Is Sky Replacement Ethical in Landscape Photography?

Sky replacement has been a method used in landscape photography for years but recently it has become much more accessible with AI assisted features in programs such as Photoshop and Luminar. That accessibility has ignited debates within the photography community raising the question whether or not manipulating an image in such a way is ethical.

The only thing more debated in the photography world is what camera is best at any given time. Every person has a different view and outlook on what they expect from a photographer and the digital age has overwhelmed many of us with images that appear so perfect that they can't be real.

That brings up the question, is photography strictly intended to show what is only real in that moment? Is the medium not allowed to evolve as our world changes? These are all wonderful questions that I'll try to tackle here but please remember these are all my opinions and how I personally feel about the medium that is photography. There is no right or wrong answer but I would encourage everyone to be open-minded to others as it fuels healthier discussion (I'm looking at you, comment section).

The Nat Geo Rule

The purest of the photography world follow what I call the "Nat Geo Rule" where photos shouldn't be manipulated more than basic adjustments such as exposure or contrast. This viewpoint stems from the idea that if you're capturing moments as a photojournalist then you shouldn't change the "truth" of what is happening at that moment by manipulating a photo in any way. Personally, I agree with this ideal when it comes to photojournalism but I also think there is a distinct difference between someone claiming to be a photojournalist and a photographer. 

A Florida cypress during sunrise with very little editing

Every photojournalist is a photographer but not every photographer is a photojournalist. National Geographic has had a long-standing rule that photos published and submitted must not be manipulated outside of basic adjustments, hence why I call this the "Nat Geo Rule." This applies to all forms of photojournalism but National Geographic covering nature and landscapes sets a precedent for many other publications that focus on similar genres. It goes without saying that nearly every nature photographer dreams of being published in National Geographic someday which puts some emphasis on approaching all their photography in the purest form. This entire mindset and idea are what drives many people to think photos shouldn't be manipulated at all and in my experience, many everyday people that are not involved in photography somewhat expect this and are always surprised at what people can do within an edit. Steve McCurry of the "Afghan Girl" fame was found manipulating photos a few years ago and the backlash was not quiet. 

The question comes down to whether you should hold the standard of photojournalism to that of a landscape photographer or any type of photography for that matter?

Ansel Adams

Many people have different lines of what's okay and what isn't when it comes to manipulation. They don't mind if a photo has been altered in small ways but they all have a limit of what is too much. Whenever the topics of exposure blending, luminosity masking, or dodging/burning get brought up, many reference that the father of landscape photography, Ansel Adams, used dodging and burning in a dark room to manipulate his photos. By using those we hold to the highest standards and arguably one of the most famous photographers of all time it helps justify manipulating a photo to enhance its appeal.

These techniques have gotten much easier in today's world, such as sky replacement. With the advancement in technology, many times the images we capture aren't even a good representation of the actual scene. Modern cameras take flat images with very little contrast, desaturated colors, soft edges, and distorted angles. What if the intention of manipulation is to create a more honest representation of a scene than what can be captured in a single exposure?

A perfect example is this image I took a few years back in New Zealand. I edited this photo in many ways but specifically look at the size of Mt. Cook in the frame. Many would say this amount of manipulation is too much but in reality, the first image is not how the mountain looks in person. Shooting at such a wide-angle distorts the frame heavily with objects in the distance appearing much smaller than they actually are, thus I spent time trying to better represent the actual scene. 

Photography Is Art

A composite image using an image I took of a waterfall in Iceland combined with an Aurora taken by Evan Campbell

Where I find myself in this discussion is that photography is art and you get to do whatever you want within that medium that makes you satisfied. Above is an image I wrote about years ago that was a fun learning experience taking my photo and combining it with someone else's into a composite. At some point, you merge digital art with photography but I'm not quite certain when that line gets crossed. If you're upfront and sincere with whomever it is you are presenting your work to, I see nothing wrong with any level of manipulation. I do think it's very important to be upfront though otherwise, we as photographers can find ourselves feeling a bit lost in a sea of perfect images. This happens in more than just landscape photography. Take the entire beauty industry as an example and reflect on the impact of perfecting skin, zero blemishes, and immaculate body features to create an unrealistic expectation of beauty in society. 

