“’Scuse Me, While I Switch the Sky” – The Ethics of Photo Manipulation

Sunset over Leslie Gulch in Idaho… or is it? A sky replacement or not? See below. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

With digital editing, if you can imagine it, you can probably do it, often make a convincing image that never really was.  Was the sky flat and boring the evening you were shooting at that iconic photo location?  No problem, add a more dramatic sky in the computer.  It’s not a question if you -can-, the real question is, -should- you?

In his classic song, “Purple Haze,” Jimi Henricks sang, “’Scuse Me, While I Kiss the Sky.”  More than a few people didn’t hear it quite right. Many people sing their own version, substituting their misheard words, “’Scuse Me, While I Kiss This Guy.”  Entire websites are devoted to the humor generated by what are called “Mondegreens,” misheard song lyrics and in fact, one of the more popular is KissThisGuy.com.

What’s that have to do with photography?  Not much, except when I hear photographers discuss the ethics of sky replacements,  I can’t help grinning, reminded of Jimi’s song lyrics and substituting my own photographer’s version – ‘Scuse Me, While I Switch the Sky.”

This is the original shot of Leslie Gulch, shot at mid-day with a cloudless blue sky.

So when is it and isn’t it okay to creatively edit a photo?  I'm not saying you should or shouldn’t manipulate your photos.  That’s a personal decision.  I simply want to explore the pros and cons.  I spoke with a few fellow photographers in my camera club as well as two photographers probably more familiar to Improve Photography readers and podcast listeners; Nick Page and Jeff Harmon.  Let’s see what they had to say.

Where It Never Rains

You could give your real estate client this shot, or…

You’ve heard Albert Hammond’s 1972 song, “It Never Rains in Southern California.”  We want to believe there are places where the sun always shines.  Or from a much older song, “Home on the Range,” “Where seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.” Or when there are clouds, they are puffy and beautiful, the sunrises and sunsets always spectacular.  Maybe we could live in such a spot!  If you’re a real estate agent, which would better market your property; the photo with a gray, boring, featureless sky or the one with a pretty sky over the roof?  No brainer, right?  So give the client what they want – Neverland!

… drop in a more interesting sky for some extra pizzaz. Any reason to consider this unethical?

Some of the photographers I interviewed considered switching skies in real estate photos perfectly legitimate. The sky often does look great over that house, it just didn’t the day you shot, right?

“I will swap a sky in a real estate shoot because these people are paying for their expectations of those epic photos they have seen you produce in the past.  And in those cases I don’t really feel like I am documenting a time or place,” said Nick Page.

While changing the sky in an outdoor real estate photography shot might be perfectly ethical, one of my photo club friends, Tracy Wilson-Burns pointed out, “To “fix” a gaping hole in the living room wall of a family Christmas photo wouldn't be unethical, but to patch that hole in a real estate sales photo would be.”  .

Photos Don’t Lie, (…but photographers might)

People once believed, “Photos don’t Lie.”  Later they learned photos could indeed be tweaked and saw how easy in the digital darkroom it was to make things disappear, (or appear), with a mouse-click.  So what do our group of photographers think about the ethics of this kind of manipulation?

 I like the dramatic clouds in this shot, but I'm not sure the sky replacement is believable. If you're going to do sky replacements, you better do them well.[/caption]

“For me, I believe that clicking the shutter is just half the process. A photograph is really completed in post-processing” said Improve Photography writer Rusty Parkhurst.  “ I typically don't do any major photo “manipulation”, but if I do, I will put a disclaimer on it. Most of my editing is in Lightroom, but I will remove distracting elements in Photoshop. My goal is to draw the viewer's attention where I want it to be. After all, the image file is the raw data out of the camera, and it takes some doing to create the photograph that is envisioned.”

Rick McEvoy said, “I remove things I don't want in Photoshop. This is stuff like gravel, chewing gum on the tarmac, loose leads, that kind of stuff. Everything else I do in Lightroom. I don't know how to use layers in Photoshop, and still haven’t found a need to.”

“I will edit a photo to be how I want to remember it. Yes, I do a lot of exposure brushing, selective lightning, and even color manipulation,” said IP writer Kirk Bergman. “But the end result is to drive up the emotional response for a location. I can't afford to go back to some places week after week until I grab the perfect sky. Nor can I make the perfect light happen. But in post, I can do whatever I, as the artist, want to do to bring the image I have in my mind into reality. This isn't photojournalism, it's art. I see nothing wrong with it. It's just that some people aren't that great at Photoshop and can't make a modified scene look realistic. I think that's where it gets a bad name.”

