There was some confusion caused by the three separate posts on the idea of “fill flash” in Photoshop that were posted June 3. This is a combination of these three posts. I hope this makes the debate easier to follow. JL

Blog One of Three

By John Long, Chairman, NPPA Ethics Committee

Recently I had a question from an NPPA member asking for an opinion on Photoshop’s “Fill flash” function. I sent a message back with a simple answer but I am having a harder and harder time with these issues. It used to be simple – new Photoshop functions had to be given time to become part of the normal processing tool chest. It seems time is up. Computational photography is replacing the Decisive Moment.

I wanted to open a discussion on this issue so I asked the other two members of the Ethics Committee, Steve Raymer and Peter Southwick, to write up their thoughts.

Our thoughts are presented three in three consecutive blog entries: the first by myself, the second by Peter Southwick and the third by Steve Raymer. We hope you find these thoughts helpful.

Response to a member’s question on Photoshop’s “Fill-Flash”:

You asked, “what are prevailing ethics standards at U.S. daily newspapers on use of Photoshop’s “fill flash” function?” My initial reaction is this: the Photoshop fill flash produces a photo that is not what the photographer saw and the technique used is not one we have become used to in traditional darkroom or camera functionality. In other words, it is not yet a part of the normal grammar of photography. I am afraid the wire services and major newspapers would steer clear of Photoshop fill flash because it changes the photo after the fact in the computer and the public would consider that to be a deceptive practice.

That being said, there is a revolution going on all around us and the very nature of photography is changing. “Computation photography” (the use of the computer to process photos, using all the bells and whistles the computer offers) is replacing the “Decisive Moment” as the central imperative of our profession. We have always had a battle between those who thought a documentary photo is supposed to be exactly what the camera recorded and those who thought the “Truth” of the photo was more important than a strict adherence to what the camera captured. HDR, computer stitching, Instagram photos and a vast multitude of new apps are flooding the tool chest. It feels overwhelming and that the forces of modern image making are leaving the old fashioned followers of Capa and Duncan and Smith in the dust. There is something inevitable about those who propose using Photoshop fill flash. But I feel as though I am working as a stagecoach driver being passed on the highway by a Porsche, or as though I am working for a newspaper in a digital age (wait a minute, I was working for a newspaper watching it die from within in the digital age).

I have such mixed feelings. I love the computer and the speed it provides but my hero has always been David Douglas Duncan.

Ethics. Photojournalism ethics. What are we trying to protect? What do we base our ethics on? Are we trying to protect “truthful” photography or Accurate photography? What is our ultimate good? What do we value the most? How long is a Moment? Can a Moment have multiple parts? These questions run through this debate.

I have used fill flash on my camera for years but I am uncomfortable using a computer to accomplish the same effect, mainly because it is not exactly the same effect. On camera fill flash is part of the normal “grammar” of photography in that a reasonably savvy reader understands what technique is being used to create a readable photograph and it happens as the photo is being made. I feel the same savvy reader would be uncomfortable knowing an effect was applied after the fact in a computer. It feels like deception, like an alteration of the Moment as captured in the split second the shutter was tripped.

I know this view is old fashioned and probably coming to an end soon but I am just not ready yet.

Thanks for listening, John

This is the second in the series of three blogs on “fill-Flash”.

Peter Southwick wrote:

My thoughts on Photoshop Fill Flash are much the same as I expressed on HDR. It is a tool, and the key consideration is not the tool itself, but how it is used. If it is employed to allow the viewer/reader to access the information in the photo more clearly and accurately, then I am all in favor. If, however, it is used to create something that is more a work of personal or artistic expression, I think that is inappropriate in journalism. After all, what was the purpose of in camera fill flash in the first place? We in the AP were forced to learn to use it when we went to all color shooting (on negative film) in the mid-1980’s, and those color images just didn’t hold up well when converted to black and white. It was a necessity to use fill flash in order to get acceptable results on the wire, and the idea that it might be an ethical issue never crossed our minds. The goal was then, as it should be now, to provide the best and most accessible image to readers/viewers.
When we get into the discussion of “what the photographer saw”, once again I’m afraid we are on shaky ground. Let’s go back to the not-so-good old days for an example. I started shooting professionally in the mid-1970’s. I often had to shoot in lousy light, which gave me two options. One: shoot with direct on camera flash, totally changing the look of whatever I was shooting, but producing a usable result. Or two: jack up the film speed to 1600 and shoot with available light, pushing the film in processing, yielding negatives with lots of grain, no shadow detail, blown out highlights, and quite often motion blur from slow shutter speeds. Which of these was “what I saw?” Neither, in my opinion. I used whatever technology I had available at the time and did the best I could. And this was a black and white world, removed from reality in its own unique way. Next example: my first big out of town assignment for the AP was to shoot the national championship college football game in the Superdome in New Orleans, with a game time of 8pm Saturday night, a total nightmare in terms of Sunday newspaper deadlines. We knew every paper in the country would hold press runs for the first picture from the game, and that was it. So all that mattered was speed. We shot three plays, shipped our film to the darkroom where it was souped in HC-110 for one minute at 100 degrees. You can imagine the results. Was the photo that ran in almost every paper in the country the next morning what I saw when I shot it? I don’t think so. And if someone had given us a magic tool (Photoshop, anyone?) that would have allowed us to see the running back’s face rather than the black hole we saw in that photo, would we have used that magic tool? Absolutely, and never looked back. Not because we were unethical, but because our job was to produce images that would communicate with readers, and it would have helped us do that.
And while we are at it, who in the news photo business never screwed up exposures on a critical picture? And remember all the tricks we would use to try to save a thin or thick negative when we had to? Ask Stan Forman about the negative of the City Hall Plaza attack photo. It was our job to make the most of the technology we had, as long as the goal was to give information to readers in the most faithful way we could. As Steve pointed out in the last debate, what about the differences between Kodachrome, Ektachrome, Velvia, etc.? Were those ethical issues? I don’t think so.
Remembering full well the cliché that to a kid with a hammer the whole world looks like a nail, that doesn’t negate the inherent worth of the hammer as an effective tool. There is no way we can keep trying to put some pieces of the digital genie back into the bottle. We need to embrace the technology and use it well and effectively, keeping a sharp eye out for those who use it for the wrong purposes, and as long as we remember the goal of every picture we can maintain our credibility with the public.
As always, just my two cents, worth no more than anyone else’s.
All the best, Peter

This is the third in the series of three blogs on “fill-Flash”.

