I just finished reading a very well written article about digital photography ethics written by Matt Payne. He takes a non-judgmental, nuanced and insightful approach to the subject and leaves the readers to draw their own conclusions and find their own ethical paths.
Here's a link to Matt's article:
I think there is one aspect to a photographer’s decision-making process that Matt didn’t address, but is a big part of the whole “picture” (pun intended). That aspect is marketing. Simply put, the more technical details you share about how an image is created, the less likely that image will be purchased. While other photographers will appreciate the information both professionally and ethically, photographers very, very, (one more to make the point) very rarely buy other photographers images. The general buying public loves stories about your travels and how you felt witnessing the scene in person, but the more you talk about camera settings and post-processing techniques the less likely they will buy the image. As it was eloquently conveyed to me, the technical details kill “magic” of the photo.
This lesson was taught to me through three images.
1st The Magic Rusty Screw:
I came across a Facebook group called “Rust Art.” They share images of all things rust, rusty and rusted. Cool stuff. I thought I would try my hand, so I created the following image and shared it on their page:
The rust page people loved it. Hundreds of likes, dozens of shares, a whole bunch of laudatory comments and they even made it the group cover photo.
I added a comment to the image describing how I created it. I talked about finding just the right screw, a cool piece of corrugated metal. How I shot it with a macro lens on a rail and combined seven focus stacked images. Then, how I lit it from behind with a cool light and from in front with a warm pen light to create the cool warm reflection. I was proud of the technical achievement and thought the group would appreciate the information.
After I shared that information, the likes, shares and comments instantly stopped. After a while a woman wrote. “I wish you would have never told me that. You ruined the magic of the image for me.” Her comment was then “liked” (a lot) and others began to comment on her comment, supporting her position. I kinda laughed at the notion that they thought I came upon this lovely screw in the “wild.” But I did absorb my first lesson of image marketing.
2nd – Flying By Moonlight
I love Monte Vista in March and watching the Sandhill Cranes. One late afternoon I noticed the moon rising in the east while the cranes were flying around it. This is the image I captured:
I shared the image everywhere and it was very popular. I have sold it online and in the gallery.
When I shared it, I didn’t share any technical details about how the image was created. I had learned my lesson about killing the “magic” from my screw photo. I did share where I was and how cool the scene was to witness. I received several questions about how the image was created from photographers. Each time they posted a question like that, I would answer them honestly in a DM, but I kept the technical details off the post.
For those wondering, here is how the image was created: This was taken during daylight. There was just a touch of color on the horizon. I placed a 600mm lens on a tripod and composed the image with a little more foreground road than you see here. I lowered the ISO to 100 and lowered by exposure until I could see the grey terrain on the moon. This darkened the rest of the image, which caused the scene to look like dusk (or dawn). I tried to capture some cranes flying by the moon, but at that exposure, they were just blurry streaks. So, I raised my ISO and shutter speed, then captured a whole bunch of images of the cranes flying by. Of course, the moon looked more like the sun in those images. It was then easy to just “paint” the cranes into the moon image during post-processing and adjust the lighting on their feathers.
I didn’t (and still don’t) feel the slightest bit of remorse for the way I created this image. This was exactly the way I saw with my eyes and was proud of how I solved the exposure problem. However, every photographer knew it was a blend of some sort and many probably judged me for not sharing that when I shared the image. I understood that, but my thought was: Photographers aren’t going to buy the image and appeasing them meant killing possible sales.
3rd – NASA, the Gazette and the Super Blood Moon Eclipse
On September 27, 2015, I captured the following image of the Super Blood Moon Eclipse:
This is a single image. The spiers are atop the Cadet Chapel on the US Air Force Academy. The image placed third in the national NASA photo contest, it was picked up by most of the local media and was briefly on CNN. And, it was an Editor’s Choice on 500px, perhaps the accomplishment I am most proud of.
The photographer for the Gazette was standing next to me and actually asked me to move so he could get a better angle. I like to think I politely declined, but it may not have been that polite. I had to certify that it wasn’t a composite when I entered the NASA contest. It’s not. It is probably the closest image to straight-out-of-the-camera I have shared. I was proud of it.
The same day the image was receiving so much attention, Matt Payne (yes, the same Matt Payne whose article inspired this story) wrote a Facebook post which, in essence read: “People need to stop getting so excited about these photos of the Super Blood Moon Eclipse. They need to realize how easy it is for digital photographers to manipulate the moon and place it anywhere they want.” I like Matt and admire his work. He didn’t place it on my post and never referred to me or my image, but his post cut me like a knife. I wanted to scream to the world that this was a single image, share the RAW files and tell everyone about all the planning and hard work I went through to get this shot. But, I didn’t. I let the image speak for itself and let the comments fall wherever they landed. After all, I was the same guy who learned the lesson of the magic rusty screw and never publicly shared the details of the cranes in the moonlight.
So, I have arrived at the conundrum of digital photography marketing and I enter its argument into the already complicated discussion of digital photography ethics.