Should Photo Contests Require Original Image Files?

Should Photo Contests Require Original Image Files?

Look at this photo.

Shaofeng Xu’s photo of a protestor climbing a high-voltage electricity tower won Honorable Mention in the Contemporary Issues category of the World Press Photo 2012 contest. Look at it again as a thumbnail.

If the subject of the image seems to be “popping,” that’s because it is.

It is common to see heavy vignetting in a magazine portrait (think Platon). It is common for iPhone apps to add artistic vignetting. But in a photojournalistic image, this is very extreme. There’s no modern lens that creates that amount of light fall-off so close to the center of the frame (the technical information says 200mm at f/2.8).

For the past few years, I’ve been paying attention to the winners of the most prestigious photojournalism awards. The decisive moments captured by photographers (many in harm’s way) are pretty astounding. These are great images. But something that’s been bothering me is the obviousness of the post processing, and how “artistic” looking photos have become.

Denis Rouvre's portrait of Toku Konno won 3rd prize singles in World Press Photo 2012. Does the desaturation cross the line of photojournalism?

Photojournalism is held to a different standard of veracity than other forms of photography. Many organizations have created language to address what is acceptable, but in many cases it’s ambiguous at best with no clear line of delineation (and people get fired over this stuff). Here are some excerpts from various organizations:

NPPA Code of Ethics:
“Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.”

World Press Photo Entry Rules:
“The content of the image must not be altered. Only retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards and may at its discretion request the original, unretouched file as recorded by the camera or an untoned scan of the negative or slide.”

Pictures of the Year International Entry Rules
no specific language regarding manipulation

William B. Plowman's image of a Nomadic Dinka won the Award of Excellence in the Pictures of the Year International. Does the desaturation affect our perception of the scene?

Given the number of cases of manipulation (and the ambiguity surrounding what’s acceptable), I propose that photojournalism contests require entrants to submit their original, unadulterated files with their entries, so that judges can see the level of retouching involved. This doesn’t solve the question of where the line is, but it does give the judges an informed position from which to ask that question.

But who am I? I asked a few photographers and judges about it.

Jimmy Colton, Sports Illustrated
Jimmy has judged numerous contests including the Eddie Adams Workshop 

“The selective dodging and burning has gotten way out of hand and the saturation to the point of ‘neon,’ in picture two is insane! I would have disqualified all of these…or…at the very least….if the judges felt compelled to keep them, award them with an HM AND a Citation that read….’If this image was not Photoshopped to death, it may have been considered for an award.’

“It would be really difficult to manage raw files and high end jpegs as they take up so much room…

“What I think they could do, is that during the judging process, if there is any question about post production, that they ask the entrant to submit the original file for comparison. But even that is no guarantee that judges will miss/ignore these egregious abuses…..or….before they make the awards public….they could request the originals from ALL the winners for comparison.”

Terry Eiler, Director, School of Visual Communication, Ohio University
Terry serves on the contest committee for the NPPA.

“As a profession and an industry, we go through this ‘manipulation’ in cycles. In the 1950’s and 1960’s it was potassium ferricynide that was used to bleach the eyes and bring highlights of ‘extraordinary’ glow to skin. In that era the phrase or excuse was that it made the tones more reproducible. By the 1970’s through the 1990’s, it was called ‘hand-of-god’ burning and dodging. No, matter what we called it, the result was heavily manipulated images. When these images win in contest, we (as a profession) reduce the integrity of our work. We also ‘encourage’ other to do the same thing to ‘win’ a contest.

“When work is disqualified. When awards are taken away. When judges start rebuking the obvious manipulation found in world-wide contest, perhaps we can get back to visual journalism and judgement of content. One of the current ‘trends’ we fight at the university is the students desire to convert everything contest image to overly dramatic black & white images, because it ‘wins’ awards. This make it look like the 1960’s is another form of manipulation.”

