Image Alteration and Ethics in Nature & Wildlife Photography?

2012 Ron Day

"Is that coastal sunset picture real, or was it Photoshopped?" We have all heard similar questions, and they are asked for a reason. Today, the public does not know if photographers are being honest with them.  

In the last century, the public came to trust the legitimacy of nature and wildlife photography by virtue of the medium - film. The photograph made with film corroborated itself and carried a presumption of authenticity.  When digital imaging entered the scene, and photographers acquired the means to easily alter the content of any photograph, seeds of suspicion were sown.

Among today's nature and wildlife photographers, two schools of thought have emerged regarding the alteration of images. There are those who want to reveal 100% truth in the photograph, and those who want the option to alter it.  

Each position has merit, and photographers should be free to adopt either approach without criticism. However, this can be possible only when photographers are ethical and disclose a "material alteration" to any photograph placed before a client or the public.  

Cranes Silhouette, Bosque del Apache, (Composite)

A "material alteration" occurs when anything is added to or taken from the original image. Or, where two or more images are combined to make a composite.  The term does not include the removal of dust spots, the routine adjustment of color and contrast, or minor cropping.

When dealing with clients and the public, it makes sense to provide a disclosure in writing. Whether put forth by letter, email, IPTC content, or as a note on a website, a written disclosure provides evidence that a disclosure, in fact, was made. 

If there is doubt about the need to disclose, err on the side of disclosure.  While photographers have the option to alter an image, or even create art, they do not have the right to mislead a client, or the public, by leaving the impression a photo is original, when it is not.