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Julie Barrett is a freelance writer and photographer based in Plano, TX.

A picture discussion

Fresh (almost) daily from Julie Barrett


Instead of a picture today, I'm going to talk a little about photography. Is what you see what you get?

(A quick aside: The wind has kicked up this afternoon, which makes outdoor photography a real bummer - at least in my back yard.)

Perhaps you've read about the latest kerfuffle over photographs taken by a freelancer for Reuters. Even most people untrained in photography or digital imaging can tell that the top photograph on that page has been altered. Now see this story about a US newspaper photographer who was fired after he adusted a photo for publication.

Where do you draw the line? I freely admit that I don't do any work under combat conditions, or even around crime or fire scenes. I have taken pictures for publication and my regular readers (bless both of you) have been subjected to a steady stream of my own work.

The question in my mind is, is it EVER okay to manipulate and image? If so, how much and under what conditions?

It's pretty much a given that virtually all food, fashion and portrait photography is touched up in some way. I give kudos to Tyra Banks for requesting that fashion editors rely on styling and makeup rather than photo manipulation for her shoots. But let's face it, you probably wouldn't mind the photographer removing a zit (or in the case of my son's graduation picture approximately 12,000) because a zit is a fleeting thing. You probably wouldn't mind if a piece of dust was removed from your coat. Again, that's not an adjustment that alters your features. Wrinkles are routinely smoothed and skin imperfections are almost always brushed away. You KNOW that fast food burger doesn't look a thing like the ad. It's something we've learned to accept.

When it comes to photojournalism, however, we expect more of a dose of reality.

I've got news for you: Most pictures you see in the newspaper - and have seen since you were a kid have been manipulated to some extent. There are several very practical reasons for this:

* The film (or CCD sensor) in a camera is nowhere close to registering what your eye sees. Your eye is always making tiny adjustments and your brain abets in compensation. This is especially true for what you see under adverse conditions. This is why that snapshot you took of someone blowing out birthday candles looks nothing like what your brain processed. Photographers routinely use filters to "fool" the film into thinking the light is what you see. Does tungsten light always turn out more yellow in your pictures? There's a fiter to correct that. Do you see detail on a sunny day that shows up as washed out in your pictures? Yep, there's a filter for that as well. Sometimes (in the case of film) a bad batch of developer might put a color cast on the film. The proper filters in the enlarger can correct that. They can also correct those yellow lights to an extent.

Photogaphers have done this for years. Photo manipulations to make a picture look more as the human eye would have registered the scene are commonplace. Sometimes a photographer gets lucky, but more often than not some manipulation is needed to make a picture look "right." Unless the photographer is going for an effect, a picture should be rich in detail because that's what our eyes see.

* Pictures get cropped. Sometimes it's for space, sometimes it's for effect. Cropping is always an editorial choice. But do you know if the picture was cropped to get rid of clutter that would draw your eye from the subject, or to hide something? This is where you have to trust the publication to do the right thing (or not).

* Photographers are always making judgments on what makes a good photograph. As in all matters of taste, what one person thinks is good may make another shrug their shoulders with indifference. A competent photographer will shoot from as many angles as possible using different settings. Sometimes it's just a matter of luck: One of my favorite newspaper pictures ever (and drat, I can't find a copy online) was taken by a Dallas Morning News photographer back in the Bush I administration. President and Mrs. Bush were at Fair Park in Dallas. She had just sliced through a cake with a sword (why a sword, I don't remember), and was startled by a jet plane flying low overhead. A photographer just happened to snap his shutter as she winced and raised the sword, which was dripping with red frosting. It was a great shot, and I believe it won a Pulitzer Prize.

So there is acceptable photo manipulation. The big difference between now and the "old days" is that we have software to simplify the process. And with new tools come new ethical dilemmas.

Is it okay to remove a distracting element from a picture? I'm not talking about removing the ex-boyfriend, though I could certainly understand the temptation. What happens if it's windy and a few blowing leaves mar an otherwise good picture? What if the wind deposits a piece of dust on the lens? Is it okay to remove an unfortunately placed object? We've all taken pictures where it looks like a tree or some other object is growing out of the subject's head. To me, this is a very gray area. It's one thing if it's a staged picture (six guys posing with their awards kind of thing), but quite another for candid photography. Any news photo that undergoes artistic manipulation should be labeled, IMO.

In these days of easy photo manipulation, perhaps the ethical thing to do for news photography would be for the photographer to provide the editor with both altered and original versions of the same photograph or have the editor in on the adjustment process. A publication could even make the originals available online should they wish. This doesn't help the other accusations of staged war photographs, but a little transparency is always a good thing.

Perhaps tomorrow I'll show some before and after pictures of a few of my photos and let you be the editor. If I'm going to talk about this it's only fair.

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Filed under: Photography               
8/9/2006 4:38:52 PM
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