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Tuesday, 06 July 2010


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You are a whimsical one! Asking us to discuss the ethics of a cropped picture by cropping a famous photograph that was already STAGED, but sold as NEWS!

Brilliant! :)

(For those who didn't know the story but know the whole picture: Weegee pushed in the frame the ugly lady that's missing in order to make a more striking and tension-laden picture.)

An astute point, and the makings of a fun contest!
The photo of Obama however, appears to have been altered both by cropping and cloning. While cropping seems at least debatable, cloning has an established "case law" as being forbidden in journalism. I am surprised that there is not more drama over this image.
My take away is that we have to remember that even serious journalism is competing in the same ring as entertainment. Therefore, as consumers, it behoves us to remember that the photographers, cinematographers, journalists and editors we depend on for news may be tempted to choose an iconic and dramatic image over one that is more complete or accurate.
My .02

All pictures are cropped, of course - even as they're created. As such journalists have a responsibility to recognize how their decisions have the power to frame an issue, and to bring the same thoughtfulness to their composition decisions as a writer does to their linguistic composition. One can mislead without lying, both in text and in images. This can only be policed by having lots of independent voices competing.

The Economist cover, however, is equivalent to printing a written falsehood. It may be a minor one, one that supports the narrative they want to provide and one which, by itself, doesn't seem outrageous, but false is false, and in this case (unlike with cropping) there is a bright, clear, line.

It's remarkable to me that no one in the production chain stopped this from happening.

i like the original better than the cropped version,nice contrast

Personally I don't see anything wrong with cropping, it's a fact of life so to speak for all photo's other than 360's. If it's done after the picture is taken why is that different than as the picture is taken?

Mike's example is a famous picture and I knew what was missing without having to look at the during shot crop as opposed to the after shot crop.

But, what did Weegee not capture? We'll never know. Would it have changed the image yet again? Perhaps there was a fourth person looking on in disgust at the on looker?

Cropping is just a fact of life, we all see things through our own little box :)



Cropped by the finite size of the negative were Weegee's friends who propelled the scornful lady from her bar stool into the presences of the two grandes dames.


Well here's a famous one, unashamedly linked on my own blog


Another famous one - Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" might also come under the category of an "unethical crop", although it's a "pointing the camera" crop to use Mike's parlance

I've argued in the past that I think Ut's crop is more of a compositional issue. The presence of the figure on the right in the full frame doesn't change the meaning of the picture for me at all; what his presence does is provide a strong pull for the eye that competes with the main subject of the picture, namely the hurt children running down the street. As usual, I do not mind the full frame version--I almost never mind seeing more--but I don't think it's an example of egregious or unethical cropping.


You couldn't have picked a better example to illustrate your point.

As the quip goes: Photographs don't lie, that's the photographer's job.

Maybe we naively assume that photojournalistic ethics should prevent any willful misdirection, but human nature seems rarely subservient to that higher calling.


Not a great source image, but the point is the same.

The Weegee picture you chose might not be the best illustration of your point. I recall reading that this Weegee pic known as "the critic" was set up by Weegee putting the critic in the frame. I'm also not so sure the photo was shot with a 6x6 and might be a crop from a 4x5 neg.

Why not evaluate photographic cropping (whether in-camera or after the fact) the same way we evaluate the facts that a reporter chooses to omit from the story?

A reporter isn't required to use every fact gathered in the story. In fact, you could make a case that under-cropping obscures the facts as well. "The sun warmed the city streets on a brilliant spring day. There was a light breeze and the birds chirped in the distance. And oh, by the way, the publisher of our paper was indicted for fraud."

Clearly unenthical and seeking to hide uncomfortable facts. They should still be able to make an argument that they are peace activists even with the weapons - if it's true of course.


Is their a differance between asking the woman to move and taking the photograph or moving her in photoshop? If the photograph was possible in reality I think I am ok with it. Adding elements even if possible in reality may not be as acceptable. Color and contrast may not be reality either.

Here's a story reflecting reverence for the integrity of a photograph. A Still Life that Irving Penn had shot for Vogue apparently did not fit the Art Director's layout. With great apprehension she called to ask if she could crop the photograph.

He replied after a brief silence: "On the chicken side."

Actually, that's not the whole uncropped picture, although it's what the photographer intended when he set it up.
I don't know why some photographers seem to think there's anything magical about a full frame image, especially since most viewfinders don't show the 100% field.
Damn few negatives aren't improved by a little judicious cropping when they're printed.

