Photojournalism Ethics and Computational Photography

Photojournalism Ethics and Computational Photography

Unlike most niches of photography, photojournalism has staked a claim on veracity and ethics. Recent and past scandals make for lascivious headlines and imply an industry without a conscience, but most photojournalists still consider ethics with a high level of gravitas.

Various photojournalistic outlets have issued codes of ethics that generally fall into two categories: 1) image acquisition, and 2) post-processing.

In the process of taking an image, most code of ethics echo the NPPA:

(1) Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.

(2) Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities…

(5) While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.

Insofar as post-processing is concerned, organizations have had difficulty moving away from darkroom analogies. But World Press Photo has taken a stab at defining the unacceptable (e.g. removal or addition of items into the scene) and acceptable forms of manipulation:

(i) Changes in color may not result in significant changes in hue, to such an extent that the processed colors diverge from the original colors.

(ii) Changes in density, contrast, color and/or saturation levels that alter content by obscuring or eliminating backgrounds, and/or objects or people in the background of the picture, are not permitted.

Most news organizations prohibit image composites – including everything from panoramic images to HDR. But once again, the rate of technological progress has exceeded the rate of discussion on the topic. For example:

  • Smartphones have become a normal part of a photojournalists’ arsenal. Many phones have HDR-like capabilities turned on by default because dynamic range of a phone lags behind their full-frame counterparts.
  • New generation devices (e.g. Light L16, iPhone 7/8/X, Samsung Galaxy S8, LG G5) composite data from multiple sensors to form a final image.
  • Noise reduction algorithms often take advantage of multiple frames taken before and after the “actual” image without the user’s knowledge.
  • Computational techniques like sharpening and blur reduction can interpolate pixels into the scene that weren’t strictly recorded by the sensor.
  • Plenoptic photography (aka light field) allows for refocusing after image acquisition.

Computational photography challenges our traditional conception of photography as a single exposure of light intensity captured by a photosensitive medium. As a thought experiment, consider a digital camera sensor where each pixel is capable of a different exposure, such that you’d never over or underexpose parts of the image. Is this single exposure “HDR” unethical?

Ethics in photojournalism have been driven, in part, by comparing the image to what the eye can see. But sensors can already see in the dark – perceiving color where it doesn’t exist. VR & 360 already allows us to see simultaneously in all directions in a way the eye cannot. And artificial intelligence combined with new mathematical algorithms is going to bring Blade Runner-style zoom/enhance capabilities. Imagine this technology applied to “Tank Man.” Then imagine the algorithm and training data getting it wrong.

Technology will always outpace philosophical and ethical concerns about its impact. Thus we shouldn’t rely on an occasional, reactionary approach to dealing with it. Ethics ought to be regularly discussed at conferences with photographers confronting both hypothetical and real-life scenarios so that they can begin to understand the breadth of the issue.

Computational photography has already quietly impacted photography for the masses. Its effects will only become more obvious over time. Recently, a well-known photographer told me that his daughter had set up a YouTube channel to sell “slime.” When he asked her why she didn’t create an Instagram account instead, she replied, “No one believes photographs!” It is naive to think that simply addressing the ethics of photography will solve the disbelief of a generation, but if photojournalists aspire to “accuracy and fairness” as one trade association officer told me, then the time to address ethics and technological challenges shouldn’t be left to the future. The time is now.

Photo by Allen Murabayashi

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Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 7 comments for this article
  1. Richard at 8:19 pm

    Simply lifting a camera to your eye, ‘alters’ the science. The point of view from a 6′ photographer to a 5′ photographer, changes the viewpoint. Then there’s lens choice, exposure choice, ben down, elevating oneself (box, ladder, etc.). There’s tasteful HDR and tasteless HDR. Is HDR ‘unethical’? Was Ansel Adam’s Zone System unethical? The shadows are too dark? Seriously? The techniques in photography (including lighting) are used to imitate human vision – something film nor sensors can do without help. Was burning and dodging unethical? Cropping in camera or after- what is the difference? Maybe it’s because I’m a commercial photographer, and unethical by the nature of my trade. The whole ‘photojournalist’ thing is just a bunch of BS. This is a side of photography that thrives on sensationalism. Photographs where being manipulated almost as soon as it was introduced to the public.

    • SCOTT WARDWELL at 2:50 pm

      I participated in an art fair this past weekend. My centerpiece was a 2ft. x 6ft. stitched panoramic of a spectacular sunset on the lake. Everyone who walked by stopped dead in their tracks to take in the view. With the exception of one woman who questioned if I used Photoshop. I told her in complete honesty, I would not of been about to create that piece without Photoshop. She said, not her and walked off.

  2. Ron Levy at 2:21 pm

    Allen, Good article. I would add a few things.

    From a historical perspective, it’s also good to realize that deception with images has existed long before computers. Ever since the invention of photography, people have doctored photos to represent and persuade.

    You mention 2 main categories for Codes of Ethics. There is a third, which is an integral section in a course on Ethics in Photography that I’ve been teaching online through University of Alaska for several years now: shooting. Ethics start from the interaction with the subject (or animal, employer, etc.). Thinking ahead of time how far you are willing to go to get a shot, and anticipating resistance or issues during the shooting phase is something all photographers should think about.

    Photojournalism, as you say, has led the way in clarifying how photographers should act to preserve credibility for their photographs and reputations, and the long term credibility of the genre. But since we are all now producers as well as consumers, it matters less whether you are shooting for a news publication or just posting on social media in terms of developing trust with your subjects, editors and readers.

    Trust is the currency we all use to collaborate and create meaningful relationships. Codes of Ethics have been helpful (though voluntary) in keeping the bar high mostly for professional agencies and groups. Hopefully these codes will trickle down into the social media and more public venues so that we can regain some lost ground.

    When you view an amazingly beautiful photo of a person or natural scene, the knowledge and trust that it is real and honest and un-staged fundamentally deepens its meaning and value, and you feel that buzz in your gut, that connection not only to the photographer and subject matter, but to the larger world outside of the photo.

    • Diane Poulin at 10:50 am

      Great points, all, Ron. I am a freelance photographer, and consider myself a purist when it comes to my shots. I still prefer to NOT “have to” manipulate a photo for it to be a great one. I crop many of my photos because I find it better to get too much background in a shot, than to have clipped it short. Maybe I am also unethical in doing so, but I don’t consider cropping photos as an enhancement/manipulation. What I won’t do is photoshop the heck out of a photo, thus removing its true essence. I

      I do however, enjoy playing around with photoshop, but in such a way that the viewer of my work KNOWS it has been manipulated.

  3. Ron Levy at 4:01 pm

    I need to amend my previous post a few minutes ago.

    I should have said the 3rd category is “Display”, and that I wanted to expand on the idea of Image Acquisition as your 1st category for Codes of Ethics. Acquisition can naturally refer to shooting and/or finding the shot if you are an editor.

    The subject of ethics and credibility in photography has relevance in everything else we do, who we associate with, how we vote, etc.

    In addition to the course mentioned above ( ) there is a blog I’ve hosted for the last few years on just this subject. I welcome continued discussion on any of the topics there as well:

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