Adobe Photoshop in the newsroom

Photoshop® is the powerful image editing application created by Adobe®. It is essential software for the publication of news images. However, many of its capabilities are beyond the scope of producing news content. In fact, because its capabilities are so well known, the word "photoshop" has become a verb in our culture: "Can you photoshop out my wrinkles?" This can be problematic when it comes to the credibility of images in the news, so in the interest of transparency, below is a detailed description of how I use Photoshop and some of the ethical considerations accompanying its use:

These are treatments I typically apply with Photoshop, if necessary, to images used in the Herald:
  • Soft-proofing –  Images must be prepared for the offset printing process on newsprint. One must understand that photographs do not look exactly the same on the printed page as they do on a computer screen straight from the camera. The printing process does not allow for the same range of color and tones a camera is capable of producing. With that in mind, I can perform what is called a "soft proof" in Photoshop, which approximates what the image will look like on the printed page. I can then make necessary color and tonal corrections which will most accurately reflect the scene I originally photographed.
  •  Re-sizing – Digital images prepared for the web require down-sizing because images straight from the camera are very large in file size and would take a long time to load up as is.
  • Cropping – Perfect composition is not always possible, especially when shooting action. And sometimes you just can't get as close as you would like. Cropping an image can improve composition and remove unnecessary or distracting elements. To be clear, cropping does not involve changing anything within an image. It is simply a matter of trimming the image.
  • Color correction – most digital cameras do a pretty good job of removing undesirable color casts from images, casts which the human eye naturally compensates for. However, cameras are not perfect, and sometimes the color does not reflect the original scene. In those cases, it is part of my job to make sure the color accurately reflects what I photographed.
  • Tonal correction – this involves both lightness and contrast. I would love to say that every image I make is perfectly exposed, but it's unfortunately not the case. Sometimes the best moment might be a little too dark or a little too light, as lighting conditions can change from moment to moment. Also, print reproduction tends to flatten out tone and color, so some images need to have their contrast increased so they appear more snappy and realistic.
  • Minor selective toning – Photographers who were weaned on film and black-and-white printing know this as "burning" and dodging." It means to lighten or darken portions of an image to bring out details or tone down distracting highlights in an original image. Many photographers claim this is the beginning of the slippery slope towards unethical digital manipulation. However, one must understand the physics and mechanics of photography before participating in this debate. A straight exposure by a digital camera does not reproduce a scene the same way the human eye perceives it. The eye is much more sensitive to the range of light than is a camera. There are trade-offs when making a correct exposure. For example, when I make an exposure of that football player in the white jersey, I choose to retain detail in the jersey rather than render an overexposed, formless, white blob. Unfortunately, the straight exposure may render the face of that player beneath the helmet too dark. However, there is some detail, some information there. I can select and lighten only the face so you can see the expression I clearly saw when I looked through the viewfinder. While I may be altering the original image, I am merely bringing out detail – important detail – that was there all along. I stress "minor" because I do not make drastic tonal changes simply to create additional drama. Here is a good discussion of the practice and some guidelines for it.
  • Spotting – I try to keep my equipment clean, but the fact is, dust works its way onto the image sensor and onto lenses. It's perfectly ethical to remove dust spots with Photoshop.
  • Noise reduction – digital noise can be a problem with images shot in low light situations. Low light requires higher sensitivity settings on a digital camera. Technically-speaking, noise is the random variation of brightness or color information in images produced by the circuitry in the image sensor. People who have shot film will tell you it looks like grain, and just like film, the higher the sensitivity, the more grain in your images. While some digital noise is acceptable, high amounts of it can be distracting and unrealistic. Several companies produce software which can smartly minimize the effects of digital noise while maintaining image sharpness and detail. Again, it must be applied judiciously to maintain the accuracy of the scene.