Frankly, I'm having a bit of a hard time with this one. I would feel differently (I think) if this were Time or Newsweek, where pictures are often included to emphasize or illustrate a point. In contrast, photos in The Economist often seem, well, if not pointless, then certainly tertiary (after charts and other illustration). It is also worth noting that The Economist is not (and does not purport to be) a publication whose primary purpose is reporting unbiased factual content. The entire magazine is closer to an opinion piece that cites select facts in support of that argument, or that serve to illustrate the argument. The use of the photo on the cover is entirely consistent with the entire philosophy of The Economist and calls into question whether in this case we are really dealing with "journalism" in the common "just the facts" sense of the word, or whether we are dealing with something else where the rules are, in fact, different.

As for Ctein's comment that the photo "looks exactly like a straight, unmanipulated photo and that is how people will read it", I have a hard time saying that The Economist shouldn't be able to alter photographs to make a point and use them as illustrations unless they do something obviously fake, as in the Brazil illustration. What is needed is some sort of indication that the photo has been manipulated, without ruining the effect or slapping you upside the head with it. There have been proposals that edited or manipulated photos be accompanied by some sort of clearly understandable symbol or logo indicating that the photo has been manipulated, and I think that would work very well here (much better than a note in 8pt font after the names of the editorial board, where such things usually go).

The Economist's manipulation of the photo is effective because it is subtle, not because it is deceptive. Imagine a well-drawn portrait of the president on the cover, in the same pose and with the same background and subdued color palette. Nobody would take it for "real", yet the effect would largely be the same - the president is being portrayed as troubled and slightly beaten down. Should The Economist be required to use an illustrator in such circumstances, rather than manipulate a photo? This is the digital age. The rules of journalistic integrity haven't (or shouldn't) change, but that doesn't mean that illustrations have to be either (1) created using traditional/"old media" techniques or (2) blatant.


P.S. I wonder how many people assumed the letter from "George" was real? I note that the letter was not accompanied by the usual "S.A.*" footnote...

The Economist has an article in its archives calls Keeping it real How to make digital photography more trustworthy. You need to be subscriber to access it. I found it by doing a search on "reuters lebanon photographer". It would be very interesting to see what their position is on altering images!



Yes, I was being a bit devilish by picking that particular picture.

Weegee's cameras were press cameras, mainly Graflex Graphics, which were 4x5s.


Weegee's World describes how this photo was not only staged, but originally titled "The Fashionable People." I guess the manipulation of the photo went way beyond just cropping.

BTW, I am well aware that there is a superficial/apparent (but, I would argue, not an actual) inconsistency between what I have written above and other opinions I have expressed on this site.


Propaganda is propaganda. No news source is immune either by outright fakery or through what images they select to print, or more importantly which ones they select not to use. I believe most news outlets have editorial guidelines (at least they did in my day) and all images printed had to support the "line" so to speak.

How you react to an image in a magazine or a newspaper has to be shaped by your own style of critical thinking. In that case you are cropping mentally.

There is no truth, only interpretations of events.

I've been off and on contemplating a pair of icon based labels for my own photography. One label has three possible icons: Straight, Interpreted, and Manipulated where the other label has two icons: Encountered and Arranged.

Fleshing out the idea requires stricter definitions for each category and designing a set of icons that convey the meaning. And of course some discussion with others, hence this comment.

Icons are preferable to text labels as they are easier to selectively see. The labeling should inform those that are interested, but not significantly change the first seeing of the photo. Icons are also stronger than text as design elements in many presentation formats and do not conflict with existing captions. (Though perhaps a text based label could be integrated into a caption or museum placard for contexts where those are already used.) In web contexts, icons can link to more information on the taxonomy and perhaps discussions of why image consumers should care about image manipulation.

The downside of icons is that they are inscrutable if you don't know what they mean or have some mechanism to query them for more information. If the convention were widely adopted, this would become less of an issue. Most of my own use for this would be on the web were rollovers and links on the icons offer easy discoverability of their meaning.

My goal is not to establish a standard for how one should make images, but to increase communication with viewers about how an image was actually made. There are often questions, increasingly outright assumptions, about how images are manipulated or staged. A small amount of optional added information provides framing context to resolve the question without destroying the mystery. An analogy to various food labeling initiatives could be made, though avoiding judgement is key. A straight image isn't strictly superior to a manipulated one, they are just different things.

Straight means the highest standard of news/journalism verisimilitude. Minor exposure adjustments, white balance correction, perhaps minimal dust spotting, minor perspective correction to correct framing errors, cropping that in no way changes the meaning of the photo, etc.

