When the world saw the very first photographs, the idea of being able to capture the world as we see it took off rapidly. In a relatively short period of time, film photography evolved from black and white to color photography. From there, it made motion pictures possible, allowing us to see the world from our couches at home. When the first digital camera was invented, little did the inventors know that it would later revolutionize the world of photography and media in general. Today, billions of images are captured and shared between people and the number of image recording devices is growing at a rapid, unstoppable rate. There are cameras literally everywhere – in our mobile phones, homes, computers, cars, and even in wearables like eyeglasses and watches. We trust these devices to give us a glimpse of reality, documented moments of time that we can go back to and review. And yet with the fast growth, ease of access, and use of image and video manipulation tools, we have been seeing more footage that can twist reality: whether we are looking at popular magazine covers, Internet sites or news media, the imagery we see is getting harder and harder to trust, since it is being altered, faked or staged. Media turned out to be a powerful tool to influence and manipulate people, which brings up the question and the importance of ethics in photography. Should photography only be allowed to display reality, or is it acceptable to alter images for presentation purposes? And if manipulation is acceptable, what are its limits, if any? These are very hard questions to answer, but with some common sense, we can create a set of ethical rules and guidelines that should help photographers in determining what’s acceptable and what’s not.
In this article, I do not want to get into the depth of the discussion of ethics in media, since it is a huge topic on its own and does not belong to a photography site. Instead, I will focus on specific types of photography and the practices we should follow. Please keep in mind that most of the thoughts in this article are based on my opinion and experience. If you disagree with any of them, please state your thoughts in the comments section below in a kind matter, so that we can have a friendly discussion that benefits everyone.
Table of Contents
1. Image Theft
With billions of photographs being available so widely all over the Internet, it is not uncommon to see not only individuals but also companies using other people’s work for their own benefit. In some cases, theft is loud and clear, with images being used without any permission; and in other cases, images are “borrowed” to be altered and manipulated to create something different. No matter how it is done, theft is still theft and it should not be ever welcomed in any shape or form. How would you feel if someone stole your images that you post in common social media platforms like Instagram, printed them out, and sold them for thousands of dollars without sharing any of the money with you? If you have never heard of Richard Prince, check out his website and his gallery:
Yup, he does exactly that: steals other people’s work, prints them, and sells as his own “artwork”. One could argue that he “repurposes” some of the images and that may be true in some cases where he significantly transforms an image into something completely different. But even then, he should be requesting permission from the original source first and even after receiving permission, he should clearly state in his artwork that his work was based on someone else’s idea or images. The worst part is, that some people (including himself), believe that he is a true artist and he has every right to do what he does. In my books, this guy is nothing more than a thief!
2. Photo Plagiarism
What about situations, where a photographer borrows another photographer’s idea and perspective to get a very similar, if not identical shot? Now this one is a topic of endless debates, one capable of sparking huge arguments on both sides of the game. As photographers, we often have our own knowledge, skills, and experiences to create something unique that has never been done before, at least to our knowledge. It could be finding a particular subject, angle, composition, subject placement, or perhaps specific use of colors and tones to create something original. Is it acceptable to re-capture such images, taking inspiration from the original author? And if it is acceptable, should permissions be asked and credit provided? I think the answer depends on a number of factors. If an image is copied exactly one-to-one, using the same angle, perspective, composition, subject, and colors, making it look identical to the source, then it is a clear sign of plagiarism and it should never be welcomed.
However, there are certain exceptions. For example, in landscape photography (covered in detail below), there are situations when one photographer can find and popularize a unique spot where certain angles and shapes work very well. Throughout history, there have been many such images – for example, Ansel Adams made the Snake River overlook very popular at the Grand Teton National Park:
And since then, countless images have been taken with a very similar perspective and angle by other photographers. Does it mean that they should be crediting the source every single time? This is a hard question when it comes to ethics because landscapes change all the time and if one photographer does manage to capture an image one way, the chances of capturing another image with exactly the same light, cloud formation, vegetation, and color are fairly slim, even if exactly the same composition is used. In the case of the above photo from Ansel Adams, since he captured the shot at the Grand Tetons, many trees have grown and fallen and even the snake river most likely slightly changed its shape and looks a bit different today. Does it mean that other photographers should not be taking the shot with a similar composition? I don’t think so – I believe it is perfectly acceptable for others to capture images of popular spots, provided they are not deliberately trying to make an exact replica of the shot of the original author, with the intent to copy it. Now if someone edited the trees to look exactly like the ones in Ansel Adams’ original shot, and turned it into black and white with the same aspect ratio, similar shades, and cloud formations, then it could be considered deliberate plagiarism.
