Is HDR Imaging Ethical for Photojournalists?

High dynamic range imaging, or HDR, is a technique through which three or more photographs of different exposures are merged to create a single image that displays a greater dynamic range of luminance, characterized by more shadow and highlight detail.

Attempts to capture a higher dynamic range are not new. They go back as far as the 1850s, with Gustave Le Gray rendering seascapes to capture both sky and sea. In the film era, photographers used ND filters and stacked multiple exposures to create an image showing, for example, a properly exposed sky as well as the landscape.

Reproducing What the Eye Sees

Theoretically, high dynamic range is designed to better reproduce what the human eye actually experiences. If you look outside your window on a moderately sunny day, for example, you can see both shadow detail and highlight detail in a way that your camera cannot. (See some examples of HDR photography at HDR Spotting.)

But HDR is a controversial topic for photojournalists.

Most news outlets have a code of ethics forbidding photographers from altering the content of their images. Many, like the New York Times, specifically forbid HDR imaging in news coverage.

The Times’ John Tierney, however, recently asked readers if this was the right decision:

Some [HDR] images seem otherworldly, but others strike me as more natural than the alternative made by conventional means, like the one of the scene at Glacier National Park … Should The New York Times and other publications consider allowing news photographers to use this HDR process for giving readers a clearer view of the world?

Ethical Headaches

Ideally, the media wants to publish images that represent an event as realistically as possible. They want to put the audience at the scene of the story.

HDR imaging has the capacity to do that, by replicating what the eye resolves in a way that a single photograph cannot.

So then, is a single image — dodged, burned, noise reduced and color balanced — more of an unaltered picture than multiple images, merged to show a higher dynamic range?

Which image is a better representation of the story?

The trick is vetting a submitted image composed of three or more photographs for publication. The photo editors of news organizations have enough trouble catching manipulated images as it is. This might only multiply their ethical headaches.

What do you think?

26 Responses to “Is HDR Imaging Ethical for Photojournalists?”

  1. Add to this the issue of Canon (and others, I'm sure) adding HDR processing in-camera to future cameras. When the camera automatically gives you an HDR image, does it count as having been digitally manipulated. So are these future cameras that do HDR banned from journalism? This issue is just going to become more and more complicated as the technology increases.

  2. Photographers have been dodging, burning, pulling and, pushing since day one. What is the ethical difference between those manipulations and HDR. I draw the line at cutting, pasting, deleting and, erasing.

  3. It's really a matter of trust - I think most "manipulated" images look more like the real world than the SOC image.

    Is the photographer providing an honest representation of what the scene looked like to his eyes? If it is, then the photography did an honest job regardless of which tools he used to create the image. Photojournalism is not about the negative, it's about the print and from the very beginning, photographers worked the darkroom to produce the print. Today's darkroom is no longer chemical/optical, it's digital.

    I understand the photo editor's dilemma - How much digital manipulation was performed on the image? Was it simply contrast/density/color adjustment or did the photographer move, remove, or alter elements in the photograph that fundamentally changed the story? So I can see where people have drawn the line of 'purity': Digitally altered or SOC. I'm not convinced that SOC is in fact, pure. Cameras are not human eyes. The simple fact that a camera takes a three dimensional world and squeeze it into two changes reality. Lenses warp and distort a scene, and sensors lack the ability to capture the full range of light present in a scene, so the simple act of tripping a shutter fundamentally alters reality. Doesn't using image editing tools to make the image look more like the real world, that is correct for those distortions the camera imparts and bringing out the missed detail in shadows and highlights make the photo closer to reality?

  4. Ken Kobre, professor of photojournalism at San Francisco State University and author of "Photojournalism: The Professionals' Approach," has written extensively about ethics. He suggests two tests when it comes to manipulating.

    First, who benefits from the manipulation? Does the reader of the publication learn more? Or is the manipulation done primarily to make the publication, the photograph, and/or the photographer look better? Second, would you--as the photographer doing the manipulating--feel comfortable explaining what you did, and why, to a reader?

    I think these two tests are smart, because the take the issue out of the realm of the specific technique being used and place it squarely in the realm of the effect the manipulation has on the reader--and, ultimately, on the credibility of the publication and the photojournalist. Once we lose our credibility, we ain't got much left....

