Should Photo Contests Require Original Image Files?

Shaofeng Xu’s photo of a protestor climbing a high-voltage electricity tower won Honorable Mention in the Contemporary Issues category of the World Press Photo 2012 contest. Look at it again as a thumbnail.

If the subject of the image seems to be “popping,” that’s because it is.

It is common to see heavy vignetting in a magazine portrait (think Platon). It is common for iPhone apps to add artistic vignetting. But in a photojournalistic image, this is very extreme. There’s no modern lens that creates that amount of light fall-off so close to the center of the frame (the technical information says 200mm at f/2.8).

For the past few years, I’ve been paying attention to the winners of the most prestigious photojournalism awards. The decisive moments captured by photographers (many in harm’s way) are pretty astounding. These are great images. But something that’s been bothering me is the obviousness of the post processing, and how “artistic” looking photos have become.

Denis Rouvre's portrait of Toku Konno won 3rd prize singles in World Press Photo 2012. Does the desaturation cross the line of photojournalism?

Photojournalism is held to a different standard of veracity than other forms of photography. Many organizations have created language to address what is acceptable, but in many cases it’s ambiguous at best with no clear line of delineation (and people get fired over this stuff). Here are some excerpts from various organizations:

NPPA Code of Ethics:

Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.

World Press Photo Entry Rules:

The content of the image must not be altered. Only retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards and may at its discretion request the original, unretouched file as recorded by the camera or an untoned scan of the negative or slide.

Pictures of the Year International Entry Rules: No specific language regarding manipulation.

William B. Plowman's image of a Nomadic Dinka won the Award of Excellence in the Pictures of the Year International. Does the desaturation affect our perception of the scene?

Given the number of cases of manipulation (and the ambiguity surrounding what’s acceptable), I propose that photojournalism contests require entrants to submit their original, unadulterated files with their entries, so that judges can see the level of retouching involved. This doesn’t solve the question of where the line is, but it does give the judges an informed position from which to ask that question.

But who am I? I asked a few photographers and judges about it.

Jimmy Colton, Sports Illustrated
Jimmy has judged numerous contests including the Eddie Adams Workshop

The selective dodging and burning has gotten way out of hand and the saturation to the point of ‘neon,’ in picture two is insane! I would have disqualified all of these…or…at the very least….if the judges felt compelled to keep them, award them with an HM AND a Citation that read….’If this image was not Photoshopped to death, it may have been considered for an award.’

It would be really difficult to manage raw files and high end jpegs as they take up so much room…

What I think they could do, is that during the judging process, if there is any question about post production, that they ask the entrant to submit the original file for comparison. But even that is no guarantee that judges will miss/ignore these egregious abuses…..or….before they make the awards public….they could request the originals from ALL the winners for comparison.

Terry Eiler, Director, School of Visual Communication, Ohio University
Terry serves on the contest committee for the NPPA

As a profession and an industry, we go through this ‘manipulation’ in cycles. In the 1950′s and 1960′s it was potassium ferricynide that was used to bleach the eyes and bring highlights of ‘extraordinary’ glow to skin. In that era the phrase or excuse was that it made the tones more reproducible. By the 1970′s through the 1990′s, it was called ‘hand-of-god’ burning and dodging. No, matter what we called it, the result was heavily manipulated images. When these images win in contest, we (as a profession) reduce the integrity of our work. We also ‘encourage’ other to do the same thing to ‘win’ a contest.

When work is disqualified. When awards are taken away. When judges start rebuking the obvious manipulation found in world-wide contest, perhaps we can get back to visual journalism and judgement of content. One of the current ‘trends’ we fight at the university is the students desire to convert everything contest image to overly dramatic black & white images, because it ‘wins’ awards. This make it look like the 1960′s is another form of manipulation.

Kosuke Okahara, freelance photographer

I feel people easily dehumanize the subject or dehumanize photogoraphers themselves to make it more shocking or dramatic by adding photoshop. it’s all about contest, not to tell the story inside the pictures anymore.we are becoming more and more a real ‘exploiter’ of people in the photographs for the sake of ‘WINNING’ contest, recognition or to get famous. sad.

anyways, my answer is yes , if they have Raw file shot with digitally, then they probably should send the original images.

Keith Bedford, freelance photographer

I think that judges should be able to ask for the originals. There have been too many times in the last few years that work has been called into question. Some of that should have been addressed as well as photographers that did honest work as well. It keep the whole process honest.

Here’s the thing. The winning photos are very strong without any Photoshopping. So what is the value of the manipulation? Are judges being seduced by these toned images such that a “flat” image is unconsciously doomed? If so, then I believe the onus is more on the judges than on the photographers. But photojournalists should also be having the same dialog amongst themselves. After all, if you don’t want to be policed, then police yourself.

My proposal:

  • Photographers must provide originals (preferably RAWs) upon request
  • No manipulation can alter the photo more than 20% (e.g. saturation sliders, contrast, opacities)
  • No in-camera “filters” are allowed (this is more and more common)
  • No HDR is allowed

And we should revisit this every two years to make sure its up-to-date, and hopefully gain acceptance from all the major photojournalism contests.

What do you think?

