Drawing the Line, Crossing the Line, & Erasing the Line

Picture: High Tension Power Transmission Lines and Towers in the local hills, near Martinez, California

Photo: High Tension Power Transmission Lines and Towers in the local hills, near Martinez, California

After taking time this year to move my office and catch up on a number of back-burner home & office projects, and the hell that was last year, I’m slowly starting to de-lurk and poke my head back in a few of the online photography forums.

While poking around, I came across a thread at FredMiranda that struck a chord with me. A photographer had this great bucolic scene of morning fog over a field with trees, hills, …and powerlines. He also posted another version where he had erased the offending poles and wires. The image obviously looked better without them, and viewers, including me, concurred that it was better, visually.

Yet this brought a point up to me, since for years I’d been sitting on a similar nice scene, but never thought it would make a good print because of the power lines. Morning fog over hills from Fremont Peak, near Hollister, California:

Photo: Morning fog over hills from Fremont Peak, near Hollister, California

One problem kept this image from being “print-worthy”, namely the tower and power lines.
Photo: Morning fog over hills from Fremont Peak, near Hollister, California - Detail

Now the newest version of PhotoShop CS5 has the Content-Aware Fill tool. And with a few waves of the proverbial magic wand, the tower and power lines vanish into the fog.

The FredMiranda thread made me re-examine my own ideas on what is OK or not. Is there a time when cloning out ‘offending objects’ is OK? The answer is “Of Course – when it’s Art.” PhotoJournalism offers the other easy answer; “Never.” But for us editorial photographers who also sell prints, the answer just doesn’t fly so easily. What about that one little powerline, or a big powerline, or a few blurred birds flying through an otherwise clear sky? What’s so bad about getting rid of that, right?

As a Landscape & Travel photographer, trying to show a scene for what it is, yet still show it at its best, I’ve developed my own two prong litmus guideline before removing anything from an image. The first is what I call the “Client Drive-By” test. If a client were to show up at the same scene, with a copy of a print that I sold them and held it up, would they instantly see an obvious disparity between the print and the view in front of them. If they suddenly see something “not right”, they’ll suddenly question any sense of authenticity and truthfulness about all of your work. That’s not a perception I want to risk my clients having about my work.

The second guide I follow is what I call the “Fingernail Test“. If you walked past a person on the beach, how quick would you be to notice they were missing a fingernail? Think of the area of your photo as akin to your body. If the area you want to clone out is akin to a fingernail out of the overall body, that’s one thing. But if it goes to the point of covering up or cutting off a hand, foot, arm, or leg, then that becomes a much different story, as one would be likely to immediately recognize such a deformity.

Fixed – but is it OK?
Photo: Morning fog over hills from Fremont Peak, near Hollister, California

I would love to hear your thoughts. Where’s your line? Is there an OK point, or a line you won’t cross when it comes to removing distracting or unwanted elements in your photo? Is it a question you’ve wrestled with? If so, what answers have you come up with?

Join the discussion 25 Comments

  • Rolf Hicker says:

    Great post Gary – I don’t believe in one answer here. For art, no question, fine to take out.

    In general I would think it is ok to take out. As long as the photo is not used as a documentation about this area.

    But again, I think it is a great point that you brought it up and I wonder what others think about it.
    Cheers Rolf

    BTW: it is a beautiful picture and I think it really should go into your “print-worthy” library

  • To your point whether its commercial/art or documentary/photojournalism is the key question. Clearly the later is off limits to such edits. I know architecture photographers routinely remove all wires in front of buildings to highlight the architecture, as its what their clients expect. Personally I’d be interested in seeing a series of such images side by side in an exhibit. Large with no wires and a small image with the wires and a caption. It’d be a great way to highlight visual pollution in our urban and semi-urban environments.

  • Frank King says:

    It’s definitely OK with me. My goal with my photographs is for you to experience the emotion I felt when I made the picture. If that means removing a hydro tower in one little area, then no problem.

  • Chris Marks says:

    I think the right question to ask is: “How Honest is it?”, not “Is it Honest?”

    The answer to the second question might be yes, but the answer to the first might be not very.

    It’s up to the photographer though to stand by his work and decide how true to his subject he’s being. My feeling is that removing powerlines isn’t very true to the landscape even if it is a man-made object.