I identify with Kirk’s thought about doing realistic photo manipulations.  Sky replacement techniques are rather new to me.  Will viewers accept my altered photos as “real?”  Your fake Rolex watch might look close to the real thing,  you know it's an imitation and you weren't bamboozled into paying big bucks for it.  But if it were a bad imitation and it said “Rolux” on it, you’d probably be embarrassed to show it to your friends.   Ditto for me, unless I can do it well and entirely convincingly, I best not show my altered works.  There's also the sophistication of your viewer.  Non-photographer friends may accept your faked photo, but will your savvy photographer friends spot your trickery?  Many of the world’s top counterfeiters thought they’d made the perfect $100 bill…until real experts detected otherwise.

“Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.” 

Fool Me Once

So what if you are really good?  Replace a sky, alter a photo, no one is the wiser.  People marvel over the spectacular sunsets you always seem to catch, the incredible light, the pristine beaches with no litter, no footprints, and no people.  Even if your “enhancements” enhance reality and are totally believable, maybe there’s still a problem.  Nick Page is an exceptionally talented photographer and a skilled editor.  If anyone could make a composite image so convincing you’d never know the difference, he could.  But he doesn’t.

Keeping it real, photographer Nick Page wants people to know when he gets an awesome sky in his photos it was captured in-camera, no sky replacement needed. (Used with permission.)

“With my Landscape photography, I have drawn the line in the sand, (in my head anyway), that I will not composite or swap skies.  For me this comes down to two things,” he said.

“My favorite part of landscape photography is trying to chase the light, and have that great light line up with a great location.  This takes tons of planning and effort, and I love that aspect of photography.  If I were to start dropping skies into my landscape photos, I would be robbing myself of the joy of “the Chase.”

And the second thing?  “I want people to know and believe the photos I take are real,” said Nick. “So many of the photographers I follow, I can’t always trust that amazing light they always have in their photos.  Yes, it is an art, but I really enjoy the extra effort of trying to get it for real, and I want people to know and trust that I put in that extra effort.”

Real sky or replacement? If you want to be known for your exceptional landscape photography, you don't want your viewers guessing. You're looking at another Nick Page photo and as with all his landscape shots, it's the real deal. (Used with permission.)

Nick makes an excellent point.  If you make an exceptional photo through digital manipulation and people learn you can do that and do it well, later when you make a great straight shot in the camera with minimal editing, what are they to believe?  You might fool them once, but now they will be skeptical of all your shots.  So ask yourself, “Is the hit to your credibility worth it?”

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”– Sir Walter Scott, 1808

But if it’s Art… Exercising Creative License

I got some good shots of the total eclipse over Crouch, Idaho last summer and the scenery is also my shots from the area, but the sun in the scenes – composites, and I freely admitted the “creative license) done here. – Photos by Rick Ohnsman

The photographers I interviewed for this article differed slightly in how they felt about photo manipulation, but all agreed, at issue was the intent of the photographer.  Purposely deceiving the viewer is where the problems lie.  If on the other hand the photographer was candid with their viewer and the photo was intended as “art” rather than “photographic record” then all was fair.

“For me, I don’t care much about simple enhancements,” said IP Writer Brent Huntley.  “I’m all for removing distractions and helping the sky along, but I want the image to still look like the place I photographed. I don’t want to have someone show up at a location and not recognize it. For example, showing up at a waterfall to realize the big mountain or whatever you saw in an image isn’t actually there. I don’t like that. It’s fine if you want to make fake places, but put a disclaimer on it”

When it's “art”, you can do whatever you like to your photos. Maybe I'm a frustrated artist because I love creating “painterly” looks with many of my photos. – PhotoArt by Rick Ohnsman

IP Writer Brad Goetsch pointed out that the “Great One”, Ansel Adams, though he didn’t have digital tools, was no stranger to photo manipulation.

“Adams' pre-visualization was focused on the “enhancements” he was planning for the image in post-production before he even released the shutter,” said Brad.  “I was actually thinking about this last night as someone sent me a photo that I am sure was a composite despite the fact that the photographer says otherwise. I am all for manipulation of an image until the objective is deceit. It's art and art is fun. The problem with deceiving the masses with an image that has been composited and is passed off as reality is that it creates an expectation of what is possible (even though it is not),” he said.  This can detract from a great image that is a true representation of reality.

