Why Do Photo Contest Winners Look Like Movie Posters?


This is an incredible photo. The range of emotions expressed (anger, grief, despair), the position of the people and bodies, and proximity of the photographer to the subject make it an incredible moment in time. And because of these elements, this photo was deservedly named the World Press Photo of the Year.

It also looks like an illustration.

A number of faces look far too “bright” compared to what I think it should look like. It’s almost as if there was a huge fill flash set -1 1/2 stops under to give this perfect exposure. There is a high light source from camera right, but the front light is very diffuse compared to the contrast that one might expect.

Here’s another one by photographer Micha Albert:


Micah Albert’s image won 1st place for Contemporary Issues – Singles. I am not a photojournalist, but I have traveled to a lot of places around the world, and I have never seen light this color given all the other environmental factors. To me, it looks like the white balance was deliberately moved to be “inaccurate” and some sort of warming filter was applied (“Earlybird” anyone?).


Wei Zheng took third place in Sport Action – Singles for the above photo of a synchronized swimmer from the Olympics. The bokeh suggests a telephoto lens with a wide aperture, so the clarity of the water drops isn’t unusual. But the vignetting seems extremes, and the swimmer appears to be very dodged.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that there has been any manipulation that falls outside of the rules of the contest, but when images cease to look real and to be overly retouched, we have a veracity problem. And if we subscribe to the common ethos of photojournalism (i.e. that we are trying not to deceive the viewer), then we have an increasingly enigmatic issue. This movie poster look reminds me of this article about Hollywood’s obsession with teal and orange. We have somehow come to believe that the images look better with copious amounts of Photoshop vs what is straight out of the camera.

These images are all the more startling when you compare them to winners from past years. For example, Jean-Marc Bouju’s winning photograph from 2003 doesn’t rely on any overt Photoshopping. It is an amazing photo because the context gives you everything you need to know to understand the story. Barbed wire, hooded prisoner, grasping his child in An Najaf, Iraq:


We’ve been living with mainstream use of digital cameras in photojournalism for about 10 years, and photographers have had the same amount of time to hone their Photoshop skills. The enormous popularity of Instagram filters has not helped the veracity issue because now everyone can make an image look different and “cooler” than the original capture. But photojournalism has always been held to a different standard than other forms of photography, and I don’t believe the industry should change that stance.

So what can we do? I argue that high profile contests like World Press Photo should require that contestants submit their original, unretouched photos along side their final entries. That way judges (and public) have the opportunity to view the original image to see if it has been adulterated to the point of being an illustration. Granted, that is an arbitrary line, but we’ve been drifting into Photoshop world for a decade, and we’ve floated too far.

Update: I’ve published a followup article titled, “Darkrooms are Irrelevant and The Truth Matters.”

About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman 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.

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  • D. Wright

    I think Photoshop has become more of a term now and is used in regard to an image which has had some post-processing applied to it.

  • Dan Kennedy

    I highly disagree with the authors opinion (an opinion is what it is), photographers have been enhancing their photographs for as long as photography has existed, to put restrictions on digital post processing would be a ridiculous step backwards in image making. Even wet plates were hand toned and retouched with paint and pencil, and that was a century and a half ago, so this “abomination” of image altering is nothing new. Sure, don’t photoshop a dragon into your documentary photo, but to say you shouldn’t tone, dodge, burn, etc is absolutely ridiculous. What’s captivating about a specific medium is it’s limitations/strengths. Things like high contrast slide film, push processing, cross processing are only part of our recent past, you can’t ignore that part of photography. Yes photojournalism is supposed to be an accurate depiction of what actually happened, but photography can never be a 100% accurate depiction, as reality isn’t still, it isn’t black and white; it’s even subjective as each persons experience is different. The camera sees far different than the eye sees, and recalls an image far different than what we can remember or experience. Nobody can take the exact same picture, no one sees exactly the same. Each image is “X” presented by “Photographer”. The reason images now look similar to movies, is because there is a greater overlap in the type of equipment, easier access to high quality imagery, and because the movie industry is what’s pushing a certain level of quality that adds to and defines the world’s collective eye. There’s nothing wrong with this. If processing an image assists the picture in stressing a particular point, or evoking a particular emotion, then the photographer is doing his job. If this leads to more captivating imagery; I say embrace it.

