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Volcano picture erupts modern darkroom dilemma

Steve Russell - Staff Photographer

We hate it!

This picture from Reuters dropped into the Star at 4:45 pm on a Friday. 

Looking at a picture on the wire, we are wowed by the image until that little nagging voice in the back of our head creeps in, questioning the image. And when the picture advisory crossed the wires, it leaves us a little disappointed.

The culprit this time? Toning.

There is no way for every newspaper or wire service to be everywhere and have every angle covered. That is why third party pictures might be sought out from breaking news pictures of events from time to time.

The Good: We have a picture.  The bad?  We have to bank our reputations on that image.

Iceland's recent volcanic eruption placed Reuters in that position.

One of the most striking pictures out of Iceland was taken by farmer Ólafur Eggertsson's wife (her name unavailable currently, the picture was originally credited to him), which eventually was distributed worldwide by Reuters. 

A sharp photo editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, Wade Laube, had some doubts about the image.

"One picture stood out from all of the others — so much so it was the clear choice for our coverage in the Herald. Well, we wanted it to be but something about it didn’t seem quite right," Laube writes on his blog.

Laube and the Herald decided to put in a call to Reuters Singapore to ask about the image. By the time he called, Reuters had already begun to seek out Eggertsson to retrieve a raw (un-enhanced) file. In the wait for that picture the Herald decided to use a different picture in their first edition. The original was obtained by Reuters and the Herald used the new version on the front of their second edition and Reuters sent out an Advisory letting clients know that "an updated, correctly toned version immediately follows this advisory."


A comparison between the two images, original is on the left and toned on the right, the date stamp on the bottom of the original has been cropped out. 

Gary Hershorn, Reuters' News Pictures Editor for North America, says that Reuters typically does not like to move unsourced third party images, but they do come along at times that need to be sent. "It is our policy to put ‘Quality from Source‘ when sending user generated images. We continued to try and contact the farmer and were successful and acquired the original image which we sent on the wire"

News organizations are always on guard against images that circulate after natural disasters. Some agencies got burned after the Haitian earthquake as images filled the social media web. Many of the images were from the Chinese earthquake two years ago.

This picture? A Reuters' TV freelancer in Iceland acquired the image from the paper and sent it to Reuters TV in Stockholm, who passed it on to Berlin who passed it onto Reuters Pictures Berlin. 

Hershorn says in the investigation of the volcano picture, they found it on an Icelandic newspaper web site and it resembled the original file. A second day of digging revealed that the picture did pass through the hands of someone at the paper and that version was toned and ended up distributed to Reuters, Zuma, Getty and a few other agencies. 

Screen shot 2010-04-20 at 9.50.17 PM
Photo on the website from the Icelandic newspaper site. 

Why the toning was done is still a mystery, it might have been what the file looked like after a press curve was applied. 

What exactly happened with the toning, and if it is acceptable, is constantly the subject of debate in the photojournalism community.

But for the most part, news organizations do not manipulate images, whether this be while taking the picture or afterwards in Photoshop.

The Toronto Star's Code of ethics reads, "Altering the content of documentary photographs through technology is not allowed. ……. What may seem innocuous to some inevitably leads to an erosion of public confidence. Manipulation aimed at correcting technical deficiencies, such as burning, dodging, spotting for dust, noise reduction, contrast and colour balancing, are acceptable. That said, these adjustments and enhancements should be used with great care and should not alter the integrity of the image."

Just a little sidebar here.

Photojournalists take great care in ensuring that the photograph is made in camera. The better the image coming out of the camera means that we spend little time tinkering with the picture in Photoshop. Reuters' Lucas Jackson talks about how he got this picture. 

Lucas Jackson blogs on how he got this picture with a 125 second exposure.

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I like the original version better. The toned version looks weird.

Photographs will always be interpretations. Lucas Jackson, you're not capturing what was there, you're capturing your interpretation of what happened by choosing to set up your camera in a certain way. It would have been possible to capture the Iceland photo on slide film with different colour temperature slide film, and process it in a way to enhance colours and contrast. Photography will always be an interpretation. What about black and white film? When's the last time your eyes saw in black and white? Even by just using black and white film you've made a choice to present it in a way. Since photography started there's been image manipulation, and there will always be. Even the crop you might choose manipulates the viewer into thinking something that he may not have thought of if that crop was, even ever so slightly, different.

We can all do this with our family photos using consumer software. The digital camera itself is half computer and the rest is done in a regular computer. I'd be less worried about "over the top" toning of source images, than about images that crop out relevant information or are manipulated to put in things that weren't there.

The Star's policy permits burning and dodging? Good luck finding anyone under 40 who knows what that means, or who has ever seen an enlarger.

Ummm, it's pretty obvious that the "toned" image (correct name for this widely used technique is HDR) was post processed. I am absolutely shocked that some professionals working in the media field didn't recognize this...

Seeing used to be believing. Not so anymore.