Interpreted is a departure from straight photography into selective cropping, more sophisticated tonal changes and local corrections, removal of extraneous distractions such as a lightswitch on a wall, etc. It is distinguished from Manipulated in that the photo is still mostly as captured but made better via technology. Some multi capture techniques such as panoramas, HDR, and focus stacking could fall into this category but likely never Straight.

Manipulated means anything goes. Addition and removal of content, geometric distortions to figures, extreme exaggeration of color or tone, addition of text on objects, rendered or painted content, etc.

On the other axis, the idea is to convey whether the photo was the result of everyday happenings or an event setup solely for the sake of taking the picture. Candid versus staged. Street vs. studio, etc. I've considered adding a middle distinction for "mostly as it was found, but I asked the subject to move" sorts of situations, but see little value in finer distinctions here.

My personal interest in street photography may bias my feelings on the importance of this distinction. But it is also useful for news photos. Was the event pictured a photo op or not? Subtle distinction perhaps. If there was a full lighting setup on the shot, it is different than the photographer just happening on the scene and composing the photo on the fly.

Encountered Means the scene wasn't arranged for the sake of photography. No hired models, not elaborate lighting setup, etc. Generally the subjects pictured should be doing their natural activities rather than something they were asked or paid to do for the sake of a photo. If wildlife is pictured in a seemingly natural context it should be actual wildlife in the wild, not a captive animal in a zoo, etc. Akin to a candid, but the name is chosen to include non-human subjects. Could instead be called "Found."

Arranged The scene pictured was designed and posed for the sake of the photo. Almost all studio photography falls into this category. Could instead be called "Posed."

Thoughts? References to prior writings or attempts at such taxonomies?

As I get older, I try not to waste time and energy on things I can't change.

I have no problem with cropping. As Robert Harshman and others have said, its not much different than framing before taking the photo. It is always how the image is used after it has been taken that can be problematic. See, by example (for a recent case), the photos of the so-called serbian "death camps" taken during the balkan wars, to ignite hatred against the serbs and pity for the albanians.

PJ photography: Cropping is OK...Erasing is not. Non-PJ photography: Both OK, but erasing devalues the original purpose(photomechanical documentation) of photography as a whole. To a younger generation, photography does not, and will not have the power it once had for us oldsters. _kb_(age 54)

The Economist crop job was certainly misleading, but not dangerous. The "littlegreenfootballs" example that Mike also referenced was not so innocuous. The fraud perpetrated by Reuters provided fuel to a very tense situation that could have brought two countries to the brink of war. Reuters didn't step across a line, they leaped, irresponsibly. As Michel reminded us, this is not the first time that Reuters has distributed faked photos. Perhaps all "news" publications should put a warning on their mastheads, much like the US Surgeon-General's anti-smoking warning, that all photographs that appear in their products may be faked to support their political agenda. Just give up any pretense of objectivity.

I don't see anything wrong with the Economist front cover per se. The cover, to me anyways, seem to convey that the President is there, onsite to view the situation, and he is alone in his thoughts on how to resolve this. I mean, seriously, you can be surrounded by people and yet still be alone, as each person bear the responsibilities of his own decisions. This I perceived is the intended message the cover is trying to say.

Isn't it the same for what Weegee intended to say with his photograph? The difference in class and what not, the rest of the photograph would just muddle it up.

A photograph may say a thousand words but sometimes only ten are worth listening the rest are just noise.

"I don't know why some photographers seem to think there's anything magical about a full frame image"

Hey! No straw dogs! We got enough going on here already!


Keith Trumbo:
Was there a chicken in the picture? Or was it just Penn's comment on the editor's character?
Just asking... (it's rather funny either way!).

Hi Mike

"'I've argued in the past that I think Ut's crop is more of a compositional issue."

Sorry I must have missed that, but I still have to differ with you. For me the point is that the guy on the right is a photographer, and sometimes we forget that we are looking at a partial view of the world. The inclusion of the photographer jolts us back to reality and to the manner in which we consume images. Now, you being a photographer, and me too, we probably already introduce that caveat when we look at photos, but not so for everyone that looks at photos.