  5. I dunno. I think the ethics are pretty straightforward. It is NOT the same as cropping, burning, dodging, etc. To me, there is a clear, fundamental difference.

    In photojournalism, the moment is sacred. Each and every image is a separate moment in time, even if they are visually identical. By combining different moments into a single image, you are altering each individual moment in a way that ought to be disclosed to viewers in the context of news.

    Fortunately, HDR has limited applications for photojournalists since the technique can only be applied to scenes without movement. Even at a high frame rate burst, moving objects will appear different in each frame.

    What about scenics or portraits of non-moving people? I think you can use this technique, but it should be plainly disclosed to any audience viewing the photo. For example, a couple of years ago, my paper produced a spread on Christmas light displays in the community. I thought that might be an appropriate application for HDR, and fun to try out. However, when the page was published, we ran a fairly prominent box that explained the technique to readers, saying essentially that each image is a composite of several images to more accurately reflect the range of light the human eye perceives. We also included my e-mail address so readers could inquire more about the technique.

    I think the use of HDR is legitimate. However, in the context of news, it is only ethical when its use is disclosed to the audience.

    Is that too simple?

  6. Is an un-manipulated image with visible sensor dust more realistic than one with some spot removal and a curves adjustment? Is a time exposure of star trails realistic when the human eye will never see light that way?

    All photographs are a lie. This is just a debate to decide which lies we're willing to accept.

  7. "All photographs are a lie. This is just a debate to decide which lies we're willing to accept."

    C'mon. That's a lame argument. All photographs are not lies. I think better way to frame this discussion is to concede that all photographs are interpretations.

    The heart of photojournalism is the interpretation of the moment. That's the core issue.

    "Truth" is never the goal. The honesty and accuracy of that interpretation is the question at hand?

    Keep in mind that we are discussing photographs in the context of news. Is an HDR image dishonest? No, not necessarily. In fact, an HDR image can sometimes be more instructive and educational under certain circumstances. But the construction of an HDR image creates a question about what is being interpreted - a moment or a scene? I think that needs to be disclosed and made clear to our audience.

    In my opinion – again, in the context of news – the accuracy of the moment a photograph depicts trumps the accuracy of the dynamic range contained in a scene.

  8. HDR is useless for action shots anyway.
    for stills, well, it's different kind of photojournalism, so edits like exposure composites are actually good.

    I think in "serious" photography HDR mainly gets a bad reputation because it's hard not to go haywire with post-processing. It's hard to take HDR work seriously if restraint is not practiced.

  9. I like what David Weintraub suggested.

    Also, I think 2 simple things could be done in the realm of journalism with regards to HDR:

    1) When a photog submits and HDR image they should also have to submit the individual frames that created the composite. This way the editors can check point number 2...
    2) Does the HDR image now show the scene more the way the human eye sees? Or has the photog gone off the deep end and created an other wordly, highly personal, artistic interpretation of the scene?

    As everyone else has mentioned this can't really be used for action images. But, how does this apply to creating multiple conversions of the same original RAW file and combining that for an increase in dynamic range? This can easily be done with many modern cameras. And can be done, obviously, with an action scene.

    Photography has never truly been able to record a scene accurately- or Truthfully- when it comes to light. How can it? When on a printed page the image is reduced down to such a small tonal range, and has always been about a subjective choice as to what tones are "Important". So if truth is what you are after, and light is all we are talking about, then a pure HRD image should be fine. And is actually closer to the truth.

  10. I don't see a problem with HDR so long as it's being done to further "engage" in what should already be a beautiful picture, OR, if you want to impress a couple of people who don't understand what HDR is exactly 🙂 I DONT agree with HDR images being used in mass media or contests as it is, to me, kind of cheating.

  11. Keep in mind that multiple exposures are not necessary for HDR. You can easily output +/- 2 stops from a single RAW file.

    That said, the "single moment in time" argument isn't very strong to me because everything about the photograph is subjective, from the composition to the lens choice to the post-processing. It's the best possible representation of "real life" but what is important is keeping it as objective as possible (100% objectivity is impossible) and maintaining the trust of the reader.

    I'd say it's fine as long as you're doing it to overcome technical limitations and not for dramatic purposes, and, as mentioned earlier, if you'd be fine with explaining the process to the reader.

