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.

  • JJ Black

    Oh man, why isn’t this in the Petapixel article? Totally should be. The original photo looks much better, less “overly dramatic”.

  • ennuipoet

    It’s a brilliant photo, and I respect the photographer’s choices in post processing. Is the photo slightly more processed than I personally might have done? Yes. But I wasn’t there to see what the original scene looked like, I don’t know what the photographer did in post and in the end, I didn’t take the photo. Nothing here substantially alters the image in a factual way.

    Also, regarding the second photo, I’ve shot in very similar lighting conditions ( ) this is SOOC and looks like it was filtered.

  • Dave

    The winning photo looks suspiciously like the many staged photos from the Middle East. Faked photos are a staple of the propaganda industry there, and a few legit media outlets have been caught using them. Google it.

  • Eric Larson

    agreed – the orig is actually better

    far better


  • mdrewpix

    There is nothing even remotely unusual about any of these photos. The winner had a pop of fill-flash coming into it from the left side of the frame. Would it have been more “journalistic” if the flash had been mounted on the camera? Of course not. As far as the others go, the one in the landfill looks to me like an end-of-day shot, a bit of sunlight diffused through clouds and maybe a bit of dust. The pool shot looks exactly like it should.
    There’s no reason why news photos can’t look good as well as tell a story. And if there was any manipulation in these, it easily falls within acceptable bounds. Stop trying to look for controversy where none exists.

  • mdrewpix

    You’d best do a little reading up on Life and National Geographic. A good portion of the early photos were staged in both publications and the great Life photographer W. Eugene Smith regularly used ferrocyanide bleach and spotting ink on his prints to create his version of “reality.”

  • jay

    Apart from this contest, most of the people in photo sharing sites retouch their street photos like this. You might have seen tons of street photos of fashionable ladies with all bright light on their face and with dim background :-), especially from Regent street of London, Tokyo and Hongkong. Photography cliche :-)


    Sorry, but the faux-tographers who are defending post-processing are the ones who rely on it. Try taking good snaps right out of the camera (it can be done!) instead of depending on software like PS and HDR to do your work for you, and maybe someday you too will realize that real life always looks better unmanipulated.

  • Roberto Vincitore

    I really like petapixel but this article is a shame. it’s clear that the author never opened a book about history of photography. this is an article of someone that don’t understands what photography and photojournalism means. shame.

  • Albert Lee

    As a former custom printer and digital toner…whether digital or analog, toning served 3 main purposes for me, directing the viewers eye, bringing the tonal range into what I remembered the scene and effect. The thing with Photojournalism is that it is a profession based on showing the truth. So just as the heavy toning “hand of god” was frowned upon in traditional pj, the same holds in digital… its all about the intent. Was the intent to show the truth or “doll” up an image like an advertisement would. Personally I hate being “sold” the news

  • nikonian

    The processing is too excessive these days but to say that post is bad in all instances for press photography is an incorrect statement under certain circumstances. One must remember that while cameras are getting closer and closer, our eyes are tuned to process contrast with a greater range than most dslrs and often what comes out to be a raw file is not what the actual light is. Luckily some of the latest dslrs have closed the gap but blacks still aren’t black and the subtle light on the face isn’t being picked up. You don’t know how off a 5Dmk3 or D3s is until you use a hasselblad HD40. Jeremy mentioned slide and while E-6 has fallen by the wayside there is NO dslr that can reproduce some of the subtleties that E-6 can. If it wasnt for the sharpness and focal length all of the above could have been shot slide and not looked much different as it picks up details like a faint light that a dslr still cannot.

    The above are obviously over-processed but often it is post that can make a photo closer to reality than a raw will ever be.

  • Burnin Biomass

    Its a style. I was never a fan of shots with graduated filters myself.

    Some will like these, some will hate these. Thats the great thing about photography, you get to like what you like and hate what you hate.

  • William Long

    I learnt on film, shooting/selling my work 38 years ago. I suppose this author never really experienced how press photos, similar ones such as Pulitzer prize winning photos were produced, after the photographer had captured the shot on film (choosing the lens, the filter, the film, the composition), and then using yet more photographic tools, were then developed further in the darkroom – Allen time to move on, or better still go and educate yourself about the history of photography.

    tired and emotive topic. Yawn.

  • Adam Hourigan

    So what’s next? Ban flash? I mean, it wasn’t illuminated naturally was it? it’s a manipulation of the scene – it will look different depending on flash intensity, direction. It’s a photographic tool, as is the finishing tools. All those whining about the manipulations here have NEVER seen the MAgnum photos of the 70’s – or some Cartier-Bresson who had magicians in the darkroom focus the viewers attention on various parts of the frame. As soon as you make a lens choice, you alter the scenes perspective. You choose an exposure, you choose to highlight part of the scene. Photography is a subjective medium – and ill-informed articles like this do nothing.

