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Photography DiscussionThe Ethics of Landscape Photography - Article for Discussion

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minniev
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The Ethics of Landscape Photography - Article for Discussion

Post by minniev » Wed Nov 15, 2017 3:20 pm

https://petapixel.com/2017/11/14/ethics-landscape-photography/

I'd like to know what others think about this. The conversation about my leaves http://www.photomentoris.com/viewtopic.php?f=84&t=3093 touched on these issues and got me thinking about my own opinions more deeply (which is just what a good photo forum discussion ought to do). My own conscious thoughts are not nearly as conservative as the author's, but I reckon I'm aligned with his opinions to some extent. I don't find it morally wrong to move a leaf or hold back a piece of grass that's impeding a shot, I just seldom do it. I do NOT break off twigs, clip things with scissors, etc. I don't drag things around to get them out of the way. I will pick up and dispose of human litter like candy wrappers. I don't have the slightest objection to cloning out things I find intrusive in pictures, but I don't always find some things as intrusive as others do - I may leave in a trash can, a fire hydrant, a utility pole that others find intrusive. I don't feel any need to explain my photographs to others unless they ask.

My bird exhibit has been hanging for over two months, and has a couple of weeks to go. I cannot sit up there every day telling people I cropped out the floating soft drink bottles, or that the texture overlaid on one of the prints is a shot of the concrete of the dam itself, or that I cloned out a blurred tern that came between me and the egret I was shooting. I have a disclaimer in the handout that explains some of the images are documentary and others are artistic interpretations. I don't feel guilty at all about this. When people asked questions during the opening about my processing, I gladly explained in as much depth as their own photographic knowledge permitted. But I don't apologize for my interpretive edits.

Why I feel so differently about shooting and editing is somewhat of a mystery even to me. Part of it is the challenge of trying to shoot what I find rather than manipulate the subjects. I'm the same with people, whom I'd rather shoot candid than posed, and still life, which I'd rather shoot as "found" rather than arranged.

I admire the fine studio work of talented photographers like Ernst, Duck, and others, and I admire good landscape photography without ever wondering what was done before or after capture to make it appealing. What's your own view on this? With images if you want, to illustrate.
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Post by LindaShorey » Wed Nov 15, 2017 6:40 pm

I found the article to be well written and rich with food for thought. The term "willfully deceive" the viewer resonates with me because it's how I feel about composites that are not revealed as such. And yes, this feeling is contradictory to how I feel about edits that "enhance" a scene.

But I was also fascinated with the author's classifying landscape photography as being more pure than I think of it, saying viewers "believe they're seeing a real thing that the earth created." He's even reluctant to use the spot healing tool. A couple of thoughts about that:

1. Maybe it's only because I take pictures and spend a lot of time on photo forums, but I tend to often believe that what I'm seeing is NOT reality, lol. I start with the assumption that the photographer edited to bring out the mood, details and composition that is their story to tell from their own artistic pov.

2. Practically speaking, how could we ever present a sunset exactly as seen? And his use of very slow shutter speed on the picture of beach ice is surely not how earth created it.

Minnie, regarding your dam bird exhibit, I think you found the perfect solution by pointing out in the brochure that some images are artistic interpretations. The extent to which individuals understand or even care is then left to them.

I've come to think of many of my edits as just normal stuff anyone would do if they enjoy pp. For example, it didn't occur to me to mention in my "Industry" topic that the blue sky at top is darker than originally seen by the camera. I vaguely recall one fairly recent topic where a comment in feedback resulted in my admitting to having done something I didn't disclose upfront (if only I could remember which topic!).

Minnie, I'm with you about being more interested in the challenge of finding elements rather than manipulating them. Rearranging ice chunks on a beach like the author saw occurring? Ridiculous :D

But this topic of yours will remind me to consider a bit more thoughtfully in the future about whether or not a viewer might feel deceived about any of my edits.
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Post by LindaShorey » Wed Nov 15, 2017 7:04 pm

When I posted #1 below to another forum I disclosed that I used a texture as part of the pp. The image is not obviously fanciful so it was important to me that people not think the dark, rich reds in that field were natural. And why it was important to me is because I could imagine myself happening upon a real scene like this and being blown away by the serendipity of seeing autumn colors at peak - and the joy that would bring me.