That same concept can happen within any form of photography and you can find yourself wondering why your work doesn't look nearly as good as others. While we can all grow into better photographers it's also important we are honest to our audiences and ourselves. I realize not everyone follows these principles and that's their decision; morally and ethically for my own work I try to be upfront about how every image was captured and edited. 


So is sky replacement ethical? I presume the answer to that question depends on where you fall within the spectrum of opinions outlined here. The discussion of ethics in any subject is deep enough to need a college degree to fully comprehend. At the end of it all, it's our decision as individuals to enjoy, consume, or even purchase based on the qualification we see as ethical within photography as a medium. Thanks for reading and I hope to see some civil discussion in the comment about your opinion on the subject!

Alex Armitage's picture

Alex Armitage has traveled the world to photograph and film some of the most beautiful places it has to offer. No matter the location, perfecting it's presentation to those absent in the moment is always the goal; hopefully to transmute the feeling of being there into a visual medium.

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Previous comments

just read the photo manipulation history is not a new thing, William Frederick Lake Price and Oscar Rejlander was the first ones that did Combination printing in like 1877 or something.

Who is "they", exactly?

just read the photo manipulation history is not a new thing. William Frederick Lake Price and Oscar Rejlander was the first ones that did Combination printing in like 1877 or something.

"iS tHis eThIcAl iN pHoToHgrApHy"
like stfu please. Omg you bullsh*t "purists" ruin everything.
I take a picture of something, I do what I want with it. Its my photo. Editing is 900000% worse than replacing the sky. Yet every single landscape photographer will edit their work then cry about someone else, devaluing others art because they want to be better under the excuse of "Ethics" and "reality". There is nothing real about your luminosity masks. Stfu

Most of us are probably raw shooters. Raw *must* be processed, or edited, or call it what you will. When I started I shot JPEGs, yet edited or reprocessed every picture I showed. I can't NOT edit. The onboard algorithm that spits out the SOOC JPEG was written by an engineer, not necessarily a photographer. I never grok those who insist you must "Get It Right In The Camera." Wut?

Ansel Adams said, "Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships." If you've ever seen the straight print of his famed Moonrise, Hernandez, it's awful. It's flat, muddy, just bad. He only had time to get one exposure before the light went, he underestimated it, then underdeveloped it. Today it is arguably his single most famous picture, EDITED to a fare-thee-well. If it weren't there would be no picture.

What do you imagine what Saint AA would have said had you told him he was "unethical." after he stopped laughing of course.

"Editing is 900000% worse than replacing the sky."

How do you figure? In this context, the "editing" does not go beyond manipulating exposure and contrast (tone). You really think this is "900000% worse" than seamlessly replacing whole chunks of the image with things that were never there?

By this measure, anybody can composite a bunch of stock photos together without ever touching a camera and claim they're a "photographer".

Probably what he does to begin with. He pastes a preset sky and claims he “took” that photo, without disclosing the manipulation cause he technically put the sky in before posting

This is not about ethics or truth. It is about too much easy eye candy. Photos become kitsch. The same people obsessed with impressing strangers with purple skies are the same people who do not print, and argue they have small walls, and thus less megapixel cameras are better.

So what skills/effort as a photographer (not a compositor) do u apply to ur ”photography”?

I purchased an Eizo monitor, and have used the same Epson 7880 since 2014, (without ever experiencing a clog). I make books from scratch.

I sometimes make composite-images as I may be unhappy with an original composition. I will indicate it is a composite image in the credit.

I also build fake edges: if an image is to be printed with a full bleed, but there’s important information that will be cut off, I will spend the time to build a fake edge, which will ultimately be cut off, but the nature of offset printing and bleeds cannot be determined when dealing with an eighth of an inch. This has sometimes taken hours if that data on the edge is really important, like in the case when someone is entering the frame and you’re going to lose part of their face.

