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.

  • Brittany Walsh

    Well this is the whiniest article I’ve read all day…

  • Lollerina

    followed by the most butthurt first comment

  •!/thelonelylights Adam Cross

    I’m of the opinion that – they took the photograph, how they choose to present it is up to them. Forcing our views and opinions onto them is a little silly. Some people like to process a lot and some don’t – it doesn’t make one better than they other, they’re just different.

  • Kathleen Grace

    What I most liked about earlier photography, particularly in LIFE magazine and National Geographic was how the photos felt lik you were right in the middle of the fray, they were imperfect but gave one a sense of action and a sense of place. These photos are too perfect – they’re good but too perfect. That’s what was so amazing about photography, capturing moments, movement and energy in the heat of the moment. These don’t have that, they all feel staged.

  • Jared Monkman

    I think it’s valid. The amount of post production applied to a photo really affects how we perceive it, so when it comes to contests, there should be some standard.

  • Albert Zablit

    It’s very actual, in my opinion, Brittany. Not so much the use of Photoshop itself, but how far is too far. Where you see whining, I see questioning.

  • Us Photog PS User

    Very legitimate points … doesn’t National Geographic (for example) ONLY accept the RAW right from the camera images from their photographers? And the contest mentioned with that first image – NO ONE from the U.S. even placed in the top 10? :-/

  • Eric Larson

    i disagree with this article – i don’t mind a little bit of manipulation – and i understand the reasons for it —- also, in the age of film there was plenty of manipulation – look at ansel adams’ starting point, and his finished products – no one blasts him for “deceiving” anybody —- additionally, a digital camera (as well as film) “sees” different than the human eye, so no matter what, there’s going to be “some” manipulation going on, its only a question of “how much” —- i find with my photos, i always seem to nudge the brightness, contrast, vib and sat a little bit – it makes them a little more “real” – because SOOC the images look darker or lighter, less contrasty, and blander than the way i saw it with my own two eyes..

  • Albert Zablit

    It’s not a matter of forcing rather than understanding why we go to such extents to promote a message or situation. Different as they may be, they clearly are pushing the envelope of what we’re willing to consider “realistic”, the question is why?

  • Matt

    That’s a synchronized swimmer, not a “synchronized diver.” Even the photo description on the WPP site gets it right.

  • Eric Larson

    i’m of the opinion that there is no such thing as an entirely “objective” photograph – its an impossible standard to acheive

    and thus, we should simply accept that as fact and simply own up to our own biases..

  • Michael Zhang

    Thank you for pointing that out Matt :) We’ve corrected the text.

  • Marko Stavric

    The key line in your article is “what I think it should look like.” Is what you perceive the truth? The human eye is limited. Just because we may not see something with our eyes does not mean that it does not exist.

    The moment the shutter is released, the light that is captured is modified. It is modified by the aperture, the speed of the shutter, the filter, the optics, the mirrors, the built in settings of the camera. It’s modified a number of times before it even reaches the hard disk.

    Photography has always been expression of perception. What you think it should look like may not be equal to what the photographer thinks it should look like.

  • Jason

    Dodge and burn is not a “photoshop manipulation technique”. It is a process that has been used in film photography for years. For years photojournalists like James Nachtwey, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, and so many others have experimented with different films, cameras, and developing techniques to achieve different stylized looks to enhance the drama, emotional appeal, and feel of an image.

    Digital RAW files are flat, contrastless, toned down images. Applying contract, color correction, dodge and burn, and sharpening are NOT digital manipulation. At this point they are necessary steps in a professionals workflow to achieve a finished product.

    Technology changes creative arts constantly, resisting this and urging creatives to pigeon hole themselves into a box in order to maintain a status quo only holds us all back.

  • Cloudsuck

    Judge only the original I say. Period. Or have separate categories.

  • Jeremy Lawrence

    This article as does just about any article that bemoans digital enhancement, shows a basic ignorance of the history of photography. Most B+W news photos from days gone by had darkroom jiggery-pokery applied to them in exactly the same way.
    Photography has always recorded reality via the filter of the photographer’s vision and always will. The specific techniques of how things are done may change, but photographers usually try to make a shot look good.