However, landscape photography almost feels like a different beast when it comes to plagiarism. While using the same subject, perspective and composition are often acceptable in landscapes, attempting to do the same thing in other types of photography, such as portraiture and fashion photography, is an inevitable path to plagiarism. For example, if we look at the work of Tyler Shields, we can see many of his images borrowed ideas from other existing works. Take a look at some of the examples:
In this image, we can clearly see that Tyler Shields attempted to copy the work of Irving Penn, by making a very similar image. The idea is the same, the crop is the same. However, he did change a few patterns, adjusted colors, and made a slightly different image. Does it mean that his work is original? Of course not – it was clearly based on someone else’s work. There is nothing original about this piece. And yet Tyler Shields never credited Irving Penn for inspiration in creating this photograph. Let’s take a look at a different image of Tyler Shields:
We can clearly see the pattern of a copycat. Again, the same idea of bruised legs of a ballerina standing straight up and only showing the affected area. One side has a shoe, the other does not. He attempted to make his work appear different and original by swapping the shoe, and having different bandages and bruises, but nevertheless, it is still not an original idea by any means. In this case, if Tyler Shields used Henry Leutwyler’s work for inspiration, he should have given him proper credit.
In some cases, images can indeed look very similar by coincidence. And when it does happen, it would be truly a “one-off” case. However, if you look at the many works of Tyler Shields, you will see that the above are not cases of coincidence or sheer luck. He deliberately borrowed other people’s ideas and executed them in a similar fashion to make a name for himself.
Sadly, in the world of social media, plagiarism is almost inevitable. Photographers steal ideas from other photographers all the time and some do a very good job at it too, often succeeding more than the original author, as in the case of people like Tyler Shields and Richard Prince. There is nothing ethical about what they do and I would discourage all of our readers from repeating the same mistakes…
3. Photo Manipulation
Let’s now expand the topic of ethics in photography to photo manipulation. How much manipulation should be allowed and what are the limits? Photography purists will argue that photographs should never be altered in any way – that they should retain their originality. Some even argue that cropping should be a prohibited practice. On the other side of the extreme, we’ve got people who take no shame in severely manipulating images, sometimes in order to influence people’s minds, and alter their perceptions or their opinions. Is there a sweet middle that satisfies photography ethics? I believe there is, but it is not an easy answer by any means – we need to look at each photography genre in detail, as it is a very complex topic.
3.1. Documentary, News, and Reportage
Today, news outlets rely more than they ever have on images and footage provided by the public. Although the most popular media outlets try to have their own staff provide media, it is not always possible, particularly in areas of conflict and inaccessible war zones. When the public sees such footage, there is an immediate level of trust in what they see. As a result, such content can play a huge role in shaping up public opinion, potentially even influencing their future decisions. Because of the importance and the potential influence of such documentary footage, it is only ethical when such imagery is provided without ANY manipulation whatsoever.
This includes documentary photography, news and reportage of any kind, which in my opinion also includes street photography. When we see images of people, affected or unaffected, we want to believe in what we see. Such images become historical records and we cannot allow them to be manipulated. Take a look at some of the altered images that have appeared in media in the past:
At the time the image was taken, it was probably unacceptable for the Iranian state media to present only three missiles in the air, with one looking like it failed to launch, so the image was altered in Photoshop to make it look like all four rockets took off. In addition, a smaller car seen behind the rocket launching vehicle was also removed from the image to remove the unnecessary distractions.
