How much to clone?

Reversing the conquest of 1453. Dammit, missed the reflection!

The newest version of Photoshop just started shipping, and one of its most discussed features is the new Content-Aware Fill. For those who don’t know, this tool essential lets you remove large objects from photographs or even fill in blank space around an image’s edge with convincing background. A demonstration may be found here; note particularly the large dirt road instantly and convincingly removed from a sagebrush flat. This has long been possible in Photoshop to some extent, but it was tricky, problematic and time-consuming. With the new release, this business just got a lot easier. And consequently, it’s not hard to find people claiming that honest photography is now dead.

As usual, reports of photography’s death are greatly exaggerated. Anti-Photoshop purists have been on about this stuff for a long time. But in my opinion, many photographers are awfully quick to dismiss concerns regarding honesty in imagery out of hand. based on what I hear from non-photographers, people’s trust in photography is nose-diving, and this is exceptionally true in regard to landscape photography. The general subject of ethics in digital processing is huge and deserves quite a bit of deliberation; no doubt I will write more on the subject down the road. But this question of Content-Aware Fill, and cloning generally, makes a nice starting point. How much is it acceptable to remove from a landscape image?*

My personal continuum of ethics here is as follows:

Dust spots and flare: What, are you kidding? Of course I’ll remove this stuff. That’s one of the great delights of living in the digital era. A few mouse clicks beats the hell out of the hours I spent spot-toning prints in high school, with disappointing results. I’ve never heard anyone argue against this use of the technology.

Contrails: Real purists might have a problem here, but I’m still pretty comfortably in this territory. Contrails are a nuisance that photographers can’t even predict, let alone control. They’re also temporary. Changing a whole sky full of them would give me pause, but I don’t think their removal constitutes a dishonest misrepresentation of a landscape. (Thankfully, I’ve been lucky enough not to have this problem much; I can only think of one image where I’ve ever removed a contrail. But I doubt I’d hesitate to do so to save a good image.)

Trash: The best technique here is surely the Five-Fingered Clone Tool (i.e. get off you butt and go clean up the trash!). But this may not be possible. For instance, in this shot of Sumela Monastery in eastern Turkey, I digitally removed some rubbish at the base of the wall, which was inaccessible, to say the least. Again, litter is temporary, thank God. If I were shooting a photo essay on the management of Turkey’s national parks, it would certainly be more honest to leave it in. But since I’m more interested in capturing the architecture, the history and the beauty of the valley, I felt it was alright for the trash to go.

Fences, power lines, trails and roads: This is where I would generally draw the line, where touch-ups start moving to active misrepresentation. Power lines were the bane of my existence when I was trying to photograph Turkish mountain villages; they’re everywhere, and they’re generally the only jarring note in otherwise gorgeous scenes. But they’re there and they’re not going away (plus they greatly improve the lives of the folks who actually live there). A lot of the appeal of landscape photographs is the idea that one could potentially go where the photo was shot and see essentially the same scene. Like any photographer, I’ll look for a viewpoint that eliminates such distractions, but removing them digitally is a step too far for me. The powerlines will prevent this photo of the highland village of Taş Köprü from ever being a real portfolio shot, but I’ll live with it, or maybe go back and try to find a better perspective. I wouldn’t demonize a photographer who opted to remove some of these things to save a shot, but I would argue that he ought to disclose the fact.

People: Depends, but generally, no. If one is going to show a landscape as being wild and unpopulated, I don’t feel it’s too much to ask that the photographer actually manage to shoot a frame without a body in it. In the places I tend to shoot, this is really not a problem, but it’s a real issue for folks who photograph national parks. On the other hand, if one’s goal is to document something like architecture or say, geologic processes (perhaps geyser action in Yellowstone), it might be appropriate. I might consider removing the two visible heads in this shot of the mimber and icon in Aya Sofya. But I’d want strong justification for removing people from a frame, even if they are obnoxious tourists.

Vehicles, buildings, ski lifts, nuclear power plants, &c: No. Find somewhere else to take pictures (unless you’re after that sort of thing, such as Bruce Percy’s lovely images of Torness Power Station).

What about natural objects? Plenty of people will remove branches or weeds sticking into the edges of a frame, and I don’t see much harm in that, though if you’re doing it a lot or removing large objects you might consider taking more care with your framing. But what about other things? I’ve recently seen some photos in critique forums where it was suggested that the comp might be improved by removing the moon. (There have been some well-publicized scandals when photographers added a moon, but subtraction doesn’t come up as much.)

I suppose my overarching philosophy here, such as it is, is to use as light a hand as possible when it comes to removing anything from photos. I certainly want to be comfortable telling any viewer if I’ve cloned something out. And while I might be willing to do a bit of cloning to rescue an otherwise excellent shot, I don’t want to use it as a crutch for poor framing and inattention in the field.

Other philosophies? As I mentioned above, there’s certainly room for more or less liberal approaches depending on the intended use of the image. My approach assumes an aesthetic (i.e. not purely documentary) ideal, but with a desire to stay grounded in the real world. How much would you be comfortable removing (or knowing that a photographer removed) for a beautiful image? Dust? An ugly cloud? An unfortunate tree? Minarets on Hagia Sophia? An interstate highway? Albuquerque?

*Note that adding things is not under discussion for me. I have yet to imagine a situation in which I would be at all comfortable adding anything to the shot that was not there in the field.


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