  • DamianM

    It is over processed and not a subjective term.
    It is clearly bumped up in the computer.
    NO contest.
    Over processed and it needs to stop.

  • Jack

    Post processed != ‘overprocessed’.

    Clearly, the people who voted for these photos don’t share your opinion. Funnily enough,this is because opinions are… subjective.

    So, rather than trying to redefine words to fit your narrow worldview, just say you don’t personally like it and move on.

  • Jack

    ‘post processed’ and ‘overprocessed’ are two different things.

    One is an objective fact. It was either postprocessed or not.
    The other is your subjective opinion. Clearly, the judges didn’t agree with you. Funnily enough, this is because opinions are… subjective.

    So, instead of trying to redefine the English language to suit your narrow worldview, just say you don’t like it and move on.

  • Jack

    Gursky and his $4.38m (and $3.346m) would disagree with you.

  • Spongebob Nopants

    By using manipulated lighting and post effects the Journalist isn’t just presenting us with an image to think about. Rather, they are subtly prodding us what to think about the subject depicted in the image.
    Post processing to enhance emotion is a kind of stealth editorializing and attempt to influence opinion in a way that is benieth the notice of the viewer. The first image would be fine as an editorial illustration but not as objective reportage of a news event. It’s subtley deceptive and manipulative.

  • Justin Scott

    I for one am with you on this. There is a difference, an important difference, between art and journalism. There are times that the intercede but but matters is original intent.

    If I shoot with the intent that the photo be art, edited as such in Photoshop or through the use of special lenses like a LensBaby etc, then it probably shouldn’t qualify for a journalistic award.

    On the other hand, if I am shooting for the New York Times and the raw photo has the imagery and power to win at “fine art”, so be it. I feel that your suggestion of showing the raw file vs the finished file should be considered. Who knows, someone’s massively modified photo might still win based at least partially on the photo editing skills.

  • Erik Lauri Kulo

    Regarding Paul Hansen’s photograph it’s important to know that here in Sweden we have a less strict policy on retouching the photograph. Basically you can not remove or add anything that wasn’t there – object-wise. But you can dodge and burn it to hell and I see horrible examples every day in the newspapers. Anyhow, someone big as Paul Hansen could probably get away with much more than the one being shown above in the article. He is a well-respected photographer in Sweden.

  • Dustin Heim

    I don’t understand why so many people think this is whining. The argument is that photo journalism–not art photography– has an ethical duty to portray something with truth. Those images go beyond simple corrections to fix small uncontrollable flaws in the lighting, color, contrast and saturation.

    History is as full of false images from “photojournalists” as there have been scandalous politicians. The point is that if we are to continue placing high standards to the ethics and veracity of journalism, we need to place praise where it’s deserved.

    Art is wonderful. These images look great. HDR can look amazing when done well. Just call a pig a pig. Don’t put lipstick on it and call it a beauty queen.

  • Spongebob Nopants

    I wasn’t going to comment on the political realities relating to that photo or the country in which the photo contest was judged as it’s not quite relevant here – but you are right. Also what is relevant is that despite all that is happening in the world and that region at this time it was a little strange that so many of the top photos the judges picked this year were from an event that lasted only about a week and did comparitively little damage to life and property. I find it hard to believe that that was the most important thing that happened in 2012. And it’s interesting that several photos from one side of that event were deemed good enough by the judges while none from the other side were deemed good enough. It may very well be that the judges themselves used this contest to do a little editorializing of their own.

  • Spongebob Nopants

    I just want to add that even though they are horrible journalism they’re still great pictures. It’s just cruddy journalism because they blur the line between reportage and editorial in a way that wouldn’t be noticed by the average reader. They would all look great on a wall but don’t belong in a news outlet.

  • Gabriele Profita

    I don’t think so. I mean yes there’s photoretouching in darkroom but please don’t be so naive to say you can do the same and to the same extent of Photoshop. There’s a huge difference!

  • Antonio Olmos

    Really Spongebob, if that is your real name, Can you show us some of the good pics from the other side you are talking about? I mean you must have a few in mind? C’mon, send us some links?!!…

  • Jeremy Lawrence

    Overdone! By what criteria? All look like they could have been shot on film and if they had no-one would have said a word about manipulation.

  • Jeremy Lawrence

    Funny as all the shots look like they could be straight out of a camera to me. Pretty easy to replicate all those looks without going near a computer.

    All you are doing with this sort of argument is arguing against what photography is and by your strange criteria is all film over processed as it was developed after being taken out of the camera?

  • Gregor rogerG

    You’re right, I mostly agree with you. But also consider that what appears “unreal” to you might appear perfectly real to someone else (e.g. a non-photographer eye).

  • Jeremy Lawrence

    Uh, you certainly can. Compositing and complex retouching existed long before PS ever existed. The process is more accessible, that’s all.

  • Jeremy Lawrence

    But the ‘manipulated’ version looks more like a raw file than the other version. The ‘unmanipulated’ version looks like there has been more done to it in my view, which kind of makes a mockery of the complaints about it being over cooked.

