Digital Deliberations
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, April 2001

“I think your conservatism about enhancing the moon in your landscape is utter nonsense,” began Sid Webb in response to my request for reader input about where to draw the line in digital enhancement. My pulse raced, expecting the worst to come. With so many successful photographers maintaining a discrete vagueness about what they do to their images, perhaps I’d been foolish to open the Pandora’s box of my inner thoughts. But, like the majority of replies I received, Sid’s letter continued on to become thoughtful and revealing. He believes “the general populace… is inclined to pass digital photography and digital prints off as something the computer did. I’m afraid it will take time and lots of education to change this idea that gives the computer far too much credit and the photographer/artist none at all.”

This is the same concern that led me to write about my dilemma over whether to merge into a digital print a scan of a better-exposed moon from an otherwise too-dark exposure of exactly the same moonrise over Everest. If I follow the ethical litmus test of never doing something to a photograph that I wouldn’t want revealed, then Sid has given me reason to worry about the public’s response to anything that could be construed as undue digital manipulation. As Albert Worley puts it, “I expect a photograph to represent a single moment captured on film and if not it should be specified.” Not wanting to specify, “This photo has a better-exposed moon digitally inserted from an identical composition,” I drew my line in the sand at rescanning the overexposed moon in the original piece of film to extract all possible detail.

John Marshall, a long-time professional nature photographer, says “I do not like dubbed-in moons and feel that other photographers have gotten a lot of undeserved kudos for great big moons that were never there. That is not what you were doing with the Everest photo. However, I would have had no qualms following Bill Atkinson’s suggestion and taking the moon from one of your darker exposures; after all you would be bringing the photo closer to the truth.… If you were to enlarge the moon and then put it in, that would be crossing the line.”

Matt Smith wrote from Australia, “I totally agree with your sentiments.… If we manipulate the image too much and it takes away from the place that was photographed, then… we are virtually lying to the public. If people wish to make art and flog it as art then I have no problem with how it is manipulated, but if the purpose is to display the subject/place where the photograph was taken, then I would feel very strongly against manipulation. As regarding your image in the magazine, I would have no problem purchasing it as the genuine image it represents.”

John Trammell considers my decision “ethically and commercially correct, “ but fears that in this digital era “viewers should assume that most images have been digitally diddled to some extent, and that in the future it will only be necessary to label ’straight’ prints as not having extraneous elements introduced.”

While the majority of the responses either agreed with my decision or drew the line at multiple scans of bracketed exposures, a few asserted their right to do anything they pleased to their own photographs in a free country. Glenn Stoutt, M.D. wrote, “I don’t see myself as agonizing over manipulation of my images. If I have a great bear in New Hampshire, landscape in California, and a beautiful moon and clouds in Africa, you can bet I will blend them together with Photoshop and not feel even a twinge of ethical dilemma.”

Kelly Cowan clearly describes the opposite point of view. “The reason professional photography intrigues me is simple: talent. I purchase photos I know I cannot reproduce because the talent of the photographer is superior to mine. With digital enhancement, the photo becomes less meaningful to me because I know the photographer (or assistant) knows how to use Photoshop (or some other program). With enough effort, I could do that myself.”

Whether or not Kelly really could replicate a professional’s vision in Photoshop is not an ethical issue, but it does relate to the common misconception of digitally enhanced images as “something the computer did.”

Art Wolfe, unmistakably one of the world’s finest nature photographers, learned this lesson the hard way after his 1996 book, Migrations, was widely criticized for digital manipulations with a vague disclosure that failed to mention the addition of many animals. After I wrote Art expressing concerns shared by other photographers, he met with me and asked what it would take to use manipulated images in future nature photography books and articles without critical backlash, especially from me–a long-time admirer who had written a foreword to one of his earlier books. He said that most of his manipulated images had been created for the advertising market and that he would continue selling them. For editorial uses, I advised him to explicitly label which images had been manipulated and what content had been added or deleted. We also talked about how attempts to label captive wildlife are often thwarted by publishers.

Art’s latest opus, The Living Wild, produced entirely from digital scans prepared under his direction, goes beyond being one of the most splendid books of wildlife photography ever published. With all but two of the images taken in the wild, and full disclosure of the few captive or digitally retouched images, the book sets a high ethical standard that will go a long way toward restoring public confidence in both his own and everyone else’s nature photography.

Perhaps the most gratifying letters I received were those that thanked me for not oversimplifying a complex issue. Jay Rose said the article “renewed my interest in the magazine by providing engaging discourse above the middle-brow level so prevalent in popular photography magazines.”

Albert Worley (again) commented how “the fact that you would bring such an issue to the attention of your readers speaks volumes,” but several others questioned my overuse of space to discuss the “almost impossibly high ethical standard… that you seem to struggle with,” in the words of Alan Spitzer.

Yes, I’m still struggling. I don’t buy the idea many of you put forward that digital alterations are no different than what photographers such as Ansel Adams have been doing all along in the darkroom. Until the public stops perceiving them as different, they are an issue. As Ei Katsumata says, “There are certainly those who despise digital photography. They act as if they are being cheated out of a “real” photograph.” In the words of Bill Newham, “As more people become comfortable and educated with digital imaging, they will realize that integrity comes from the individual, not from the computer.”

My limit of digital color, contrast, and sharpening corrections appear here in the larger image of a wild peregrine falcon. That it has no content manipulation is evident from the narrow strip printed from the uncorrected transparency.

Walter Robie, a retired minister, cites my statements, “For the time being, I’m drawing my ethical line in the sand and taking two steps back,” and “Our gallery will show the original of a selected image to prospective buyers,” and compares them to the philosophy of other photographers who have called the original transparency only a guide toward creating a digital print. He concluded, “They have drawn a line in the sand and taken two steps forward.… For me that’s going too far. It’s too subjective.”

At the end of reading all the letters, my pulse was no longer racing. It beat slowly and deliberately, in sync with the measured restraint of the majority of OP readers who contacted me to share their concerns about the future direction and public acceptance of digital imaging in nature photography. Thank you!

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