What Qualifies as Deception in Landscape Photography?

How often do you think about either being deceived by or deceiving the viewer when you think about landscape photography? It's a topic worth talking about, as depending on how strongly you feel, it's a potentially polarizing subject.

Photographer Adam Karnacz posted a pretty interesting video a couple days ago that asks a lot of pretty thought-provoking questions. The essential question (and subsequent opinion) that he asks is what qualifies as deception in the case of landscape photography? When is it considered, if ever, acceptable to deceive the viewer? Adam's video asks more questions that it answers, which leaves the door open for thoughtful discussion.

The fundamental question is what counts as deception (as well as if that even a bad thing). When it comes to art, presentation, and post-processing, the world around us is often drastically altered from what is literally in front of us as we shoot images. So, when it comes time to share our work, if we choose to do so, is there any sort of obligation to inform the viewer as to what is altered versus what is real? These are tough questions, and quite frankly, I feel that this is a topic that can't be black and white. Context is going to be paramount, as each case might have a different right answer.

After thinking about it for a while, the only area that I really feel strongly about an image's honesty (or true lack of deception) would be photojournalism. In photojournalism, the job is to represent the truth of a scene to support a story with visuals, and thus deception, or altering images drastically would be wildly inappropriate. What do you folks think about this subject? Do you think that there is an element of deception when we present altered images? Does the degree to which we've altered a given image matter?

Log in or register to post comments

29 Comments

To me, only in journalism you are ethically obligated to present the truth, and not alter your images.

As for things like landscape photography, most if not all great landscape photos you see online, are possible due to "cheating", which is a form of deception to me. Composite images and stacking made them possible. But one can also say that you can use any means necessary to create art.

That's why i won't restrict myself from doing that, but i have a photographer's pride so every element in my "cheated photos" need to be shot by myself. I will not touch stock images online. If i need a specific vector I'll even photograph the object myself and extract it into a vector on my own.

William Howell's picture

This is my opinion also.
Only photo news should be unadulterated.
In my view, going by what recognized masters of photography do, I think every image should be processed.

Simon Patterson's picture

There is no deception in art itself, at least not in a sinister sense. Deception can come in when the artist starts making untrue claims about their work, though.

I think a bit of honesty and owning your post processing is a very good thing. Being transparent helps everyone and yourself. If you drop in a tree from somewhere else why not say?

As to truth in photography? Does truth even exist? All photograph is manipulative. Even journalism. Portraiture.

Perhaps deception is different from truth?

There definitely is a line. Particularly with some competitions and with the larger public. As to drawing the line in the sand. Very very hard I have found.

Kirk Darling's picture

Mechanical reproduction is not necessarily "truth" even if it is accurate. If the mechanical reproduction reveals something the photographer never experienced, is it "truth?"

Matthew Saville's picture

There is always an element of "truth" in optics, in physics. Otherwise forensic photos (with a verified chain of custody that proves they're un-altered) would be utterly meaningless in a court of law.

That is to say, as easy as it is to manipulate an image these days, the essence of photography still lies in the "accuracy" of things like timing, scale, juxtaposition, etc. That's what sets photography apart from all other forms of art- the notion, "this actually happened" when a viewer first sees a photo.

So, yes, truth is completely ambiguous and arbitrary, and even the most optically accurate image can be very deceptive. However, it's all in the presentation. A photo hanging in an art gallery can either have a caption that explains how the photo was possible, (such as, this image of a moonrise was captured using an extremely telephoto lens, or, this image of the milky way was captured with an extremely bright wide-angle lens") ...or it can completely omit crucial details about how an image may or may not have been a composite.

The key is the artists' intention, and the viewer's inherent tendency to trust, when "photograph" is the understood medium.

Matthew Saville's picture

There was a day, not so recently, (Galen Rowell held the belief very strongly until his tragic death in 2002) ...when most outdoor/landscape photography was held to journalistic standards of documentary truthfulness.

Everybody immediately twists this argument to be about whether photography is art, and whether wild manipulation is fair game in artistic creativity There is no debate, though: it's ALL art.

It's just not all "a photograph".

For starters, there's the grammar: "a" photograph refers to a singular photo, not a collage of /multiple/ photos that have been composited together to appear as if they are one.