Kosuke Okahara, freelance photographer

“I feel people easily dehumanize the subject or dehumanize photogoraphers themselves to make it more shocking or dramatic by adding photoshop. it’s all about contest, not to tell the story inside the pictures anymore.we are becoming more and more a real ‘exploiter’ of people in the photographs for the sake of ‘WINNING’ contest, recognition or to get famous. sad.

“anyways, my answer is yes , if they have Raw file shot with digitally, then they probably should send the original images.”

Keith Bedford, freelance photographer

“I think that judges should be able to ask for the originals. There have been too many times in the last few years that work has been called into question. Some of that should have been addressed as well as photographers that did honest work as well. It keep the whole process honest.”

Here’s the thing. The winning photos are very strong without any Photoshopping. So what is the value of the manipulation? Are judges being seduced by these toned images such that a “flat” image is unconsciously doomed? If so, then I believe the onus is more on the judges than on the photographers. But photojournalists should also be having the same dialog amongst themselves. After all, if you don’t want to be policed, then police yourself.

My proposal:

  • Photographers must provide originals (preferably RAWs) upon request
  • No manipulation can alter the photo more than 20% (e.g. saturation sliders, contrast, opacities)
  • No in-camera “filters” are allowed (this is more and more common)
  • No HDR is allowed

And we should revisit this every two years to make sure its up-to-date, and hopefully gain acceptance from all the major photojournalism contests.

What do you think?

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Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 36 comments for this article
  1. Eli Center at 12:01 pm

    Reading that Canon’s 5DmkIII has native HDR functions, I wonder whether the goal-posts are about to be moved yet again. I’m a newcomer to photography, so I wasn’t around for the advent of digital – but I’m willing to bet that as camera technology has continued to progress (I hesitate to write ‘improve’ out of deference to the community) standards for contests and photojournalism have needed to be continually re-defined. If saturation tweaks or HDR effects can be achieved through simple on-camera settings, should that disqualify them for acceptance in contests, or for photojournalism?

  2. Richard Wong at 1:39 pm

    I certainly think that the contests need to be more specific and do more quality control to weed out entries so they don’t have to retract any awards, as these situations seem to shine more negative light on the situation than bring positive attention to great photojournalism which is a shame. Not sure what the standard should be but I think asking for the original photo upon request would be a step in the right direction.

  3. Brett at 2:27 pm

    My proposal: Photographers must provide originals (preferably RAWs upon request

    I love all your criteria Allen and I think this should always be compulsory.

  4. Ruben Vicente at 2:33 pm

    That’s what happens in the most prestigious nature photography contests. It is not plain photojournalism, but the goal is to depict nature as the photographer have seen it.

    My goal is always to take the best possible photo in the field and spend the least amount of time in front of the computer.

    By limiting the rules, contests award the best photographers and not the best overall artists.

    Nice article!

  5. Rick A. Brown at 2:38 pm

    Personally, I find the “alternative processing” manipulations ok, by that I mean those that are reminiscent of a film image being processed with different chemistry than the typical, etc. However, I do see submitting RAWs as a good possibilty so that judges might have an idea as to what was done. I’ve participated in contests of this nature.

  6. kauaikid at 2:42 pm

    Maybe the two could be combined in photo contests where you have the original competition and and a photo-edited competition. I think that would be great to see great originals and great edited photos as well. Oh, well…there’s my two-cents worth.

  7. Frank at 3:08 pm

    I think that there’s a subtle difference between photos for the sake of photography and photos for photojournalism, and here, I believe, is where call for entries fall down. If it is for the sake of a good photo, then both the original and the manipulated should be submitted. If it is a contest geared to photojournalist, I think only the original (as captured in the field) — no manipulation should be submitted. Perhaps a way around the issue of managing a large number of large files could be that first the entrant submits a file at a specified lower resolution than the original. Then, after the judges cull potential award winning photos, they ask for those folk to submit the original. While, we are discussing type of submission, I also think that no posed photos should be submitted in a contest featuring photo-journalistic photos.