  • Sharpening – this is a frequently misunderstood function. You cannot make an out-of-focus or blurry picture sharp with Photoshop. Don't tell me you saw it on CSI – that kind of image enhancement is pure fantasy. In digital imaging, sharpening refers to increasing the contrast along the edges in your image to enhance the appearance of sharpness. Most people don't realize it, but most consumer digital cameras automatically apply sharpening to every image. That's because most digital images are inherently soft due to filters over the digital photo sensors to prevent a striped optical effect called moire. Consumer cameras apply sharpening optimized for viewing on a computer screen. However, a professional photographer understands that the appropriate level of sharpening is dependent on image output, be it a computer screen, in newsprint, or as a machine print. I sharpen my photos differently for newspaper reproduction than I do for web pages.
That's it. This is what I never do or use:
  • Sandwich or composite multiple separate images – Some commercial or art photographers use a technique called HDR, or High Dynamic Range photography. By using separate images which are identical except for exposure, they can increase the range of light and detail rendered in an image by combining them. In photojournalism, the moment is sacred. Each and every image is a separate moment in time, even if they are visually identical. HDR is a no-no, unless a disclaimer explaining the technique is clearly presented. Have you seen those images that insert a moon from one image into another image to create something spectacular? Pretty cool. But it's not photojournalism.
  • Remove objects that were in the original image or add objects that weren't in the original image – NOT EVER. That telephone pole sticking out from behind a person's head? It was there. I should have seen it and moved to change my angle or composition and avoided the merger. But I didn't, so I will have to settle for imperfect reality if that image best tells the story. Got a great basketball shot, but it would have been better if the ball was in it? Too bad. It is supremely unethical to take the ball from another frame and add it. Simply put, it's a visual lie.
  • Re-touching – While dust removal is perfectly ethical, removing blemishes or imperfections from a person's face or from a scene is not. The first example used in this video is a perfect example of what not to do. Removing the trash from the ground is unethical in the context of news.  My pictures should reflect reality. Sorry, but I cannot remove a pimple or make you look younger. I am not a glamor photographer.
  • Change colors – I can change the sky to blue on a cloudy day, but that too would be a visual lie. I don't pump up color saturation, either, although sometimes I may actually pull back the saturation slightly in certain areas because some colors can cause the ink to block up in newsprint. Again, realism is the guiding principle.
  • Hyper-realistic sharpening or toningThis look has become very popular in magazine work. I'm sure you've seen it: portraits or fashion photography that has that ultra-crisp, gritty, almost "crunchy" appearance. It's a fad, but one art directors seek out. However, this stylistic application is not appropriate in the context of news.
  • Artistic filters – Photoshop has a myriad of artistic filters that can be applied to images for, well, a more artistic look. You can add grain to mimic the look of film. You can liquify, blur, pixelate, distort and stylize. You can add patterns, noise, and texture. There are any number of ways you can render an image. Again, all are unethical in the context of news.
Further, I try to maintain an archive of every original image I shoot. That way, if a question about authenticity ever comes up, I always have an original as a reference. Also, as a practice, any time I process a photograph, I always save the changes as an entirely new image file so I always have an original to go back to. In fact, my Nikon cameras have a feature called "image authentication" which adds a stamp in the form of metadata to every image I shoot. Nikon has software which can detect any changes made to an original image. I take authenticity very seriously.

That's pretty much the low-down. In the context of news, Photoshop is used for image optimization, not enhancement. Here is a statement of principle from the National Press Photographers Association on the topic of digital manipulation. I adhere to this. Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts.


  1. Scott, what about red-eye reduction?

  2. Well, Eddie, red-eye is not something a professional photographer typically has to deal with because we avoid the conditions that produce it – chiefly, direct on-camera flash.

    However, it is a condition we frequently encounter with reader-submitted photographs and photos taken by staff with point-and-shoot cameras. In that case, we correct it because it is an artificially induced condition. Essentially, I would consider it to be an ethical color correction to more accurately portray the scene as the photographer saw it.

    Perhaps a future blog about the evils of direct on-camera flash is in order!


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