Indeed, there lies the element of deception, or truth. In other words, if the artist intentionally lets the viewer assume that major elements in a scene were all part of a single click of a shutter, but they weren't, that is a total deception. The artist knows damn well that viewers inherently "believe" a photograph's basic elements, major things like subjects, timing, juxtaposition, and scale.

I mention these major elements because every artist who holds the "anything goes" attitude will inevitably shout the cliche, "all images are edited, even film negatives had to be developed, so why the fuss? All photos "lie", so nothing matters!"

They are ignoring the obvious truth, the fact that since everybody does already know that photos must be "developed", everybody already knows that tone and color are subject to the recording medium and the photographer's technical skill and creative talent.

Indeed, "The Decisive Moment", as Henri Cartier-Bresson named it, is the key aspects of photography that sets it apart from all other art forms: the understanding that a moment actually happened, the moon rose in that exact spot at that exact time, with that exact scale relative to the background, if viewed from a certain angle. Yeah, everybody knows that even advanced manipulation is also possible, but the default reaction is to believe the image, or to /want/ to believe the image.

So, again, nobody is saying it's not art. It just stops being a photograph at a certain point. That point is different for all artists, and that's fine.

Either way, people still feel so offended or insulted by this attitude. Really, there's no disrespect at all, nor is there any "shoving some arbitrary rules down other artists' throats". It's just plain fact: you, the artist, know what you want viewers to think about your imagery: do you want viewers to assume that a moment "actually happened", even if it didn't? Or, do you want the viewers to actually respect your talent for honest reasons, even if the viewer's respect' is partly for your wizardry in the digital darkroom, as opposed to 100% for your field work?

For some reason, it seems that some artists still cling desperately to the belief that they're creating photographs, because the only way for their work to be respected is if it is perceived to be "a real photograph". This simply isn't true anymore. In fact we've admired "fake" imagery for decades already, in the form of CGI movies and other artwork. I have huge respect for the beautiful worlds and scenery that were the product of the imaginations of Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas, and Peter Jackson. How they managed to meld reality and fantasy is truly magical. But I respect it for a totally different reason- their imagination. Not the silly notion that the scene actually unfolded in that exact manner, in real life.

I just wish that the artists who have totally abandoned their interest as photographers in the major elements of accuracy, in favor of the pure creative liberty and imagination, would be more proud of the work they're actually doing, instead of pretending that their work is something else just because that's the only way they think their work can be well-recieved, let alone respected and admired, by viewers.

Very well thought out, I’m glad you took the time to write this out.

Ryan Luna's picture

You know Matthew Saville, we run into each other quite often online, and if you remember, I had the pleasure of working with you on a wedding several years ago via L&J. We don't see eye to eye on everything, but it's posts like this that makes me respect the hell out of you. I have never seen a small paragraph of "shock" value type comments from you. You're always laying out clear and concise thoughts in a well articulated manner.

I got into "landscape" photography about 3-ish years ago, so a clear definition of photograph vs art was not relevant to me. I tend to lean heavily towards the realm of realism with my images, (with the exception of MilkWay landscapes where I sometimes composite trying to adhere to a realistic scene and never lying about it). I never got caught up in the IG game of over saturation and shadows boosted to daytime. It's probably the reason I don't get the "likes" i would like to see, or perhaps it really is that my compositions just aren't good enough, *sadface*.

I think the funniest thing I ever saw was someone posting the MW core nearly vertical looking north at Yosemite's, Tunnel View and rising behind Half Dome with the land looking nearly daytime and this massive bright spot looking like the Sun just set north of tunnel view. Is that even deception at that point? LOL.

Continue keeping it real Matthew Saville.

Matthew Saville's picture

It seems I keep missing you on the shores of OC these days. Glad you're getting out and shooting some beautiful sunsets, hopefully we cross paths again soon! Thanks for the kind words.

All of these thoughts that have been tumbling around in my head have evolved quite a lot over the last 5+ years. I used to be much more closed-minded and opinionated on the matter, a purist if you will. However, I slowly realized that I already had a huge capacity to appreciate "fake" imagery, every time I swooned over imagery of Middle Earth, Endor, etc. That's when it hit me- we all have the capacity to truly appreciate and respect an artists' talent, even if their craft is not the thing we ourselves are skilled and passionate about.