In #2 I didn't say anything because, though "optimized" in pp, the scene is real :) (for anyone curious, aperture in #2 is f/6.3. Starburst effect was strictly from my standing where the position of the sun is at edges of the tree trunk, the limb, the leaves.)
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Post by Psjunkie » Wed Nov 15, 2017 10:01 pm

I believe if you own the land you may do as you wish….if not then don’t harm the landscape. As for deception the only person I occasionally try to deceive is myself. Believing it’s ok to pick up litter but not move a leaf sounds like a confused mind to me. For anything other than documentation, It’s your presentation so do as you wish is my minds thought…if selling, competing, or just displaying, all questions brought up should be honestly answered……oh and that malarky about minimal edits….edits are edits period.

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Post by Duck » Wed Nov 15, 2017 10:34 pm

Ethics in photography is like ethics in politics, all over the place and often exaggerated.

The only thing I can undeniably agree with is to, "do no harm." That boils down to respect. Aside from that, I judge each image by what it shows me, not by what the artists tells me in a blurb. In most cases I could care less about their struggles to capture a scene, or if they did minimal editing or pulled out every Photoshop trick in their arsenal. It is about the finished image and how it resonates with me. I have seen some landscapes that were so beautiful and surreal one could possibly never imagine it being real. As for reality... I don't really want to see reality in an art print. I am easily bored with reality. I see reality every day. I don't want someone to show me reality. I am more impressed with an enhanced reality. A beautification of the real. An aesthetically enhanced version of the reality because it captures the essence of the location on its best day, a day I probably will never get the chance to experience because that is life. If you show me a minimally enhanced version of a scene all you will get from me is, "I could have done that! Show me what I can't do." Show me the majesty, show me the mystery, show me the plight, the desolation, the vastness, the emotion that will draw a reaction from me that makes my jaw drop.

Ethical representation of a scene also has to compete against today's standards of visual imagery. We are rapidly moving into a virtual reality where everything is hyper-real. Are you really going to tell me your minimally edited landscapes can compete against the beauty and majesty of a cinematic display of hyper-realism? Side by side that image would look flat and lifeless in comparison. Heck, Ansel Adams understood this a century ago and he was doing it all by hand with wet chemicals. Look at the majesty 'captured' in his images. They were all enhanced to bring out the beauty that he saw, not the beauty the camera captured.

As for major edits, like removing or altering features, I agree that it shouldn't be done IF the intent is to show the scene for what it is (documentary). If a building is there, keep it there. However, if the intent isn't to document reality, all rules go out the window. Just don't tell me it's supposed to be such and such when it clearly isn't. Regarding the leaf (as a metaphor)... that is a transitory element. It is here one day, gone the next. It does not define a scene like a distinctly protruding boulder would. However, as an accent piece to bring attention to an otherwise boring waterfall image (the author's example image)... by all means. It's a great visual element that adds charm and interest and color.

So what's more important, presenting the viewer with another boring image of another boring waterfall (I have lots of those) or something unique and interesting that causes the viewer to stop and pay closer attention? You bet I would have placed that leaf there. Why? It has nothing to do with integrity (because that leaf was not in that particular place at that particular time) but for artistic merit (because the probability of a leaf floating down that stream is very high and naturally understood as plausible). I would rather show you that probability because that will make you look harder should you find yourself at that very spot (or even a similar one), and that is a more important benefit than a cursory glance at a mundane image of a mundane waterfall.

In the end, though, who cares? Not the leaf, not the passersby that travel the same path, not the viewer of the image and definitely not the photographer who made the alteration. Can anyone honestly look at the leaf image the author posted and care that it was purposely placed there, or do you simply admire the image for what it is? Had I seen this image outside of the context of his article I would not have cared about that rather insignificant detail of its creation because, in the broad sense, who really does care?
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Post by Matt Quinn » Wed Nov 15, 2017 11:33 pm

This is some pretty heady stuff that we should discuss around a table with some beer, wine or maybe even single malt Scotch. (I am all for this last one.) Philosophers have been debating what is reality for millennia. Plato contributed the story about shadows on the wall of the cave. They are the things that we see and what we think are real but they are only suggestions, phantoms; the only real things were ideas, whatever he meant by that. The critters that walked past the fire that cast the shadows weren't "real" either. Folks still quibble about his definition of real.

