Ethics Follow-up

A quick follow-up to my earlier post on Ethics, in which I suggested that the viewer's response to a picture is invariably changed by knowing that an image was faked in some way. Consider, then, the case of the overall winner of last year's BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in the UK, arguably the biggest and most prestigious of its kind in the world.

The winning picture - chosen from tens of thousands of entries - was of an endangered Iberian wolf, jumping over a fence at dusk. Because of the rarity of the animal, the action in the picture and the perfect pose and lighting, it was an easy choice in the view of the judges. The photographer was awarded a £10,000 prize.

Only later did it come out that the animal was a well-known captive wolf "model", baited in with food, and the photo taken in a game farm.


This is a perfect example of how a picture's "value" is directly tied to its authenticity. If, as the photographer argued, this animal was wild, and taken only with great patience and waiting - it would have been breath-taking. But once the facts became known, the same picture is diminished to being a fancy studio shot - a catchy, but forgettable, setup.  It is also a visual lie, and another blow to the "magic" of photography. Sad.

Oh yes, he had to return the £10,000 prize.


    I went to the web page and am glad that the photographer was banned from future competition. I believe this person should be questioned about any other submissions for any other competitions entered anywhere.

    I hope the competition’s sponsors were able to get the prize money back.

    I disagree completely. I saw that picture. It was mediocre at best. The rare-ness of the animal does not make the photograph any better. If this had been a poodle jumping over the fence would the **photograph** not be as good? It’s a photography competition, not a rare-animal competition. That’s like saying a wedding photograph isn’t as good because the bride is ugly.

    Now, I will agree that he violated the rules and should be disqualified from the contest. My beef is with the rules themselves.

    MM – You have a valid point: does a picture of a rare animal — or one that has never been photographed before — get special consideration over images of more commonplace animals that are technically or aesthetically superior? Certainly when I was a judge, the rarity of the image was a factor, although not an important enough one to raise a lousy picture to winning status. I was not a judge in the case of the wolf, but I saw it printed large and full-frame (which it is not in the link I provided). It was stunning. It was also submitted to the “Endangered Species” category and was only later elevated to be the winning picture overall, so yes – the fact that it was an endangered animal, never photographed well, was indeed a factor: intentionally so.
    But I still take your point. In their defense, judges in competitions like this must judge hundreds of thousands of images. Typically they see hundreds of technically-perfect shots of the usual: bears catching salmon, snow geese in aerial masses, and misty shots of El Capitan. So here’s the question: should nice shots of commonly-photographed subjects, in some cases exact copies of those taken by other photographers be judged the same as something that has never been photographed before? It’s an open question.
    Thanks for your comments.

    I agree with MM…I’m a total beginner photographer and could and have taken better images than the jumping wolf. Even if rare, the judges should also judge on the composition and technical merits of the photo too.

    Hi Kathy,
    I appreciate your comments. One thing about photo competitions, though : few people ever agree with the judges’ choices! Anyone who has ever submitted to a photo-competition probably know this all too well… However, though this was not the point I was trying to make with this post – which was about honesty and ethics – the issues around judging, and the criteria that goes into it, are absolutely worth discussing. As I mentioned to MM, however, this picture was submitted in the “Endangered Species” category of the competition – the WPY competition rules are such that the overall winner is selected among the best of the category winners.

    Hi all,

    If you want to see the winners of this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition go here WPY

    See if the winners are your favorites or if, as is often the case, you think there are better pictures that were overlooked. Welcome to the world of photo contests!


    As a photojournalist, I am required to work by a specific set of ethical standards and I take those same standards with me when I do outdoor photography (it’s more therapy than work – landscapes don’t yell obscenities at you and you don’t have to chase down a bird for its name).

    Many photogs in my field have been fired for altering and digitally manipulating their images past that line of ethical acceptance. However, I have not seen the same standard applied in the outdoor photo world.

    One of my biggest ethical curiosities, and maybe you can weigh in on this, is the new surge of HDR imaging. To me, it just doesn’t seem ethical and I refrain from using the process.

    I’ve done a lot of landscape and wildlife work and with all that is out there to shoot, I haven’t seen the need to delve into this – especially with the increasing capabilities of digital camera sensors.

    But maybe more importantly, I’d rather spend my energy working for that perfect photo of a scene or decisive shot of an animal than sitting on my butt in front of a computer.

    Thanks for listening.

