Our seven sins of travel photography

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 to 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).

Verne*

68 thoughts on “Our seven sins of travel photography

  1. Thanks for being really honest, Verne! In my case, I rarely edit my photos. But when I do, it’s usually to adjust the objects in the photos to look like what my eyes saw when I took the shots. However, I don’t mind with your kind of editing, which is basically done by all professional photographers out there, because it always results in beautiful photos which make me want to keep exploring the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoy the skeletons decloseted. It’s not just a stroll down adventure’s lane, but a waltz with ethics of truth versus conjuring for us some magic. I do got on like dynamite at the turn signal test facility with the fellow, yet he conveyed a comparison that is truthful- If a tad hard to get thrilled over. You’re the type of guy that after slogging all day clawing my way up a mountain each inch a victory sometimes lost and retook, that would be at the pinnacle perched? No sloppily slumped overflowing a lawn chair chomping on a doughnut next to a Winnebago! Or, the magic or truth you have is a choice of yours to share. I tend to adjust my snaps deliberately under exposed and crank the contrast as for you to understand what I see which in just a moment a link, you must understand that while I have a wider perspective than many a camera, I see far less clearly but also far more vividly. Wouldn’t you know it? The pic I want just went on holiday? You’ll have to remind me to blog camera versus blind guy

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I see no problem with your editing. You’re an artist, and artists manipulate images all of the time. (It’s kind of in the job description). Besides, my camera rarely sees what I see, and yours is no doubt the same. It darkens, lengthens and distances in annoying and sometimes limiting ways. So, please, continue to share your beautiful views!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post! Really interesting. Accepting that the camera makes adjustments (doesn’t it never lie though?), I just wish I had the time, inclination and know-how to be able to make such changes to photos I take…what sort of software do you use?

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  5. This was a most interesting post to read. I will enjoy anything you choose to show me. I would rather see the world through your eyes than as it appears in a brutally honest photo. After all, if you tell a story with words, aren’t you editing your words to make your audience see your point? Leaving out the sound of an intrusive motorcycle would be a blessing.

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    1. Thank you Anne! That parallel is very interesting, it made me wonder if pictures are more honest than words. While a text can be nuanced in ways that no photo editing app can match, it seems we’re much more used to spotting written lies than photographic ones! -Verne

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  6. I guess it comes down to the question: are you making documentation or are you making art (both on the photography and the writing)? Documentation is ok, but art reflects its creator – your voice, your eye, your sensibilities. I think the second is much more interesting and what makes a blog a blog and not the evening news. (Although admittedly, sin number 7 shows why HDR gets a bad name). In any case, keep doing what you’re doing, ’cause you’re doing it well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Dave!

      While reflecting on your question, I realized that perhaps what troubles us is not the current state of this blog, but rather where it’s headed. We started on the documentation side – descriptions of the places we visited and unedited photos taken with a smartphone.

      Somewhere along the way we noticed that it was much more interesting to add a story of our own to the descriptions of the places we visited.

      In the written form, I see no issue mixing facts (e.g. the history of a city) with sensibilities (e.g. our story in that city), because it’s always clear which is which.

      I think that ensuring the same level of transparency with photography is much harder. I remember taking a picture of this alley in Greece that had beautiful buildings but a mess of cables dangling from them. I removed all the ugly cabling because I wanted the viewer to appreciate the alley how I thought it should be, not how it was in reality, but I neglected to make that clear.

      Maybe what we need is to mark each picture with some sort of level of post-processing scale!

      By the way, no HDR was used nor puppies hurt while making sin number 7. There’s limits, even for the sum of all evils 🙂

      – Verne

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know what you mean about cabling, forests of antennas, etc. Although that sort of thing has stopped me from taking the picture in the first place. I’m glad to hear about the puppies although I’m not sure I’m that kind; I was just editing a picture of a marmot…

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  7. Everything is a matter of perspective. Travel writing and photography share that perspective. Taking it in, reading and viewing it, opens our eyes to the ways others view the world. And that, whether entirely truthful or not, whether doctored or not, revisionist or not, keeps things interesting. It certainly keeps me inspired. I say, keep it coming!

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  8. I’m guilty of all of those… but I don’t feel guilty, not at all! I don’t think photography is about recreating what we saw, but more about creating images we like. Starting from here, there’s no such thing as “vile manipulation”, “lie” or whatever name post-processing can be called 🙂
    You’re free, do whatever you want 😉

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    1. Thanks Samuel! I too love the post-processing part of photography and think it is an integral part of the creation process.

      Nevertheless, reflecting on the feedback we received from this article, I think we should be more explicit about how photos are changed (e.g. when removing stuff from a famous landmark). Maybe some sort of scale on the image legend, next to the other photo parameters?

      – Verne

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  9. The human eye can resolve a much wider range of light levels than the sensor/screen combo on the budget phone I use to take all my travel pictures. So I’ve no problem using level tweaks and sometimes filters to lift out of shadows and/or highlights the detail I remember being able to perceive in situ. I generally find filters too harsh but sometimes I use the ‘pop’ thing because I think most people are like me looking at my pics on mid-price phones or tablets rather than HD monitors and on that technology your images need a bit of help to sing, just as when you’re mixing pop music you would mix it for typical headphones or small speakers rather than HiFi gear. I often crop my pics, a lot. Other than that, I don’t mess about with my pics. I’m not changing the world with my blog, it’s mainly for my own pleasure, so if my pics recall to me my authentic memories, job done. bw

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  10. This is such a fascinating post! A true insight into how you do it as photographers. I’ve always admired your photography but equally your post set-up and writing. Said that, you do things to a photo that I’d never do. Let’s have a comparison:

    First I can easily eliminate no. 5 because I have not reached this level yet. Let the camera work all night without me? 😮 I’m not sure my old point-and-shoot is up for it. If it were, I’d have no objections: it’s glorious what you did!