And this is where alcohol is needed to smooth the conversation; if we can't agree on what is real, how can we deal with stuff that purports to have captured reality but is only a likeness of a shadow? I get dizzy just thinking about it.

And if I took a photo and did nothing to it but develop it, I don't think that would reflect "reality" either. Limits of the sensor, the printer, the ink, the paper, the monitor screen, etc, produce variations.

The ethical lapses occur not in the photographing, but in the actions surrounding it. Trespassing, destroying or stealing property, invading privacy are unethical in themselves. Doing them as a means to an end ( a successful photo ) doesn't justify them either. (I am of the school that the end doesn't justify the means.) I don't move stuff; I move, if I can without risking life or limb. If I am taking a photo of a grandchild, I will have him or her move toward a window. My wife may comb their hair or straighten clothing. Nothing unethical there. We do it to make the child look better, a bit closer, perhaps, to the ideal child. (Plato again.) No pretense that the child always looks that way.

So, there are two activities with ethical implications; the placing of the leaf on the rock and denying or not admitting that you put it there. Taking the photo is a neutral act, I believe. The second action is lying and unethical by itself. The first action should be judged by its content not its context; whether a person is taking a photo or out for a hike, would this action be ethical or not.

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Post by Duck » Thu Nov 16, 2017 7:55 am

Within the referenced article a reader (YoYoYO) countered with an argument that suggested analysing the article against the definition of ethics to see if any of the points made held up to the definition. I thought this was an interesting approach though his counter argument left a lot to be disired. So here is my take on the subject.

According to Wikipedia wrote:Ethics, or moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. Ethics seeks to resolve questions of human morality by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime.


In particular, there is an area of study called Applied Ethics, "concerning what a person is obligated (or permitted) to do in a specific situation or a particular domain of action." In short, ethics is about rules or codes of conduct and in many of the examples and counter points offered the arguments do not keep to the ethics of photography but cross over to the moral responsibility of photography.

Moral Responsibility is an internalized version of what is right and wrong, seperate from any social laws. These are personal guidelines that help us navigate situation based on our own comfort level, gut reaction to any given situation. To judge the ethics of landscape photography one needs to be clear in the argument put forth and keep it within the realm of ethics and not cross over into the subjective and interprative area of morality.

In this case we can divide the ethical obligation of the photographer into two parts; ethical responsibility to the environment and ethical responsibility to the viewer. I list these responsibilities because they have different obligations with different consequenses but both deal with ethics. A third obligation, which I'll touch on later, is responsibility to the self but that is based on morality and a different discussion.

First is to the environment and the legal implications of the photographer's actions. Damaging protected environments, like National, State and Local parks is criminally illegal so it is globally recognized that breaking these laws is ethically wrong. It therefore goes without saying that damaging anything that is protected by law in order create an image would fall as a definitive ethical fail on the part of the photographer. Taking photos where the action of photography is legally regulated by permit or not allowed by rule also fall into ethical conflict.

In order to work within the ethical constraints of the law, the photographer needs to understand those laws. Some are self evident; don't litter, don't set fires, don't destroy property that would negatively impact the environment and so on. The mantra of, "leave the environment as you found it," while sentimental and good advice is grounded in morality not ethics and would otherwise fail in an argument of ethics of photography. Likewise, the example of moving some element in the environment to create greater visual impact is based on morality rather than ethics.

The second part deals with the viewer. While many feel this lies more with moral issues, there are very clear ethical guidelines in place. The most strict come from publishers of photos. When used in a documentarian or journalistic manner, the guidelines are clear, the image has to represent the physical location to the best of the technical limitations allowed. For most, that means normalising the image and minimal digital editing. No deleting or adding or rearranging features, no flipping the image or warping perspectives beyond what is considered reasonable, and no mislabeling or misrepresenting a location, its features or surroundings. Taking a photo of Mount Vesuvius and calling it Mount Saint Helen is ethically wrong.

