Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Rules of engagement for using Photoshop?

I wanted to revisit the Reuters photographer fiasco to facilitate a discussion on the ethical boundaries of Photoshop's use in our work flow. Evan Hindra asks "when is [the use of] Photoshop unethical?" A very important question. Let's take a look.

Often times, I am asked to do things to an image that will obviously cross the line into the (let's say) not exactly true and correct realm. My typical response is that Photoshop allows me to realize my wildest creative dreams. The law, however, is not so understanding. Many of the things that detectives may wish done could thus fall under the title of reenactment.

As far as Reuters' position is concerned, David Schlesinger (Reuters' Editor-in-Chief) says that "... materially altering a picture in Photoshop or any other image editing software will lead to dismissal." What does "materially altering a picture" mean?
  • No additions or deletions to the subject matter of the original image, thus changing the original content and journalistic integrity of an image.
  • No excessive lightening, darkening or blurring of the image, thus misleading the viewer by disguising certain elements of an image.
  • No excessive colour manipulation, thus dramatically changing the original lighting conditions of an image.
Wow. Can we possibly work under these harsh conditions? Sure. We do everyday. With all of these, it's all in how you argue it.

Firstly, these rules apply to their photographers in the field. Reuters has a photo desk that does image correction for their wire service (print/video/web). "The level of Photoshop privileges granted to photographers should be at the discretion of the Chief/Senior Photographers within the above guidelines. All photographers should understand the limitations of their laptop screens and their working environments." 

Second, Reuters understands that it needs to correct its images before they are used for publication. They are not going to hamstring themselves, "... ask your regional or global picture desks to perform any required further Photo-shopping on their calibrated hi-resolution screens. This typically entails lightening/darkening, sharpening, removal of dust and basic colour correction." So, they have a team of Adobe trained professionals available to work on the images from the field. They don't want Photographers doing corrections in the field under sub-optimal conditions (see Gordon Ramsay - Cook what you know).

Third, Reuters is quite aware of the power of their Photographer's images, "... our news photography must depict reality. Any attempt to alter that reality constitutes fabrication and can lead to disciplinary action, including dismissal." Must our images depict reality? Of course.

Finally, let's look at their do/don't list in light of what we know about our work flow.

Allowed by Reuters:
Cropping (we learned earlier how to crop non-destructively)
Adjustment of Levels to histogram limits (non-destructive adjustment layer)
Minor colour correction (can easily be done in a non-destructive way)
Sharpening at 300%, 0.3, 0 (those settings may not always fit our purpose - we can use Smart Filters)
Careful use of lasso tool (can be useful in making layer masks to limit global effects)
Subtle use of burn tool (we learned how to do this non-destructively)
Adjustment of highlights and shadows (can now be done in Smart Filters)
Eye dropper to check/set gray (we've learned several ways to balance colour and light)

Not Allowed by Reuters:
Additions or deletions to image (big no-no)
Cloning & Healing tool - except dust (there is a way to do this semi-destructively - but it's tough to explain)
Airbrush, brush, paint (masks - yes. Actual pixels - no)
Selective area sharpening (in a multi-pass sharpening work flow, this can be explained)
Excessive lightening/darkening (a night time image in the dark needs "excessive lightening" to be seen - so as long as it's non-destructive I say ... why not?)
Excessive colour tone change (red shirt vs orange shirt vs purple shirt - it makes a difference)
Auto levels (best done manually anyway)
Blurring (what are you trying to hide?)
Eraser tool (masks - yes. Actual pixels - no)
Quick Mask (to limit adjustments - yes. To mask pixels - no)
In-camera sharpening (best left to Photoshop)
In-camera saturation styles (best left to Photoshop)

Since Forensics is debate and Forensic Science is the application of a broad spectrum of tools and techniques to answer questions about a particular piece of evidence in the legal system, then we can have a debate about our use of this broad spectrum of tools. Don't be afraid to try something new. Document your work. Start over and see if it can be easily duplicated. Send it to a peer to see if he/she can duplicate it as well. If it's documented properly and it's able to be duplicated - and it's a non-destructive process ... give it a shot. If your peers can't make it work from your notes ... take another look before trying the process on an acutal case file.

Enjoy the day.

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