Is Compositing Nightscape Imagery Cheating?

Is Compositing Nightscape Imagery Cheating?

When creating imagery of any night landscape, you are taking your camera and the other equipment you own and pushing them to their limits. With that in mind, should photographers be upset when their favorite imagery is put together in post?

What if elements from the image are not in the same scene at the same time, do we have an obligation to state this or should we let the image and it’s creator stand on their own merits?

If you’ve ever photographed any nightscape, the Milky Way, or astrophotography image, you’ve probably learned that there is only so much a single photograph can bestow on a final piece of art. As you venture down this road there will be a number of ways that your creative output will become better and be invigorated by the increases in your technical aptitude behind the camera and in post. These combined eventually allow us to start creating imagery that meets our artistic aspirations. What if your aspirations are not based on the scene that you have in front of you, and you want to go beyond the “reality” of the place?

Stars And Fire Over Yellowstone Lower Falls - A simple six image panoramic image taken within 3 minutes from beginning to end.

When shooting a landscape without the full effect of the sun, we see a vastly different space in non-light-polluted areas that has soft blue hour and golden hour light, directional lighting with filling ambient from the moon, hard light from a full moon, and lastly almost no light at all besides the star light itself. These different types of lighting shape the landscape in new ways and can allow us to create art our eyes have never really experienced before. The technical knowledge to take advantage of these different types of lighting allow photographers to create surreal scenes that emote a different level of engagement with our natural world and cities alike. The issue that people seem to have is that these images aren’t always able to be created with one single frame, but does that matter?

Photography is a scientific art that gets stretched more with each new tool that’s created. Today we are looking at better sensors with better dynamic range that are still simply tools integral to capturing our vision of a subject. Night time imagery is a combination of in-camera capture and then the corresponding post production to create engaging — as well as inspiring — imagery. These scenes are sometimes captured within minutes, hours, days, or even longer. They also don’t have to be created from the same scene if our compositing end goal is stretching the “reality” of the place. The crux of the matter is: if the image is completely believable, should a viewer be told that it was taken maybe years apart? Does it matter if it was hours apart, or in a different a different place if it serves the creator their vision. 

Between Night And Day - An eighty six image panoramic composite capturing the sky 2 hours prior to the foreground and approximately 15 degree clockwise rotation from sky to foreground.

I believe that there is no obligation to explain the creation of an image if you are not teaching that knowledge. The viewer is not empowered by having the information to capture the image behind the art itself. The impact is many times lessened with the lack of wonder that’s been created and the value of the imagery is lowered. Does this mean that EXIF details and composition techniques should be moot behind imagery? That, I believe, is up to the photographer whether to decide to share or not. Part of creating is wonder and the impact of that wonder on others, and that for me is the most meaningful part of photography.

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Deleted Account's picture

If it's art, no. If not, yes. My reasoning is more out of kindness. If you create an image that's impossible, some viewers may spend considerable time and expense to see it in person, only to be disappointed. As photographers, we know how these images are made. A lot of people, seeing images like those in this article, may think that's what they'll see if they can just get to the right place on the right night.

Paul Ojuara's picture

Agreed. I also think it depends. If it's clearly stated that it's "digital art", it's perfectly okay, and sometimes it's something to admire. If it's pretending to be a photography, in my opinion, it's cheating. Just to make myself clear, to me panoramics are ok, but swapping the sky for another sky shot made in another location (sometimes by another person) it's not.

"If you create an image that's impossible, some viewers may spend considerable time and expense to see it in person, only to be disappointed."

Interestingly, especially in the case of night sky photography, if people spend considerable time and expense to see something in person, based on a picture, they'll still likely be disappointed even if their expectations are based on a single image. Just because something was shot as a single image doesn't mean it'll look the same as it will to the naked eye. A long exposure of the night sky brings out way more detail than you can see with just your eyes alone.

I'm not necessarily disagreeing with the idea that composites should be labeled as such, but then again there are forms of compositing that are practical vs. fantastical, like stitching, stacking for noise reduction, etc. What about setting up your camera on a tripod and shooting the same scene an hour apart, then blending the results? You're not making up a place; you're basically just shooting a cleaner foreground by capturing it before nightfall. But it's still a "composite" in the sense that the end result will look wildly different than if you just go there and look at the scene with your eyes.

