Judging the Real

National Geographic’s annual photo contest seeks “photos that “depict the beauty of the places and people that make traveling memorable.” Poynter speakers with a longtime contest judge about acceptable levels of PhotoShopping.  While the biggest issues revolve around heavy-handed dodging and burning (what, no Unsharp Mask disasters?), the judge mentioned that occasionally someone will digitally construct an image:

Few people submit manipulated images or composites, but it does happen, according to Westergren. He remembers one in particular.

“It was like perfect light on an iceberg and there was a penguin standing there,” he says. “People in the room liked the picture and I looked at it and said, ‘Look at that edge — somebody pasted that penguin on there. It’s too perfect.’ ”

Westergren says it’s so easy to manipulate and overprocess images that, “You can’t really believe much of anything anymore.”

It’s difficult to determine what’s permissable in terms of image editing.  When does warming up fleshtones morph into wholesale reconstruction of an image to the point where it transitions from “natural” to “fake”?  While the judges can compare the RAW files with the submitted version and see a record of the changes, sometimes your gut is the best judge when traveling in the Uncanny Valley.