When I used to work in a dark room, I created a rotating burning card, which was a 14 inch circle of two pieces of matte board, one solid with a single opening, and one that had various holes cut into it, so I could rotate it and choose various sized circular holes or rectangles or squares or triangles etc., This was really respected within my dark room community.

Finally, have you ever heard of printing out papers? This is a very slow, 3 ISO printing out paper for large format negatives. Because these papers are so slow, and an 8 x 10 black and white negative could be quite dense in silver, one could actually take this outside in the sun, and burn and dodge with one’s hands. This was a common practice. Neither of the last two examples allowed one to replace the sky or put in feathery clouds that didn’t exist. That would make it a composite image, as discussed above.

Thanks for asking and thanks for reading.

Ansel's or any "Found View" photographer's dodging and burning, use of (lens) filters, choice of developer, film and paper all fell under "adjusting exposure and contrast". There's simply no questioning that this is completely unlike inserting a fake sky which is just a new way to perform the age old process of *compositing*.

Ansel, Cartie-Bresson, Weston, Bourke-White, Lange, etc. all showed you slices of actual reality. They had creative freedom to interpret the contrast, shadow, perspective, sharpness and such as they saw fit, but it was still a depiction of a slice in time that actually existed. Even blurry, dreamy pictorialist photos that were the rage before Ansel and the f64 group's realism focus were still capturing interpretations of something that was actually there.

It begs the question, "When does it cease to become photography and become something else"? I don't think anyone can seriously argue that composited, retouched or otherwise radically altered images can't be art, but it's a real strain to say they're the result of photography, I.E., a photograph.

Photography at it's very heart is the act of capturing slices of the physical world, recording photons bouncing off of our surroundings. There's still a general expectation that photographs reflect what "the thing" was like at an instant in time. I think that when artists drift into the realm of creating images that simply never existed in reality, it's no longer a photograph, but something else. "Graphic art" might be a good choice of words. Or maybe "visual remixes"?

Regardless of the debate, which side of it you fall on, because there's still a reasonable expectation from most people that a *photograph* should depict a real thing or happening, it's simply unethical when one fails to disclose they've manipulated an image into something that never existed. In this light,bringing paintings into the conversation as an example simply doesn't hold water. Few people have any expectation that the average painting should or does depict reality. Nor would many people mistake a painting for anything other than what it is, the product of an artist's hand, imagination.

To put it differently, *There are no brush-strokes in a digital composite*

I agree. It's a moment. The experience of being there, then.

The word 'photography' is based on 'photon'. You can make images in other ways, but you'll need a new word - 'photography' is taken.

As a lifelong photographer dating back to 1975- why is everyone obsessed with replacing skies? It makes no sense to me. Plus, since most photographers aren’t trained anymore or have a developed sense of light and shadow, they change the sky to something that doesn’t match.

Wrong question: Sky replacement is not landscape photography but landscape media editing (or manipulation). What has a sky replacement to do with photography? It is purely an editing act like a movie editor is not a movie director or a camera man.

While I do try to keep an open mind as to how photographers approach their art, I do have a slight issue of the terminology being used. In my opinion, once an image has been altered to more than just basic adjustments, it shouldn’t simply be referred to, or presented as a photograph. One wouldn’t simply call something a painting if there are also image cutouts pasted onto the canvas (a friend of mine does this kind of art) at that point it’ll be called a mixed-media art.
It’s my personal belief that part of what makes for a great nature photographer is developing the skill of being able to choose the right gear, location, and composition in order to translate in the photograph the beauty that they see in front of them. The fact that you’d have to wait for (or be out in ungodly hours) just for the right light, weather condition, or for the “stars to align” in order to capture “that moment”, can’t be equated to digital sky replacement. But, if they do choose/have to use composite, they should be upfront and always disclose how the photo was manipulated to represent what they are aiming for in the outcome (whether they are asked to or not). In my opinion, that would be the ‘ethical’ thing to do.

But then again, maybe this is because I’m a landscape photographer who heavily leans on the “Nat Geo Rule”.

Let’s go back to before digital manipulation: would we accept taking out the scissors and cutting the sky from one photo and, literally, gluing it on top of another image? Art or photography? It’s collage, to me. Sky replacement is a composite of two images; that’s not photography anymore. That’s art with photography as your medium.