I think part of the problem is that compositing leads down a philosophical rabbit hole in a world where people like to keep things neatly categorized. "Photoshopped" is now a synonym for "fake", even though you can use it for simple things too, like output sharpening, that in no way alter the image in any significant way as to suddenly make it "fake". "Did you use Photoshop or just Lightroom?" is a loaded question, full of misunderstanding and poor assumptions. Unfortunately, I don't think there will ever be a consensus on this, so you might as well just shoot and edit the way you want to and not worry too much about what other people think. There will always be someone who doesn't like what you do for all kinds of reasons, but if those reasons have more to do more with the philosophy behind how you created it (vs. a more objective gripe like a blurry image), I'd spend even less time worrying about it.

Agreed, the philosophical rabbit hole is an infinite grey area where it becomes impossible to "draw a line in the sand".

Therefore, the best thing an artist (and/or photographer) can do is be proud of their methods and make a general "artist's statement" that proclaims, in general terms, where they've drawn their line in the sand, or if there is no line at all.

Why not? Let's be honest here: the ONLY reason to avoid disclosing the aforementioned is this: you're afraid that disclosure will cause some viewers to de-value certain images they currently assume are "straight" photographs.

But that's on you, not your viewers. You, the artist, don't get to have your cake and eat it too. And if you're relying on the viewers' tendency to assume that photographs are real unless otherwise disclosed, in order for your artwork to succeed as a "photograph" (when it might otherwise fail to impress, as "digital composite art") ...then maybe you're just not a good enough digital composite artist yet. You should work on improving your skills as a digital artist, so that your work can stand on its own two feet instead of abusing viewers' propensity to assume certain things about your images.

TLDR, be proud of yourself as an artist, even if it means you're more "digital artist" than photographer. Your work will speak for itself, and earn as much respect as it deserves.

Make no mistake, I do not place "pure photography" on a higher plane, artistically speaking, than digital composite artwork. Au contraire! I'm an absolute and unashamed sci-fi geek, and it would be complete hypocrisy for me to say anything that would contradict my love of certain CGI worlds, from Middle Earth to Endor. But when it comes to digital composite work, it is high time we encourage disclosure, instead of discouraging it and/or shaming those who ask for it out of sheer curiosity.

Jon Kellett's picture

RE: Devaluing the work - If you had a composite where you shot all the elements, mentioning that you shot all the elements should take the hit off.

Shouldn't be any hit if you say (and aren't lying in saying so) that you shot each element of the image separately, in order to go beyond technical limitations and create the image that you saw in your minds eye... May even add to the value, as you had to do even more work and that you had a "deeper" creative process. Should appeal to those who lean towards non-photographic art whilst also blunting criticism from those who are anti digital art.

Honesty is always the best policy, but when you introduce the "mind's eye" factor, things get grey. Did you "imagine" the moonrise to appear as a 200mm moon above a 24mm landscape? That's "cheating", if you're attempting to call it "real", or simply call it "as I envisioned the scene" Same thing with the Milky Way, if you "enlarge" or move it.

Honestly, indeed many folks won't care if you move the Milky Way a few degrees, or enlarge it by a factor of say shooting the earth with your 14 2.8 or 24 1.4, and then the sky with your 50 1.4. That's not uncommon in nightscape photography.

But some folks will care, and the disclosure may slightly devalue the final result in their eyes.

But my whole point is, "digital composite artists" should just be OK with that and keep going, NOT feel pressured to abide by rules set by others. They should only reconsider their "anything goes" philosophy if they'd actually rather not spend hours in photoshop to create their final product, and/or have to "keep secrets" about their editing.

Instead, right now what we have is people on both sides relentlessly shaming the other. Half say that something isn't art unless it conforms to a singular mold, while the other half says that even the most wild "anything goes" approach to photoshop should still be considered /a/ photograph, simply on the whim that an artist calls themselves a photographer because they believe the title "digital artist" is a put-down or dismissal of their personal passion.