    Still I have to think that removing something man-made is preferable to adding extra-wildflowers into a hillside, or adding clouds to a clear sky or removing a tree for that matter.

    Then again since I do not sell my work I have no financial incentive to push my work that extra little bit so it’s very easy for me to take such a stand.

    Personally I won’t apply the clone tool to anything which is physically in the landscape, just lens flares or dust specks, impacts of the camera and lens itself. I know many photographers would not even be comfortable with that.

  • Tim Newton says:

    The re-touched image takes me to a place the original never can.

  • Ron Rothbart says:

    I don’t think it’s simply art vs. journalism. Some recent and contemporary artists find beauty in unlikely places. Others feel art that purports to show pristine wilderness where the reality is environmental degration is dishonest art. I also think the distinction between art and journalism isn’t always that clear. Some photographers aim at a hybrid. Ultimately, whether to clone out those wires and towers depends on the photographer’s intent.

  • I think one of the comments above hits it right on the head, it depends on whether it is commercial/art or documentary/photojournalism. I just recently processed one landscape photo and realized that someone carved their name into a nearby fallen tree. I didn’t even notice it at the time and the fallen tree was the main subject! I felt ok about cloning it out of my “art”. Of course if it was documentary I could show how some self absorbed person thought everyone needed to know that “Fredy” saw the tree too.

    I agree with Rolf, this goes in your “print-worthy” collection, a beautiful shot. Without the power lines.

  • I agree with Frank King, I want the viewer to experience the feeling I had when I saw the scene. If that means removing a small object (man made usually) then I don’t think it’s any big deal. I also think Chris Marks is correct, it’s ok to take something out, but not ok it add something in.

    I look very similar to the fingernail test mentioned in Gary’s article, did I notice it right away when I was taking the shot. Would the client/viewer notice it right away if they had the image at the scene.

    I think it is also important to admit to the alteration if asked. I don’t think you need to put it forward if no asked, but if you are asked, admit that you “enhanced” the image.

  • I like your term “Fingernail Test”. If it is some tiny oversight on my part, then I will most likely clone it out, but I keep both copies in case a client needs the original. I probably do this in less the 1% of my images & disclose it. I think that we should all strive for perfection. If there are power lines in your photo, then go someplace where there aren’t any or don’t include them in your composition.

  • Here’s another question that I’ve been meaning to ask you. What would Galen consider acceptable? I do not believe in blending exposures, compositing shots, cropping after the fact, or photographing captive animals. I guess that makes me a Puritan. I routinely see photographers invoke the name of Ansel Adams when they try to justify their own process. Since he is not here to tell us himself, that is kind of like people saying Jesus would do this or that. Since you were so close to Galen, I would respect that you have some special insight into his ethics. Thank you.

  • Richard Wong says:

    I couldn’t care less if someone wants to label it art or not, the point is that if you can get anything you want by changing it in Photoshop then how can you ever get excited by or expect anyone else to get excited by an image that you actually accomplished via what you saw in your viewfinder? The way I look at it is that I have enough other images that I don’t feel desperate enough to manipulate something everytime I take a flawed image.

  • Richard Wong says:

    P.S. I’d consider the original to be print-worthy the way it is.

  • Gary – great topic and a great shot, with or without the tower.

    I agree with Jon that we should all preferably shoot from a spot or perspective where the unwanted bits aren’t in the frame to begin with. Having said that – I understand it’s not always possible. Sometimes the only way to capture that sweet light the way you want it is to shoot from somewhere you’ll get bits you don’t want. Or you’re in a place you might never visit again, and the light is perfect and you’ve got this one shot and then the light’s going to be gone… of course you take the shot.

    So my preference is not to have to do any cloning in the first place; but if necessary, then yes, do it. Because you want the shot to reflect what fired up your creative, artistic juices at that moment – and it wasn’t the man-made uglies. Sometimes it’s all about what exists in your mind -actually, if we believe what all the gurus say about visualizing what you want to achieve before you take the shot, then it’s always about that.

    I agree with several of the other comments, as well: the shot was print worthy to begin with; I like it better without the tower; and if asked, always be up front about editing.

    So yeah, touching up is permissible in fine art, although not preferable. Never in photojournalism or photo documentation.

