Digital Decisions
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, April 1998

Ever since I took a public stand against altering the contents of nature photography without disclosure, I have had photographers walk up and start lecturing me on my censoring of artistic freedom and anachronistic rejection of digital technology. While I firmly believe that adding subject matter which was not in front of the camera deceives the public trust in photography, I am amazed how many people assume that I am against all digitizing of photographs. They act surprised to hear that I have allowed my images to be digitized for many years.

Corbis, the world's largest commercial photo archive, owned by Bill Gates, has 16,900 digital scans of my images. We have agreed that minor alterations can be made for quality reproduction, but that no changes can be made to the basic form of what was before my lens without my permission. I would easily give that permission to have one of my running grizzly bears dropped in behind a sport utility vehicle in one of those lucrative car ads that no one believes anyway. I would never allow such a content change in an editorial image that represents the natural world in the viewer's mind.

I'm not sure when the first of my photographs was digitized. It was probably somewhere in the seventies during the printing of one of my books in Japan. My slides were scanned for color separations at a multi-million-dollar digital workstation that had less capability than the desktop equipment now in my office. By the late eighties, editors at several small American magazines told me that they were doing their own digital pre-press in Adobe Photoshop on desktop computers. Outdoor magazines rode the crest of this new wave, using digital techniques to lighten, brighten, sharpen, and retouch mediocre slides shot in compromising conditions in the field. Great slides that appeared perfect on the light box were also digitally tweaked a bit.

Over the course of thousands of stock photo sales to magazine and book publishers, I can't recall anyone asking permission to sharpen edges, clone out dirt and scratches, or increase color saturation within reasonable limits to make my work look as good as possible on the printed page. Digital is the major difference between the clean reproductions in magazines of the nineties and the murky ones of the not-so-distant past.

I've switched to digital scans even for my highest-quality photographic prints. Digital corrections for edge sharpness, color, film flaws, and minor scratches are incorporated into finished photographic prints that more accurately represent what I saw at the scene. Nature photography is less of a science than an interpretive art that combines the way our film responds to light with the way our eyes interpret both the finished photograph and the original scene.

When we alter an image to draw attention to an effect that wasn't there on the original film or in the eye of the beholder, we are using the belief system inherent in 160 years of photography to create a false impression that this unusual image represents something film recorded in the natural world. To say that somewhere in there remains a real vision of nature is as bogus as trying to convince someone that a counterfeit $1000 bill created by adding zeros to a ten-spot is really okay because the original bill does represent a certain value held in trust in the national coffers. The operative word here is greed.

How far am I willing to enhance an image to make it show what I really saw more clearly? The two renditions of a wolverine in the wild are examples for comparison. The differences may not reproduce exactly the way I see them on my light box, where the corrected one has much better clarity without communicating any false information. One reproduction is from a normal duplicate transparency. The other has been outputted from a digital scan of the same transparency. The leading edges of the moving animal have been sharpened, the eye socket lightened, and the color of the tundra enhanced to more closely resemble what I saw. I would normally not enhance color, but panning through a 500 mm lens in cloudy weather caused the image to lose overall contrast and blur the outline of the animal. Seeing a wild wolverine this close may have been a once-in-a-lifetime sighting for me. I had only a few seconds to respond, as explained in the feature article elsewhere in this issue. I was with several other photographers stalking a herd of caribou on the open tundra by creating silhouettes with our bodies that looked roughly like caribou, so roughly that a wolverine mistook us for very sickly caribou that were easy prey. Only after it charged in the open did it see its mistake and reverse its direction. No one else managed to get off a shot.

Since the great majority of published wolverine photos are of captive animals, this image of a running animal in the wild seemed well worth rescuing, both for editorial sales and my own slide shows. I asked Robyn Color of San Francisco (415) 777-0580 if they could make a dupe transparency with digital alterations which would help viewers see the wolverine better without any awareness of manipulation. It was important only to more accurately control the content of the image that the film had recorded and not to add any form that wasn't before the lens. They outputted several choices on their state-of-the-art Lightjet 2000 digital photographic printer, but after I approved the transparency published here, I secretly wondered if perhaps I had gone a bit too far, to the point where the digital work might be obvious to someone more experienced than myself. When I critically examined the already enlarged 4x5 with a 10x loupe, I could see a bit of ghosting around the sharpened edges of the animal, an artifact of the digital process.

I had the corrected transparency out on my light box one day when an outdoor pro known for his strong opinions dropped by. He took a good look at it and said, "This is a rare image all right, but I think that it's an ideal candidate for some digital work. You ought to try it someday." The transparency had passed muster.

Ethics always move more slowly than technology. The people who brought us organ transplants and gene splicing don't have all the answers yet, either. Professional photographic organizations have set hard and fast rules for most editorial publication about not directly altering content without disclosure, but where that line is crossed is still murky indeed. Each photographer needs to make a personal choice that he or she feels comfortable with. In the end, the future power of photography rests upon the execution of two separate moral imperatives. Photographers should only alter photographs for editorial use to the extent that they would feel comfortable having fully revealed in a caption that described exactly how the image was made. Publishers should only print altered photographs or alter them themselves to the extent that their readers would not feel deceived if full disclosure of their methods was revealed. Since the power of editorial nature photography is so dependent upon the viewer's belief that it directly represents something actually seen, alterations need to be kept well below the threshold of controversy where they are not disclosed. Beyond a not-so-certain point, altered photographs need to be described as digital illustrations.

I feel comfortable revealing the full story behind the wolverine image, and sense no need to disclose what has been done for editorial sales. If you have a different interpretation, I'd like to hear from you care of the magazine or through our website at I may use reader responses as the basis for a future column.

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