Brad continued, “One example is that Peter Lik photo of the moon low over a cliff that went viral earlier this year. That level of clarity, depth of field, sharpness and overall lighting (among other things) is simply not possible, yet has the power to make everyone else look bad when the public says ‘well, Peter Lik pulled it off’, “he said.  “If you followed the story, his people backed off on the image, admitting that it was a composite.”

Sometimes photographers will also be fine with some practices frowning on others. It seems to depend on how the image will be used.

It took time to clone out all the footprints in the sand in this shot of a beach in Bandon, Oregon. I think this is acceptable digital manipulation. Do you? – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

“Something like cloning out a rock seems benign, said Tracy Wilson-Burns. “Removing people from a beach –I don't see why not. I do really dislike when a night-sky photo has clearly been modified to layer in a moon, or to layer a more-lit foreground over a starlit sky, but that's just my own preference and I wouldn't say that doing that would be unethical.”

She continued, “Say you have two photographers shooting star trails. One shoots everything in camera, no post. The other shoots a series of shorter star trail shots, edits in post to remove jet lights, etc; combines them in Photoshop or other star-stacking software and does further edits to tweak… I'm totally fine with both being submitted as ethical entries to an astrophotography category in a competition.”

To differentiate unaltered shots from those with more heavy digital manipulation, our camera club has a category called “Creative Altered Reality (CAR).”  Boise Camera Club (BCC) Vice-President Darin Hlavinka explained, “One of the problems I have is the replacement of skies etc. in images and photographers entering those into the Landscape category. I feel that if something was not part of the original photo then they are making a “Creative” picture. The picture, in my opinion, should then have been entered into the ‘CAR' category.”

“I feel that if you are doing ‘art’ then you can do what you want but it is no longer a photograph,” said BCC photographer David Gallina.  “Painters change stuff all the time but then it is ‘art’. It really depends on why you are doing it. If it is to sell a product or enter into a competition then my feeling is “NO”. But if it is hanging in your living room or sharing with other people for enjoyment then okay, change away.”

You’ve Been Buffaloed

Were you “buffaloed?” I took the winter scene in Yellowstone National Park. I also photographed the bison. But they were not in the same shot, this is a composite. – Photo(s) by Rick Ohnsman

A confession-  a tale where I personally added an element to a photo not part of the original shot.  I was in Yellowstone National Park riding in a snowcoach full of fellow photographers.  We were happily stopping at various spots making shots.  Many of our images included the North American “buffalo,” the iconic Yellowstone Bison.  I had some nice bison shots.  I had some nice landscape shots.  What I wanted was a bison in one of my nice landscape shots, but none happened to wander over where I wanted them.  No problem, cloning in a bison from one shot over the mostly white snow in my landscape shot was easy, even for an editor of limited skills.  I titled my final composite, “The Struggle,” an image “evoking the perseverance of a majestic beast against the brutal Yellowstone winter.”  Creative license, why not?

Another bison composite – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

I didn’t say much when I showed the photo to a friend who’d been on the trip.  “Hmm… I remember that field and I don’t recall having seen any bison over on that side of the road,” he said quizzingly.  Busted!  I had to confess my creative addition.  No real embarrassment here, but what if I’d decided to enter the image in a contest?

 The Blue Ribbon – If the rules don’t say no…

There are no doubt millions of photo contests out there with judges anxious to recognize top photographic talent.   Photographic talent, not editing talent, right?  Many contest organizers, particularly those with photo backgrounds, know full well the possibilities in digital manipulation and will specifically forbid it in their rules.  The Photographic Society of America, (PSA), is especially strict.  In one category, Nature, the rules state: “No techniques that add to, relocate, replace, or remove pictorial elements except by cropping are permitted. Techniques that enhance the presentation of the photograph without changing the nature story or the pictorial content are permitted. All adjustments must appear natural. Color images may be converted to grayscale monochrome. Infrared images are not allowed.”

Traffic signals, power lines, and other junk… it had to go. I cloned that out, pumped up the sunset, and “turned on” the lights on the bridge in editing. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

A photographer recently featured in my “How to Photograph Birds in Flight” article, Ken Miracle has often shown amazing bird or other wildlife photos where perhaps a twig or blade of grass obscures part of the animal.  “Clone that out!” we suggest.  Ken, who often enters his work in PSA competitions, won’t do it.  He plays by the rules, but some don’t. In contests where digital manipulation isn’t addressed, personal scruples don’t seem to exist for many photographers.  The problem is, often their photos are the winners.

