The Digital Journalist
If You Think Dodging and Burning is a Problem Now, Just Wait
October 2003

by Dirck Halstead

In his column last month, Ken Irby of The Poynter Institute commented on the revocation by The North Carolina Press Photographers Association of prizes awarded to photographer Patrick Schneider. The prizes were revoked because the Association felt that Schneider had influenced "the reality" of his photographs by darkening areas.

As Ken Irby pointed out, this causes a lot of consternation on the part of photographers, because darkroom techniques have traditionally permitted these kinds of practices for decades. In fact, some of the most important photojournalists of our time, from W. Eugene Smith onwards, have prided themselves on their ability as master printers that would bring their images to life as they imagined when they pushed the shutter button.

I personally have never had an ethical problem with dodging and burning. Looking at Patrick Schneider's offending images, I agree that removing the entire background from the photo of the grieving firefighters moves into the realm of image manipulation, since it is doubtful that the total removal of the background could have been done with conventional darkroom methods. However the other pictures in this set do not cross this line as far as I am concerned.

But before the NPPA takes on the task of redefining what is permissible or not in dodging and burning, there needs to be an understanding of the direction technology is now taking that may have an enormous impact on these discussions.

First, let's go back to how "reality" has been defined by news photographers over the past century. If you take the proposition that an "actual" field of view that the human eye sees is approximated by a 28mm lens on a 35mm camera, any widening or narrowing of that perspective is "unnatural." Yet, up through the 1950s a vast majority of news photographs were taken on a 4x5 Speed Graphic, using either a 127mm or 135mm lens.

These lenses approximated a 50mm lens on a 35mm, hence the name "normal."

Thus, it could be argued that the photographers who took these pictures were making choices in composition that did not actually represent what they saw with the naked eye.

Then, they often added flash. As far as I know God has not created a strobe that has been implanted in our brain. Further choices in film had impact. Unless you are a dog, chances are you don't see in black and white. The most popular black and white film up until the 50s was an orthomatic emulsion that had the effect of lightening skin tones and darkening skies. When Peter Bogdnovitch made his Academy Award winning movie "The Last Picture Show" about a small town in Texas in the early 1950s, his Director of Photography used an orthomatic emulsion to catch the feel of how photography looked then. In the mid 50s, professionals and amateurs moved to panchromatic emulsions like Tri X that had a much more neutral palate. So how the camera recorded light changed as emulsions changed. Any photographer who worked for a newspaper in the first half of the century will remember that airbrushes were routinely used on backgrounds to make photographs "more readable" in newsprint.

Photographers, trying to hold onto the integrity of their images, often used dodging and burning to avoid the dreaded airbrush.

With the arrival of the 35mm camera in photojournalism came many more choices available for photographers in the acquisition of their images. Now you could distort reality using ultra wide-angle lenses (remember the fish eye?), and compress spatial relationships with long telephotos. Suddenly we could see in ways that you never could using a Speed Graphic or a Rolleiflex. Yet, nobody really questioned the ethics of these distortions of visual reality.


With the arrival of Photoshop, many photographers and editors suddenly started to lose their ethical compass. The most famous early example was National Geographic Magazine moving a pyramid to make for a better composition. "A Day In The Life of America" which was intended to present the best that photojournalists could produce, decided to add a moonrise above a cowboy's head because it looked better on the cover.

And then of course, there is the famous example of Time Magazine darkening the complexion of OJ Simpson. In short order photographers and even editors found that they ignored "reality" at their peril. The most infamous recent example was the photograph that was digitally manipulated by LA Times photographer Brian Walski in Iraq. Generally, the ethical standard on manipulation has been clearly understood by photojournalists. You simply may not remove or add elements to a photograph that were not there. Do it, and you get fired, and have a really hard time finding another job.

However, the issue of dodging and burning, which harkens back to the old days of wet darkrooms never really has been a big issue. This was considered to be "artistic license" and in many cases was encouraged.

But suddenly the gods of political correctness have descended in North Carolina, saying "you can't do that any more!" Well, I've got news. We are just arriving at the tip of the ethical iceberg.

Probably most photographers never think about what goes on in their innocent-looking film scanner. If you are using Canon's high-end model, what is going on inside is nothing less than dodging and burning. Shadow areas are opened up, highlights and toned down.

This is a DEFAULT feature in the scanner.

Now, Nikon's new high-end professional digital camera takes that dodging and burning and puts it right into the camera. Meanwhile, you haven't seen anything yet. Hewlett Packard has come up with a new algorithm program they call "Adaptive Lighting Technology" which is not only capable of dodging and burning in camera, but can be applied to fundamentally change the way light works. Imagine being able to shoot the Golden Gate Bridge at high noon, and the camera being able to change that scene to dawn or dusk, moving all shadows and highlights in ratio. What we are talking about here are CAMERAS that can turn the rankest amateur into Ansel Adams without the darkroom.

Just as 35mm with its wide choices of optics changed the way photographers saw "reality" these new programs will create new opportunities in how we record light. In the process a lot of the guidelines we now take for granted will evolve in unexpected ways.

Photojournalism may be coming to a major cross roads. On one hand, we have what have been considered traditional methods and personal tastes, butting into political correctness and new awareness and sensitivity to how photographs are perceived, while at the same time technology is changing the physical parameters and capabilities of the medium. These are all serious issues and they will need to be confronted very soon. In North Carolina this process has just started.

© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher, The Digital Journalist