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Cloning Out the Can

Where Do You Draw The Line?

One of the most common discussions in photographic circles over the past few years has been with regard to the veracity of photographic images. This is a consequence of the ease with which a tool like Photoshop can be used to alter an image, often with no visible evidence of that change.

Of course photographers have been altering the images that they shoot since the medium was invented. The issue now is simply how easy and almost undetectable it has become.

That photographs can be altered doesn't really concern me. They always have been and always will. A more interesting discussion to my mind is that of degree. This is a real issue that every photographer has to deal with on an almost daily basis. It has nothing really do with digital vs. traditional means and media — but again simply is an ethical question that photographers have long had to deal with.


Dune 6344. Death Valley — May, 2003
Canon 1Ds with 70-200mm f/2.8L at ISO 100

A Case in Point

You are taking a photograph of the landscape. It shows an almost pristine wilderness under sublime light conditions. But just before taking the frame you see a soda pop can laying in the grass in front of you, in the foreground of the shot.

Your decide to…

1. Take the photograph regardless, leaving the can in the frame and then print it that way

2. Walk over to the can, pick it up and remove it from the shot

3. Leave the can where it is but hide it beneath a leaf or branch that was laying nearby

4. Reposition the camera so that the can is no longer in the frame

5. Change the focal length of the lens being used so that the can is out of the shot

6. Underexposure the frame so that the can disappears into the shadows

7. Take the shot with the can in it, but then in processing crop the can out of the frame

8. Take the shot with the can in it, then in processing use the clone tool to remove it

9. Use traditional burning-in techniques to darken the foreground area containing the can so that the can is no longer visible

10. Take the shot with the can in it, then in processing “enhance” the print by putting a polar bear over where the can was

I’m sure that at some time we have all made one these choices. The ethical question that I ask you to consider is — where does one draw the line?

Give it some thought. But before deciding on your answer (and thus taking a moral stance on the issue), let’s consider the nature of the question.


Pondering the Question — Toronto. April, 2004
Minolta A2 at ISO 64

The Nature of The Question

It seems to me that we are debating the question of art and esthetics vs. evidence. If you want the image that you record to be as close to a literal representation of the scene as technology permits, then of course #1 above is the only answer. If you were a photographer working for the police at a crime scene and the shot was to be used as forensic evidence then you’d have no other choice but to include the soda can.

Now, let’s consider another scenario. You’re an environmentalist with a deep concern about how as a society we are trashing the landscape. You see the can and take the best photograph that you are able, including the can, with the intent of showing the evils of littering.

Finally, consider this alternative. You are fine-art landscape photographer interested in creating an image that records the beauty of the natural scene before you. Your intent is to simply create art and out of a love for the natural world to share with others the beauty of what you are seeing.

I needn’t elaborate on these alternatives, as the answers to each are obvious. But now we come to the question of means and degree. Assuming that we are neither forensic photographers nor environmental activist, (though I imagine one person could easily be both), let’s look at choices 1 thorough 9. Number 10 is put there for laughs, but I suppose someone will take it seriously.

The question is — is there really much ethical difference between these choices? As photographers we are constantly exercising our esthetic choices by selecting the camera’s position, the focal length to be used, and the shape of the composition. How many of us have never pulled back a branch, adjusted the position of a table, or asked a person to turn toward the camera?

Burning and dodging are standard image processing techniques that have been with us for 150 years, and retouching similarly is an accepted part of the traditional photographic process. Sometimes it is used to remove dust spots; other times facial blemishes in a portrait.

But that’s where retouching stops for most people. This is because there are some aspects of photography where our expectation is resolutely on the side of veracity. A photograph of a race horse crossing the finish line had better not have a different number on its saddle than the one that was seen winning the race.

But, what about cloning out an airplane condensation trail in a landscape photograph? If you wait a few minutes it will dissipate. Why not help mother nature along? A speck in the sky might appear as just another dust spot to be cloned out. But upon examination at high magnification it is seen to be a bird. Remove it? Why not? Is anyone really hurt by this sly (and certainly unnoticeable) little cheat? There are some photographers I know though that would say, the bird was there — therefore removing it is wrong.

The vain portrait sitter certainly won’t mind if a wrinkle or two is removed by the use of a soft focus filter of bit of silk in front of the lens. Is the use of the cloning tool (retouching) any less honest? Are we talking about means, or ends?

As can be seen, like many issues in this life there are an almost infinite number of shadings. One man’s certainty is another’s indecision. I offer neither solutions nor suggestions. I believe that we each decide where to draw the line depending on our sensibilities and the purpose of our work.

Are our photographs intended to be art, record or evidence? What is the viewer’s expectation? What is our promise to the viewer, either implicit or explicit? What is the venue in which the image is being displayed? Tough questions with no easy answers.

Think about it. Take your own ethical stance. But don’t be too rigid.

What I Do

At my seminars and on the field workshops that I give I am often asked what my position is on this subject. Since I know that this essay will provoke similar queries from readers, here is my approach to the question.

I create my photographs so as to share with others what I have seen of the world. For better or worse I bring to the task a unique way of seeing. My intent is to create a representation of what I saw, filtered though the lens of my personal perspective and coloured by the emotional, cultural and esthetic baggage that my sixty years on the planet have given me.

If you were standing next to me when the photograph was made would you have seen the same thing as what I recorded? Possibly. Indeed, over the past 3 years more often that not Chris Sanderson the director of the Video Journal is looking over my shoulder and filming what I do, so this is not an empty comment. Thousands of people who subscribe to our publication see this for themselves four times a year on our DVDs.

Ultimately though, I believe that photography is about subtraction, while painting is about addition. A painter starts with a blank canvas, and adds what he or she wants us to see. A photographer starts with the physical world, and though the use of composition, lens selection and the like decides what we, the viewer, are to see. Therefore, to my way of thinking removing the soda can by the most appropriate of methods 1 though 9 above is simply not an issue.

You will have to think through these issues and decide for yourself how to deal with this question. There is no one right answer.


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Concepts: Photography, Photographic lens, Dodging and burning, Image processing, Focal length, Camera, Photographer, Beverage can

Entities: image processing, Michael Reichmann, Chris Sanderson

Tags: photograph, image, focal length, ethical question, dust spot, photographer, esthetic, sublime light conditions, Use traditional burning-in, times facial blemishes, fine-art landscape photographer, airplane condensation trail, vain portrait sitter, help mother nature, traditional photographic process, soft focus filter, standard image processing, camera, retouching, tool, photographic, visible evidence, soda pop, polar bear, real issue, photographic circles, esthetic choices, daily basis, viewer, interesting discussion, ethical difference, common discussions, moral stance, foreground area, ethical stance, pristine wilderness, clone tool, literal representation, similar queries, esthetic baggage