  • Janice McCready

    Wow, why get personal and insult people as being uneducated or ignorant because they have a different opinion. Yes, there always has been photo manipulation, and not only on camera or in the darkroom. Civil War photographers actually posed bodies. And yes, PS does replicate what was done in the dark room, but then goes on to allow much greater manipulation possibilities and with incredible ease. The discussion is not “what makes a great picture,” but what is photojournalism, as opposed to other types or photography. Associated Press guidelines state that burning, dodging, cropping and toning are acceptable. Any other changes, including changing light tones should be noted in the caption. The purpose of photojournalism is to show what really happened (yes, I know all the arguments about how there is no such thing as objectivity) vs. an individual’s artistic expression. There is a place for both. Photojournalists have been fired for creating composites to improve composition, and for removing shadows. In journalism, trust is everything. If readers are getting manipulated images, they no longer know what is real and what isn’t. Trust is central to journalism, so. no heavy manipulation is not allowed. I am surprised that AP guidelines are not followed in a photojournalism contest. Why do they allow photos that would otherwise get the photographers fired?

    Here’s more reading

  • MichaelPugh/photographer

    I’ve spent more than half of my 32-year career as a photojournalist, 9-years with UPI based in ATL and believe me if you moved a flat, or dark print to New York , you had HELL to pay. How many of you out there have ever used potassium ferricyanide??? WE used it and plenty of it!!!! You made a good/great print period. Same for these guys! This stuff (digital) is just better! The content can not be changed, but the quality can.. It’s always been that way.

  • pete n pete

    You’re right. The skin in the manipulated version is very waxy or something.

  • Jeremy Lawrence

    Photoshopping usually means altering an image’s content as opposed to simply grading it.

  • Devin Baillie

    No lenses or flash either!

  • Zos Xavius

    agreed. he likes hdr too. enough said. :P

  • idrinkfixer

    That is a great idea for sending a before and after. I, personally am all about processes in art so to me, I does not bother me that there would be touching up as it would be apart of the process. However, it would make it a more interesting set of images if they were in raw form and still looked like the ones displayed above.

  • DamianM

    there’s also the links of the semi originals… explaining the fact that there not straight out of a camera.

  • Jeremy Center

    further evidence that petapixel needs to hire an editor.

  • Kathleen Grace

    I did, I worked with a Life photographer. Maybe staging but the photos lended themselves to real life, not a movie poster. And still with all the retouching none of them look unreal. I also know of Ansel Adams considerable darkroom work – and yet these great photographers gave more life to the works, not made them look unreal or false.

  • Simon Seddon

    Good debate.

    Personally I think that press photographers should feel comfortable editing their exposures, but limit it to simple grading, contrast and tonal adjustments.

    Adding drama to a press shot is, for me, going too far. I’d hate it if the news networks started grading their broadcast to give it extra “oomf” (and/or to win awards).

    The moment a photographer starts expressing themselves creatively in a picture, the picture is no longer a document.

    Why not comp. 3D imagery in to the mix while you’re at it :)

  • idrinkfixer

    If anything we should get inspiration from imagery like the ones shown. Imagine if that first one did not dodge some of the faces? The balance in that photo had crystallographic feel and so much information that I never would have seen that they were holding dead children. I also think that the opportunity to ruin an image with photoshop is always there. To know when to stop is part of being an artist too.

  • Eric Larson



  • John Kantor

    Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and “veracity” in photojournalism. Guess what all three have in common?

  • Alex Mita

    Jeremy Lawrence – I think you are the ignorant one. If you are a crap photographer and you depend on photoshop for dramatic effect then you might as well be shooting with hipstamatic on your iphone. I don’t understand how a photo that shows the tragedy of war, which in itself is enough to shock, needs to be beautified in photoshop for some prima donna’s amusement. Give me a break. And as for dark room, you are talking about a technique that is hands on, compared with the digital over editing that is done in photoshop. There should be rules about this, especially in photojournalism. Why not try to shoot a beautiful image instead of manufacturing one later?

  • rugfoot

    If you put a scene in a rectangular frame, you’re distorting reality. You have to decide your aperture, shutter speed, etc. Another way of distorting reality. Taking a photo is distorting reality. So if you draw a line, you’re right, it will be artibrary. And artificial.

  • Scott Donald

    Exactly! Anyone who has read Ansel Adams’ Exposure, understands dodge and burn is part of the process of photography (from Ansel’s persecutive). If someone is removing or adding pixels, that is manipulation. If someone is tweaking pixels to effect how light is displayed, that is called photography.

  • Scott Donald

    Which is no different than the photographer choosing where to aim his camera, that to prods us to what to think. Selecting one photo out of a 100 shot of an event is editorializing. Photography is by definition a “point of view” and never has claimed to be the whole story or objective. Additionally, in way is this photo deceptive? What untrue fact are you lead to believe as a result of brightening shadows and reducing saturation

  • Carlo

    Totally agree.

  • Carlo

    So from now on nobody should be allowed to shoot in JPEG because is digital enhancement?

  • David Dare Parker

    I understand the need to have this debate. One thing worries me though. Wherever I have seen this particular photograph discussed on the various blogs there has been no posting of the original caption. Surely we need this to help keep perspective? Let’s not lose sight of the tragic content within the image.