“If you look at what wins prizes internationally, they are all highly manipulated, said BCC photographer Peter Reali.  “ I agree that if you change a sky or do major additions and there is a category like Creative Altered Reality, (CAR), then you should enter it there, but otherwise photography is art and anything goes to make something beautiful and inspiring. All provided that the things you substitute are all your images.”

“If the rules don’t prohibit it in the contest and if you don’t do all you can to enhance the photo you are going to lose,” said Jeff Harmon.  “But in-camera techniques still matter currently.  Composition in particular.  But the days of winning a contest with a single shot and minor editing, unless there are rules in the contest prohibiting it, are over.”


Under a Painted Sky

So you’re doing an image purely for your own enjoyment, for art’s sake, maybe for a contest where there are no rules nor there is a “Creative” category.  How do you do a sky replacement?  This article isn't designed to be a how-to, but I thought I’d return the favor to Nick Page and Jeff Harmon and point you to some podcasts and tutorials.

…and After. A sky replacement by Jeff Harmon.

Two-part Photo Taco podcast on sky replacement featuring Nick.  Part One.  Part Two

A sky replacement tutorial by Nick.

and a few other Improve Photography sky replacement tutorials:  by Nathan Goldberg

For Real Estate photography by Jim Harmer

How about a little “Landscaping?”

I’ve done this. I bet you have too –  some pre-shot, non-digital “landscaping.”  Move a rock here, add a flower or leaf there, maybe remove a stick or other offending thing.  Perhaps, for small or non-permanent things that might be ok.  But understand that not only may it be “Not be Nice to Fool with Mother Nature,” it may be against the rules, unethical, or in some cases illegal.  I hate hearing of numbskull actions like these –

Photographer burns Arches

Historic site destroyed by Photographer

I think the color of the autumn leaves help make this shot of Punchbowl Falls in the Columbia Gorge of Oregon. But this was a little “landscaping.” The leaves were over behind me on the bank and so I grabbed a handful and “landscaped” the scene. Legit or not? – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

For PSA photographers there is a “Code of Practice” designed to protect nature subjects and the environment.  All nature and wildlife photographers, whether shooting for PSA or not, would do well to read through it.  The “Yellowstone Pledge” also offers good advice.  We are hearing too many stories where careless or totally irresponsible photographers have done bone-headed things and are ruining it for us all.  We are now seeing the U.S. National Parks prohibit certain kinds of photo activities because unthinking, uncaring, selfish people have forced stringent restrictions.  Don’t be one of those people!

There are two other areas I’d like to touch on briefly, (as to explore them in depth would easily take whole articles in themselves.)  One is..

A composite shot of a jet on final approach. The question is, is the scale right? Is the aircraft too high or low? A pilot could be quick to spot this as bogus. Never do composites or other “fakery” like this if you're using a shot for journalistic purposes! – Photo(s) by Rick Ohnsman

Fake News

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve heard this term a lot recently.  What can we trust as truthful and accurate?  If you are doing anything that even borders on photojournalism, you should consider any kind of digital manipulation, (beyond simple exposure-related edits) repulsive.  Main the integrity of the profession and your duty to the public as a journalist.  Consider “creative photo editing” something totally taboo for you.  Enough said.

The Perfect Face and Body?

Most of this article has concentrated on the ethics of photo manipulation in landscape photography.  For portrait, fashion, and other “people-photo” shooters and editors, the topic is probably even more debated.  When and how much should you change the look of a person with digital photo manipulation?  Maybe it’s ok to remove blemishes for a teenaged senior photo subject, but should you use digital magic to reshape and resize their body?  What message does the fashion industry send to young people when they “create” images showing models with perfect, flawless skin and superhuman physiques?  What do you as a photographer and editor consider appropriate and “crossing the line” when doing this kind of photo work?

It's all too easy anymore to alter portrait photos, either for good, evil, (or just plain goofiness.) Have fun with your own photo if you like, but for others, consider the ethics of photo manipulation.

I don’t do much portrait photography and can't speak to these kinds of questions, but I throw the subject out there, hopeful some of our portrait photographer/writers will address the ethics of photo manipulation.

The Future – Photos by Mr. Roboto?

What's in the future for digital photo manipulation?  Jeff Harmon, (IP’s resident “techy”), predicts we’ll see more programs using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to do the work, faster and better than humans.  He mentioned one program, LandscapePro, that isn’t AI, but can replace skies with a few clicks.