  8. Mark Wallheiser at 3:12 pm

    When I was coming up in the late 70s through the 80s it was “hand of God” printing. When we went digital the rule was anything you could do in the darkroom. One can print “hand of God” and desaturate in the darkroom. From the World Press “Only retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed.” but defining accepted standards is an issue
    What about B&W. Who actually shoots digital in B&W so should conversion to B&W be allowed? I agree that the goal posts are constantly on the move and with “cheap” digital cameras these days that allow more and more photographers to compete for less and less jobs, trying to hit the ethical standards are like shooting ducks in an arcade. When I shot football for the wires, I would lighten the faces in the helmets and burn down the highlights with many of those being in contests. That’s not what my camera recorded. Our eyes view more in HDR but not the camera.
    Not saying we shouldn’t but if we are going to judge ethical photojournalism in today’s arcade, what about the overall changing ethics in journsm as a walihole. Not enough manpower to research the truth, vet stories and images and running photographers to so many assignments in a day it pushes them beyond the “old time” ethical boundaries to produce, abet at a lower standard these days. I know what your going to say, we can only control the photography part but my point is that the leg bone is connected to the hip bone. The basis of journalism and therefore photojournalism is rapidly changing and the ethics along with it. You could require the photographers enter only the raw files with no cropping or post production and let them compete against each other straight up but would you then need to require the reporters to enter their stores prior to sending them to the editor?

  9. M. Scott Brauer at 3:25 pm

    “These are great images. But something that’s been bothering me is the obviousness of the post processing, and how “artistic” looking photos have become.”

    Should photojournalism only count if the pictures aren’t aesthetically pleasing?

    A couple years ago, World Press did call in a photographer’s raw images. Wrote about it here with the unmanipulated images: Interestingly, the deciding factor in disqualifying the image was the removal of a background element rather than the EXTREME cropping and toning of the final image. In that case, the original image was a pretty awful image (or at least, an ordinary and a dull one).

    I don’t think stylistic manipulation is a big problem, though. We allow black and white, we allow flash, we allow (increasingly) iphone app photography, we allow slow shutter speeds, we allow very fast shutter speeds, we allow high ISOs, we allow wide angles and zooms, etc. All of these techniques capture something the human eye is incapable of seeing, but they usually don’t lie.

    None of the images you posted above change the basic information conveyed to the viewer. A man climbed a pole; that’s what the person in the portrait looks like; and so on. One of our goals as photographers should be to get as many people to look at our work (that is, the issues they describe) as possible. The use of highly stylized imagery can be a very powerful tool in getting more people to look and consider what we try to communicate. Nachtwey and Salgado are often criticized for beautifying tragedy, but each uses his ability to try to entice more people to look and care.

    And, it should be noted that the people that get fired for photo manipulation are almost always people working for US newspapers. Those publications usually operate under very conservative ideas about what counts as photojournalism. Magazine and international newspaper photojournalism plays by a different set of rules, often with very good results. I like that photojournalism is such a vibrant and volatile field that it can encompass both very conservative and more avant garde approaches.

    I draw a much harder line with manipulation of the physical content of an image. When elements are added or removed or moved around in a frame, that’s outright deception and should never be allowed. It is possible for stylistic manipulation to go too far (I would argue Rudik’s work in the link earlier in this comment might go too far; seeing the original, the manipulated image is almost camp), but that’s ultimately up to the judges of the contest or the people who hired the photographer. Community standards are the way forward, and our community generally allows a great diversity of approaches to photojournalism.

  10. Gabi at 3:45 pm

    Sending in RAW files would keep the playing field level. After all, it’s not about who’s the best post-processing wizard, but the best photographer, right?

  11. Marco at 4:29 pm

    Frankly, I totally agree with all of Allen criteria.