  • Cezar Magalhães
  • Jeremy Lawrence

    Damian + Zos – resorting to childish insults and/or inaccuracy does not prove or help your point.
    BTW I’m really not a fan of Thomas Kincade style HDR images, nor have I ever used any HDR software. But the fact remains that carefully done HDR is much closer to how we see than ‘conventional’ photography, which was my actual point.
    The beauty of most photography lies in the fact that it does not replicate reality.

    As for your over processed stances, do you even shoot raw images as the controversial shot looks far more like unprocessed raw files from my camera at least, than the more colourful version?

  • Jeremy Lawrence

    SOOC is an irrelevant term with regard to fidelity and if you shoot RAW + JPEG the colourful version could be the jpeg version, used for speed and the other a less cooked raw file.

  • NiLopesPhoto

    Eu acho que a fotografia deveria ser isenta de qualquer manipulaçao, pois o realismo transmite a verdade, nua e crua. Tratar uma foto pode e dais impacto, contudo nao é o imapcto trabalhado que se deseja mas sim o impacto real em que este mundo vivo, com as suas cores e imagens.

  • Zos Xavius

    Nope. I only shoot jpeg in P mode.

    You just don’t know how to let go do you? The colors in this picture are horrid and it looks like all those bad movie posters with yellowed tones and garish HDRish lighting that looks most unnatural. I see a lot of dodging and burning between the two too. Maybe even some sections (the left side for example) were cut out, altered and composited. Or they could have just burned it down. The original looks slightly more natural as the left is much brighter and gives hint of being a light source. If I had a picture that looked like this I would color correct at least the skin tones or just tossed it altogether. As far as black and white, I think it is fine still for photojournalism, but that’s me. There is always some dodging and burning, but really this looks plastic. Someone just went a bit too far and didn’t realize it IMO. We’ve all been there. I vastly prefer the original and the skin tones are much better. Now can we let this matter drop? Its ok to disagree. Traditional photojournalism frowns upon manipulation and I feel that this crosses a line. Clearly a lot of others (and the author) feel the same way. Obviously a lot of people think that photojournalists are artists too and that it is ok for them to add a bit of their own look to their photographs. I think that’s fine and good and if we all shot everything in faithful/neutral and jpeg the resulting pictures would all look decidedly boring and the same after a while. I also think there is a difference between good post processing turning a photo into a total disaster. FWIW, I’m about as straight as it gets with photography. I rarely clone anything out and very rarely dodge and burn. I do shoot raw and I even use HDR from time to time, but despise the flat HDR look so many people seem to love. When I do coverage I tend to take a photojournalist approach and do very minimal edits and yes, I love and use black and white extensively. People seem to love my B&W work so I must be doing something ok.

  • Zos Xavius

    If you take good pictures and get it right from the start you could easily get away with just jpeg. In fact there are more than a few jpeg only shots in my portfolio. In good light JPEG is more than fine as long as you aren’t blowing things and getting good white balance. As soon as you have to fix things raw is your friend.

  • Daniel DG

    As soon as you pull a RAW image to be “processed” then its instantly manipulated, sure maybe you just change the white balance, but your still manipulating the image. I agree that for press images, its over the top, very noticeable. But other than that I think people should should process how ever they want.

  • Brady Zieman

    i disagree. These photos represent the best in photojournalism, not art. At its best, journalism is supposed to (and rarely does) present an unbiased, dispassionate account of an event. Journalists should present facts, and assume readers are intelligent enough to draw valid conclusions… to form their own opinions. If an article on a specific issue is properly developed, researched and fact checked, and carries sufficient social importance, its emotional impact should be fairly obvious. To embellish a story in order to amplify its emotional impact is not only deceitful, its also lazy. The same is true of images. The bones of this photo are excellent; I didn’t need the photographer to amplify the drama of the lighting for me to feel infuriated by this photo.

    High Dynamic Range photography (a technique which these images likely employed – note the haloing around the swimmer) can be an excellent tool for tightening contrast in hard-to-photograph situations. It can also be used to create beautiful or surreal lighting effects in fine-art photography. It hasn’t been on the scene for too terribly long, but has become overused to the point where there will likely be a strong move away from its use as the market becomes over-saturated with such images. I hope this occurs quickly, at least in journalistic photography.

  • Bertil Lindgren

    Sorry but there is a few trix in the image the author shows as a good exampel, a high camera position make the subjec smaller. Long lens shortens the distances between barbwire and subject…. There is no such thing as a objective photo, the photo always communicate what the photog wants it to communicate. Photoshopping is not an issue, trust is.

  • superduckz

    If you can get a JPEG of this quality and level of alteration from the RAW straight out of your camera then it must be one HECK of a sophisticated device!