It's up to the artist to be proud of where their true talents lie. A viewer has every right to feel disappointed if at first they believe that an image is an "actual photograph", only to discover later that the artist performed extreme manipulations without any disclosure. Honesty about the true nature of your body of work as a whole, and its "photographic accuracy", may indeed cause a few viewers to say, "ehh, it's not for me". However, there will always be plenty of viewers who greatly appreciate such artistic talent, if the talent is recognized up front.

I'm really close to publishing an actual book on this subject, by the way. It is blatantly inspired by "Mountain Light", indeed, and I hope it is well-received by at least a few fellow photographers and viewers alike...

Very well said! Thank you for those very thoughtful comments.

I think very few people expect photos now days to be unedited. Especially if they are presented as art. Unless you are a photojournalist at the end of the day you are an artist. An oil painter doesn't have to divulge his technique or that he uses paint.(I know it's a given but you get my point) In today's modern world I don't feel the need to divulge that I use Light Room or Photoshop to help create my "Art". I wouldn't hold it back either if asked but don't feel an obligation to share either. I just think it's already assumed.

If you see a great image but then discover it has been photoshopped together does that not diminish it for you? It certainly does for me. All this justification that photography is art is just ignorant. A painter creates an image with a blank canvas, tubes of paint and brushes; he/she might use an actual scene, object or face as a reference but the outcome is wholly what the painter’s eye, brain and dexterity produce and we recognise that the result is an impression, maybe idealistic, but not an actual rendition. Not so with photographs, the raw material is the actual subject and we are conditioned to accept a photo as a record of an actual event or scene and a special moment well captured is what gives us joy and wonder. Our eyes and brain are selective and give prominence to the point of interest but a camera is not, so we may clone out incidental objects but there is a line across which manipulation should not cross.

I think so differently about this. The word photo is derived from the Greek word "photos" which means "light and the Greek word "Graphe" which means draw. So, drawing with light. Look at Dave Hills composites, he uses real photographs. https://www.davehillphoto.com/work/15768/composites#8 If his work isn't art by the time he's done with it what is?

Is the camera just not the tool and medium he uses to create his art? I think that photographers have the best of both worlds. Some artist can get close to painting a photo-realistic painting. There is even an artistic term for it "realism". Photographers can take a realistic photograph and turn it into something totally artistic and abstract. I'm not sure the line has to be so defined and rigid.

Back in time you had to bring your film to a place where they developed it for you. Today, you are doing the development process for yourself, if you can. Now, let's thing about a sunset or sunrise... Beautiful colours in the sky, the subject is an ancient cathedral... You can use a grad filter to balance the exposure for both, the foreground and background and it will never render the saturation and sharpness and clarity... that you have witnessed on the location. If you have no filer (is filter also a problem??? Cos you did not take the picture as it was... You took an external device to better the image...), you have to decide: Will I expose for the colours or the subject? If I go for the middle exposure to balance between subject and the sky neither will be exposed correctly without a filter.

I think, fundamental question is: what is altering an image? Is it adding clarity and sharpness, because the camera registered some kind of pollution? Or is it adding clarity and sharpness because of the aforementioned pollution along with another exposure blend in for the correct and truthful sky colours you have witnessed? Or finally, is it doing all of the above plus dropping a tree to the image that wasn't there before along with some artificial glare you did not take with the camera?

Photo - graphy...
If you take raw and no editing, it is a photo but it can be mostly unusable.

If you do minor adjustments together with exposure blending to truthfully render a scene as it was in front of you, it is still photography made usable.

If you drop, add or take away things that weren't there in the scene, that's pure art.

Please correct me where I'm wrong.
Regards and have nice colours!

Alex Reiff's picture

In the film days, it was pretty common for photographers to develop the film and create the prints themselves, or to have it done by another professional. In any case, there was a lot of manipulation that happened in the dark room, like dodging and burning. Compositing was possible, just trickier to do.

There's always this idea that Photoshop is the only manipulation or deception, but all photography is a deception of sorts, and it has always been that way. From the point of framing a subject you are choosing to include/exclude parts of the "truth", same with cropping. Converting to, or shooting in mono is a deviation from the truth, Everything, from iso, aperture and shutter selection are conscious manipulations designed to render a subject in a particular way. Focal length is another, and most of these are before the post processing starts. In the 1800s photographers were deviating from truth in almost every way we do now to realise their interpretation of a scene. We are taught and encouraged to find our own style or unique voice as photographers, to be different, so why do we criticise people when they do. We should own our "deception", it's a given that comes with the tool and the way we use it.