Agreed, the cropped composition is stronger, but don't you think that it is no longer the same photo? Stronger, but more one-dimensional, lacking the ambiguity of the original. As far as the ethics of cropping is concerned, my view is that the media doesn't like to present ambiguity, even although very few things in life are black and white (unintentional pun)

Why is it so hard for people to accept that photo's never tell the truth? How about 'believe nothing'? Or at least always questioning someone's motives?
Whether it is done by asking someone to step back or forward, or the photographer taking a step aside to move someone or something in or out of the frame, the simple act of framing means context gets lost and meaning of a picture gets manipulated... Using a pencil, ink and aknife (in the old days) or photoshop (now) is just a gradual differance, not a truth versus lie differance.
I would prefer the freedom of manipulation in all pictures over a false sence of truthfullness. At least then we would always be aware of possible hidden agenda's...

Greetings, Janneman

Maybe it's all just worthless bullcrap anyway. The uncropped/ unmanipulated Obama picture is vague as to its meaning, and the cropped/ manipulated Economist version is less vague but might even be closer to the truth, who the hell knows. Yet of course it's unethical to crop (in a way that changes meaning) and to manipulate a newsworthy image, but just maybe the conundrum, in this instance, is that Obama visiting the Gulf for political reasons is not even an event worth capturing, unless, perhaps, you wanted to use the "event" to spin propoganda (as seems to be the case with "The Economist") from Obama's propoganda of even being there to be photographed in the first place. Maybe no matter how you cut it/ crop it, it's all just political spin and inherently meaningless and worthless. Much ado about nothing?

"This I perceived is the intended message the cover is trying to say."

Sham - I believe you're missing the point from the previous posting. The problem isn't that the Economist cover isn't effective. The problem is that it's fake.

Zalman, are you treating panoramas stitched from multiple frames differently from panoramas made with a panoramic camera? I think that's probably a mistake. (A stitched panorama does take slightly different times and pretend they're the same; but a swing-lens panoramic camera also does that, as witness the group photos with the same people at both ends.)

I think I agree with you about HDR. I'm not yet sure about focus stacking. It probably doesn't matter because focus stacking tends to happen in "arranged" situations anyway.

The odds of getting actual wide acceptance of any scheme is small, but I think it's a topic worth discussing, and might well be worth trying to actually get the scheme going.

Negotiations will break down over fine details. Having too many categories is the clearest way to fail here, I think.

I have always thought that one reason 4X5 was used in Weegee's day was because there is not always time to move to the perfect spot for a in camera crop. So, with a big neg the picture editor can just pick out the important part and there is still enough detail for a newspaper photograph.

Please. Give us a break on the "ethics" of cropping. Photographers, editors, and viewers all have good reasons to view images that are meaningful and get a point of view across. Most frequently, this is done by the photographer or editor/designer/art director. Space can be a consideration--page size, column size--just look at how various publications crop the same photograph. Ethics Smethics. The people who say "ethical crop" are probably the same ones who came up with printing the full frame negative complete with edge numbers and photographic film manufacturer in the print/reproduction--as though the film format should dictate your work's ratios forever and ever. Would you expect that from any other art (or craft). Imagine a painter only doing squares, or 2/3, or 4/5 ratios or writers limiting themselves to only 4 sentence paragraphs or a specific word count.

The photographer, I think, would like to present his/her point of view--or the point of view he/she is being hired to represent. Sometimes you see it when you're taking the photograph, but god forbid, take the photograph anyway, even if you don't have the lens you'd have liked or the subject to photographer distance you'd have liked, and figure you'll crop it later. At other times, you see something, like the full frame and then looking at it in editing, find something better.

In the Weegee example, his crop is the most powerful, the others are valid, providing more or less context, respectively.

The cases where cropping is an ethical issue are few, but they do exist.

The Weegee print is not one of them. But are you saying that MY crop of his image is also "valid"? I would argue with that.


When we criticize the Economist for violating journalistic ethics, the issue is not "truth" or bias--the issue is accuracy, which is all we can expect from photographs, and the minimum that we demand from news reportage and news photography, regardless of the point of view (literal and political).

This criticism is not based on some naive expectation that news photographs tell the truth. On the contrary, it is based on the knowledge that they do not, and, like all data, require interpretation, which in turn requires accuracy to have any value. This expectation goes hand in hand with the expectation that any facts edited or cropped out do not contradict the facts or conclusions reported.


Yes, I think it's a valid crop. Here are a number of scenarios.

Weegee is hired to photograph the event. The editor wants to highlight the two woman who are arriving/departing. They are the story. You might compare this to a wedding where the bride and groom are walking up the aisle and you provide them with a "closeup".

Weegee just wanted to photograph the two women--that was the assignment, but didn't have the right lens on his camera or was too far away. He took the photograph anyway, and when he looked at the contact sheet, found something far more interesting in the way of social commentary.

