North American Nature Photography Association

Connecting The Nature Photography Community


Ethics Committee

Why Not Manipulation
By Ron Sanford

I made a NANPA digital presentation in 1996 at San Diego and in 2000 at Austin. In the interval, emotions have clearly calmed. Digital technology has become a commonplace tool for nature photographers, even though they may disagree on how the technology should be used.

In both presentations I made it clear that I make images for love and money. Keeping abreast of technology and the business of photography is more than a curiosity to me. It's my livelihood. But that's only part of it. By nature I tend to celebrate rather than document. In the early 1970s I cut my teeth in black and white. I deeply enjoyed the control I had in making the field exposure, moving the visual idea along as I developed the film, and finally in the thrill of watching the print evolve.

And then Kodachrome happened to me in 1976. I was stuck with a field technique that was best described as "bracketing." The results could be good, bad, or boring, but the perception came about that if the process stopped there the work could be considered honest, or truthful. The K14 process, and later the E6 process, with all their shortcomings, became the standard for what was real.

By the early 1980s I was slowly developing a personal color duping process that allowed me a second E6 step. I regained some control over the color and contrast of the image, and yes, could even combine two images together. Ernst Haas once described frustration as the highest form of inspiration. I guess I would agree with him, but now I was beginning to manage this frustration.

Then in 1993 I had my first glimpse at Photoshop. Ironically, my response was not to look forward, but to look back some 20 years. I could have control again. With this software I could more accurately authenticate my field experience. Color photographers finally had a tool that could overcome the narrow limits of their film.

But that's where "straight" and I separate. Some years ago, in a school setting, a student asked me the difference between a photographer and an artist (meaning painter). I told him, "The artist starts with a blank canvas and adds. The photographer starts with clutter, and subtracts." But today I can do both.

When Photoshop appeared, art directors began to ask, "What if whales could breach, or eagles could fly, in their natural settings, without the predictable blurry backgrounds?" Or, "Must some of the flock always be out of focus?" Now I could make things look the way they looked to my naked eye.

But there's a thin line between how it was, and how we wish it was. I'm guilty of crossing that line. Sometimes I'm a photographer and sometimes I'm a designer. I enjoy creating images both within and outside my visual experience. And at the age of 61, I can't remember having more fun.

So what's NANPA to do about people like me? I think the issue is labeling. I see this as a question about individual integrity, and not about some committee action. As a businessman the last thing I want to do is surprise, disappoint, or embarrass a buyer or seller of my work. In any trade, client relations is a crucial element. When I send images to a client or stock agency, I make it clear what they're getting.

I'm constantly humbled by the good work of others, however it was achieved. I believe photography to be a creative medium, and there is no right way. Tui De Roy does it her way. Art Wolfe does it his way. Kennan Ward does it his way. James Balog does it his way. Diversity is a wonderful thing.

I can't imagine an Ansel Adams exhibition with this disclaimer at the door: "Warning: these photographs have been manipulated. The scenes depicted here are not real." I once saw John Sexton, one of Ansel's assistants, show a "straight" print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. The difference between this and the heavily dodged and burned final print was astounding. I'm glad Ansel didn't limit himself to making straight prints of Moonrise. The world of photography is richer because he "manipulated" this image.

I feel deeply privileged to be able to make a living so near to the wonder of it all. I've experienced moments that defy any form of communication. My life's challenge is to find adequate portrayal... however.

Ron Sanford is a long-standing member of ASMP. He and his wife Nancy have worked extensively throughout the world. Their work is currently represented by 8 stock photo agencies.

What Happens When We Manipulate Images
by Kennan Ward

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