Image Alteration


Changing an image in ways that go beyond standard and long-accepted darkroom practices has always surfaced ethical dilemmas -- and never more so than in the digital age. Modifications that change tonal values and color characteristics without adding, removing or modifying image elements rarely evoke comment. On the other hand, the range of possibilities with a tool such as Photoshop is virtually unlimited and requires only modest effort to accomplish.

Image Modification

What then, constitutes ethical image processing in the Photoshop era? The question has been debated endlessly, and different people will draw the line at different places, from no modifications beyond tonal and color adjustments to a free-wheeling "anything goes" philosophy. The approach I've taken is twofold. First, any image that is photojournalistic in intended use should never have elements removed, added or modified. Second, artistic (i.e. non-photojournalistic) images that are modified in ways other than tonal and color adjustments should be identified in a consistent way if the degree of modification exceeds a certain threshold.

I never add elements to an image unless they are specifically intended to be composites (analogous to multiple exposures of film images). But, I do remove distractions on occasion, and I also perform repairs where the image permits without changing the factual representation of the principle subject. For images that have minor and peripheral distractions removed via cloning or other techniques, no further disclosure is provided.

Processing Descriptions

In cases where image content is modified substantially, an explanation (in parentheses) is added within the image title. The following list contains the explanations currently in use.  In the case of repair by element reconstruction, the degree of repair is always small and peripheral in relation to the primary subject. The reconstruction uses companion elements already in the scene or elements from a nearly identical image of the same subject taken at nearly the same instant in time.

  • Canvas Extension (Canvas) -- Enlargement of the canvas of the original image and subsequent fill of the newly created vacant area with replicated segments of like areas from the original capture.
  • Cleanup (Cleanup) -- Use of clone tool, spot healing tool, quick mask and other tools for image cleanup of multiple minor distracting elements within an image.
  • Element Removal (Remove) -- Removal of distracting element(s) within an image beyond minor distractions such as a branch intruding at the edge of a frame or an out of focus distracting object. .
  • Repair and Reconstruction (Repair) -- Repair usually consists of using an element already in the image (e.g. the other wingtip of a bird with one wingtip cut off by the framing of the composition) or incorporation of an element from another image of the same scene and subject.
  • Simulated shallow DOF Blur (BGblur) -- Use of Photoshop masks and Gaussian filter blurs (applied to the background of an image) to simulate a shallow depth of field.
  • Composite Image (Composite) -- Final image is created by compositing together elements from multiple image captures. Similar in concept to the long-standing technique of making multiple exposures in a film camera but with a much wider range of possibilities.a
  • Digital Art (Digital Art) -- Digital creations that begin with one or more images that are then modified with a variety of image processing techniques or filters to create a final impression. The Gray Fox logo in the upper left corner of this web page is an example.
  • Captive Animals (Captive) -- Although not a processing description, this designator is included for completeness. 

For a more detailed description of the steps and tools involved in our image workflow, see How We Process Images on the Essays page.  For our somewhat humorous thoughts on the ethics of image processing in the digital age, read the essay, My Lying Lens - a Fable!  The table below provides examples of images processed according to the above criteria and is intended for illustration only; it is by no means complete.

Non-Standard Image Processing Examples
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Background masked & blurred to simulate shallow DOF

Canvas extended down & masked in perch from another frame

 Background masked & blurred to simulate shallow DOF

Canvas extended up & left for composition

Canvas extended left & clipped tailfeathers filled w/ copy of others
Canvas extended down & left wing tip filled with copy of right Background masked & blurred to simulate shallow DOF  Four images composited together  Branch masked & removed Foreground distrations removed and image cropped to vertical
Canvas extended left for composition Background distractions in water cleaned up Canvas extended right for composition, crop to 8x10 ratio Background masked & blurred to simulate shallow DOF   Background masked & blurred to simulate shallow DOF
Background masked & blurred to simulate shallow DOF Fish masked and moved to a centered position Slow shutter flash ghosting removed Background masked & blurred to simulate shallow DOF OOF branches behind subject removed

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If you would like to express thoughts on this subject use the link to send an email.    © 2013 Michael W. Masters
Notice: All images and written material on this web site are © 1999-2013 Michael W. Masters. All rights are reserved under US copyright laws. Images may not be downloaded or otherwise used without written permission of the artist. Written material may be quoted under fair use so long as attribution is given.