You, Mike, are doing a story on Women's fashions from the 30's and find this photograph and decide that the dresses are the important fashion statement, not the way the onlookers are dressed.

The editing process is fraught with ethical violations if you are looking for them. Decisions are based on facial expressions, where subjects are in the frame, the time the photograph was taken, ad infinitum. Is a picture of a smiling person on the cover of a magazine any more ethical than using one of the 30 or so other photographs that were taken "at the same time". Why not randomly pick one? Or are you ethically required to use all 30? My feeling is, no, use the photograph that suits the purpose and make editing decisions based on context.

I didn't have a problem with the Economist cover because I saw it as a "graphic" and it never really occurred to me that it could have been anything else. Part of that comes from familiarity with their covers, which are always manipulated, as far as I know. IMHO, a "faked" photo is usually meant to deceive somehow. How was this shot meant to deceive, other than in a very trivial way?


For the two weekly papers that I work for, we use straight photos on the covers, illustrations on the covers, and manipulated photos on the covers. In the case of the manipulated images, it is stated in the editors note along side a small picture of the cover that the image is a 'photo illustration' rather than a photograph.
We rarely have done something in the photo illustration realm where it wasn't absolutely obvious that it was manipulated, however, considering people as a whole I'm sure some have been fooled anyway.

I would tend to agree with Adam's posting above by the way and I would like to know whether the cover was identified in the magazine as an illustration rather than a straight photograph - i.e. Cover Photo By .... or Cover Photo Illustration by...



I'm surprised to find myself disagreeing with both Mike Johnston and Ctein, but I didn't have a problem with the Economist cover. I am a subscriber, and I'm used to the fact that their covers are used to give the flavour of a major story, and often highly stylized.

It describes itself as a weekly newspaper and in a 24/7 news cycle culture has to specialize in in-depth and analytical pieces. I happen to think it does it rather well from viewpoint both socially liberal and economically liberal - a corner of the market that is not strongly contested in the UK.


Thank you for your comments. I do agree that getting wide spread adoption on a single labeling scheme is unlikely, but the discussion itself is very valuable. I am going to try and move forward with the idea. One of my goals was to be very minimal in the labels. I'd be interested in other opinions on what one wants to know about the circumstances and postprocessing of a photo.

The main issue with digitally stitched multi-capture panoramas is that a lot of processing happens in the alignment, geometric distortions/corrections, and blending that takes place. Thus it is hard for me to say, both as a photographer and software developer familiar with what actually happens in the application, how closely the image represents the scene. Add in postprocessing such as warps and edge filling I often do to get a panorama to fill a rectangular frame and it is just rare that I feel the result is really straight.

As an example, I printed a six foot wide pano of the Yreka dragon, a sculpture on the side of I5 in Northern California, a few months ago. It is a handheld pano and has a great deal of detail. Stitching seemed to work very well and I checked it over a number of times. Only after the third or fourth time that I showed it off to someone did I notice that there is a pole the dragon is holding and it has a noticeable break in the middle due to a stitching artifact. A huge gaping error re: its relationship to reality. Obviously a mistake on my part and one I have to fix before I consider the print decent anymore, but that I didn't even notice it on the first few careful passes over the shot demonstrates the greater difficulty in vouching for the truth of a pano.

In general I don't like to tie decisions about how straight a photo is to the tools used. Certain tools almost always take one into a different realm, but it is about what the tool does to the image, not the tool itself. The code doesn't change if you are removing a dust spot out of clear sky or compositing a gun into a scene. Pretty much the same math either way. I'm willing to call the first completely straight and the second is at the far edge of manipulation.

I'm also not sure I want to get too much into ethics. If the cover in question were obviously hand drawn, we wouldn't be discussing an ethical violation. I'm envisioning a convention for annotating photographs to avoid misunderstandings in my own work and perhaps increase the amount of trust granted to images that truly do accurately represent a moment in time.

Of course if I found out that my favorite Elliott Erwitt photos were something other than entirely Straight and Encountered, I'd be quite disappointed. But not for ethical reasons. Rather fantasies of my own making about how the photos were made and the degree of photographic skill involved would be shattered.

"How was this shot meant to deceive, other than in a very trivial way?"

John - It depends on your definition of the word "trivial". I believe the deception was the implication that Obama was alone on the beach with his head down. This could be construed as Obama deep in thought of depressed over the oil situation. It doesn't seem to be the case when the original image is shown.

Whether or not you find this trivial is up to you. I don't find it trivial however.

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