a gradient filter to darken the sky and a reflector and off camera flash to light the boats. Would this have been seen as acceptable to his detractors?

For me Brynes image was heavily edited and for me beyond what I find acceptable but his skill blending the image together is artistic.

With every competition come the judges.

The judges being the supposed experts saying what is good and what is not. It feels that the rules for these contests are applied to images retrospectively, when they ask for the original images or others who are looking at the images pointing out the issues with an image. For me it is the judges and the rules that need changing. In making the rules clearer about what is and what is not acceptable would mean that those who enter images will have a better understanding of what is expected. I also believe that the original capture Jpg  or Raw should be included so that if the judges do have concerns they can see how much an image has been worked on. This will not curb the sometimes excessive use of Photoshop but it would give a level playing field and realistic expectations of an image in a competition.

It has been said that making these changes to images is like an athlete doping. I don’t believe so, photography is an art form and in being so it is a contentious place for debate, one persons view maybe HDR is not photography and is overly manipulated, whereas another’s maybe you should minimally touch up an image. But these discussions are so volatile because of a dogmatic position taken.

Avedon’s instructions to his printer. He may not have had Photoshop but the darkroom was a magicians room

Avedon’s instructions to his printer. He may not have had Photoshop but the darkroom was a magicians room

Byrne mentioned purist. This is being thrown around as a negative term for a person who creates a pure image. I am sure these are the same people who will say if you don’t have the latest kit you’re not a photographer. If they were purist they can sit in their camera obscures asking people to join them. Pure photography! For pure photography seems like a hipster fashion statement that has come from the old arguments about digital and film.

In my opinion Frisch’s images did not cross the line and neither did Stepan’s.
Woodward was just sloppy and I think if she had spoken to the post about the editing before submitting the image there may have been a different outcome.
In Bryne’s case I am torn between outright condemning him and defending him. The image is a composite of at least two images and the competition did have a category called “Your View” that allows more manipulation to an image, I feel he would have been safe.

Where is the line? It appears that the main problem is that people have removed objects from images which translates to the line being crossed. It appears that the adding and removal of objects is where you should stop. But it appears that all other toning methods are acceptable; vignettes, dodging and burning, desaturation, saturation boosts even grain is acceptable.

Tenement Buildings at Port Glasgow,Invercycle by Simon Butterworth

Tenement Buildings at Port Glasgow,Invercycle by Simon Butterworth

The winner of the Landscape of the Year after Byrnes disqualification was named as Simon Butterworth. From looking at his image it can be said it reinfoces what i have already mentioned above.

The image is slightly desaturated leaving a metalic tone to the colours. I will say that element would had to be have been lightened. Although there is no vignette and grain in the image if it was added then I am sure the image would still have been eligible to win.

This is still not a consensus though and that is what is needed, a guide that the majority of photographers will agree with that does not choke the possibilities for future digital editing steps.

So how do you make sure your image will win a competition and not get knocked back after winning?

Read the competition rules carefully. What can you do and what can’t you do and then read between the lines. Look at the winners before and think about their possible editing process. Find their line in the sand and then take a step back. Think of creative ways of using dodging and burning and the crop tool.

In the end enter the competition and good luck.

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11 thoughts on “Seeing the Wood Through the Photoshopped Trees

  1. Wow, this is a big topic. I use Tony Kuyper’s luminosity masks, I occasionally use the patch tool and also stack images. I really can’t get excited about removing a paper bag. Adding clouds would be a no no for me but I would add contrast to emphasise the sky as much as possible. What about going from colour to B&W? I’m glad I’m neither a judge nor a contestant.

    • Andrew you raise a good point what about going from colour to black and white.

      This used to be a topic i would discuss when digital was the way to go. I loved black and white film and would argue that you could not create a true black and white image from a colour digital capture. I still believe this, but I do it and this is a huge change in the image and can change the perception of the image.

      More food for thought

      Stacked images and layers are the norm in digital photography but would it be allowed?

  2. So much of the hoopla surround this topic seems very trite to me because, as you mentioned, most all of it can and has been done in the darkroom! Good post.

    • I think the perception of the darkroom is lost because it seems so much easier than before. I remember first shooting black and white and reading journals and drawing editing diagrams to go with my notes for each image in case i needed to do a reprint.

      I think that the main dispute is defining a digital photograph and a digital art picture. With the art picture seemingly being an image created by multiple images. Is photography something created in the lens or in the computer? Then we go back to the darkroom history again.

  3. How about a sedative – huge topic that looks as if there is no resolution as each contest has its own “set of rules” and Judges… don’t get me started….

    • There is no end in sight but if the conversation can begin maybe there is someway of begining to see a solution. Also Judges………. well i think we feel the same.

  4. Great post! I was directed here via a link in a comment on another blog (sorry – I can’t remember who). As Ideflex says, this is a huge topic and one of constant debate. What we do for ourselves is one thing but what we do for competitions is entirely another. As you say, read the rues carefully! I also go by how I feel – after all, we all know if we’re ‘cheating’ or pushing the boundaries, in all aspects of life. If it feels ‘naughty’ then don’t risk it unless you’re happy to be disqualified!

    • It is quite a personal thing Noeline of how much we manipulate our images. I have partitions for those images that are photography, those that are more photographic art and those that are more digital art. The boundaries do merge from one to the other.

      Like you I think people know when they have gone too far and if you are entering a competition you need to follow their rules.

      The issue is that these rules are so vague that it is hard to know if you are following the rules or not. Removing a piece of rubbish is classed as breaking the rules but changing the hue or saturation, contrast, ect is fine, distorting what was there. One of my favorite images I have ever edited is a fake, as I pushed the hue of the sunset from a pink to a purple but it seems that would have been fine.

      I feel that competition rules need to be clearer for photographers to know where the boundaries are.

      Noeline, what do you think acceptable editing boundaries should be in competitions?
      Thanks for commenting and I hope to see you again on Aperture64

  5. I do feel for David Byrne and think he was treated harshly. It was mean of the other photographers to complain. In my opinion all of the photographs in that competition have been manipulated beyond mere representation of the view. I suggest in this competititon entrants have to shoot Jpeg and submit the image without any alteration.

    • Embee, that is an interesting idea to just shoot Jpeg and submit the images for the contest. I think it would thin the field because people could not hide behind the manipulation and very talented individuals will shine.

      I didn’t mention in the post that there was a systematic tearing apart of David’s image by one blogger in particular (who is not on wordpress) who kept up dating his post with more evidence of the images manipulation. I am ashamed to think that as photographers if we don’t win, we will condemn the image as a fake.
      Then again for his category David had broken the competition rules and there was another category for heavily manipulated images. Should he have read the rules more carefully and submitted an image that would have met the criteria?

      As you have said all photographers in the competition manipulated the images beyond mere representation of a view. Is there a point when bending reality within digital photography, splinters into fiction? Is this splintering happening even before we load the images into Photoshop?

      Thanks for the comment and the continuation of the debate.

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