  12. I think Scott Bryant has it nailed - it's not the same as burning, dodging etc as HDR relies on more than 2 frames to produce the result. It's an issue of trust, and you can guarantee that at some point a boundary will be crossed, so any HDR used should come with a warning.

    While the ideas put forward by David Weintraub are the most attractive, they head too much into the subjective for practical day to day use by editors.

    With all technique, a line has to be drawn somewhere practical and usable that the average viewer can understand and trust. Photo journalistic images are primarily there to provide information, and current technology produces images of an entirely sufficient quality for these purposes without resorting to HDR, a technique that in any case often seems to add little value other than a 'wow' factor derived from saturated colour.

  13. The fact that today's primitive techniques of capturing HDR take taking multiple shots doesn't make the result one bit less credible at all. When it comes to the time span and "multiple events", it is tha same as taking a single long exposure shot from a tripod. Instead of blurred moving object you get a "strobo" effect, in both cases some in-between data is missing.
    In the future, with the development of the sensor technology, new cameras might be available, able to take HDR in a single shot.

    So I don't see any ethical problems in using HDR in photojournalism - it doesn't change the captured reality in any way, all it does is capture MORE information and tries to repair some technical "problems" of the classic photography - allowing the author to decide about the correct exposure later.

  14. There is nothing wrong with an "HDR" image: cameras already take 14+ bit images, and soon we'll have HDR displays that can represent them properly on the screen. The thing people are complaining about is the TONE MAPPING applied to the HDR image when it's reduced back to an LDR image. Simple linear tone mapping creates natural HDR images that are truer representations of what the camera saw than an LDR photo. These "otherworldly" HDR images that have rapidly become cliche are using extreme non-linear mappings or complex algorithms for local adaptation that map different areas of the image in different ways.
    I'll have a debate about the ethics of tone mapping, but to outlaw HDR is absurd.

  15. You must have REALLY been bored to write this article..just looking for something to cry about...are we getting PC about photo techniques too ? wow...

  16. How many photographs have been sent in as jpegs? More than we can count. Jpegs are images that are altered in the camera, and are really no different than some well edited images by the photographer who is trying to convey what HE HAS SEEN.

  17. The JPEG argument is lame. Sorry.

    It's VERY different from editing the content. JPEG compression reduces the range of colors (mostly) and some detail, much of it imperceptible to the eye in the first place.

    How software renders a scene is rarely an ethical issue. What we do AFTER that initial rendering is the issue at hand.

    Some of us are really reaching, here.

  18. I agree with Scott, in concept not delivery, that jpeg is different from HDR. One is a technique requiring multiple frames, one is merely a file compression algorithm.

    I also agree with the concept that "HDR" is not as much of a problem as the "tone mapping" is.

    As to whether HDR images alter reality (tone mapping aside), yes- it does alter reality. With two exposures you are capturing, possibly, slightly different content: a bird flies through one frame and not the other. The HDR software may exclude the bird in the final image-- so which is the "True" moment in time?

    It is for this reason that I suggested, early on, that if an HDR image is delivered to an editor the photographer should also deliver the files from which the final file was derived. This way the editor can make an objective decision about how faithful the HDR representation is of the original scene. I really don't think it needs to be any more complicated then that.

  19. so you are saying that ansel adam's photographs are unethical? every one you have seen has been modified for HDR, it's called the zone system... besides which, the original unaltered image was 3D reality, not a 2D representation of reality. nobody has built a print yet that can capture the full brightness range of reality, so the issue becomes moot. If the HDR manipulation is visible, that just shows poor [or perhaps intentional] technique.

  20. It's Dec., a long time from this original tweet, and ironically I was looking at the NY times Dec 23 2010 year in review in photos. Check out photo 6. To me it appears there is some HDR affecting here, or maybe not. As a user of NIK for much of my work, the world of "affecting" has influenced much of my work. I think the moment in taking the image is a culmination of experience, with the choice of when to pull the trigger. The very act of choosing which part of the panoramic of reality we choose to fill the viewfinder, is our ethic. Affecting may just amplify the message. Take a look at the village elders in photgraph 6, It resembles an oil painting set in a time that is timeless, except for the photo of Kazai, this scene could have taken place in 1400. Does the affect amplify just how different this culture is from our own?

  21. HDR is not the same as burning and dodging.

    The difference is that when you create an image using HDR techniques, you must use multiple images taken at different times.

