Aesthetics versus truth: DW Akademie examines ethics of retouching


How do you balance the demands of aesthetics and documentary truth? DW Akadamie has published a feature examining the challenges faced by photojournalists and picture editors in creating attractive and atmospheric images, without compromising their authenticity. 

Before adjustment…

[Photo: Yuri Kozyrev/NOOR for TIME Magazine] 

After adjustment…

[Photo: Yuri Kozyrev/NOOR for TIME Magazine]

Image manipulation of documentary photographs is nothing new, but it is certainly much easier now than ever before.

As the article posted by DW Akadamie points out, ‘adjusting the fundamental elements of a digital photograph, its DNA if you like, such as exposure/brightness, colour/saturation, whites/blacks, contrast/shadows and much, much more, are as easy as moving a virtual ‘slider’ with a mouse’. 

Most people seem to agree that photojournalists should be held to higher standards than casual photographers when it comes to things like digitally adding or removing elements of an image, but what about exposure? Color balance? Shadow adjustment?

This raises a tricky ethical question for people who’s job it is to collect and process documentary images. How much adjustment can be performed before a photograph stops being representative of objective reality in front of the camera?

Before adjustment…

[Photo: Yuri Kozyrev/NOOR for TIME Magazine]

After adjustment…

[Photo: Yuri Kozyrev/NOOR for TIME Magazine]

In an attempt to answer this question, DW Akademie interviewed Claudio Palmisano, one of the founders of 10b Photography Laboratory – a Rome-based ‘digital darkroom’ that works with several professional photojournalists. Palmisano’s philosophy is relatively simple. He states: 




post processing has been an integral part of photography since the very beginning 150 years ago. there is no such thing as “documentary truth” that you can get without post processing. you only give out the control to the people who don’t know you, your subject, or your audience: the engineers who invented the film, the staff at film development laboratory, …

no post processing, no photography


Simple contrast and vignetting changes ?? It’s not like they photoshopped in a dead goat.

Check out the story on Eugene Smith, war photographer. He would spend weeks in the dark room with his prints getting them just right.


Fact: Pure truth is boring, or we wouldn’t have American Idol


Spiegel ran an article (in their international Englishlanguage edition) on this subject recently which also looked at the role of 10b photography. It’s at


This debate is hilariously pointless. First, who ever claimed a camera captures reality? It captures light signals, interpreted by processes designed by humans & conducted by their machines. It’s flawed technology at best. So altering the photo after is irrelevant since what comes out of the camera is not real nor objective by any absolute standard (e.g. take the same photo with 2 different cameras on auto – interesting how different!).
Second, only simpleminded folks think photography records objectivity. The rest of us know it’s no more ‘real’ than the written word. Everything a photographer does, from the moment of picking up the camera, is subjective choices.
Third, the only standard to hold journos to is whether they deliberately sought to alter the information in the photo document to make it obviously false. i.e. Bring in the lawyers!


So what if an element is removed? Perhaps you only want to highlight a certain thing and the wire or chair or plane or dog is a distraction. Maybe you want the viewer staring into the eyes of the attacker and not looking off to the side at the bright red car. So you change it’s color to black.

Remember black and white? Remember the zone system and contrast and push processing? Did it come anywhere near to reality? Why did no one complain back then? (Or did they?)


Taking photo is already an act of manipulation/retouching of the “reality”. The “reality” always reaches our senses through some media, be it a photo, a news broadcast, an announcement in words, etc. which are all manipulation or retouching of the “reality”. Now more than ever it is so much so that the media become the message (McLuhan).


By it’s very nature, photography is not truthful – you’re portraying 3D life with sound and temperature and feel and immediate drama in a 2D, silent format.

Is it photojournalism? Then do what it takes to project the drama of the situation.

Is it fine art? Anything you can do to portray what you were feeling or what you want the scene to do is fair game.

You’re telling a story. For gosh sakes, tell the story as you want it to be told. There is no such thing as unbiased journalism. Once you get that out of your head, spin away.


Guess they like Color Efex. 😀

Both are like 2-3 click edits in that.

Truth to be told, I like Color Efex too, one of most useful plugins.

And if its correct? As long as you keep just doing regula post-processing its fine. Digital isnt film, RAW files from digital are flat and boring, unless you shoot well set JPGs. Certain degree of post-processing is needed. Bit of stylization doesnt hurt.

I might only add that it shouldnt be over-stylized so it doesnt kill “message”.


Post-prossessing colours & contrast is fine tuning. It pales into being irrelevant once you consider framing or timing.