Here is another image by Brian Walski, which was heavily altered to make a single composite from two different images:
Sadly, Brian Walski thought that it would be a good idea to make a composite image from the two images to “improve composition” and thought it was acceptable for him to make such heavy edits. In some cases, people who practice such manipulations should be persecuted in court, especially if a photograph is used as any form of propaganda to lie about the actual facts.
We can see many examples like the above two all over the world. If you want to see some of the best examples of altered images in history, check out this website by the Bronx Documentary Center – you will find some shocking examples of altered images, some of which were used to manipulate the public.
It is clear that such documentary photography and footage should never be allowed to be manipulated. The good news is that those who get caught often get fired and potentially even jailed for doing it, but I bet there are far more cases where things go by unseen. If photographers destroyed their original images and only left the original footage, they would leave it up to the public to decide whether their work is authentic or not. It is very uncomfortable to think that people would do such things, but sadly, it does happen.
What about cropping images? I believe that cropping should only be allowed, if the cropped out area does not represent area of interest to the viewer and does not change the meaning of the photograph after the fact. This can be tricky to determine, so if there is even a slight doubt that cropping would change the message in any way, then it should be avoided at all costs.
3.2. Portrait and Fashion Photography
Portrait photography, and specifically fashion photography, is without a doubt one of the most Photoshop-influenced genres of photography today. Practically every image you look at today on the cover of every magazine is digitally altered. In some cases, changes are very subtle, but in most cases, people go through complete transformations, making them look drastically different compared to reality. Such retouching changes are so common today, that they are now widely accepted as a “normal” practice to make the model or celebrity look flawless. So where is the fine line between what should be considered ethical and what should not? That’s another tough one to answer because there will be people defending both sides heavily.
Personally, I believe that retouching should be acceptable, but with certain restrictions. While adjusting colors & contrast, fixing skin blemishes, removing excessive hair and taking care of wardrobe mishaps should be allowed, altering someone’s physique and general appearance should be prohibited. Consider the following photograph of Angelina Jolie:
To me, this is the borderline of what should be allowed. The retoucher removed all skin blemishes from her face and made the skin of the actress look flawlessly smooth, which as we know, is almost never the case. However, facial features do not seem to be drastically altered, as in the below image of Kelly Clarkson:
Here, the retoucher went to the extreme – eyebrows and eyes changed, face shape altered, body shape altered, especially towards the lower body. This is an example of heavy retouching that should not be allowed. This kind of imagery takes us away from reality, making our youth believe that people can look as perfect as they do on magazine covers. These are not the ideals to pursue and this kind of “fake” beauty should not be welcomed by the public.
Having assisted my wife in photographing weddings, I have come across a number of brides, bridesmaids, and other people, who made special requests to make them look thinner in photographs via Photoshop. Although my wife certainly did experiment with such capabilities and knew very well how to use specific tools such as “Liquify”, she found it quite frustrating to agree to such requests. Not only because it is a lot of work, but also because it is just not right – people should not assume that such practices should be commonly acceptable. Over time, she learned how to position the subjects better and capture them at particular angles that made them look slimmer, but she completely stopped heavy digital manipulations that made the person look different than they were in reality.
3.3. Nature Photography
Humans are drawn by the sheer beauty of wild and mysterious nature. Having witnessed it in real life, we know that nature can present itself in vibrant and beautiful colors, especially during those peak golden hours, and at the same time can really impact our moods with those gloomy, cloudy days. So when we immerse ourselves in a photograph with a stunning landscape, we always make the assumption that we see the reality: we want to believe that the photographer was there at that right moment of time to capture the natural beauty. While we can make assumptions about the fake nature of photographs of celebrities in magazines, we practically never make such assumptions about images of nature. Why is that? I have been pondering about this question for a while and I think the answer to the question is quite simple – we want to believe in nature being as beautiful as it is presented to us. We look at nature as something raw, innocent, something that has not been corrupted by humanity.
The moment we are introduced to a nature photograph that clearly looks unrealistic, or worse yet when we discover that a photograph that we perceived as real was in fact not, it leaves us with a feeling of distrust towards the photographer. We feel cheated and faked.