However, I’m in the camp of, disclose on a “need to know”, basis. Journalism or photo contests are examples never misrepresenting a photograph. Disclose the truth if anyone asks, I say. Most of the time, no one needs to know what development went into creating the image unless they NEED to know.

When I was in commercial photography school about 1971, one assignment was to do a "pasteup," indeed a photo collage. We were to shoot a structure under construction, then "finish" it, using bits of the original to replace windows or whatever, and photographing lawns and flower borders and driveways, being mindful of the direction of the light &c. Of 30-odd students, I was one of two who actually finished the thing. We were given the assignment because we were assured that this was a skill sometimes needed by commercial photographers, maybe to produce a picture for an architect to use instead of a rendering. This project is where I started collecting "cloud negatives" and still do.

My point is that this was once a legitimate commercial process. Maybe it is why I don't lose my cool over sky replacement, or most other manipulations.

I COMPLETELY AGREE that it is and should be forbidden for journalists and forensic photographers. I have mentioned before that when I do it, I disclose it because it's the ethical, honest thing to do.

But I cannot agree with all of you who think it's evil and wicked to do it at all. I am no longer a working pro. I'm just a pretty pictures guy in my 80th year who cannot physically go out and camp for days waiting for perfection to happen. I see nothing wrong with creating "perfection" after the fact, especially skies. I simply don't like boring skies. 😊

awesome photo, thanks for sharing Charles

To me it depends on what I’m producing. Is it documentation of what I see and experience? Or is it art where I’m trying to invoke emotion In the viewer? Both have their place.

I am indicating in credit lines, any image manipulation, as a ‘composite’. If the changes I’ve applied during digital editing have fundamentally changed the image, I label it a ‘composite image’.

From this perspective, every image which has gone through a sky makeover, is a composite.

If the foreground and midground is a lake in Michigan, and the sky is from Florida, how do you answer the question: "Where was this photo taken?

Another question: Suppose I take a beautiful sky but the land is drab. I replace it with a beautiful lake. Is "land replacement" the same level of manipulation as "sky replacement"?

Make what you want and be truthful in your answer. "It's from Florida and Michigan!" I'd be very impressed to see such a combination and it could even be fun.

Seems pretty simple - be honest.
If you're selling to a client and they know ANYTHING about photography they'll assume there's post processing / editing with their pic's anyway so it shouldn't be a shocker when you inform them that you have swapped / layered / focus stacked / what have you. For them it's all about liking the pic they paid for and past that - your "ethical obligation" ends. They won't be telling the viewing public how / why / and with what equipment it was made with anyway...
If it's a hobby pic posted online I think one should inform the viewer that post production edits took place at the very least - if not in greater detail. When you're posting as a hobbyist (or even a pro just sharing) I assume you are not only "bragging" but trying to further the craft and it IS helpful for those less experienced to know at least the basics of how a great pic was made. It cost's nothing more than a few keystrokes and considering the time & effort put into post production of said pic it's little to no effort on our part. I never understood the attitude toward trying to "hide" what happened behind the pic - there's skill and craftwork that goes into post production / editing that while being a different kind of skillset from shooting the initial image is still a skillset nonetheless.

I happen to agree with the writer: claim the freedom to create whatever images you want while being open and honest about your work. I have been shooting a bunch of subjects with a bunch of gear for over 50 years. in 2000 and up to 2008, I joined the circuit of the main art and craft festivals in the NE. I (also) had a series of prints of thin flowers photographed on top of a lightbox with additional lights on the sides. I kept the exposure high enough that the thinnest parts of the flowers faded into the light. Then I removed some detail in Photoshop and enhanced the edges. The prints on inkjet cold press paper looked similar to watercolors. The prints sold quite well (up to 24x36", $400.00 each) with "normal" people loving the prints for their sheer beauty and many photographers and painters adding interest and admiration for the process. Through the years, only one person (old engineer) became incensed because of my experiments, specifically about my use of IR in landscape photography that, in his opinion, had to be used only for scientific ends :-)