    Warming filters, using the wrong film, using a film with certain characteristics, fill -in flash, dodging and burning in the darkroom is no different from anything shown above and the biggest manipulation of all, using B+W is never objected to by those who dislike altered images.

  • Steve

    I am really torn on this particular issue but one thing I am sure of – this post was not whiny in the slightest. This is an important issue that goes to the heart of photographic integrity whatever you may think.

  • Cindy

    Back in the darkroom days, we dodged and burned. I’ve even removed a distracting smile with touchup paint and detail brush. Matthew Brady was known to rearrange bodies on Civil War battlefields. Margaret Bourke White would rearrange people in bread lines. The concept of images had changed and evolved over the years. Manipulation has always been done with whatever tools existed at the time. All the photoshop in the world won’t save a bad image. My tastes generally run to less digital manipulation, but I don’t know that what we are now seeing is wrong or bad.

  • Mike Avina

    How is any of this substantially and meaningfully different than traditional darkroom techniques that change the range of values or placement of values?

  • Jeremy Lawrence

    Nat Geo pictures are certainly not raw images. They are processed and tend to look like the old film styles they used to favour with rich colours and deep blacks.
    They may check images against raw files to see that no content alteration has take place as that would not be appropriate for most of their content.

  •!/thelonelylights Adam Cross

    the moment happened, the moment was real, therefore the photograph is realistic – presentation is just a matter of taste and opinion.

  • Giovanni Savino

    The News business is more about entertainment today than it has ever been. In the constants struggle to sell newspapers and stay afloat in the ratings, there is a constant quest for an extraordinary visual experience to engage an increasingly jaded audience. I think that might be one of the reasons why many picture editors start favoring photographs with “cinematic” and even “surrealistic” qualities, versus the realistic, concise and “simply emotional” visual reports like one can find in the archives of past photo-journalism publications.

  • Eric Larson

    i wish i could click the ^ sign six more times to this response!!

  • Cyndi De Rossi

    I agree with this post, but perhaps I’m a bit of a purest? lol. I just think there’s a point when a photo is manipulated to such a state of perfection it actually becomes more a piece of digital art rather than a photograph. And, I wonder, are we leaving a true and accurate record of our world for future generations if everything is manipulated to perfection?

  • Jeremy Lawrence

    Yet all of these images could easily be straight from camera jpegs or taken on film. With no PS involved.
    A lot of complaining about nothing going on in this article.

  • Eric Larson

    we need someone who worked in film development to chime in — i didn’t, i’m only just now getting into photography – but i’ve been told you’d get done with your shooting, and turn in your rolls of film – all kinds of stuff happened in there, but no one “knew” about it – the guys doing the film developing would be looking at the film and monitoring how it turned out, did it look “right” – nowadays, we’ve done away with “film development” but the “development” hasn’t gone away – now the photographer himself is doing the development (ie – post processing) – but the same thing is happening..

  • Brian Smith

    If you want to go “Hollywood” on synchronized swimming you can’t top Martin Short & Harry Shearer…BEAUTY SELLS!

  • Jeremy Lawrence

    Absolutely. I started with film and did my own darkroom work so nothing has really changed for me except for the lack of smelly fingers and squinty eyes as you emerge into daylight. :-)

  • Igor Ken

    Totally agreed on the main point… I’d even make the photojournalistic contest have some sort of “no retouching rule”

  • Jeremy Lawrence


  • miccullen

    Ansel Adams was a photojournalist?

  • Eric Larson

    thank you for your response sir :)

  • Brian Smith

    World Press Photo Instagrammy Awards

  • Ringo Paulusch

    I don’t like the skin tones of the manipulated version.

  • Ken Elliott

    I shoot digital and film today. I “manipulate” the film image by my choice of film type (B&W, Color, fast vs slow ISO), aperture, shutter, camera position, lens, choice of developer (chemical), time, temp, choice of paper (contrast, texture, size), burning/dodging, etc. Nobody really cared until they heard the word “Photoshop”.