Take a look at the two images below, one straight out of my camera, and one after I slaughtered the hell out of it in Photoshop:
Five years ago I thought that my edit looked “cool and dramatic”, although I knew upfront that it looked very fake. Without moisture or cloud formations in the air, the sky could have never been that colorful! And yet at the time, I thought it was a cool effect to use on an image, giving it more of an “artistic” feel. I often make fun of myself with this particular photograph in my workshops, because I want others to see that we all go through the stages of experimentation and it is perfectly OK to try out things. I would never make this image part of my portfolio and would never present it in a gallery because it skews reality and presents nature in its most unrealistic form.
Here is another image that really upset some of our readers when I posted it:
Although it is pretty clear that the image is a composite, people got really upset that I copy-pasted the different phases of the moon to a completely different scene. For this composite, I photographed the moon on its own, then moved to another location after the eclipse was over in order to capture a more attractive foreground, which I later used as a backdrop panorama for the arcing moon. I wrote about what I did to the image in detail in my “how was this picture made” article, where I explained the process in detail, for the purpose of education. The above image is not something I would ever claim as real – in fact, I purposefully made it look fake (the moon never arcs as shown in the image) so that it was clear from the image itself. This is another image that I would never display at a nature gallery because nothing about it represents reality. Sure, the moon phases are real, and the landscape is real, but the two never took place together as shown in the image.
So what kind of editing is ethically acceptable in nature photography? That’s the million-dollar question and the can of worms to open! In landscape photography, I consider it acceptable to adjust exposure, colors, shadows, tones, and contrast, to perform selective boosting / dodging and burning, to crop images for better composition, and to perform other adjustments, as long as they don’t make the image appear too unrealistic and fake. I am not against HDR photography either – in fact, it can be a great technique to use in order to recover data that cannot be otherwise captured by modern camera sensors, as long as it looks natural at the end (no Grunge HDR please!). I am not against blending techniques to bring out details from different parts of the scene either, as long as they are not overdone. Lastly, I also find it acceptable to remove distracting objects from the scene. Basically, I don’t mind most types of editing!
Here is an example of the type of editing that I find acceptable:
In the above case, I cropped the image to get closer to the rock, adjusted the white balance of both the foreground and the sky, added some more color to the clouds, and added a bit more structure to the clouds to make them stand out a bit more. After I was done with the basic edits, I realized that some of the footsteps on the playa left by other photographers looked rather distracting. I used Photoshop’s clone stamp tool to remove some of the obvious spots, to keep the scene looking cleaner and not as distracting.
Here is another set of images from Wadi Rum that I captured last year to illustrate the point of what I consider to be acceptable in terms of post-processing:
The changes in the “after” image are a bit more aggressive than in the previous case. Aside from the standard editing steps like boosting contrast and colors, I removed both cars and their tracks from the scene, since they looked too distracting. While I did not make too many changes to the foreground, I did remove a couple of distracting elements there – take a look at the white stone in the foreground, to the bottom left side of the frame. When I was shooting at that particular location, I was literally jumping between rocks in order not to leave any footsteps and really struggled to find an area that provided me a clear composition. As I was taking this photo, I already knew that the stone on the lower left had to go, because it was incomplete and it was pushing too far to the bottom frame. I was able to fit the dark rock on the left, but the white one was too big to fit (you only see a portion of it in the shot). As I went through the image, I also removed some white dots and other imperfections in the sand, since they looked a bit distracting.
Now that you have seen the type of editing I personally consider acceptable, let’s talk about the editing practices that I would not recommend. Basically, any kind of composite imagery, especially ones where multiple unrelated images are put together to create a dramatic scene that never actually existed or took place, is something I consider unacceptable. Those photographs, or rather “artworks” do not belong in nature photography or fine art galleries – they have a place of their own. Nothing wrong with such creative photography/composites, as long as it is made obvious by the photographer, either through the image itself or as part of its description. Again, the idea is not to mislead people into believing in something that does not exist.