    Hence, you are using multiple moments to create, or fabricate, a single moment.

    Using multiple images in this fashion is no different than when Brian Walski of the LA Times used multiple images to fabricate his image.

    HDR adds nothing to the message except "Hey, look what cool effect I can do."

    HDR adds nothing to what should be a news photo.

    We must maintain high ethical standards in order to uphold and strengthen the integrity of the image.

  22. "The difference is that when you create an image using HDR techniques, you must use multiple images taken at different times."

    Not true! All moderns SLRs take single frame HDR images (12-bit images are HDR images, in case you didn't know).

    "HDR adds nothing to the message except 'Hey, look what cool effect I can do.' HDR adds nothing to what should be a news photo."

    HDR images better capture what our eyes see compared to an LDR 8-bit image. Can you eyes only see 8-bits of dynamic range?

    I would love to hear a real argument about why HDR images are unethical, from someone who knows what "High dynamic range" means.

  23. @Meekohi
    "I would love to hear a real argument about why HDR images are unethical, from someone who knows what "High dynamic range" means."

    With 15 years experience in photojournalism as a photographer, chief photographer, and editor, I believe I am more than fully qualified to discuss the ethics of using HDR images in news photos.

    Add to that the many editorial meetings I've participated in discussing the ethics of images, newsgathering, and use of not only photography but articles.

    Throw into that the many seminars on visual journalism ethics at the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminars, Mountain Workshops, Poynter Institute for Media Studies, Colorado Press Association, and Kentucky News Photographers Association.

    At Poynter, I helped update some of the National Press Photographers Association's Code of Ethics.

    I also have a Bachelors of Art in photojournalism from Western Kentucky University. And I am an NPPA member in good standing since 1993.

    I've had many discussions on ethics from the photography stage to the publication of those images.

    I take PJ ethics rather serious.

    The discussion of ethics is not about the creative side of photography, it is about maintaining the public's trust. And to maintain the public's trust, newspapers and newsmagazines must keep a high standard of integrity. Many publications even have a "Visual Code of Ethics" in which to help editors make decisions concerning special visual situations.

    The integrity of a news image is their upmost priority and it is what news publications are aiming to keep at a high level.

    Most require some mention in the caption as to what effect was used in the final image.

    I also understand what HDR truly means. Hell, I've used 14 bit scanning of film back when I had a Nikon Coolscan 9000 so I can get the best color, detail, and tonal range. I shoot in the highest bit depth possible on my gear to not only get the best and most accurate color, but the best and most accurate exposure.

    Unfortunately, the printing world is still stuck in the 8-bit era thanks to the limitations of the computer.

    Personally, I would prefer to see the higher bit depths used as it better resembles what the human eye would see.

    The argument concerns those HDR images which use multiple images, or have that surreal, super saturated look. To those I say nay.

    Again, if you're having to combine 2 or more images to achieve the HDR effect, which image represents the scene best?

    For transparency, I rather like some of the HDR images I've seen.

  24. I don't think photojournalists always have a duty to replicate the scene in front of them. Depending on the situation, their job may be to enhance the written portion of a story with images. They may be artful. A story on anorexic teens may not be best served by the usual images of teens wasting away. Perhaps a different, more unique approach will get the attention of the public. People get tired of the same images over and over. Most "normal folks" I know (non-photographers) cruise right past war images now because a dead person in El Salvador looks the same as a dead person in Afghanistan. Photographer may notice the difference but most laypeople will not. Therein lies the issue: How do photographer continue to perform their work without relying on the same old formulas? For me HDR is not a problem because it as altered the scene, it is a problem because it simply does not look good.

  25. Regarding HDR: it's like that scene in "The Fly" with Jeff Goldblum: it looks like steak, but it sure don't taste like steak. HDR is just another gimmick to make the Average Joe feel like he's really being creative as the digital industry sucks his wallet dry.

  26. when it comes to photojournalism, we are talking about the authentication of certain image or the originality of that particular image being publish.

    Given a situation of a HDR image of a cityscape with a good looking sky with a bird flying as the background and a very nice road curve heading for the city with a car on it as the foreground. The car wasn't there yet during in the original background image, and the bird wasn't there anymore in the original foreground shot.

    after the HDR process, merging these two photos will reveal both the bird and the car under one image. so can someone tell which part of the HDR image is the original one? Is that HDR image original?

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