Art landscapes, while not completely in the documentarian realm, also abide by similar rules of misrepresentation, though there is some leniency here, specially when a location is not identified. Uniquely identifiable natural features obviously can not be misrepresented but indeterminate features walk the fine line of ambiguity, which leads to another problem; deception by omission. Is it considered to be a deception if a location is not given just because it can not be visually identified by the viewer? That is also another topic for discussion.

These two situations deal clearly with the ethics but, as we all know, we all have our own internal compass that guides us through what we consider right and wrong, outside of any laws and regulations. Moral laws are just as real and just as strong (if not stronger) than ethical laws. The only difference is that moral laws fluctuate between person to person, region or country. What one considers taboo another can find it common practice and this is where much of the debates center around. The choice to stage a scene is a personal one and up to the individual artist's moral judgment. That judgment can also change according to varying influences and circumstances. There is also usually a double standard at play that is often overlooked because everyone will interpret their morality differently.

Let's take an earlier example of the photographer posing a family and ensuring they look "neat and proper for the camera." That arrangement and tidying up is fundamentally no different than the photographer that artistically arranges a few leaves and twigs on a rock to create a stronger visual image, yet one photographer may find fault with one action but not another.

My opinion on this whole argument is that while it is easy to weigh the argument of ethics in photography on the established context of legal regulations, it falls apart once people start confusing morality as ethics into the argument.

Now, if you want a debate on the Morality of Photography that is a whole other discussion.
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Post by minniev » Thu Nov 16, 2017 1:18 pm

LindaShorey wrote:I found the article to be well written and rich with food for thought. The term "willfully deceive" the viewer resonates with me because it's how I feel about composites that are not revealed as such. And yes, this feeling is contradictory to how I feel about edits that "enhance" a scene....But this topic of yours will remind me to consider a bit more thoughtfully in the future about whether or not a viewer might feel deceived about any of my edits.


Thanks Linda for a thoughtful response. Like you, I think some of my disinclination to arrange things is less an moral or ethical concern than the Thrill Of The Chase. I enjoy finding things and seeing what I can make of them. In post processing I enjoy the same - finding possibilities in a scene or a photo and seeing what I can turn it into.

Your inclination to "explain" what you did is interesting, I am sometimes the same, but other times I want to present an image without explaining and see how others view it before explaining anything. I still recall the time I posted a particular dam bird image without explanation and since it was obviously manipulated, some folks inquired what I'd done. Our friend Jim Hill admonished me not to answer the questions, saying I had given them the image and nothing else was owed.
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Post by Duck » Thu Nov 16, 2017 1:46 pm

minniev wrote:[...] I still recall the time I posted a particular dam bird image without explanation and since it was obviously manipulated, some folks inquired what I'd done. Our friend Jim Hill admonished me not to answer the questions, saying I had given them the image and nothing else was owed.

As with anything, there are always two sides to a coin. As the photographer that created the image, Jim is correct in that you do not have any obligation to explain an image beyond its presentation. As a photographer viewing the image, it is natural curiosity to want to know more. If nothing other than to further one's own photographic education, but to expect an explanation is unrealistic. Any explanation offered should be seen as a courtesy on the part of the creator.
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Post by LindaShorey » Thu Nov 16, 2017 1:55 pm

minniev wrote:... I still recall the time I posted a particular dam bird image without explanation and since it was obviously manipulated, some folks inquired what I'd done. Our friend Jim Hill admonished me not to answer the questions, saying I had given them the image and nothing else was owed.

Duck wrote:... If nothing other than to further one's own photographic education, but to expect an explanation is unrealistic. Any explanation offered should be seen as a courtesy on the part of the creator.
If the photo is posted to a photo forum, whether for critique, suggestions, or just admiration, there should absolutely be an obligation to explain if asked. That's what forums are about in my opinion. Otherwise, they are just personal websites. If I want to admire inspiring work without the opportunity to ask questions or talk about it, I can just go to my good buddy Mr Google.
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