Another big factor in ethics is our involvement, influence, and impact on nature as we document it. We have written quite a bit about this topic in the past, but sadly, it is something that continues to happen. When I was at the Death Valley National Park just a few weeks back, I saw an interesting scene – a young couple took their car way into the Devil’s Cornfield for one stupid reason – to take a selfie. Sadly, people do these kinds of idiotic things all the time, thinking that they are doing something cool, when in fact, they are destroying the landscape for others to see and enjoy in the future. I have personally witnessed people camping at the Race Track playa at Death Valley, and I have seen rocks removed from the playa, with the selfish intent of having unique images that nobody else could have. We have seen Michael Fatali burn up Delicate Arch and a few other spots in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks to capture unique photos at night and not only for himself but also for the workshop groups that he was teaching at the time. And there are many cases like this that we see over and over again, with photographers doing all kinds of damage to landscapes, all with the goal of doing something unique that was not done before. Such acts of vandalism and selfishness are huge problems of our time since we are failing to learn how to share the beauty around us with the current and future generations.
For more information about ethics in nature photography, I would recommend visiting NANPA’s website. You will find a wealth of information in regard to ethical practices when shooting in the field.
3.4. Travel Photography
There are many ethical concerns when it comes to travel photography. Unfortunately, there are no set rules or guidelines that apply to all countries, cultures, tribes, groups, and individuals within them. I believe that we as photographers should do prior research about the cultures, religions, and other social norms before making decisions on who or what to photograph. Not abiding by very specific rules provided by government authorities in countries like North Korea could easily land you in jail there, and if you were to photograph people in particular areas of Mexico where they perceive photographs as something that steals their souls, you could easily get in trouble. Local laws, rules, and norms should always be respected and we as photographers hold responsibility for properly representing all other photographers. If some of us sneak in and break the rules, it will surely affect the rest of us.
Take the recent case of a German teenager, who climbed the Great Pyramid of Giza, completely ignoring the Egyptian law that specifically prohibits it. Climbing ancient structures in Egypt is prohibited for a number of reasons. First, it is very unsafe. Over the course of many years, the stone blocks have been eroding and collapsing, and many tourists have died or injured themselves while attempting to climb in the past. Second, those sandstone blocks are not as strong as they seem to be from a distance – imagine what will happen to those pyramids if everyone continues to climb them. There will be nothing left for future generations to see and enjoy.
People have been vandalizing ancient structures like this for many years and we can clearly see the evidence today. Even on top of Giza, you will find carvings in different languages from people who wanted to leave their own traces of history. What a selfish bunch! I personally have little respect for daredevils like this, who break the law to promote themselves. The same goes for roof toppers, who only do what they do for the act of self-promotion, status, and social media “likes”. Most of them have zero respect for laws, regulations, private property, or privacy – they are known to break locks and walk into closed areas.
Aside from the above cases, there are many other ethical factors we have to consider when doing travel photography. Is it permissible to photograph people for money? You have probably seen pictures of fishermen with cormorants in boats, with lamps in their hands, and beautiful distant mountains in the background. Practically every single one of those photos is staged. In fact, there is now a whole army of these fishermen, ready to model in exchange for money. That area of China where the photographs are taken practically has no fish left due to over-fishing and pollution, so the traditional culture of cormorant fishing only exists today for photographic reasons. So is it ethical for us to employ such practices? I cannot answer this question, but one must think about both pros and cons of such actions and how they affect people. It has become common in many parts of the world to pay people in exchange for taking their pictures. In some popular tourist hotspots, people can be offended and even get aggressive, if you snap their photos and forget or refuse to pay them.
What about asking for permission before taking pictures? This applies to all kinds of portrait photography, especially street photography. Is it acceptable to take pictures of people without asking their permission, especially if the goal is to profit from the sale of such images?
If one explores the inner world of travel photography, there are a lot of dark stories to tell and hear. I once heard a horror story of photographers paying children to pose naked in front of a camera (picture young monks showing their private parts), again, for the sole purpose of capturing something unique nobody has previously photographed. I felt disgusted and saddened to hear of such stories.