Was not the Reuters usage of Photoshop "enhanced" images already a reason of the scandal:

I wish the music industry had similar standards to CD mastering. What we see in the toned picture reminds me of the dynamic compression on modern CDs - they sound as the toned picture looks - artificial, without nuance.

it looks like HDR, the cheapest digital photography trick in the book. the fact that it went through so many hands, making it out into the wild without being properly exposed (guffaw) is really sad.

@ Andrew

He wasn't capturing what was there? So what's in the photograph wasn't really there?

While one can appreciate your rehash of Susan Sontag's arguments that choices to "alter" photographs are really just a matter of degree because such choices occur at every stage in photographic production, surely you don't mean to imply that all concerns about photographic manipulation are equivalent (e.g. adding something to a photograph via Photoshop that wasn't really there vs. choice of film). Sure, photographs are "interpretations" - I think this is the point of the article. A choice needs to be made about whether one forges photographs or not. Choices about toning are probably not as disconcerting as this, but minimizing out-of-camera production is meant to set a standard that minimizes the potential of the more problematic photographic "interpretations."

SHOULDN'T be surprised. pretty regular, i reckon. look at how NASA photos are enhanced....

I don't see what the big deal is. Oh no, the colour of the picture is slightly different, the picture is a lie! It would have been a bigger deal if someone photoshopped smoke and ash into it.

As Andrew noted, is the Star okay with black and white photos? I see them in newspapers from time to time and they look absolutely nothing like what I see in real life.....

HDR, high dynamic range photography. You need to take multiple exposures of what you are photographing and the use software to piece them together. You end up with correct exposures for every tonal range. And you generally need to use a tripod so everything lines up

this is NOT an HDR image, because the ash cloud is constantly moving and you would never be able to line up the different exposures. It's over saturated and someone cranked the contrast way up.

As if words were only ever offered as the highest possible objective fidelity. gimme a rest.

The comment about press curves possibly being applied is a relevant one. Because of the nature of newsprint being a dull, sponge-like surface, upon which most photographic images lose detail and become "muddy" or "washed out", most newspaper images are converted in pre-press prep to a higher contrast, sharpened, more saturated version that compensates for the deficiencies of the paper stock, and for the expected dot gain on the press. It is conceivable that an image was incorrectly converted and distributed.

That said, it is too much of a stretch to look at this image and attribute the lack of fidelity to a technical error. In my opinion, someone pushed this image grotesquely in the processing.

Many people must have realized this photo was enhanced. I immediately saw that it looked artificial and assumed that someone had used a "watercolour" effect in Photoshop. I don't do much work with digital photos, and if I spotted this, many people must have.

Thank you, Paul, for correcting the notion put forth by a few that this is an HDR image, and for defining what HDR is.

I don't think it is fair to compare this to the Adnan Hajj controversy.
To me it looks like Reuters picked up the picture and moved it while trying to find the original file.
The picture came over the wire without EXIF data. So there is no info on the camera that shot the image or the technical data.
A old digital camera could get you raw results like the first frame that moved, but, it looked a lot like Photoshop to me.
Reuters is at a disadvantage because they are a very popular wire service.
And as the pictures feed in each day to the picture desks at newspapers there is a visible timeline.
You can go back and look very easily and see what came in.
An advisory as you can see in the blog is very noticable.
Getty and a few other agencies put out advisories too, but, Reuters has a lot of subscribers and these advisories are much easier to see and to look back to see what the original image looked like.

The question of authenticity is more complicated in digital photography. Paul defined HDR correctly. HDR is a technique used by digital photographers to compensate for the limited range of digital images. What your eye sees is not what the digital sensors capture. Film has a greater range and can capture an image closer to the one perceived by the photographer. Digital images often have a flat (low contrast) appearance because the sensor captures the middle range of tones, particularly with point and shoot cameras. Post processing using programs such as Adobe's Photoshop can restore the perceived contrast and extended range of tones that approximates more closely the photographer's perception of the scene. In the Reuters photo, the post processing was sloppy and obvious and was manipulated to increase the dramatic impact of the ash cloud.

Actually, I don't think the effect is produced by HDR. It looks more like the "crunchy" effect produced by the High Pass filter in Photoshop coupled with some selective toning. It's actually a very common style applied to editorial portraiture and fashion photography and is sought out by art directors looking for that "edgy" look. I don't think it's appropriate in this application, however.

In the context of NEWS, image optimization (dependent on image output and display) is the rule, not image enhancement. While the line between optimization and enhancement is arguably fuzzy, I still think there is a clear line, and it was clearly crossed in this case.

"this is NOT an HDR image, because the ash cloud is constantly moving and you would never be able to line up the different exposures. It's over saturated and someone cranked the contrast way up."

Timothy, many cameras have an actual HDR setting where it automatically takes 3 of the pictures in different exposures simultaneously. Even if the camera didn't, I doubt the ash clouds would move so quickly that it would make a difference.

by the way now it`s another volcano in Indonesia that is erupting !

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