In a plot that might well inspire the next mid-morning soap opera hit, the once glamorous world of the travel blogger is crumbling to the ground. Internet celebrities and Instagram sensations are falling from stardom, shot down by accusations of overly enthusiastic photo editing. Some replace a cloudy sky with a magnificent sunset, while others remove mobs of tourists from the Taj Mahal. The boldest ones paste themselves onto dreamy remote locations where they’ve never been to. Jules and I lack the devious craftsmanship to do the same, and even our moms would laugh if we called ourselves internet starlets, but this whole debacle has nevertheless got us thinking. Have we too been deceiving our readers?
The ethics of a travel journal seem to fall somewhere between the clear-cut lines of a news article and the nebulous boundaries of a short story. Should it fall closer to the former or to the latter? In other words, should travel photography be completely factual, or can it be altered to suit a mood or better express an emotion? The question is bound to enlist diverging opinions. Below is our mea culpa on the matter; a list of our seven travel photography sins, starting with editing misdemeanours and moving on to stone cold manipulations. Where do you draw the line? Let us know.
Update: We asked for opinions and we got them. Scroll towards the end of the article to read about the PPL (Post Processing Level), a scale of 0 to 3 that we will use from now on to disclose the level of editing done to each one of our photographs.
1. The road to hell is paved with good intentions
Anyone that has ever taken a picture is guilty of this first little evil. What comes out of any digital camera, even that of a smartphone, is very different from what the camera truly captured. In the split second that goes from pressing the shutter to seeing the image on-screen, the camera applies a myriad of adjustments and corrections.
The left image below illustrates what a camera sensor actually records, called a “raw” file. These are often dreary interpretations of the world, closer to The Matrix than to what our gentler human eyes perceive. I took that picture in Norway, on our recent road trip through the country’s magnificent landscapes. Jules and Gabriel had stayed at the mountain lodge, taking a nap next to the fireplace. It had stopped snowing, so I wandered off into the woods. Here and there, the sun was poking through the clouds and bouncing off the thick layer of snow, illuminating the entire landscape.
Days later, back home, I took the camera’s raw file and turned it into the image on the right, working from what I remembered seeing . Is it a truthful interpretation? I would venture that it’s closer to reality that what would have come out of the camera if I had let it apply its prescribed recipe of adjustments. But it’s also entirely possible that my fallible memory and fond memories from Norway have conspired to create something that mixes facts with fiction.
2. There are many crooked lines but only a straight one
It would perhaps be naïve to expect straight lines to come out of something as curvaceous as a camera lens. These optical contraptions show us, quite literally, their perspective of the world. The wider the field of view, the more will straight lines converge to the centre of the image, as if the camera was desperately trying to make everything fit onto the frame. If you stand at the feet of a tall building and look up, the lens inside your eyes will create the same effect. Your brain however, knowing that the sides of a building should be parallel, will automatically straighten them. If you keep looking, making a conscious effort not to interpret what you’re seeing, you may catch a glimpse of the raw image your eyes are capturing.
I took the photo below at Grand Place, in Brussels. I wanted the viewer to first focus on the checkered pattern created by the multitude of windows, and then draw his attention to the left, to the only building that is in fact crooked. To avoid distractions, I straightened the converging lines created by the camera lens, much like our brain does with our eyes. But there is something slightly off in the resulting image, isn’t there? The photo seems to have been taken from the height of a first or second story, perhaps from a building across the square. But while we can see the underside of all the window ledges, we can’t see any of their topsides, implying that the photograph was in fact taken from the ground level. M.C. Escher would have been a fan of digital photography.
3. A grand perspective
From the cloudy Grand Place to the sunny Greek Islands. On my way to the highest point in Santorini, I turned back and noticed how beautiful was the spiralling path I had been hiking. No single picture would ever capture the vastness of the landscape, so I sewed instead six individual photographs into a panorama. Let’s for now brush over the conspicuous disappearance of the Anafi island in the horizon (an impetuous decision after struggling with the stitching process) and instead focus on the lesser sin: is the resulting image truthful to what I was seeing?
No. The field of view of our eyes is roughly the same, but we are only able to resolve detail at the very centre of the frame. I could either look at the left and notice the barren rock walls, focus on the middle and admire the deep green trees against the ocean backdrop, or turn my attention to the winding path on the right. You can check this yourself by trying to see with the corner of your eye. You can probably sense something is there, but describing it is hard, right?