3.5. Drone Photography
In the past few years, drone photography has been really taking off. Photographers and videographers are using drones to capture unique footage from angles and distances that are impossible to capture otherwise. While the idea of drone photography (see our detailed tutorial) sounds appealing to many, it does bring up a few, rather serious concerns.
Drone photography is something very new and largely unregulated. Although after a number of cases of drones posing threat to passenger and government aircraft, falling into protected areas (remember the guy who crashed a drone into the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone?) or crashing into buildings, the Federal Aviation Administration of the USA made it mandatory to register drones. Aside from basic guidelines, there are still no specific laws or rules in regard to how drones should be operated. This has been creating a huge problem for everyone because people are making all kinds of assumptions about what they can and cannot do. Nothing is said about flying over private property, privacy concerns, and recording footage of people or their property. Things are getting even more complex overseas, where governments and people never had concerns about aircraft flying over their heads and now they find themselves in dire need of protecting their landmarks and secure zones from tourists operating drones.
Sadly, many owners operate their drones without much practice, crashing them into government and private properties. Since drones cost a lot of money, they often end up breaking into closed areas and trespassing in order to retrieve them, causing all kinds of aggravation from the public.
There are many ethical concerns with drone photography and I believe that this subject should be explored in detail, as it will become more important with the growing popularity of drone photography.
4. The Ethics of Photography Competitions
Photo competitions historically have had a rather odd set of rules, often disallowing any kind of post-processing on images. Some do not allow any retouching, while others allow very slight changes involving color and contrast adjustments and perhaps some cropping. While I disagree with “no editing” rules of competitions and believe that some editing to images should be allowed, I would certainly disagree with rules allowing any kind of editing and photo manipulations. Once you go into the “free for all” zone, photo competitions can quickly lose their appeal. There are some real Photoshop wizards out there, who will make stunning-looking images from images that others would consider below average. A little bit of imagination and Photoshop drawing skills can really bring something that never existed or took place into life. That’s not to say that such composites and artwork should not be allowed at all, but those should be judged separately on their own, away from photography competitions.
Consider the recent case of Chai Yu Wei, a photographer from Singapore, who not only borrowed another photographer’s idea to capture a ladder leading up to the sky but also had the guts to insert an airplane into the center of the image before submitting it to a competition hosted by Nikon. Sadly, when asked, he even claimed that he was lucky to capture the plane like that. It did not take much time for other photographers to discover that the photo was a fake:
Nikon ended up removing the photo from its Facebook page and apologizing for selecting the photo as the winner, and the photographer issued an apology as well. However, this particular case will serve as another reminder of why photo manipulations like this should not be allowed. Chai Yu Wei wanted others to believe that he was at the right moment and at the right place to capture a photo of a plane passing by right through the center of the leading composition, something that obviously never took place.
The same ethical guidelines apply to wildlife photography competitions as well. We have seen a case where the photographer José Luis Rodriguez captured a photo of a wolf jumping over a fence, stating that the image portrayed a real wild wolf that was hunting a farmer’s livestock:
It turned out that the wolf was in fact not wild and the photographer basically staged a tame wolf to jump over the fence, while he captured it with flash at night. While this particular image was not a composite and was not edited as the previous image, it has a huge ethical problem – lying about an animal being wild, when it is not. If photographers are allowed to stage tame animals for wildlife competitions, then there is no point in photographing wild animals at all: one could capture stunning images of domesticated and tame animals, with some beautiful backgrounds.
5. The Ethics of Feeding Wildlife
There are cases where some wildlife photographers might get upset with other photographers, who might not necessarily use a tame or a domesticated animal as in the case above, but might feed a wild animal in order to capture unique shots. Many wildlife photographers practice such feeding procedures and take no guilt in doing that – some of them are quite open about it as well. Whether it is setting up bird feeders in the backyard, or putting mice in fields for those awesome shots of predators flying towards the camera, the question of whether those acts are ethical or not come up all the time between wildlife photographers. I will leave this one up for discussion: Do you think it is acceptable for photographers to feed wildlife to capture unique shots? Are there cases when such practices should be allowed?