    Similarly, I have no problems with rescuing parts of photos from the shadows or turning the sky black and white to see what is really in there. So 1 and 4 are a go.

    As for no. 3, I rarely make a panorama and have never thought about how it’s actually a big cheat too! Yet, not a cheat I would have a problem with. Bring it on!

    No. 2: Frankly, I don’t see much of a difference and would probably be satisfied with the first photo already. Also, I don’t know how you did it – not with Window’s Photo Gallery, I’m sure (which is the only thing I use for photo editing).

    The grand castle at no. 7 is magnificent before but after so much more. I think I’d do something similar: bring out the shadows and colours and not worry about it.

    BUT, the big but is no. 6. I have never removed things from photos (except very rarely remove parts of objects or persons that remain on the photo after cropping it, or remove dirt from the lens). I see no reason for removing either your shadow or, and especially those houses. What have they ever done to you? 😮 I say this in jest, of course, we all have our reasons for doing it and should follow them.

    I often hear people complaining about electricity lines, for example, and see stuff removed. Not for me. I love the life as messy on the photos as it is off.

    Thank you for this illuminating post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the awesome feedback!

      Judging from all the comments, it seems we implicitly expect that the photographs of others are not edited beyond the point we edit our own photos.

      Electricity lines, for instance: I can’t stand them 🙂 The OCD nature in me will nag me to death to remove elements that are distracting or break symmetry.

      I think there should be freedom to edit photos as little are as much as one wants, but heavier hand manipulations (e.g. removing or adding stuff) should be disclosed. We’re working on a system and will come back with a proposal 🙂

      Btw, I think you should also have a qualm with #7: notice how the sand bank on the left and the algae on the right magically disappeared 🙂

      – Verne

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hihih, I knew why I better didn’t take a good look at no. 7. You removed the beach!! 😮 I guess some are bothered by stuff and some are not. My photos will never be as clean as some would require, but luckily I don’t depend on anybody, not even on buying public. And you’re right – everybody is on their own. We do what we do… I think there is an afterlife punishment for removing beaches though. 😉 Thanks again for this candid post!

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  11. As I sat here editing photos from the trip I am currently on, I paused to think about all these sins. I am not feeling like I need to hit the confessional! (And I don’t think you are damned to hell for any of these either.) I do a few of these things, but I’m not even sophisticated enough to overdo in most cases. I believe 100% that sometimes my cameras do not produce a photo that looks like what I saw, so I feel absolutely free to edit in a way that reproduces that image. Interestingly, my iPhone seems to do the best job, at least with colors. To me, the egregious ones are the lurid sunsets and other manipulated skies and waters that are all over Instagram. (May I also add that I’m sick to death of drone shots? Off topic, I know!)

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    1. I too think we are safe from the lakes of burning fires for now, but we nevertheless wonder about what sort of edits we’ll be doing in a couple of years, as our skills improve to the point where overdoing it or doing something questionable becomes tempting.

      One thing that is perhaps helpful is to disclose the edits applied. We’re working on some sort of scale for this, will report back!

      – Verne

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Well, it’s the same reason why we put on make-up, or dress up smartly, or don an extra bit of fake tan (without turning orange, paging the current tenant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave). A bit of enhancing does no harm and, frankly, I’d rather follow your blogs (and the great hand-drawn maps! What happened to the hand-drawn maps!?) than wasting my time reading “10 reasons to go to India” or “the best 22 tapas bars of Murcia” (titles I made up but that I’m sure will be googlable).

    Fabrizio

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks Fabrizio!

      Good point on the maps! I’ll make sure to include on the next post. I’ll use my new digital stylus to draw it, will it still be hand-drawn? I feel we may be uncovering another dilemma there.

      I had to google it. There’s 10 and 20, but no 22 yet!

      – Verne

      Liked by 1 person

  13. A little late on the comment, I was never a fan of touched upon photos of already good photographers (for example, straightening a photo is ok) because even natural places tend to look “better” than they are and for people who have seen only brushed up photos of the places might feel ‘underwhelmed’ if and when they actually see them!

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  14. What a provocative post! While it does seem a little fake to alter photos, enhancing them makes such a difference. I don’t feel like anyone is being fooled. Like you said, it’s not as though you’re placing yourself in a setting where you never really were. But why not enhance? We have the capability and it makes the pictures so much more pleasing. No harm in that!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Wow, that is really interesting. I have to be honest, I haven’t ever really meddled with the photographs I have taken, but you have very clearly demonstrated the dramatic effects that can be achieved if you do. Really interesting stuff.

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  16. What an excellent post – informative, thought-provoking, and I love your erudite but quirky writing style! I don’t edit my pictures very much, and hardly ever beyond your PPL01. But out of interest, might you be prepared to divulge what editing software you use for PPLs 2 and 3?

    Liked by 1 person

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