Steve Raymer wrote:

Wish that I could add something thoughtful to Peter’s compelling email, but I can’t. Peter has said it all. Tools do not make a picture more or less ethical and, moreover, I am coming around to Peter’s position on “what the photographer saw,” which is always different that what the photographer recorded or was capable of recording. My standard remains one of intent: did the photographer intend to deceive by changing the content of a picture – or manipulate the elements of lighting, contrast, color balance, etc. beyond any reasonable or faithful representation of the original situation. As lawyers love to say, proving intent is a slippery slope.

But we have sadly seen numerous examples in recent years of news photographers adding or subtracting content. Finally, and this is way off the point of Photoshop CS6 and fill flash, reader/viewer expectations have to be taken into account. Magazine covers, aside from a few stalwart, are notorious for content that has been manipulated. And studies show that “it depends” whether this troubles readers.

They don’t want National Geographic to change content but could care less about lifestyle magazines. And editors and publishers say covers are advertising vehicles. So, again, all we can do is to try to reinforce the message that in doing journalism, we don’t lie and deceive while doing our best with the technology at hand to come up with engaging, intimate, memorable images that take readers and viewers to places they could never go. I am in London and it seems that in the city center on this beautiful weekend, every second person has a camera. And a good one! Same in Berlin a few weeks ago. You cannot, as Peter says, put the technology genie back in the bottle. But I would like to think that the images I am trying to make are done with respect, sensitivity, etc. for the integrity of the subject and moment. Perhaps the issue we need to talk about is what separates “us from them.” Certainly there are more of them than us. But, again, Peter’s analysis is brilliant and cogent.

All best,


6 Responses to “Blog 6, computer “fill Flash””

  1. Good discussion… but cameras always lie. We freeze action, we blur motion. Point of focus, depth of field. Circles of confusion. What we exclude – include. Our lenses cause distortion, the color and contrast we record is not the same as our eyes. In the digital age, most color (and contrast) is devise dependent set by the manufacture (Nikon, Canon, etc.). Even RGB and CMYK are not standards so if it is seen on a screen or printed it needs to be translated. Computer screens need to be calibrated. Every program you use to handle images has to translate image data. In the film age, we had more uniformity from the manufacturer of the film to the lab. That left in the digital age. So what is the point… we need to be sure we are not deceiving people. Integrity is essential.

  2. I believe it is yet another tool for a photojournalist to bring out what is important in the photo.

    I’ve been to assignments where my flash wouldn’t expose properly or even fire. By using the computer to bring out the darker areas, that is no different than using actual fill flash.

    I learned to shoot on film. Composing and waiting for the moment. I still like to shoot that way because I do not believe in rapid firing during it and picking one later. Why not just buy a video camera and then use a frame from that.

    “Spray & Pray” is what several of my friends call it. I laugh when someone tells me they shot 6 8GB cards full of images. I just shake my head and say “Have fun editing.”

    People have lost the sense of moment, not because of what you can do on the computer, but because they rely on the camera to do all their thinking.

    This “Fill Flash” is no different than using “Highlight/Shadow,” or the Midtone slider in ACR.

  3.   Jim Colburn

    All this hand-wringing about “the technique used is not one we have become used to in traditional darkroom or camera functionality”…

    If you’ve shot a JPEG file with your camera and then open it in Photoshop the program is creating digital information that isn’t present in the JPEG as JPEG is a “lossy” format.

    If you then crop the image, as many do, and then re-size it to make it a bit bigger, as many do, then once again you’ve instructed the program to create information based on an algorithm.

    If you then re-compress it and transmit it, as many do, the person at the receiving end who opens it in Photoshop for pre-press has, once again, had the program create information that was not in the original file.

    In the normal course of shooting and transmission you can probably figure that 25 percent (at a minimum) of a printed photo has been created out of thin air by software, and yet few people ever bother to worry about it.

    To be as pure as theory would prefer we’d all have to shoot raw files in camera, transmit those files and then make sure you paper prints those photos without any pre-press or modification whatsoever.

    I’m not even going to go into the validity of taking a frame grab from video and “rezing it up” to run as a 6 column photo.

  4. I recall going to work for a newspaper in the 70’s and being introduced to the art of dodging and burning B&W prints. The burning many times was excessive. This was the trend and it seemed like everyone was doing it. The content of the picture didn’t change, just the manner in which it was presented. Everyone thought the final product looked more artistic with the burning. Then there was the higher contrast paper to produce more snap. And let’s not forget about the ultra-wide angle lenses that totally distorted a scene. “Manipulation” was not suddenly born of the digital age. It’s been with us all along. The question is: Is it permissible to improve on the esthetics of an image via color saturation, contrast, density and burning as long as nothing else is touched? Our ultimate goal as photojournalists should be to identify that line which should never be crossed, the line between fact and fiction, and never cross it.

  5. Well said Alan. But then, Peter and Steve have made excellent points as well. It seems in these circumstances, when the brush stroke is so wide, best to air on the side of caution, and stick to the ‘ethical’ basics.

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