  • LDS

    If you look at the sides of the faces in shadow in the first pic, the light source at front is clearly camera left. It is an underexposed shot with a liberal application of “fill-light,” which often gives the apparent illustrated look.

  • Jeremy Lawrence

    I learnt on film and could produce beautiful slides and yet still think the article is much ado about nothing.
    Oh by the way HDR is more like how we see than any other type of photography and ALL photography is manipulation, simply change the angle you shoot and you can tell a very different story.

  • Jeremy Lawrence

    You somehow seem to think B+W is okay, even though we see in colour. Now that is far, far greater manipulation than using a warming filter or a tweak of white balance, yet you support that. Doesn’t make much sense really if you think about it.

  • LDS

    An excellent counter-example are the D-Day photos of Robert Capa. Some of the images demonstrate extreme dodging – to the point of utter unreality (look for a landing boat image with a soldier who should be silhouetted, but whose face is visible) – but we tolerate it because the moments Capa was documenting matter more than any ideal of fidelity. We recognise that the light has not been accurately portrayed, but accept that the expression on a young soldier’s face overrides that. The shadows have been lifted in the first, colours adjusted in the second, and lighting ratios tweaked in the third (maybe – we don’t really know anything about the circumstances).The crucial question is: do these images misrepresent reality in any crucial way? Murabyashi is evidently a purist when it comes to processing (google him), but nothing here is extreme.

  • Emil Nyström

    Honestly, alot of theese pictures looks like a hasselblad file do directly from hasselblads Phocus software.

  • Roberto Manetta

    No wonder,I know lot of “new” wildlife photographers who are shooting:
    The first day Giraffes,tomorrow some Airons flying then a nice sunset.
    At the end..all togheter in a so suggestive collage :-))

  • Stuart

    Good article

  • Lucas Cerro

    No matter how good the photographer and camera is, the camera will never capture an image like the human eye is able to perceive it. In the first photo the faces really look brighter than they should, but the photographer’s eye could clearly see the faces, whereas the photo, without manipulation, would show faces too dark to clearly perceive the range of emotions they demonstrate.

    Photo manipulation is necessary because the “reality” the photographer wants to express is not the “original photo from the camera”, but the instant in which he was present, and manipulation helps to communicate that to the viewers, who were not present.

  • Lucas Cerro

    That said, the last photo really looks over-manipulated. But judges in an international photo competition should be able to clearly identify that, and should take it into account before handing out prizes.

    I advocate photo manipulation, to an extent. And sending the originals along with the “final” version sounds like a great idea to me, as long as it’s to the jugdes only. Sending originals and finals to the wide audience is kind of asking for the contest to become a photo manipulation contest, because I honestly think that the public might focus more on the before-after differences than on the shot itself.

  • John Adkins

    Times change. Evolve or get left behind. I can’t say as I completely disagree but, I can say there are times when I see photos that have been (as you say) completely over edited that I actually really like. Its not my style, but if I like an image, I like it and don’t care how it was created.

    As long as the photographers aren’t breaking rules defined by the World Press or whoever happens to be sponsoring the event, then I see absolutely nothing wrong with editing their photos to improve the look however they see fit. I do think though, that there should be some defined, universal guidelines as to how much editing a photo can have as far as true journalism is concerned, but again, it people allow it, then I see no problems with photographers taking advantage of it.

  • J.R. Clubb

    Funny I was thinking the same. The first image looks like it was shot by Joey L!

  • Mad Paule’

    Instead of commenting on how it is done and how Photoshop is used there should be articles on how lame photojournalism has become…these photographs may have been manipulated but at least they don’t manipulate the story…people are manipulating the stories just to come up with a documentation or series of pictures and call it “photojournalism”…Any trivial issue gets supported by big words and then there is some photo-documentary on that. People did not use Photoshop in 60’s because it wasn’t there. Reality matters not the “effect”. Using Photoshop and changing Temperature is much better than Manipulating and sensationalism.

  • DamianM

    NO they don’t.

    that clarity bump is not found on film.
    That ultra noticeable dodging crosses the line and then the very apparent warming filter makes it look like a scene from ” O brother where are thou”, which was heavily modified in post to have the sepia look.

    If you really on the massive trickery to make “better” photographs then you seam to be lost in photoshop hell.

  • Stephen Benson

    Yeah, everyone here is discussing the less processed version.

  • DamianM

    your a lost cause.

  • DamianM

    The rules need to be looked at.

    Seems they overlooked this.
    Next thing you know someone will submit scene from iron man 3 And it will be accepted.

  • DamianM

    Now comparing the images one can see the amount of post that went into the original image.

  • Davin Ellicson

    Neither a Josef Koudelka silver print nor a cibachrome from Alex Webb looks like “reality” either.

  • Davin Ellicson

    I actually met Stepan by chance in an art museum in Krakow, Poland in 2010.