    Hi Jeremy,

    Thanks for weighing in. Your question about HDR is interesting because, to me, it’s ethical implications are not at all clear cut. The arguments in its favor have always been that the human eye is capable of sensing detail in essentially every lighting situation, from brightest highlight to deepest shadow — and that HDR is simply a technique that tries to overcome the camera’s limited tonal range to better show what we actually SEE. In other words, the camera has always been a poor tool for recording the real richness in tones we experience with our eyes. (The featureless blacks and burned out whites that occur in photography are not something we never experience)
    Digital sensors (shooting in RAW) have proven much more capable of capturing a wide tonal range – vastly more than my trusty old Velvia ever was – and more closely approximate the perceptual latitude of the human eye. But HDR gets us even closer.

    The argument against HDR, meanwhile, seems to rest solely on the fact that it is done on the computer, and is therefore an artifact of technology, rather than something a photographer can do with the traditional limitations of shutter and aperture alone. This raises a thorny issue : are the only acceptable techniques (from an ethical standpoint) those that are done in-camera? Are the use the filters, slow shutter speeds, variable color balance etc. acceptable because they are done with the tools in hand rather than in computer “post production?”

    To be honest, I haven’t made up my mind about this question, or about HDR, although my inclination is that it is an acceptable tool for rendering a scene accurately. However, I would be very curious to hear your argument for why you feel it crosses an ethical line. I encourage others to weigh in as well.

    Again, thanks for taking the time to comment, and for sparking whatever discussion follows. Kevin


    Thank you for your reply.

    My ethical rejection of HDR is more of a personal moral principle more than anything. I want to be able to say (if someone ever asks), “Yes, this is a real photo and wasn’t some computer concoction.”

    To me, HDR is a creative artistic creation of the computer that goes beyond dodging, burning and the like. When a HDR image is created, it isn’t a photograph, but rather a photo illustration made of multiple images to portray a scene.

    The ethical principles that apply also entail how the HDR image is used and disclosed to the viewer. If it isn’t disclosed that this is an HDR image, is that deceitful? Does the merging of multiple photographs to accurately portray a scene actually cheapen it?

    Or, on the flip side, is HDR processing legitimate, but just misunderstood because of other unethical applications of the Photoshop process by a handful of photographers?

    All of that aside, the ultimate question that would sit in my mind is, if I were to turn in a HDR image to a photo editor at National Geographic, Outdoor Photographer, New York Times, or any other publication, and not disclose it, what would they say?




    I really appreciate your comments, if only because they force me to confront and analyze my own position on these questions. But here’s the thing: does every technical advance in photography imply an ethical departure? For example, currently ethical issues are often decided by whether or not an image can be produced in-camera — as opposed to fashioned on the computer. The thinking seemed to be that if an image could be produced entirely in the camera it was considered honest. (Despite, say, the use of split ND filters, polarizers etc..)

    This is the logic behind the requirement of many photo competitions (and publications) that photographers provide their RAW images alongside the corresponding processed Tiffs or Jpegs. The RAW image was considered “truth” , as seen by the photographer, straight from the camera. The RAW image proof that the image in its final form was accurate.

    But what happens when HDR becomes a built-in feature in the next-generation of cameras – which it almost certainly will be? It is not a great technological leap to design a camera that can shoot three bracketed images and automatically blend them for the highest possible dynamic range. Is this suddenly acceptable simply because it happens in-camera? If not, then where do we place the dividing line between ethical and unethical?

    Consider: I doubt many photographers would choose to abandon the current high dynamic range capability of modern CMOS sensors out of ethical concerns, any more than they would abandon the ability of those same chips to capture high-quality images at ISOs unimaginable in the days of film.

    To me, the bottom line is this: if a photograph has any real impact it is because it is an essentially honest document. Exaggerating color through over-saturating is dishonest, in my view, because it violates that principle, as does moving elements around on the computer to make a better composition. I don’t consider HDR to violate that principle, since it is simply trying to compensate for the technological limitations of cameras to record the world as we see it.

    As for the disclosure issue. At NatGeo, the standard is something similar to what I have just described : the technique used by the photographer is less important than the essential truth of the image. This is a journalistic standard, where accuracy is vital. They would expect the use of HDR to be disclosed, and judged by that overall standard.

    Thanks again for contributing to this discussion, Jeremy.