    I think that judges – and picture editors too – has a lot of responsibility in thees digitals years, but I’m not seeing anybody who take really care about the problem.

    Truth is, that photos are manipulated EVERYWHERE, no matter how prestigious the editorial is.

    Art is art, so you should can do everything you want; photojournalism is another story, and a limit must be fixed.

  12. Mark Loundy at 4:50 pm

    The editor in me wants to cull all of the extraneous ethical elements down to a single phrase. The closest that I’ve ever been able to get is, “Do not mislead.” Readers and viewers are much more technically and visually sophisticated than they were 30 years ago. Nobody would think that Rudik’s image ( ) is representative of what they would have seen if they were physically present when the image was captured. They understand that the photographer (or the publication) had stylized the image to create a certain mood.

    Slickly done composites are another thing entirely. If the manipulation is not obvious, then the image misleads. Even I was shocked at the level of routine modification done to contemporary fashion and celebrity images.

    Exercise common sense: Do not mislead.

  13. Tony Gay at 4:53 pm

    I agree with M. Scott Brauer, with photojournalism the issue is not stylistic manipulation rather the removal or addition of content.

    Think back to film and the following;
    the zone system where you expose and process your film in order to capture a wider subject brightness range,
    the ability to choose film stock that reproduced a scene in a certain way,
    cross processing, pushing or pulling the process,

    in the shooting process
    the addition of graduation filters on the front of the lens to reduce the brightness of the sky,
    neutral density filters allowing you to use slower shutter speeds,
    polarising filters, come on can anyone really see an image like that but we love the effect,
    flash and reflectors to fill in shadows,
    the ability to pan with the action and blur out the rest,
    selective focus,
    the choice of lenses, aperture and shutter speed,

    All of this before you even get to the printing stage where yes you can create a vignette, dodge and burn, create masks, choose the surface, type and grade of paper that you are printing on and more.

    Asking for the original file, only proves the content of the image.

    Any good photographer will not let an image leave the studio until it has been processed, colour corrected, enhanced and checked to best portray the subject and represent the moment in time as they perceived it.

    Is this not why we are considered professional photographers, we are masters of the art and science that allow us using the tools of the trade to capture and reproduce a moment in time that others will engage others.

  14. Tony Gay at 7:09 pm

    I know where you are coming from Allen, however, (devils advocate)

    What if my original RAW image is two stops under exposed, is the 20% based on the raw file or is it once exposure, levels and curves have been applied? (Most raw files now effectively handling a two stop under exposure).

    Am I allowed to use a graduated spot, ND or colour, density filter on my lens. What about a selective blur filter or a tilt and shift lens. If I can do basics like this in camera why can I also do them in post?

  15. Bob at 7:42 pm

    You’re assuming every judge is a top level photographer with years of knowledge and ethics. And judges think they know better then the contest entrants. How many times have you looked at winning photos and thought to yourself, “How did this steamy pile win?”

    Q) How many photographers does it take to change a lightbulb?
    A) 50, one to actually take the photograph and 49 others to stand around and say they could have done it better.

  16. Matt Sassamatt at 8:34 pm

    I think it is simple if you see photography as an art then anything should be allowed. If you see it as a science and a record of a moment, then there is a need for ethics and rules. However in today’s digital world, deciding were to draw the line is going to be almost impossible.

  17. Justin at 10:31 pm

    So now we “stylize” photographs? This is like the “I am sorry” from the driver who killed someone while driving drunk.

    Call it what it is — manipulation! If you take a color photograph and make it black and white, you have changed or manipulated that photograph. It really is that simple.

    How about we start being news photographers again and do our jobs right the first time meaning that if you compose and expose correctly? Then we would have to resort to having to fix everything in Photoshop.

    One of the problems is part of our technical expertise has been lost and is something that is not being taught.

