Digital Film Images
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, December 2000

Photographers generally understand that the credibility of an image has more to do with human intention than with whether it was recorded on film or digitally. The public does not. Digital images are inherently suspect; film images are inherently credible. Film converted to digital is especially suspect, even though virtually every magazine and newspaper photographic reproduction is now made from a digital scan.

Problems begin to surface in situations where the medium is disclosed or questioned. The news media discreetly began replacing film with original digital imagery several years ago. They’ve done it virtually unannounced and unchallenged because they had a supportive ethical structure in place long before digital imaging arrived. The National Press Photographers Association and American Society of Media Photographers have formal codes of ethics restricting content alteration in editorial photographs without disclosure. Equally important, digital news imagery has its authenticity more or less verified by written journalism published alongside.

Outdoor photography lacks the comfortable matrix of the news media. While nature magazines such as National Wildlife and Outdoor Photographer are exemplary in disclosing the rare altered image, adventure and travel magazines seem to select manipulated images that grossly exaggerate color, content, and perspective with no disclosures.

The ethical code of the fine art world can be summed up as “whatever.” Where outdoor photography is sold as fine art in prints, posters and books, visual artists and designers tend to believe in their fundamental right to alter images any way they want, excepting outright plagiarism and copyright violation.

Historically, traditional artists have always done the equivalent of digital content manipulation, but there’s a brewing ethical dilemma where the digital art world and the nature photography world meet. If a painter sees a bird and paints it into an idealized background from elsewhere, everyone realizes that the result doesn’t represent what the artist actually saw. If a photographer photographs the same bird and digitally merges it into another dramatic landscape, the resulting digital file could be used to print an “original photographic print” sold at the same fine-art gallery. Is there an ethical dilemma selling either one of these images as art?

Many visual artists would say no. Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law. For others, the composite photograph amounts to visual perjury. It asks to be believed because the power of photography to communicate emotion from two-dimensional representations has long been rooted in the public’s certitude that a photograph indeed represents a single moment captured on a single piece of film, unless clearly stated otherwise. For prospective art or magazine buyers, an ethical litmus test is whether the apparent photograph would lose much of its power and the buyer would feel literally disillusioned, if told how it was made.

Losing a neat illusion has little legal consequence in most situations, but when it might, the public displays a strong distrust of digital media. Show a jury a number of film images depicting the moment of a heinous crime and they may mete out the death penalty, but show them output from a series of digital files made just as authentically and an acquittal would be likely without independent evidence.

Over the last three years, the majority of America’s top nature photographers have switched to digital enlarging for fine-art prints. Color lasers operating from digital scans expose photographic paper with better sharpness, latitude, color saturation and tonal separation than standard prints, and yet many buyers have that inherent digital distrust. It’s there if the process is disclosed, and it’s worse if they later learn that their “original” photograph is digital.

The word “digital” in relation to prints sends the same sort of shudder through the spines of photo collectors as “radioactivity” in relation to a school yard uttered at a PTA meeting. It makes little difference whether the radioactivity is below background level or the digital manipulation brings the print closer to what the film recorded. Tolerance for spooky, unseen things that are hard to understand is near zero.

How, then, can well-meaning outdoor photographers convince the public of the veracity of digital renditions from film? Digital paranoia may cure itself as ethical voids are standardized, but for the time being, I’m drawing my ethical line in the sand and taking two steps back. To begin with, our gallery will show the original of a selected image to prospective print buyers who ask. However, if they see the digital reproduction of a moonrise over Mount Everest that appears here compared to the original that shows no moon detail, they might think I scanned a different moon photo into the picture. The narrow section from a standard 70mm duplicate shows this loss of detail, plus a loss of overall sharpness and saturation.

What follows is the story behind this digital reproduction made at my chosen limit of image manipulation. Regular OP readers may recall that Macintosh creator Bill Atkinson invited me to visit his digital darkroom with a few of my top originals in 1997. The 9 x 12 inch prints we made on his Fujix Pictrography 3000 printer were better that any traditional prints I’d seen. Inside a box the size of a coffee table, color lasers exposed a photographic silver halide emulsion, ending in dye transfer onto donor paper.

On another visit, Bill confronted me with an ethical dilemma. After he made a 96 megabyte TANGO drum scan of moonrise over Everest, we made a full 12 x 18 fine print without interpolation on his new Fujix 4000. It looked technically perfect to me, but Bill saw something missing. He asked if I had a darker exposure with detail in the moon.

”I know what you’re thinking,” I replied. “If I have one I won’t scan that moon to use here. I don’t believe in composite nature images.”

”But it’s the same moon composed the same way at the same time. Why not utilize that different exposure to make a better print? When I’m beyond my film’s latitude, I make multiple exposures on a tripod and merge the scans. It’s cleaner than using your graduated filters, and I don’t see an ethical problem.”

”I don’t either. Ethically. Restoring detail I could see with my eye is great, but I want to guarantee buyers that every print represents a single exposure on one piece of film. What you suggest doesn’t violate ethics, but it could cast doubt on the veracity of my work if the word got out that I scanned in a moon.”

”What if we rescan the same piece of film for detail in the moon? If it’s there, would it be okay to put that back into the master image file?” After a long pause, I said, “Okay.”

Bill’s new scan held a surprising amount of moon detail. The final print clearly involved digital manipulation, but only in the direction of reproducing what the film recorded and what could be seen with the eye.

When nature photography goes wholly digital, I’ve got a dream camera in mind that I’d use without ethical constraints. It will make three auto exposures in a split second for highlights, mid-tones and shadows, then render them into a single output. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to sort out public sentiment about digitized film images. If you have a strong opinion about what I did to get detail in the moon over Everest, let me know by e-mail.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer.
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