Jon Kellett's picture

I agree with what you say, however I feel that I'd be doing a massive dis-service to the real digital artists out there if I called myself a composite artist - I really am that bad! :-)

Not only that, I personally wouldn't wish to be pigeon-holed in that way. Whilst informed persons know that the term isn't meant to be derogatory, it does downplay the photography aspect.

My personal view is that I'm a photographer (and artist) first and that compositing is just another tool. Whether that tool is interpreted as a positive or negative comes down to how the creator positions (and promotes) their work.

We photographers need to be a little less precious and accept that we have the ability to influence the market, by being up front and not acting as if any of our tools lesson or dirty us.

Eric Salas's picture

As long as you’re not Peter Lik and you’re not putting yourself out there as all camera, no magic post processing.


Cheating? No. It's not like it's a test. With any amount of knowledge of the starts and digital photography it's easy enough to realize that the amount of light that needs to be gathered necessarily creates trails, and when you don't see trails it's because they are tracking the starts and therefore composting the landscape. Even a 20 or 30 second exposure has some amount of trail and unless you are using an exceedingly high iso (which would also be obvious)... As photographers, we walk a fine line between showing what was there, and creating something beautiful. I have one relative that asks if I "Photoshop" ever image? And if you mean do I bring it into Lightroom and tweak it so it looks more like what I saw, then yes, but if you mean manipulate reality? Then mostly no.

But what is the point of this discussion... again, and again. Photographers are artists first unless we are explicit about being photojournalists or documentarians, and the viewer should understand. We put the "blame" on the photographer for not explaining exactly what they did to the photograph, what responsibility does the viewer have to understand that what they are looking at is one artist's view of a scene? I am a little tired of the "blame" always being put at our feet.

Deleted Account's picture

Most non-photographers don't understand what they're seeing. I showed the attached photo to several people. Some asked how I did it and others thought it was real, somehow.

Really beautiful shot... how did you do it? ;)

Deleted Account's picture

I saw two fireflies crawl in and waited to see what they would do... ;-)

The analogy I always like to use is that as soon as you start imposing rules on art, you make it a sport. There's nothing wrong with that in the appropriate scenario, you just need to be honest with yourself about what it is you're doing.

Indeed, Andrew, there is almost always an obvious "line in the sand" when it comes to the various techniques involved in nightscape photography. If you shoot the earth at 14mm and the sky at 50mm to make the Milky Way appear enormous, (something that is incredibly common on Instagram hubs these days) ...then that's a blatant defiance of astronomy and physics, period. Let alone, completely inaccurate juxtapositions such as adding a moonrise or Milky Way to a sky where it is completely impossible, period.

On the other hand, techniques such as tracking or stacking, ceteris paribus, only serve a single purpose: to overcome a current limitation of technology that might soon become a non-issue.

In other words, if we could shoot ISO 12800 images with the noise level and dynamic range of ISO 100, we wouldn't need to stack or track anymore.

Photographers are artists, yes, but not all artists /remain/ photographers, even if they begin their process by going out and capturing a bunch of photographs. At a certain point, you go from being a photographer to being a digital composite artist. Because at a certain point, what you've produced stops being /a/ photograph, and becomes a digital collage that is entirely the creation of your own imagination, and not at all a representation of real events that actually occur in the real world.

You bring up an interesting point. What is a photographer? Are they a skilled technician who goes out and captures images as requested (e.g. Go shoot: the baseball game, the conflict in Syria, etc.)? Or are they an artist who uses images captured in cameras (digital or analog) to make art? The technician could take a wonderful image of the landscape at night, and one of the stars, but wouldn't consider compositing the two, the artist would layer images of waterfalls across the Milky Way because it looks wonderful!

Maybe I'm being too simplistic, but do you see where I'm going? I know plenty of photographers that can choose the right equipment, find the right exposure and when pointed at a subject have no ability to make a compelling image. Alternatively, there are plenty of artists that don't know an f-stop from focal length, but produce the most incredible imagery using images they find on the web and in stock sites...

All very good points, Andrew, and indeed there are all types of photographers out there, and all types of artists. That is part of what makes the whole genre such a fun challenge.