4. The drama of black or white
Be wary of black and white photographs. Turning a colour image in a gradient of grey is often a quick way of hiding imperfections, or of adding drama to an otherwise mundane scene. Jules keeps me honest on the former, but we’re both guilty of the latter.
The picture below was taken in Prague. We had just come back from an exhibit about World War II, which included touching accounts of the city’s day-to-day life during the Nazi occupation. Days later, while editing the photo, my mind travelled back to that time, as I imagined a city under siege, pinned down between the graticule of tram cables and tracks, with a helpless St. Vitus cathedral in the background. Black and white images can be manipulated much further than colour ones, because the viewer can no longer use the real world as a reference. Blacks become darker, whites become lighter, skies grow overly menacing, cobblestones turn unnaturally moody.
5. To boldly go where no set of eyes has gone before
We’ll go back to the Greek Cyclades, which I think are some of the most beautiful islands in the world. The picture of the Milky Way below was taken from the balcony of a tiny bed & breakfast lost in the western tip of Crete. There was no moon and hardly any lights around to drown the faint light of the stars, so I propped the camera on a tripod and left it taking pictures throughout the night. The next morning, while Jules ate all my fresh Greek yoghurt with honey, I combed through the pictures. By sheer luck, one of them had captured the low flight path of a plane passing beneath the Milky Way.
No set of eyes, even a pair much less myopic than my own, could ever witness this image. It is a 20 second exposure, meaning that the camera’s shutter was open long enough for the plane’s lights to blaze a trail through the night sky. I then mercilessly edited the image till the tiniest captured detail of the Milky Way was visible, in a process that would make a seasoned torturer flinch.
6. The disappearing act
Most photo editing apps have an innocent looking option called the “spot removal tool”. It is designed to remove small blemishes caused by things such as a dirty lens, but it can also serve far more treacherous purposes. I took the photo below on the Fishermen’s Trail, a five-day hiking path along Portugal’s southwest coastline. The warm light cast by the low setting sun came with a price: my hunkering shadow next to that of the horse. I wanted the image to be only about the inquisitive young horse venturing away from its elders, so I removed my shadow. To add insult to injury, I also took out some houses from the background.
7. The sum of all evils
What happens when one combines all these treacheries into a single image? We went looking for our most heavily edited photo. The winner of the dubious honour, with over 150 adjustments, was the image below of the Almourol Castle, which sits on a small islet on the Portuguese side of the Tagus river. It is a beautiful castle, one I’m sure looks like the edited image on the right many times. But when Jules and I where there, it looked much closer to the unedited image on the left.
Before you run away, never to come back, let me just add that we rarely run this deep down our scale of travel photography sins. True beauty, like the sun setting below on the Arrifana beach, is absolute. It is not relative to the eye – or the camera sensor – of the beholder.
Update: If you scroll down to the comments section, you’ll find a wide range of invaluable contributions to this discussion. Some see a blog as a reflection of its authors, unshackled from any rules or limitations. Others raise the point that altered images may mislead the reader into expecting more from a place that what it can offer. There was however a common theme underlining most of these views: a plea for transparency.
We think that disclosing the level of editing done to each one of our photographs will be useful for those readers that expect our articles to be factual, without ruining the experience for those that focus on the thoughts rather than the facts.
As far as we’re aware, there is no standard for disclosing the amount of editing done to a photograph, so we created our own. Starting with this article, the legend of all our images will include a PPL (Post Processing Level) score, ranging from 0 to 3. Feel free to suggest improvements or use it yourself:
- PPL0 (Raw): Straight out of the camera shots, without any post-processing. Note that only a RAW file will truly show what the camera sensor has captured, as a JPEG file will include the post-processing done automatically by the camera or smartphone.
- PPL1 (Accurate): Post-processing that attempts to recreate as accurately as possible what the photographer saw (applied manually or automatically by the camera). Common corrections include white balance, tone, sharpening, perspective, and removing smudges and other small blemishes.
- PPL2 (Enhanced): An image that goes beyond what the photographer witnessed when taking the picture. This can be done by over-correcting (e.g. colours that are unnaturally saturated), applying filters (e.g. converting an image to black & white), or by using techniques that capture information that the human eye cannot perceive (e.g. long exposures, infrared photography).
- PPL3 (Altered): An image were elements were removed (e.g. cars, people), added (e.g. a blue sky) or manipulated (e.g. changes to a person’s appearance). This is usually where most news agencies and photo contests will draw the line. This blog does not include images with added or manipulated elements, but we occasionally remove things we find distracting (electric cables are the usual culprits).