  • Stephanie Martin says:

    Great post and comments by all! I tend to have Puritanical beliefs about photography but agree with the others in a nutshell, art=remove if small, journalism=leave it all. Btw, Jim Goldstein had a great suggestion!

  • Steve Cole says:

    There’s a lot that can (and is) done under the banner of “art” but this kind of manipulation is too much for me. If I can’t get the shot through cropping or by physically moving, then the shot wasn’t meant to be. It just opens the door for doubt about ANYTHING in the photo. If one is willing to remove one object, how are we to know where the artist draws the line? It’s not as if we’ll find a detailed list on an artist’s website.

    I am ok with blending of exposures and blending of photos for depth of field because these techniques address limitations of equipment (when compared with the capabilities of human eyesight).

  • Bill Griswold says:

    I have no troubles with editing photos, BUT I think this photo needs something defined in that location in the picture – a tree, building, something. It’s near the rule-of-thirds spot, and provides a nice balance and focus point for the image. However, I might feel differently if I saw it full-sized. Size really influences how you see an image.

  • Russ Bishop says:

    I think there are probably as many opinions on this as there are possibilities with the content-aware filter! The tool is almost magical and the concern of photojounalists is certainly a valid one.

    But in the world of art photography and even travel to a degree, the subtle use of improving a scene to render it more pleasing (a la your “fingernail test”) is acceptable to most. It is a matter of degree and no two images will be treated alike, but in the case of your powerlines I feel it is an improvement that is justified.

  • enlightphoto says:

    Wow – Great discussion & thoughts. Thank you all so much for sharing your time and feelings on the subject.

    Jon: re: Galen…

    Galen did discuss a couple items that I clearly recall:

    He did place a properly exposed moon over an over exposed moon (on a print – originals were brackets on slide film) in a shot of the moon over Mt. Everest. His assertion directly about this was a justification that the moon really was there, and that’s what he was really seeing, so the ‘adjustment’ was made to solve a limitation in the technology, i.e. the narrow exposure latitude of the professional slide film.

    In another instance, he cloned out a large amount of penguin droppings that he made on an art print of an Emperor Penguin. He later came to regret what he called digitally cleaning up a natural scene after the fact, and said he wouldn’t be doing that again. Maybe that print has some extra collector value now? (Side note: He would advocate cleaning up a scene pre-shot by bending back live bushes intruding into a frame, or snapping off a piece of dead foliage. However, he made sure to note that this was always a last ‘in-field option’ if moving himself was not an option, and that it would minimally impact to the environment. (Think: Blade of dead grass, a fallen leaf, a twig; not a branch, or all the fallen leaves.)

    These are words from the horse’s mouth. How people adopt or interpret is an individual choice.

    In the end, I don’t think I’d ever submit the altered image of mine to a magazine, and while still unsure about the “art side” – I wouldn’t post for sale without disclosing the alteration.

  • Richard Wong says:

    Great insights, Gary. On the business side of things, if you wouldn’t submit an altered image to a magazine, how would you handle the organization of your files so that you don’t make that mistake? We shoot so many images, I’m sure we don’t remember everything about every image. I know I don’t.

  • Mike Shipman says:

    I also went through a period of agonizing over this question. I began a photography “purist”, mostly due to my relative inability to effectively manipulate images in the darkroom (or laziness, either is probably accurate), and thus grew an inbred belief the film negative or transparency and the photographic process was inviolate; what the camera saw and the film recorded was as it should be.

    Try telling that to Jerry Uelsmann.

    I realized after hours spent debating the issue online and with my photographer friends that there are only two instances when manipulating a photograph is wrong (and to what degree do you consider a photo to be manipulated?): When you’re trying to show people the truth and when you’re telling people what they see is accurate. It doesn’t matter if this is done for photojournalism or editorial or some other. If you’re telling the viewer what they’re seeing is “real” and you’ve made significant changes to alter the reality, i.e. changing the story, then it’s wrong.

    All else is fair game.

    As an artist, I am not going to be fenced in by a viewer or other photographer’s misguided understanding of art and photography, expecting everything I shoot to represent reality in its true form (whatever that is). People tend to assume all photographs are digitally altered, anyway, even when they are not (and then smirk in disbelief when it’s explained, yes, this is the way it actually looked).