  18. Jim Miller at 10:55 pm

    When I was in high school, the only two things allowed were burning and dodging. We could’n push the film or over develope the prints. In the craft of photography, a “photograph” that is created with a camera and printed as it was taken is a true photograph! The photographer’s creative eye and ability to see shadow detail as well as composition were the true artist. In this digital era, everyone thinks they are photographers! They think they can take great photos! That might be true but are they really great photos or are they the printed results after digital manipulation?

    Old school photographers still have pride in their craft and are the true craftsman in the photography world. Why? Because they have vision! in their mind, they can see how the image will print before they take it.
    Unlike newbees, they hope they get something burned on their flash card and get all excited to procees the images through software to see what they come up with!

    People, if the image is opened and changed form the original state, it is no longer an original work of art. Yes negative retouching has been around for years and removing blemishes from faces should not be concidered altering the image for clients but it is still cheating.

    I believe a true competition print should straight out of the camera! That is what separate the true craftsman form the digital graphic designer because most of the photos taken are 25 to 50 fake. Very little creativy and a whole lot of graphic enhancements.
    The best way to have contests is to have 2 catagories: Real photographs/portraits and photo shop art! Thats what this beautiful art is coming to!

  19. John R. Fulton Jr. at 9:03 am

    Content driven photographs that show original vision and original seeing are what we need. What we don’t need is a forensic imageographer to “police” photo contests. Trust the judges. And this concept of “do not mislead” is laughable. The very tripping of the shutter, choice of lens, time of day, f-stop and shutterspeed leads (or “misleads) the viewer as to the photographers point-of-view. The subject of this blog is similar to the question of how many angels you can balance on the head of a pin — interesting to discuss, but there’s no answer.

  20. Hernan Zenteno at 12:12 pm

    The limits are erase or add things digitally, change completely the colors (I am not talking about saturation) and equal important, stage things or subjects that don’t happened. Always I hear or read about the retouch thing using software but I never hear about promote a situation or stage something to make the photo. Of course, I accept the traditional pose or stage situation for a portrait. But not for news pictures. I don’t like the new wave of photographers that don’t care to reproduce a situation to make a photo. That is not photojournalism or photo documentary. Is illustration or art or whatever you want to call, but not close to journalism. The problem with all those tendencies is the distrust that generates. What is the reason that all of us are talking about to ask the original in photo contests? I think is good to ask for the original if there are suspects that something was over manipulated. But what can we do to check if the situation really occurred or was staged. I remember a debate but not the name of the photographer who was denounced of unearth a baby corpse to make a photo some years ago. The problem is big because sometimes the editors or media owners ask for stage situations, at less here in Argentina. Alter the aesthetics is not the same that alter the facts.

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  22. Andrew McKenna at 9:59 am

    I agree with Kosuke’s comments.
    Photojournalism competitions trouble me.
    To me it detracts from the point of the image and takes you out of the story.
    Surely if you fail to put the story across and create some sort of empathy with the viewer your image has failed?
    However you want to define photojournalism or photo documentary I think the one constant in there is that it’s not about you.
    Competitions on the other hand are about you.
    And to me this sort of competition just encourages cheating.
    And yeah the truth is a casualty in that.

    Maybe all of these competitions should be based on a body of work instead of single images?
    That way you would be rewarding someone for a clear and consistent vision.

  23. Patricio Murphy at 11:28 am

    Nobody argues when someone shoots in B&W, yet it’s most unnatural.
    If I shoot with Velvia colours will be absolutely different than if I use Portra negative, yet noone would accuse me to manipulate the scen for choosing one or the other.
    It’s what happens in the picture what matters, I agree with thos ewho point that no manipulation of the facts on a scene should be allowed, but how I see that particular scene is a matter of taste.

  24. Erika Schultz at 1:03 pm

    Hi Alan,
    I work for a newspaper, and do to the high volume of assignments and archiving, we mostly we shoot JPEGs. A couple of us were interested — How do you translate 20 percent in levels or curves?