David Penner's picture

I don't really say how much post processing goes into my photos but at the same time if I know I'm gonna be doing a lot of it sometimes I'll screen record the whole process and put it on my Instagram story (obviously sped way up so it's maybe like 30 seconds long)

So much depends on the context. Historically no one expected paintings to be literally true, even when historic events were being depicted. And portraits certainly were not literally 'true'

Context means a lot. Like you said, journalism, but also things like product photography, travel photography have a different standard than photos intended for decorative display.

Every time you start up Windows you get one of Microsoft's absurdly retouched and way over the top HDR* scenes. Gawdawful, but not truly dishonest.

Here's a potential example: You're doing a sequence for travel brochure, but one street scene is great, except there is a car parked in the scene with a color that throws everything off. Would it be dishonest to change the color?

[Side point: I get hugely annoyed by the absurd levels of HDR (and fake bokeh) in so much commercial photography. These people should know better. Reading an article recently, which cautioned about overuse of HDR presented as 'good' examples some horribly overdone images--overly illuminated shadows, the pictures look like they could glow in the dark]

Francisco B's picture

If it's not journalism there is zero obligation to explain to anyone what you did to the photo. The real issue is that in an age of digital post processing, most photographers have lost the plot. Yeah everyone is capable of taking a high resolution photo and blasting it with professionally done editing, but few people are capable of taking an interesting photo that doesn't seem homogenous (Everyones photos look the same).

Duane Klipping's picture

Sky replacement, stretching mountains, adding things that were not there when the image was taken is not being true to the landscape or the viewer if it is not divulged as such and is lieing.

It also tends to indicate a lazyness to get the true shot you wanted because you did not want to spend days waiting for the right conditions.

Removal of things like a branch a pop can of something to make the image cleaner is ok imo as long as the landscape itself was not changed or altered. Just be honest with people and you will gain more respect for being honest about your work.

Imagine you see a beautiful photograph you thought was real and go to visit the place and find it is nothing like what you saw. Wouldn't you feel deceived and lied to if the photographer never said anything? Would you trust this person's work ever again? Is that how you would like to be seen?

People have no problem with art just tell them it is not real.

Toney Smith's picture

Well stated, Duane!

Robert Nurse's picture

Motives are everything. Sky and background replacement, moving objects into a scene when they weren't there at the time the exposure was taken seems a little disingenuous. Even some portrait composites, IMO, blur the boundaries especially when so much effort is made to match exposures from multiple environments. And, it's not always clear that the model was or was not actually at that stunning location. Don't get me wrong. I like composite imagery. But, since we're on the subject of deception in photography, composites are largely deception.

john wheatley's picture

It all hinges on whether you consider this to be photography or illustration.. I think if you are creating work of any nowadays, the editing has become a crucial part of the art..

Alan Brown's picture

It is only deception if you plan to deceive the viewer. If you are putting forward a piece as documentary evidence of what you see with the naked eye then the image should reflect just that.

If however you are creating an image for aesthetic pleasure then you should feel free to following your creative instincts.

There are no qualms when a landscape painter elects to add/remove/enhance objects within a frame so why should photography as an art form be any different?

The only deception comes from how it is portrayed - as long as folks are honest and clear on intent there should be no concerns.

Somewhere, Jerry Uelsmann is laughing...

Keith Meinhold's picture

I don't think we will ever have a definition of where art ends and deception begins, but I know it when I recognize it.

Can Gogh used paint to create images. Photographers use cameras to create images. Cameras and paint are tools and neither tool has a mandate to document reality. The artist represents reality in the image he/she creates no matter what the tools. A lie is not a lie when the truth is not expected. You expect truth in Photojournalism, not in Van Gogh or Jerry Uelsman.

Rick Nash's picture

Art. What is it that is being said to me by the work of the artist? The artist succeeds when I interpret and accept the work for its intended magic and not by the underlying contrivances used to create the deception. Landscape photography magic is fantasy only as real as the believer wills it to be.