However, the fact should remain: if you call yourself a photographer, you ought to at least put forth an artists' statement about what style of photography you're creating, whether it involves fancifully wild edits, or more traditional methods. You owe it to your viewers, because otherwise you are abusing their tendency to assume factuality.

Like it or not, that is part of what makes a "photograph" impressive, compared to painting, sculpture, etc. The notion that "it actually happened".

Artists are welcome to do whatever they want to their images. But if they're relying on an assumption of truth or accuracy in order to increase the "wow factor" of their imagery, then the joke is on them, and they're never going to escape the frustration of getting "called out" every now and then. Which is why I say, own it. Be proud of your craft. Even if it means a few viewers will say that it isn't their cup of tea. Who cares? Every artist already incessantly parrots "you can't please everybody" etc. I don't understand this double standard, aside from the simple fact that over the last 200 years the term "photograph" has become enough of a prestigious label that the term "digital composite artwork" seems like an insult to some who wish to be called photographers and yet have no rules whatsoever be applied to the scope of their craft.

Rob Davis's picture

I'm pretty much with Sam. If you make no claims to conventional photographic methods then you don't owe anyone an explanation.

These images are going to make excellent postcards at a healing crystal store somewhere and that's enough.

News, editorial and documentary work, it is cheating, unethical and lying.
Art - who cares?

Bill Metallinos's picture

If you name it Art you can do what ever you want. But if you name it Astronomy them you must tell it.

-Art is what you see and it's beautiful.

-Astronomy contains lots of informations.
Lightpollution in that area. Position of the Planets. Position of the Stars. Azimuth of Milkyway. Position of Polaris in that place. other light sources in that area. Light of Moon, or no light at all. Conditions in the atmosphere, Seeing, clouds, air glow, etc etc etc

Pedro Quintela's picture

With time I started to see the creational process as a sum-of-parts that conducts to a final output which can be achieved for many forms. For me wherever you create it on computer or in the field has the same value. Why? because in the end we intend to create a reaction from our viewers.

In my personal case, due to familiar issues, I had to almost stop all my travels and photo tours. Should I stop my creative process, one of my ways of income, just because I can´t be in amazing locations or with the best conditions? I guess you know my answer.

Overall with the advent of computacional or electronic photography, the game changed dramatically. You can both opt for only shoot on location and present the file as it is, edit lightly or heavily or enter in to the compositing area. Its up to you and - very important - to your skills. Making a unique image is very changeling and demanding on the technical aspect.

Afterall is an art form so let us dream and make other dream as well! :)

Kirk Darling's picture

You can't actually see many of Ansel Adams' images with your naked eyes, either.

Well, he shot in B&W, so...

Everybody loves to quote AA, whose many bold statements include "You don't take a photograph, you make it." ...or, "The negative is the score, the print is the performance" ...or my personal favorite, "Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships."

However, it is important to remember two things: Firstly, that B&W as a medium is inherently understood to be a creative interpretation of tonal values, since it is void of color from the get-go. And secondly, if you actually read some of his works, you'll find that Ansel was indeed staunchly opposed to certain edits such as adding, enlarging, or moving significant elements in a scene. His famous photos of different moonrises depict this ethic in this regard. For example "Moonrise, Hernandez" includes tiny little dot of a moon, even though with his masterful skills in the darkroom he could have easily re-photographed another moon image with a telephoto lens, and superimposed it perfectly.

And yet, he didn't. He drew a line in the sand, and didn't cross it. Which is really all photographer "purists" are asking for today. Let viewers know where YOUR line in the sand is.

Kirk Darling's picture


Viewers get a work of art. The artist owes them no explanation of how it was created. Adams could have done whatever he wanted--many artists did. If an artist wants to draw some self-limiting "line in the sand," he or she is is still under no obligation to share it with anyone.

You are free to draw your lines in the sand around your own feet if you want to, and stay within them if you want to--but don't try to preach that other artists must do the same.

