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Photoshop of Horrors

You know your product has arrived when its brand name becomes a verb, and Photoshop has held that distinction for quite a while now. But while the worst that has come to brandverbs such as Google and Xerox is brand-name association when being incorrectly used with an inferior product (I'm talking about you, Ask Jeeves), Photoshopping has had an ugly history in modern-day photo manipulation.

"Does this look too Photoshopped?" you might ask while toning a photo, though asking the question usually means it is. While this is a negative in any application — rendering a model’s skin plastic for a fashion shoot or saturating the colors in a nature scene to an eye-popping point — in photojournalism it's unethical and soundly derided.

Well, sort of.

Danish photojournalist Klavs Bo Christensen was recently disqualified from the Picture of the Year contest in Denmark when judges deemed his photos had been overworked. You can see the images in question here.

The thing is, such techniques have not only been overlooked in other contests, but rewarded. Poke around through past winners in BOP, POYi and World Press Photo, and you'll see some similar toning.

And why not? It looks cool. So cool that I had to self-veto my urge to say that it looks hella cool.

Sure that's not what reality looked like, but cameras don't capture what the human eye can see. Digital sensors aren't very forgiving in their exposure latitude. If you've ever taken a picture of your friend with that bright blue sky only to look at the photo and wonder why the sky is all white, that's because the camera wasn't able to capture the full range of tones you saw with your eye.

Shadows can end up deeper than you might have liked, so you go in and dodge (lighten) somebody's face to make it read better.

And at newspapers, repro dictates a good deal of your toning. Certain colors on certain presses can look funky or muddy, so we go in and selectively remove some of that color.

Then where do you draw the line?

Often times, it seems like that question is answered by asking whether or not that technique would have been used in the darkroom, but as photographic processes and technology developed, different techniques became available until our current digital techniques, sometimes oxymoronically referred to as the digital darkroom in all its liquid crystal glowry.

In our digital toolboxes, we can correct lens distortion, merge multiple exposures into high dynamic range (HDR) photographs, and selectively saturate or desaturate a photo — not to mention the whole host of definitively unethical techniques of cloning out distracting elements, inserting things that weren't there or merging multiple photos to create an artificial moment between subjects that never happened.

Ethical photojournalists don’t do any of those, however, without explicitly labeling the image as a photo illustration, and even then these mashups can cause a stir. If you didn’t click on the Dartmouth Photo Tampering Throughout History link above, it’s a pretty interesting read and not one of my usual pop culture non-sequitors.

The debate is far from over, and that's what makes ethical dilemmas so fascinating and frustrating — one person's affront to all that is good and holy is another's meh. In the photojournalism community, those who oppose rewarding these drastic techniques sometimes refer to that style of toning as applying a "World Press Filter" or "POY Filter" to make an otherwise unimpressive image award-worthy.

I'm inclined to agree with that camp — that the moment, mood, light or composition should trump toning wizardry. Toning should be a fine sand and polish to accentuate what's there, not a resculpting of the scene. Maybe Christensen's disqualification is the tipping point. His ordeal has been widely publicized within the photojournalism community and it may be enough to scare some into toning down.

We'll just have to wait until award season rolls around next year to find out.


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