About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the CEO and Co-founder of PhotoShelter. Allen authors PhotoShelter’s free business guides for photographers and marketing professionals, including topics like email marketing, search engine optimization, and starting a photography business. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article originally appeared here.

  • Pan Wilson

     As I read through all these comments I was having this same thought. Untouched RAW photographs shall become a sub category in any show.

  • Wing Wong

    I respectfully disagree.

    RAW is not the destination, it is just a stop along the way. An image may have been shot in RAW to capture detail that would be otherwise lost. The intention being to recover details lost to the method chosen for shooting, later in post. This is making use of your equipment’s strengths and minimizing its weaknesses. 

    Some cameras have no RAW option, only baked/processed JPEG(s). So should people who don’t have RAW capable cameras be excluded?

    Regarding no HDR, does that include physical filters? Graduated ND filters to bring in the blown highlights so you can bring the tonal range in line with what the camera’s sensor is capable of?  What about color and IR filters?  The heavily vignetted image of the climber is possible with a proper circular graduated ND filter. So if someone used that to get the shot, would they be penalized for post processing, even though it would be pre-processing and part of the RAW? How about shaped bokeh?

    The natural conclusion of this article is that all contestants would need the same camera, same lens, same memory cards, etc. Because any kind of deviation or enhancement would provide an unfair advantage. 

    If you are talking about journalistic integrity, what you are really talking about is the balance between attempting to record a scene verbatim with the artistic vision of the photographer. Where does that artistic vision being? Where does it end? Even shooting a scene a moment too soon/late will change the meaning/interpretation. From one angle or another. Under or over exposed. 

    In the scope of a contest, sure, make all/any rules you want. Those who want to abide by those rules and produce images within those contraints will do so. But don’t push this concept of photographic purism as some kind of ultimate truth or rules to live by.

    Photography, like any form of art, is subject to interpretation and artistic expression.

    If you want to run a fair contest, then you might as well have people sign up for uniform equipment, funds, etc. Otherwise, you are giving an unfair advantage to someone with a bigger sensor, faster lens, travel budget, extra training, etc. 

  • Liqidace

    Why aren’t the stories that accompany the pictures held to these same qualifications?
     Does the vignetting in Shaofeng Xu’s photo of a protestor climbing a high-voltage electricity tower really alter the truth in any way? I don’t think it does. “Oh, look at that man going to such extremes for what he believes in. My heart goes out to him… WAIT! Is that a vignette?!?! I hope he falls and dies..”. Ridiculous right?
     But you can guarantee the story written about it was anything but pure unbiased fact.
    Color adjustments, vignetting, cropping, saturation: so what?
    The only stipulation I agree with is that the digital negative should be provided to prove nothing was cloned or masked.

  • Marja

    I agree with what you said about color, and want to add it’s the same with black and white.  When it comes to black and white, there’s more or less no such thing as an non-manipulated image.  Just by printing it at all, you change the shot via contrast and density.

    There’s different film (T-Max 3200, that blocky Fuji 1600 film, Kodak CN grainless film.)  Different papers: Kodak’s is bluer whereas Ilford’s is warm; even glossy, pearl or satin changes your contrast.  Then there’s RC or fibre-base.  Some brands of developers and how fresh they are give different results, along with pushing or pulling the film to futz with the film’s grain and contrast. 

    And that’s only the beginning — cropping, dodging and burning, using different contrast filters; and again, how strong or fresh the developer is, or how long you leave it in the soup.  Once that’s done, there are toners one can use.  Heck, I even figured out a way to dodge and burn a little bit on BW machine reprints!

    Even so, they still often keep the general integrity of the scene.  Removing or adding things is more difficult with film.  However, going from a full-color world to a spectrum of greys is automatically changing reality. 

    Or what you crop out or don’t crop out.  There’s some picture I saw online where I think there were three soldiers in the photo.  If you cropped one side, the soldier looked like a villain.  From the other side, he became a hero.  That can happen regardless of film or digital, of course, but it bears mentioning that cropping is something that really can rewrite the story.

  • Marja

    Depends on the contest.  For photojournalism, it should be at a bare minimum, like if there’s dust or a scratch, or correcting back to normal if the shot was a bit underexposed.

    For other contests, manipulation isn’t always a bad thing.  Well, so long as it’s not a Frankenphoto, where all the elements are borrowed from other places, or it’s so invented it looks like a scene out of Skyrim.  No, in some instances, that may be the reason for the contest, so in some cases, even that could be OK.

  • tgSF

    Reading through the comments, here’s a quick point I’m not seeing addressed:
    Are you entering a contest as a “photographer”, or an “image artist”? Meaning, if the former, a little manipulation should be okay as long as we’re looking at how you chose and composed your subject, and the subject should be the overarching criterion. But if the latter, then it’s not really about the shot, is it? There should be a stock image provided, and you compete against other “artists” in pure manipulation.

    As a purely underwater photographer, I’m far more impressed and challenged by getting the shot just right with little to no post-processing – that, to me, is the essence of Nature Photography, and the true greats of the industry are able to do this. I have some images I’ve “massaged” into form with Photoshop, but no number of compliments or contest wins can overcome the fact that the product you see is not really what my camera captured….

  • James

    I think it would be interesting to see a contest where you can only submit the RAWs