    From an amateur’s point of view I see HDR as a way to get the photo back to the way the person who took it actually saw it. I don’t use HDR (more because my PS skills are lacking than because of ethical concerns) but I try to minimally process my shots to get back to what I remember seeing. I’ve noticed that many photo contests actually place HDR images in the “Alternative processing” or “manipulated” category. Again, to Jeremy’s point is this a misunderstanding or not? For me, HDR is not a problem and I don’t feel a huge need to be notified, although like it when it is noted. Where I draw lines is adding/subtracting/changing parts of an image without noting it. To your last question, Jeremy, your HDR photo would most likely be accepted at OP because they have published a few photos over the last year or so that were obviously not “natural” (think 100s of butterflys from South America on a tree trunk in Golden Gate park in SF, or a large moon in Delicate Arch). I wonder, as do you, about Nat Geo? I just wish for full disclosure when called for and don’t see why it is so hard for some photographers to readily say that they have manipulated a photo. I mean, really, did the guy who shot the wolf think that no one would notice? This is such a loaded discussion and 10 photogs will likely give 10 opinions but it’s a discussion that even folks like me who don’t make a living at it care about.

    Hey Steve,

    Thanks for chiming in. To be honest, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the ethics of HDR, which Jeremy’s post forced me to do. For that I am grateful, since it helps me shape my own thinking. Anyhow, see my current thoughts on the issue below. K.

    p.s. does any camera have built-in HDR yet?

    Kevin, yes indeed – you can buy a camera with built in HDR. My Pentax K7 has it (in jpeg only) and I imagine all subsequent Pentax dslrs have it too. so, not a computer generated simulacrum, unless like me you believe modern cameras are, in some ways, mini computers.

    Brett, Thanks alot for filling me in. I assumed built-in HDR was coming soon, or (as you say) was already here. I brought it up only because it complicates the ethical issues – e.g. if it’s in the camera does that make it OK? In my view, HDR is entirely acceptable, a clear technological advancement that makes the camera better capture what we see. Frankly, haven’t heard a compelling ethical argument against it.

    First- most HDR images are over processed. Removing shadows occur naturally especially when looking into the same angle as the sun. Once the processor go past that line. HDR Looks weird. Second- If it includes clouds and clouds move then the resulting blend creates ghostly images with strange looking glows unlike the gossamer effects in long single exposures- again unnatural scene. Third- No matter how sophisticated the HDR software there are always some bizarre pixelization in the shadows.

    The problem with HDR is that is provides to the viewer a false impression of the natural scene and I can tell the difference pretty much all the time especially when it is overdone. Most magazine spell out how they want to handle HDR in their photo guideline. Most purist natural depicting magazines do not want to use them such as National Geo, Audubon, Sierra etc. Some magazines will accept them on a image by image basis then decide whether to use one but they do require to have them labeled. Which makes a photographer who is breaking into the field to decide whether they want to labeled as an HDR dependent photographer that can not take a good photographer that can use shadows or dark details to their benefit to make exceptional images! I would rather not!


    I appreciate your comments on this. You are right; like most technology, HDR can be over-used and often is. But I don’t think that makes it unethical if used judiciously. It is much like color saturation; I see over-saturated images all the time, but I find a little added color saturation is essential with digital cameras. This is the difference between exaggeration and accuracy. I agree that HDR can be overdone to the point that it looks distinctly unnatural and visually jarring. But if used sparingly, I believe it can simply make up for the limitations of the camera.
    I guess the lesson is that any adjustment technique – be it contrast, saturation, ND filters, or HDR – can be very useful, but can be easily over-used. The problem is that with digital technology there are no longer any built-in technical limitations : with film, you either had the image or not. With digital, however, there is literally no end to what you do to “enhance” an image, and the temptation always exists to push beyond what is natural or honest.

    Thanks for commenting

    Kevin, I believe too many people over look the Shadow/Highlight effect in photoshop. It’s a wonderful tool when used in conjunction with the other tools such as Selective Color to restore density back into image. It takes more time and knowledge to use then HDR and like HDR if one over processes an image it can produce that same fake look. But works much better than HDR if you have moving elements without giving you an image with strange glows that HDR produces. And of course, HDR is impractical to a wildlife photographer unless your subject is sleeping or sits still for long periods and you are looking more for habitat images.

    I agree with you, Kevin, that HDR has not replaced knowing how to use graduated filters and exposing for dramatic lighting. The Shadow/Highlight tool can bring out just enough detail in the shadow so not to lose that dramatic light in the sky.

    I do find HDR extremely effective with no ethical clash in Fine Art, Advertising or the travel markets.

    thanks again, for bringing up this subject on Ethnics!

    Salvatore, Good point, thanks. I remember when Photoshop came out with the Shadow/Highlight tool – it was absolutely revolutionary, and vital for protecting highlights. Yes, it too has its limits and can be overused. And you’re right : one reason I don’t use HDR much is that I primarily shoot wildlife – not very helpful with a running cheetah!

    Great article. The authenticity or circumstances is an aspect of photography that I think sometimes can make or break a photo, especially in a photo contest where so many of the entries are great shots. It’s unfortunate that not everyone is honest.

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