When It Comes to Burning Photos, How Much Is Too Much?

Now that contest season is upon us, we are digging through the year’s work for the gems we hope have a chance of placing somewhere. I’ve noticed that many recent photojournalism contest winners feature such heavy burning around the edges that I’m reminded of photographs taken 30 or 40 years ago. Photographers defend the retouching by saying it “creates a mood” or “helps your eyes focus on the subject” or “gets rid of distracting elements.” But is the practice ethical?

One North Carolina photographer was told that it wasn’t, and he was stripped of his awards. Some of his images had such heavy burning that the background was black and the subjects looked like they had been cut out. But with others all he did was increase the saturation a little bit to help a sunset or fire.

So what is ethical? If you wouldn’t do it for the newspaper or magazine, is it acceptable to do it for a contest? Is it OK so long as you aren’t cloning anything in or out of the photograph? Or is it OK so long as it is obvious you burned the edges down, so the viewer will not be misled?

Personally, I don’t mind a little burning around the edges or dodging of the highlights. But when I say “a little,” I mean it should not really be noticeable, because reality and truthfulness with photographs should be maintained at all times. If you create a beam of light into a room that wasn’t there, or create a dark halo around the subject, or burn one to almost black because the background is distracting, then you have crossed the line.

We each decide how far we are willing to go when toning a photograph, and for most of us that line is a result of our training or what we have seen our peers do. As we continue to see heavily burned photographs win contests, an increasing number of us are beginning to think it is not only OK, but necessary to win.

I suppose no one person can decide where the line is, but organizations like NPPA or Poynter have rules to define where that line is, as do most publications. The guidelines prohibit manipulation. The problem is that “manipulation” is not clearly defined in many cases, and many photojournalists have come to believe that burning — even heavily — is acceptable.

I think we should stay true to our profession. That means that if the photo looks unnatural, we’ve crossed the line — for the newspaper and for contests. There should not be different rules for one or the other, and judges should enforce those rules and not reward this kind of behavior.

If you are competing as a journalist, then your photographs should be honest. That means the moment should look the same in the photo as it did when you looked through the lens. Sometimes we have to dodge, burn, or add saturation because our exposures were not perfect. But I believe all of that should be done only so far as it helps the photo mirror reality.

Maybe this is just a trend coming back into style that will fade with the fashions in time. But heavy burning is manipulation, and I won’t do it. It feels wrong and, for me, that means it is wrong.

Where do you draw the line?

[tags]photography contests, photojournalism[/tags]

2 Responses to “When It Comes to Burning Photos, How Much Is Too Much?”

  1. I looked at his side by side and i just don't see a problem, except the first image... maybe. If you look at press awards from the 80s, there was so much burning - especially in fire images - and it won awards. Only now that the digital process is so good are we concerned. IMHO if the meaning or context of the image is changed, that is a serious ethical flaw. But if there is a bit of contrast or burning... isn't that just making a good print? So long as the context is the same, what's the real problem?

  2. You will notice the heavy burning on the first photo of the firemen because the background is turned black in that photo, but the other two are difficult to see. But that is part of the point. That state saw the firemen and then went looking for more examples, to make an example of him. In his defense, we are seeing more of this heavy burning appear in national and international contests and no one there has deemed it unethical so proving what he did was wrong is a difficult case.

    I agree, if the context of the photo is changed that is a major ethical violation, and a little dodging or burning is "making a good print." But burning to black, as he did with the firemen, or creating a halo around the edges or a beam of light from a window is not making a good print in my opinion, it changing the context of the photo and that should not continue to happen. If you couldn't capture the moment in a way that the viewer can see it without heavy burning, then you should do better next time. Sometimes reality is not perfect and it is our responsibility to be truthful with our photographs.

Leave a Reply