  • Michael Rasmussen

    And don’t forget the stains on your clothes from splashed chemistry

  • Ariel Caudis

    The problem is latest sensors and pro cams, are made to take photos at hyperreality
    level, losing true reality, and the warmth for example film has. But people seems to like it and need to achieve that kind of photo to be considered good.
    Nice photo background, nice composition but the photo itself, to me, looks soulless.

  • Zos Xavius

    Ahhh…that’s all well and good. Creativity is fine. We like creativity. I think these are all horribly over processed, especially the first picture, but that’s my personal opinion. These are supposed to be PRESS photos though. That’s what really should be at the core of this debate. PRESS photos are supposed to be as unaltered as possible. These “pictures”, as the author of this article so eloquently points out are so heavily processed that they have taken on the appearance of being unreal. Thus no longer being suitable for anything resembling ethical journalism in my opinion. There should be no embellishment or manipulation. Period. Plenty excellent photographers have been fired or let go from their newspaper jobs because they went overboard with their processing in the eyes of the publishing newspaper. One rather famous case was a picture of a house fire that obviously had some serious tweaking. It still at least resembled reality though, unlike these overly fake looking pictures. Pictorialism has a time and place in photography, but not in press photos and not in journalism. If you disagree that’s fine, but news organizations have established rules for a reason because their integrity and reputation are at stake. I, for one, am deeply saddened that such tragically over processed photographs were selected. Without all the lame instagramming of them, they might have been decent.

  • Michael Rasmussen

    It takes a trained photo-aware person to note the lighting and color issues you describe in your article. The naive or normal viewer is only aware of a strong or weak impact.

    The photographers have (or seem to have) strengthened their visual statements in post. This is no different that a pithy headline and strong, tone setting, opening sentence in a written piece. Their processing of the digital image sets or enhances the mood message of the displayed scene.

    This is as fundamental a technique as selective focus, framing, and lens selection for field of view.

  • Zos Xavius

    And yet they look horribly over processed. What camera makes everything look like instagram in the jpeg engine without artsy filters being applied? How do you brighten all those faces without using a flash or applying massive post processing? And even if you do that, why would you take it so far to the point where it looks like a cheap movie poster? I’m surprised at the support these poor examples of processing gone wrong are generating. I don’t think there is anything artistic in unnatural lighting and overtly warm coloring. The 2nd shot of the lady would have been more powerful in its original color, or better yet in black and white. I think that what they did is detrimental and not representative of photojournalism.

  • Zos Xavius

    they don’t get it. photojournalism clearly has no integrity left.

  • Jeremy Lawrence

    These images look no different from shots taken on slide film, which can vary enormously in look and feel.
    This complaint about an over-manipulated look in news photography has only really arisen since raw files started being used and people suddenly started thinking [erroneously] that these were somehow more truthful than a developed image.
    The daftest thing of all is that nobody would ever complain about photographers using Kodak instead of Fuji film or worst of all B+W which looks NOTHING like reality as is seen somehow as real photojournalism.

    I love B+W photography and do a lot of it but it’s way less real than say HDR which is always moaned about, despite HDR [when done well] being the most accurate way to record a scene. In the sense it look the most like how we see reality.

  • Mansgame

    Sorry, this is overprocessed. You can’t deny that or tell us to not believe our eyes.

  • Mansgame

    If they like over-processed pictures that’s fine. We can also say it’s distracting.

  • ramy

    when i saw the best prize this year, the light in it looks too good to be real , only probably if shot under a orchestrated studio setup , which wasn’t obviously possible in a war zone. although heavily edited , still the image has kept its authenticity .

  • DamianM

    Again I agree with you.
    “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” comes to play.

  • DamianM

    “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”

    All of these images are being overdone.

    This isn’t about creativity, this
    is about trying to be as objective as possible with the medium of

  • Felipe_Paredes

    I agree, but being an amateur constantly learning, I realize that photography is like cooking… and some of this pictures had too much pepper.

  • Jack

    ‘overprocessed’ is an entirely subjective term. So he actually can deny it.

  • Zos Xavius

    you certainly live up to your name