Digital editing and photojournalism

The 2013 World Press Photo Award was given to Paul Hansen for this photo.

What you're seeing there is not the RAW photo, though, but one that has been touched up digitally. This invited criticism from some other photographers who are wary of the role of digital editing in the sphere of photojournalism. 

One of the leading firms in the area of digital darkroom services is 10b Photography, profiled in this overview of the controversy surrounding the Hansen photo. 

Photographers upload 50 to 100 images a day onto 10b's server. Palmisano begins by making automatic corrections to the photos on his computer, a process in which he hardly pays any attention to the image itself.

Then the detailed work begins. He darkens areas along the upper edge of one image to draw the viewer's eye toward the lower part. In a photo depicting a soldier in the foreground, he carefully and manually enhances the gun. In another photo, he makes the shocking and luminous red of a bleeding wound seem less glaring. The supposed original, he says, would simply not have corresponded to our expectations of what blood looks like.

Within reason, I'm not overly concerned about changes to saturation or lighting since our perception of that and the device's recording of that are all relative anyhow. Ansel Adams did a ton of dodging and burning for his black and white nature photographs, he just did it chemically rather than digitally. I edit most my photos before putting them online, and almost always my efforts are towards capturing the emotion from a moment.

Changing a color completely, however, or removing items from a photo, or changing the shape of a person for a fashion cover, those are edits that move from the realm of your basic digital darkroom processing into something more akin to fiction writing.

Returning to the Hansen photo, it does appear that the faces of the five to seven men closest to the camera are unusually well lit given no apparent light source coming from behind the camera (note that the bodies of the children appear to be in shadow that doesn't seem to affect the men's faces). So it does feel a bit unnatural as a photo. Without looking at the RAW photo, it's hard to say how much those faces might have been brightened in post, but perhaps in the future the before and after will always be available so people can judge for themselves the degree of manipulation.

It's also important to realize that digital cameras that have a wide latitude often shoot a very flat RAW image or "negative" that looks really dull and washed out and that post-processing is almost always necessary to achieve a higher contrast image for final presentation. The flat negative is often a good sign, indicating that there is room for such manipulation, and so I expect a certain amount of post processing work on almost all digital images.