My Lying Lens — A Fable!

This week’s guest blogger is Michael Masters

Digital image processing has opened a whole new world of possibilities.  Every pixel is fair game for manipulation, sometimes in ways that surprise and astound.

This, of course, has launched many an ethical debate as purists and practitioners of the new order probe limits and attempt to sort out how this brave new world will coexist with the old – or not.  While there is no uniformity of viewpoint – and probably never will be – a key distinction seems to be emerging. There just may be grudging acceptance that there is a difference between photojournalism and “art” – whatever the latter is understood to be.  In the former domain, one better not add elements or remove anything.  And for good reason.  Altering reality in journalism is lying and must never be tolerated, whether verbally, via text, or in images.

Photographic art seems to receive more latitude, but with a big caveat – one ought to state up front that one does art, or at least disclose how an image differs from the original scene.  This is, of course, by no means universally agreed to.  Many stoutly refuse to go beyond traditional darkroom adjustments.  But, history tells us that photographers sought to airbrush dreary reality with the tools available even from the inception of the photographic craft, in a variety of ways too numerous to enumerate here.

These days, many do a lot more.  It is not uncommon to remove blemishes and make ugly pretty.  (Well — wedding photographers began prettying up brides as soon as they figured out how!)  Some add canvas for compositional balance.  Some blur backgrounds just as a wide open lens would.  Less approved is adding elements not there originally – unless obviously a composite.

The caveat on top of the caveat is that if one enters a contest – be it ever so artistic in character – one had better abide by the contest rules.  If the rules say no manipulation beyond X, Y and Z, woe be unto thee if you do R, Q and P.  Many judges have caught on and now require RAW files from prospective winners.  Bravo to them!

Perhaps the stickiest dilemma is the fact that one might well construe many domains to be either art or photojournalism – natural image making among them – depending on intent, ethical principles or just plain dogged opinion.  More generally, where does one draw the line?  And, who draws it? Humpty Dumpty told Alice, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”  Might the most realistic answer be that we each draw our own line – and are open about what we do? 

In the spirit of Alice and Humpty, here is my modest tongue-in-cheek contribution to the debate.  Not that it will settle anything one way or the other.  Probably nothing will.  But it was certainly fun to write! 

Yesterday, I took my 800mm lens into the back yard. I waited patiently until at last a bird landed on a nearby limb. Ah, I smiled, perfect!  I took one last look at the scene before bending to the viewfinder.  Beyond the little creature, at some distance lay a hopeless tangle of decidedly unphotogenic foliage – a miserable setting to the unpracticed eye!  The bird?  Hardly worthy of notice against that chaotic background.  But, thought I, the unsuspecting naïfs who will soon view the artificiality I am about to create will never suspect the reality my eyes see at this moment!  My deceitful optical marvel will suffuse those ruinous distractions that the human eye cannot escape seeing into a beautifully unreal abstract canvas!  Poor souls!  They think I’m such a creative genius!  Little do they know I owe it all to my lying lens!  With smug, self-satisfied smirk, I placed eye to viewfinder and gently pressed the shutter.


Michael Masters is moderator of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of, a web community devoted to nature photography.  As moderator, Michael organizes outings for members in the region.  A perennial favorite is Chincoteague NWR.  Michael may be reached at Note: no non-traditional processing was applied to the image featured in this blog post!!

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