The legitimacy of landscape photographs: the ethics of Photoshopping

I’ve used Adobe Lightroom for several years for managing photographs and doing minor image manipulations – altering brightness, exposure and colours and fixing minor spots and blemishes. I’ve never used Photoshop but I recently signed up for Adobe’s Creative Cloud to get the latest version of Lightroom. This includes Photoshop so I downloaded it and today started to play around with it.

Photoshop lets you do much more extensive digital image transformations than apps such as Apple Photos or Lightroom. As I transformed some of my landscape photos, I started to think about whether or not it is legitimate to claim a photograph is of a particular place when that photograph has been changed significantly in Photoshop or some other image manipulation program.

I took a look at a copy of well-known outdoors magazine with lots of photographs of countryside around the UK. There was not a single pylon, wind turbine or any other utility infrastructure in any of the pictures although several of these were in areas which are not sparsely populated. This could, of course, be due to photographers cleverly hiding this infrastructure but I suspect that it is more likely that some clever Photoshopping has removed it to ‘improve’ the photograph.

Of course, if your aim is to produce a striking image rather than a representational landscape photograph then this isn’t an issue. You are not making any claims of accuracy. However, if you claim that a photograph is an accurate illustration of a place, then how much image manipulation is permissible?

I think it is uncontroversial to make changes to the exposure, brightness and colours of an image and to crop that image. We all see colours differently and different camera sensors respond differently. There is no such thing as ‘correct’ colour and exposure and changing these from that recorded in the camera is not, in any way, misrepresenting the landscape.

What about additions and subtractions from the image? The following two photographs are representations of the same view of An Teallach, a mountain in NW Scotland.

An Teallach. As shot with colour/brightness changes
An Teallach. Utility infrastructure removed.

The first picture is the landscape as it is; the second is the landscape as I wish it was. The differences are minor but I have removed a mobile phone mast at the base of the hill on the left and some electricity poles by the forest on the right. The view as it is in the second photograph does not exist although, in reality, most people would not notice the features that I have removed.

In the next pair of photos, taken in Sutherland, I have made a very minor addition of figures to the landscape in the second photo to add scale. I think it improves the image. Here. you definitely need to enlarge the images to see the difference.

Sutherland, Ben Hee. As shot with colour/brightness changes
Sutherland, Ben Hee with added figures

The important difference between the changes made here and the changes made to the An Teallach photo is that a viewer could have seen the landscape with figures, unlike the image where features have been removed. So is it OK to make minor changes like this to an illustration for photographic effect?

I don’t think there can be definitive answers to these questions and all photographers have to make up their own mind where to draw the line between illustrative accuracy and the photographer’s impression of the landscape. Perhaps, as it has now become common for bloggers to declare whether or not products have been given to them by manufacturers and retailers, publishers of blogs and magazines should declare the significant additions and deletions made to photographic illustrations?

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