A photo of a man shouting? – looks like he’s cheering at a sports event – but I cropped out the fact he was hit by an arrow in the knee.

A nice family picnic? Seconds later a rampaging bear attacks.

Now, who cares that I adjusted the sky to seem more blue?


A man that used to be a photographer like us. Then he took an arrow in the knee?


Well it’s a good thing they didn’t remove the overhead wires in the first photo…

The energy sponsors of the program will complain…


Pat Cullinan Jr

The wire is for a Spiderman stunt. Then it’s off to the shop for wire removal.


I’m bothered by the phrase, “… the photographer’s own vision …”

A fine art, or commercial photographer has a “vision” of the kind of effect she wishes to create with her images. Photoshop all you want – you are not attempting to depict reality.

A photojournalist, however is on the scene to help the rest of the world understand what was going on in the moment. She is an interpreter of reality, and just as I would not want a language interpreter changing the words of a world leader by using his “vision” of what the leader could have said, I don’t want a photojournalist altering a photograph any more than absolutely necessary.

If the photographer remembered a high-contrast, primarily grey battle scene but the camera showed lower contrast with more color, adjust the image to fit what you remember was accurate. But don’t change it to fit your “vision” of what a battlefield scene should look like – that is dishonest.


I’m not sure how much it matters. No matter what the photographer does, on the web at least they have very little control over presentation. You are going to get radically different color values, exposure, etc. depending on people’s monitors anyway. In the old days you could at least control some elements of the presentation, by printing yourself, but even then people could have looked at your prints under light you didn’t want, and messed it up that way.

In the end, photography is art and largely subjective. Maybe the biggest deception would be doing things “right”, by your definition or mine or somebody else’s, and then claiming that the resulting photograph depicted exactly the reality it purported to show.

Stealthy Ninja

Just talking about the processing:
I like the first one’s processing fine. It brings out the subjects and adds drama (though the original wasn’t that bad).

The second one I think the processing takes away from the drama. All the contrast has been washed out for the sake of trying to get some sort of HDR effect.



There is little absolute truth in any photograph as it is the sum total of composition, framing, lighting, etc. Especially with photojournalism, a photograph is designed as a narrative. So what are the bounds of appropriate photo manipulation? For me when one changes any element to change the fundamental story be it cloning, eliminating/adding elements, distorting lighting or any manipulation which results in an alternation of the narrative.


Perhaps dpreview should create a ‘low brow’ news section, and allow readers to filter out this stuff, and the article about the guy who adapted a large lens to take photos with his mft camera.

The premise of this article is a total non issue. Should we reconsider modifying images when sending them to pre-press, should a colour image never be displayed in black and white?



What do I have to do to get in the “high brow” club?

Pat Cullinan Jr

You have to pass high-school geometry.

dale thorn

Lightening or bringing up shadows to reveal more detail in a documentary image seems legitimate. Darkening O.J. Simpson’s visage to make him look more menacing is not legitimate.


Out of camera jpegs are not “truth”. They are an interpretation of reality. Different companies, different cameras, and different settings produce jpegs with different color profiles, different tone curves, etc. Different lenses distort photos in different ways. So if a photographer does nothing to a photo, the photo still does not depict reality. I used to look at photos of microscope slides, and often inverted the colors, because sometimes I could pick out details in the inverted photo that were not apparent in the default color scheme. So even inverting colors does not necessarily make a photo less real than an out of camera jpeg.

To me, unless you are removing or adding details, you are not altering a photo for the purposes of photojournalism. So I don’t consider these two photos to be altered.

Ollie 2

Well, my two cents is that grading images is hardly altering or manipulating their “authenticity”.

…and in my opinion the two images on this page were more effective prior to the alterations. So what do I know?


I agree, I think the pre adjustment shots have a more realistic “feel” to them. Esp that first shot, I can’t ever recall being in a weather condition that would make what I saw with my eyes appear like what is in that adjusted image.

Ollie 2

Indeed. And the hooded figure is a far more surprising/shocking element when perceived in such a (more or less) “normal” atmosphere.
I have a tendency to overcook my images…but I hate it when pros do it 😉

Gerard Hoffnung

It’s all about personal taste. I like the after in the first image and the before in the second.
I’m in western Canada and skies like that and a whole bunch more weird are common around here. Prior to a tornado that hit Edmonton in 1987, the skies actually had this bizarre mix of purples and greens.


I actually liked them both afterwords. That second one looks so much hotter and desperate and dusty. More harsh drama which must be how the photographer felt at the time. None of us will agree with every edit.

Ollie 2

Looks like half-baked HDR to me…but I can see what you’re saying.

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