“I have tested it a lot and it does well with photos that have very good contrast between foreground and background, but my real-world use has been that it didn’t work very well and I could get MUCH better results using Photoshop and luminosity masking techniques,” he said.

I’ve already seen other AI features included in photo software and hardware.  Adobe Lightroom CC, (the online version, not Classic), uses Adobe Sensei (https://www.adobe.com/sensei.html) to, among other things, save you the trouble of keywording your photos.  Google Photos can do the same thing.  Looking for all your photos of dogs?  Enter that keyword and it will quickly find them.  Programs using facial recognition tap into AI.  Even my new LG V30 cellphone can “look” at a live scene, recognize objects and invoke settings it “thinks” are best.

Jeff says soon you won’t be editing your photos, your computer will.

“Artificial Intelligence editing is going to make it so that you don’t even have to be good at processing the photos,” he said.  “Artistic composition will still matter, but fully automated processing is where we are headed.”

NVIDIA, the graphics processing board manufacturer, showed something that is totally spooky if you ask me.  Their demo,  “Image Inpainting for Irregular Holes Using Partial Convolutions” , (a geeky title or what??) shows AI figuring out how to replace missing components of a photo with amazing accuracy.

The original premise of this article was not IF you (or your AI computer software) CAN create realistic photo manipulations, but whether you SHOULD.  Ethical considerations will remain the decision of the photographer/editor, not something you’ll rely on your computer to determine.  Remember, honesty still is the best policy.

7 thoughts on ““’Scuse Me, While I Switch the Sky” – The Ethics of Photo Manipulation”

  1. Okay, I’m not big on changing out skies. But I will never say never. Frankly, the buffalo looks weird in the Yellowstone picture… something is just wrong with it and it doesn’t look right. I saw this even before I knew it was ‘shopped in. I like your use of “imported” leaves. Why not?

    Removing footprints and other unwanted things by cloning them out is cool. I have a picture of Pigeon Point LIghthouse take from the land side and those darned power lines and poles march right in front of the view–except they are no longer in my picture. Anyone who has tried to photograph this structure knows about this eyesore. Seeing a picture of the LIghthouse minus the power lines is a little otherworldly but what the heck, it is my picture and who needs reality?

  2. Robert Riddle

    Rick, this is like discussing Religion or Politics. Every single person has their interpretation. They may subscribe to certain principles in their editing (or non-editing) and look down on or up to another’s practices and talents. There are people that have produced some absolutely beautiful works which I would not necessarily condone in MY technique. In the end: If you are shooting for journalism, bear hard and fast to reality. The rest… is Art.

    Another great article, Thanks.

  3. Yes Robert…You “got it.” My intent was not to come out for or against photo manipulation but simply to encourage a dialogue. I think it’s an interesting subject. When photography was new, traditional artists had mixed feelings about where it fit in the art world. You probably witnessed that, right? ????

  4. Well written, thought provoking article. I liked reading the differing views on the subject. Including the clarification on photojournalism and nature was important. Altering reality, creating art, adding drama, etc. Depends on the intended use of the photo and the rules if submitted for competition.

  5. Man, very thought provoking. Terrific subject to explore. I enjoyed the different perspectives profiled here. It reminds me of that old debate over HDR. People can get quite passionate about it. Personally, I’m not bothered if an image maker alters their composition – as long as it’s appropriate for the scene and is convincingly done. It’s interesting how the word “Photoshopped” has become synonymous with fake. To me, the buffalo looks perfectly natural in the scene. It adds life to an image that would otherwise lack interest. Photographers are becoming artists. We now have the tools to create an image as we see it. Thanks for making us think about what we love doing.

  6. Non-photographers who ask the question if an image has been ‘photoshopped’ are often under the mistaken impression photo manipulation is new and great photographers of old, like Ansel Adams, never manipulated their photos. Without Photoshop, Ansel had to take a needle to his iconic negatives from Lone Pine, CA where the local high school emblazoned a large “LP” on the mountain side. He scratched away from his negatives what he called a “a hideous and insulting scar on one of the great vistas of our land.” Ansel manipulated every photo from that area. He stated he was criticized for doing so, but he was “not enough of a purist to perpetuate the scar and thereby destroy the extraordinary beauty and perfection of the scene.” So I say, why should we place more strict rules on ourselves today than Ansel Adams did? If he were alive today, he may be an employee and spokesperson for Adobe Software.

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