Deleted Account's picture

In reading Matthew's comments, they seemed more like a suggestion than something "other artists must do".
I wish we could all discuss these subjects over dinner. There would be much less miscommunication and a lot more civility. :-)

If that is how you feel, Kirk, then all I'm saying is, don't complain when you are repeatedly called out for producing "fake" or at least deceptive imagery. That's on you, not your viewers or fellow artists. And if your viewers / fellow artists stop calling you a "photographer" altogether, and brand you as a "digital artist" instead, then you have to live with that.

Simply put, I'm not telling other artists to restrict their creativity. I'm telling them that if the only reason their images are impressive is because of an assumed element of accuracy, then the joke's on them. Why not create artwork that stands on its own two feet as digital composite artwork? There are plenty of examples of artists whose skills in Photoshop are breathtaking. Lucas, Spielberg, Jackson, Cameron, all are absolutely legendary for the imaginary visual worlds they've created, often from scratch, sometimes through a hybrid of composite work and CGI. So what is it that causes some artists to cling so desperately to the title "photographer"?

Kirk Darling's picture

Do you think Pictorialism began with Photoshop? Do you want to require a sticker on every picture: "WARNING-This picture may not represent reality?"

Don't you know the history of your own craft? The manipulation of photographic images began as soon as a negative process was invented. Photographs are only admissible in court with a sworn deposition of accuracy by the photographer--and that's been since forever, because people have always known they could be manipulated.

Only the most naive ever assumed a fantastic photograph was necessarily an accurate representation of reality. Certainly nobody should assume it today, and there is no point continuing to foster that naivete.

Oh, the irony.

Interesting indeed that you bring up Pictorialism. It wasn't really until then that photography itself gained respect as an art form, before that I imagine that painters and sculptors really scoffed at "clicking a shutter" as having nothing to do with art at all. I imagine the argument went something like this...

"All you do is click a shutter and 'steal' an image that already existed in the real world; we create our art from nothing, using our imagination and creative vision alone!"

Sound familiar? It should. Because the exact same thing is happening now as digital composite art emerges. (Or the exact opposite, depending on how you look at it.)

Digital composite art deserves all the respect that it can earn. As a huge sci-fi geek, I'd be a total hypocrite if I said I didn't appreciate beautiful CGI worlds that depict impossibilities of astronomy and physics. But, it's not photography.

At a certain point, you have to stop calling it /a/ photograph, if it's really a bunch of different photographs. Same if it's a single photograph so wildly altered that it borders on CGI.

All I'm saying is, why not PROUDLY call yourself a digital artist instead?

We're not talking about cloning out a bit of trash or a twig. We're talking about nightscape imagery, as the title of this post says. As I've already stated many times, we're talking about wild alterations of the night sky that are completely impossible in reality, yet edited to intentionally appear as if they actually happened exactly the way the composite image depicts.

To be blunt: If you think that disclosure of such a major inaccuracy would lead to a lower valuation of your images, then it means you wish you didn't need to keep secrets. Which in turn means you kinda wish the photo WAS real. Or, you're just insecure in general, and are grasping at praise anywhere you can find it. Whatever the case, don't put it on your viewers or fellow artists. That's on you.

You're welcome to keep the opinion, "all photos are edited, since the beginning of photography, and anyone who blindly trusts an un-captioned photograph is naive and foolish" ...but I'm here to tell you that this mindset will only lead to frequent frustration when others ask questions you don't want to answer, or try and tell you your image isn't a photograph at all, but digital art. You'll be a lot happier if you just proudly embrace the craft(s) that appeal to you.

Christopher Eaton's picture

There is a certain level of integrity expected from photography, even if it is fine art photography.

Kirk Darling's picture

No, there isn't, and there never has been. If the photographer had not made any further assertions about the image (in which case, it's the assertion of which a "certain level of integrity" is expected), then only the image matters.

Unless the artist claims otherwise, a lovely image is just a lovely image, existing for its own sake.

If Ansel Adams was a photojournalist, much of what he wrote would be considered ethical violations. But as an artist, he was free to choose whatever techniques he wanted to use so long as he didn't steal from other artists and was honest about what he was doing. Which he was.

This idea of purity in photography is pure hogwash. Photographers of every generation had to adjust their work in order to deal with technical limitations. Many of those adjustments led to both great photography and techniques people still use today.

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