Competition Rules vs Editing for Impact and the Risk of Disqualification

The changing face of photography

…a follow-up to my previous article following the recent news about World Press Photography.

Photography has changed so much in the last few years. More and more, it seems, the integrity of photographers is being questioned and the latest fracas centres around the allegation of cheating in yet another major international competition, the World Press Photography Photo of the Year. The report of this accusation can be seen here along with the photograph itself.

As a judge, I would say, without a doubt, that the photo has been enhanced using some kind of tone-mapping technique, e.g. an HDR process or something like Nik Filters and that possibly some burning and dodging may have taken place…but I could not doubt the authenticity of the photograph, because I do not know. Many people have condemned this photograph and accused it of being a composite or fake. What I would say is that it is a very powerful photograph and the processing has no doubt enhanced it. As I write this article, World Press Photo has announced the result of its inquiry and have stated:

“We have reviewed the RAW image, as supplied by World Press Photo, and the resulting published JPEG image. It is clear that the published photo was retouched with respect to both global and local color and tone. Beyond this, however, we find no evidence of significant photo manipulation or compositing. Furthermore, the analysis purporting photo manipulation is deeply flawed….”


“When I compare the RAW file with the prizewinning version I can indeed see that there has been a fair amount of post-production, in the sense that some areas have been made lighter and others darker. But regarding the positions of each pixel, all of them are exactly in the same place in the JPEG (the prizewinning image) as they are in the RAW file. I would therefore rule out any question of a composite image.”

I am very relieved to read that the photographer has been exonerated but I’ll bet there will still be many who will condemn him as a cheat! The verdict does show that, even in press photography, a significant amount of processing is allowed, without compromising the truth of the photograph and I think it is a very important decision. The full post can be read here.

All this follows on from the disqualification, in January 2013, of the Winner of the National Geographic Photo Contest for cloning out some distractions marring the foreground of the original, including a plastic bag…after sending the original shot to National Geographic, as requested, the winner was horrified to find that he was to be disqualified from the competition, as he had broken the rules. In his own post, the photographer himself, Harry Fisch explains what happened. There have been other major disqualifications over the last few years, too, in notable wildlife competitions and landscape competitions.

There is no doubt that the stigma of disqualification, if made public as so often happens, can seriously damage the reputation of the photographer. The more rules we make the more likely we’ll need to disqualify people from our competitions. I am not an anarchist, I do accept that some rules are needed, but let’s keep them to a minimum! For those who love to edit our images for maximum impact, but want to stay within the rules, there arises the dilemma of how far we can go in our editing process without breaking the rules of the competition. Of course, the simple answer is to read the rules. “Ah, but”…you might say “if only all rules were clear and if only rules were fair and unambiguous”!

Real world editing for impact

In the non-commercial world, editing for impact of our photographs is a personal business and is not bound by rules, but by taste and ability. We edit our images in order to interpret our subject matter as we believe we saw it or, better still, felt it. We do not make our images solely for competition. However, competition is an important feature of club activity. In our club photography world, as we become more proficient with editing tools and the original RAW exposure is enhanced to such a degree that it looks very different from how the photograph started out, we may find that we fall foul of the rules! We may risk disqualification and disgrace, as did Paul Hansen in the example above! It is very sad that people are so quick to criticise and condemn.

Our problem is how we accommodate what people are ACTUALLY DOING within our activities and within our competition rules rather than trying to impose rules that limit us to what some people WISH we were doing! If we go down the latter route, I think that we will just stifle progress and stifle creativity. We are asked to create a level playing field for traditional workers, which will need compromise, but where will that compromise be?

There’s editing and there’s more editing

This is an original RAW file. We had waited for the sun to come out below a bank of cloud and when it did, it seemed glorious! The histogram will show that all the tones are there, with nothing burned out in the highlights and nothing blacked up in the shadows. But the RAW exposure does not communicate the feeling to the viewer that I had when I was standing there and enjoying the scene.
Here is the first edit of the file. Here, the colours and contrast  have been selectively boosted and the frame has been transformed to slightly adjust the composition. However, no areas have been cloned and the bird in the sky is still annoyingly there.
Whitby Old Pier
This is possibly the final edit. More burning and dodging has been done, some colours saturated and some desaturated. A golden reflection has been added, contrast in the mid-tones enhanced, bright spots in the foreground cloned out and a couple of areas in the clouds have been partially cloned. Once it has been appraised by others, I may decide it needs some further adjustment.

For the best quality, we work with RAW capture, but RAW data is notoriously lifeless and needs processing to bring out the best in it. If you shoot in jpg, the resulting image has been processed, not by you, but by the algorithms designed by the camera software engineers. Many creative processes can now be performed in camera, including blended HDR. Are we going to legislate for all of the alternatives?

If we try to legislate by process, some of the processes in the examples above would be ineligible for a non-creative section and some would, I hope, be eligible. Legislating by process is difficult. How will you legislate for transforming the image such as I have done without legislating against the correction of verticals in architectural shots? How will you legislate for colour adjustments beyond the changing of colour temperature? Would you legislate against selective colour adjustments or any selective processing at all? How much processing makes an image “creative”? Would only global adjustments be possible? and I shudder to think that we may require our member photographers, one day, to show us their original exposure to prove they are not “cheating”.

If we are to separate at all, and I am seeing that a lot of people want separation, I cannot see how it can be done by process, especially as many of those who demand separation don’t understand the processes that we are using…let us instead separate by content…or not at all. Whatever we do, let’s not get into the “disqualification” mentality and let’s enjoy what we do without fear of being called cheats!

© Christine Widdall First Published: 15 May 2013

Update 2018 – since writing this article, a number of salons have now changed their rules so that they can demand to see the original capture for award winning photographs. Very sad indeed to see that this has come to pass…however I must also admit that, as a member of a judging team, I was party to the selection of an image in a nature section that turned out to be faked by montaging two creatures onto one canvas – something that has always been forbidden in a nature section…and that was a big disappointment too.

error: © Christine Widdall - Kirklees Cousins