    So, I “grew out” of this debate, I suppose. As a professional, and a human being, I know the difference between honesty and dishonesty and following that guidance makes deciding what to do with the digital file so much easier.

    Even with my artwork, although there may be significant digital manipulation, I am being honest to myself, to the artwork I’m creating, and to my viewers, in the creation of the work. That means I’m not slathering on filters and layer effects and this and that just because I can (a form of dishonesty) or because a friend is doing it.

    It’s the intent of the manipulation that is at the core of this external and internal debate, and the honesty with which it’s done.

    This leads, again, to the age-old debate of labeling photographs that have been manipulated. I still don’t have an answer for this one, but tend to shy away from it except in cases where alteration is significant from the original (editorial, mostly. Art is still art and there shouldn’t be any reason to label….would a painter have to make a declaration they used oils AND acrylics on the same painting, or combined scenes from different locations and times? What about using photographs and other illustrations as the basis for their work?).

    So, I think if you’re doing art, do it. If you’re shooting photojournalism, no. Editorial? Generally, no, but check with your editor.

  • Mike Shipman says:

    As a response to your post, Gary, I think you’ve got the right idea with your tests. I certainly see a lot of “dishonest” advertisements showing a storefront backed by a brilliant sunset and snow-capped mountain peaks when the actual location faces the opposite direction from any mountains and even then they aren’t visible. So you’re “Drive-By” test, I think, is the most critical in that regard.

    As for Galen removing penguin poop, it seems to have been an aesthetic choice initially (artistic), but perhaps he regretted it later because it wasn’t accurate from a natural history point of view (editorial). He seems to have decided to be more honest regarding the natural history aspect. Being a former wildlife biologist, I can appreciate that.

  • Pierre Belarge says:

    Gary, this is a topic of which will never be decided by the ‘crowd’, as the ‘crowd’ has different opinions; which also is fine.

    Photography is art.
    Painting is art.
    No one questions an artist’s painting of a landscape, as that is what the artist sees/feels.
    No one should question the photographer’s image, as that is what the artist sees/feels.

  • Pierre Belarge says:

    One other comment.
    There are no photographic images taken, whether film or digital, that are not already altered when printed….

  • latoga says:

    Wow, what a great discussion! Gary’s comment about Galen’s penguin photo reminds me of another photo of Galen’s that I saw at Mountain Light Gallery. It was some horses running across a field in front of a mountain range (don’t remember the specific location). A classic photograph of epic light and conditions. But I remember being drawn, as a photographer, to the horses feet. Something didn’t feel right and I kept thinking that the feet looked like they were artificially blurred to show their motion. This soured my feelings about that image (even if it wasn’t artificially enhanced).

    I agree (and practice) the finger nail test. I have no hesitancy removing small distractions that wouldn’t be noticed if they don’t alter the reality of the photo. I’ve even removed some power lines when I couldn’t get frame the image I wanted in the field. I agree with Mike S. that as long as you’re not altering reality of the location, it’s not worth mentioning. Once you do start to alter the reality, I think you need to track that and disclose that unless you are publicly stating you are only creating photographic art.

    Luckily with today’s tools it has gotten easier to track this using Lightroom/Aperature using the meta data as well as keep the original un-edited photo. I have a small set of keywords that I use to track modifications like this to my photos. I still include them for techniques that are making up for the technical limitations of our gear; but as gear improves and technology advances it might not be necessary in the future.

    And I think Jim G. stumbled upon a new blog project for us all: Altered and Unaltered images from our archives… 🙂

  • Generally I feel our society’s sense of karma (poorly translated as right and wrong) has suffered in the last 30-40 years. Many people’s viewpoints about what to take out and put into a photograph also reflect a lack of concern about consequences or repercussions. You make some very good suggestions about how to address this here. The question you are opening up here with this excellent post is, “How far is too far to go?” If I yell at my grandma that may be bad, if I slap her it is worse, if I shoot her in the head that is clearly wrong. However, a little unkindness won’t do her any harm. This may not be the best analogy for photography. Either way though, we need some gauges, some litmus tests. I feel those you suggest here are very good. I agree with Ron Rothbart that it is not an art versus journalism issue because the judgment of what is art or not is subjective. Some would say that everything is art, and some might say that if your work is not in a good museum, you are presumptuous to call your work art.

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