  25. Roger Crowley at 10:59 am

    I think somewhere between the “extreme purist” and the “extreme manipulator” there’s a way to judge photos and be fair even with all the post-production tools being used. The idea that what comes out of the camera is the purest image is a bit extreme. We all know that cameras can be tuned to do a lot of production work as you shoot. I have 3 different camera settings that control the 18+ custom functions built into my camera. Maybe we’ll start studing metadata as part of the photograph and claim that Custom function B should not be allowed. Splitting hairs over what tools are allowed can get complicated. Is flash allowed? Is flash with diffuser allowed? Is flash, diffuser and CTO gel allowed? Some of the papers I work for don’t print all photos in color so many times they are converted to B/W and they may tell a better story. I crop every photo. I use levels, curves, adjust saturation, sharpen and do what needs to be done to make the image look as real as when I was there. Sometimes a just a little, sometimes more than that. Setting a limit of say 20% opacity doesn’t take into account the environment when making the photo. 23% might be needed . . .

    All contests can’t have the same rules but each contest needs to be up front before judging. I want to be able to use all the tools in my bag to make pictures. Some of those pictures won’t necessarily fit into some contests and can’t be used with my newspaper clients but I know the difference. It’s spelled out to me. Contests should also be clearly spelled out as to what is allowed and what is not within reason.

    If every picture we look at becomes an exercise in finding manipulation and technical fault then we loose the reason why we make pictures in the first place. At deadline my editor asks where’s the art? He does not ask where are the RAW files? Although I’d better not delete those RAW files just in case…

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  27. james tourtellotte at 10:46 am

    In the darkroom we used to manipulate contrast, brightness, tonality, dodge and burn, tone and so on. One of the most common things was to burn around the edges to draw the eye toward the center or to the subject. Unless this changes the image materially who cares? If you don’t care for the way it looks, fine. If you like the way it looks, fine. This is just photography. Relax a little.

  28. Ian Martin at 3:11 pm

    And film-based photographers should ship their original, irreplaceable negatives or slides to be considered? Then it’d only be digital photographers competing, and that would be everyone’s loss.

  29. Meryl Schenker at 3:48 pm

    Thank you for your thoughtful article. I like your criteria. but on the first photo, I dont see the problem. Maybe because it’s small? I have always thought that what could be done in a darkroom (such as dodging and burning) should be permitted.

  30. Mark at 10:42 am

    I am not saying that having this discussion is wrong, no discussion can really be a bad thing but this particular debate has been around as long as photography in one way, shape or form. Photography is all about an image, competition is all about having the best image you can make. As long as the content has not altered then the winner will be judged on its merits. Digital practice has made the kind of post production we see today commonplace and I think as an industry we have to accept that things are moving on. There never has been a level playing field and there never will. Its all about what you can get away with. I am not saying anything goes, but the limitations will never be universal, so lets leave the competition rules to those who write them and enjoy some of the cracking inspirations that are delivered. No doubt there will also be some of bad taste too that we can cringe at.

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  33. Max Foster at 2:42 pm

    Photo contests that have strict rules regarding submission types (restrictions for editing, composites, cloning, etc) should certainly require all photographers to upload a RAW file to prove authenticity. However, every contest is different and if the rules are open or relaxed, then it should not be a requirement. Ultimately, the more transparent photographers are about their work, the more confidence viewers will have in believing what they see.

  34. Christopher Webbe at 1:09 pm

    I am new to photography and am only taking JPEG pictures. I have not yet graduated to RAW. But I do have some sharpening and denoising software. When I used it on an iffy bird picture taken with a long lens, my first reaction was jubilation at the thought that I have a whole library of marginal photos that I may well now be able to rescue. My second thought was that the rescued images will substantially overstate my skill with a camera. Call me stupid or naive, but should there not be competitions that forbid any editing ? That would surely sort out the sheep from the goats where the ability to handle a camera is concerned.

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