What is considered acceptable and ethical in photography?
The invention of photography has allowed us to record our lives, others’ lives, and the world around us. Photography also gave birth to a new art form as photographers learned to hone their craft in darkrooms around the world to create Fine Art Photography. Since then, it is easier than ever to take pictures. Digital photography and camera phones make everyone a photographer today while online platforms to share photography are in abundance and the ability to manipulate photos is easier than ever. As with any art form, questions eventually arose about ethics in photography - what is or isn't acceptable in the industry. These issues have never been more relevant than with the onset of digital photography and editing software.
Digital photography and editing software have improved the lives and businesses of professional photographers around the world. It has allowed them to save enormous amounts of time. Photographers are also able to take their images to the next level of enhancement. They can manipulate images during the photo editing process instead of out in the field or studio where it can take much longer or can be more involved. Some would say that photography is more beautiful, more vibrant, and more exciting than ever.
However, with the ease of photo editing software, intriguing questions have arisen:
What is considered appropriate behavior in photography today, especially when it comes to editing?
What is considered acceptable photography practice and what is blatantly unethical?
Let’s explore what is un acceptable and unacceptable types of behavior in photography:
Taking another photographer’s photo and calling it your own is blatant theft. Taking another photographer’s (copyrighted or not) photo and using it without giving credit is considered theft. You also can’t repurpose photos. Repurposing someone else’s photos isn’t the same as repurposing furniture here. You cannot take someone else’s image, alter it in some way, and call it your own. Use someone else’s image, and you need to give them credit. In some cases, you may need or want to ask permission before using their image.
Photo duplication is sometimes deliberate and other times quite accidentally. Whether it’s duplication can also depend greatly on the style of photography. Let’s say a photographer sees another photographer’s terrific portrait in a gallery, magazine, or even a museum. They then copy it to create their version of that picture, except the version is identical to the other one. Is that duplication? That depends on whom you ask. It’s difficult to create a truly unique photo today given the millions of pictures shot every day around the world. However, it’s believed that if you see an image, closely copy that same idea without crediting the original photographer, that equals photo duplication. It’s unethical and, perhaps, even illegal. Now, let’s say you’re standing at the Empire State Building or at the Grand Canyon at the very same spot other thousands of photographers have stood before you. If you take a similar shot to the thousands of others out there, then it’s not likely to be considered unethical duplication. Landscape photography doesn’t usually lend itself to being considered inappropriate copying as much as artistic or portrait photography. Photo duplication is a bit controversial because art often influences later art. It’s when you begin to replicate something already considered art already out there that you begin to get into muddy waters. There are so many millions of pictures out there that it’s almost impossible not to have that image already out there somewhere. Still, there will be instances where it’s apparently deliberate duplication especially when the original image is a particularly unique or creative shot.
This is another hotly debated area of photography especially as it relates to the celebrity or commercial portrait photography. It is easier than ever to manipulate an image given the ease and accessibility of photo editing software. So how much editing is acceptable and how much is too far? The answer is complicated and depends very much on the type or area of photography and for what it is used. If the editing changes or distorts the original integrity or intent of a photo, then it’s likely not acceptable unless (and that a big unless) that is the original reason for the editing in the first place such as when you’re doing creative photography. For example, there are some great editing techniques possible through software today. You can create some great and exciting effects. That’s fine, but in most cases, you should admit that if you display the photo publicly. Editing and chopping up a picture to the point it is no longer recognizable from its original is unacceptable if you plan on passing it off as the original. Let’s break editing down even further:
- Portrait photography: There’s been an increasingly vocal backlash to “extreme photoshopping” of images in commercial pictures with many celebrities coming out against over editing of their images for commercial purposes. Subtle edits such as adjusting colors, cropping, and touching-up of blemishes are considered acceptable industry practices. The backlash in recent years has come as a result of over-editing to make women look much slimmer or flawless - something most women would say are unrealistic depictions of the average woman. Some catalogs and magazines have been criticized for slimming down their models or the celebrity using editing. While that is an altogether different (and worthy) debate, the question the average photographer should ask themselves is this: Is it appropriate to make a woman look very different than she really looks like and do you want to do that?
- News photography: If editing the image or picture changes the original intent or integrity of the photo or an event, then it’s not proper editing, and it should not occur! It is considered blatant lying or misrepresentation. It is also considered unethical. When you think of historical news photography, think of what over-editing could have done to the picture’s impact decades or generations later. Think of WWII photographs of concentration camp victims. Would it have been appropriate to edit their appearance? Most today would say a resounding no. Changing an image of a historical event could influence its historical value if not history itself. Consider war photography and how it has changed society and cultural values and affected change. However, it's important to note that editing a news photo is perfectly acceptable as long as the picture remains true to what it captured. You can make simple edits related to light, color balance, etc. Changing the meaning of a news photo is never acceptable.
- Wildlife and nature photography: When we consider wildlife and nature (landscape) photography, we tend to regard them in admiration for their purity and authenticity. As a photographic style, they are relatively similar to portraits when you consider the ethics. Once you edit your image or photo to the point that you’ve widely changed or affected its original imagery, is it still honest? The answer is likely, no. We tend to want to view nature and its animals for what they truly are in their settings - raw and realistic. When you alter that reality through your editing so much that it no longer truly represents an actual reality, you’ve changed not just that reality but content and authenticity as well. People want to trust that when they’re looking at your stunning landscape portraits, it is mostly unedited or not altered significantly. So how much is acceptable? Well, if you decide to be heavy-handed with the edits to achieve an artistic look, then it’s acceptable if you admit as much. It’s not always obvious to a viewer that filters and edits were employed. If it’s an especially doctored image causing it to stray from its original, say so! On the other hand, as with most pictures, it is fair to do some minor edits such as color, lighting, and other adjustments. The keyword is “adjustments.” Depending on the image, cropping is usually acceptable as well. Again, apply the rule of thumb for authenticity. Unless you’re after artistic expression, editing a photo to the point of changing its authenticity is too far. If you want to be creative with your editing software, go for it. Just be honest about it.
Many individuals have started to think of photography as it relates to any environmental impact. If you need to alter, remove, destroy, or change the environment you are shooting, then you are disrespectful of our planet just to get a picture. That is a poor decision and poor reflection of our profession. There is no need to impact the environment negatively to get a good shot. In fact, a good photographer should be able to work within his immediate surroundings without damaging it. Never take anything back with you that you know you really should leave behind. It’s like camping or hiking. If you carried it in, you can carry it out. Nothing else should go with you! In some parks, taking something is considered vandalism and / or property theft (as it should be).
By all means, take pictures of our beautiful planet and the humans which reside on it - whether you are a professional or a serious hobby photographer! Go ahead and do some necessary edits but remember always to remain authentic. It’s how we best document our lives and our world. It is how we best employ our skills - hopefully for the benefit of others.
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