Photographic Competitions in 2015: Keeping it real

01 Jan
Real or Photoshopped?

Real or Photoshopped?

I have been writing of my concern that the aura of authenticity that photographs have traditionally enjoyed is undergoing serious threat from Photoshopping and socially encouraged photoplay such as Instagram filtering. Thankfully, the problems inherent in heavily edited, even fictitious images have been attracting public attention and discourse (for example the controversy of Gaza Burial, the World Press Photo of the Year 2013). With the growing recognition of these issues, beneficial changes are beginning to appear. One such change is that the window of opportunity for photograph manipulators to submit altered images to photo competitions as ‘real’ photos is closing. It seems that in 2015, photography competitions expect photo entries to contain less fiction and more reality.

Today Canon announced they are running a competition this year, the Canon Light Awards, in which each month photographers are invited to submit one photograph to match the month’s brief, with prize money for winners. Their competition rules insist on the entries being actual photographs, not manipulated images. Specifically, they respond to the question “Will my entry be valid if I use photo editing software (like Photoshop)?” with the following statement:

“Yes, basic editing such as cropping and colour adjustment is permitted. However, entries must be true photographs and not composites or digital manipulations. Keep in mind to confirm you are a winner, you may need to send through the original file …” [1]

World Press, the premier international photography competition for professional photographers, introduced rules in the World Press Photo Competition after the genuineness of the 2013 winning photograph, Gaza Burial, was questioned. [2]

“Participants are now required to provide file(s) as recorded by the camera for all images that proceed to the final stages of the contest. These file(s) will be requested and studied confidentially during the judging period (1-11 February 2015). A failure to provide these files before 11 February 2015 will lead to the elimination of the entry.” [3]

National Geographic is very specific about what types of photo editing is allowed.  Before detailing what is allowed using techniques like burning and dodging, compositing, captioning and overall ethics, they expound their philosophy on manipulating photographs:

“Our biggest ask is that the photos stay true to your personal vision and to what you saw. Please avoid heavy-handed processing. We want to see the world through your eyes, not through the excessive use of editing tools. If the photograph is manipulated, please describe your process in the caption.” [4]

There are many more examples. The International Loupe Awards rules state of their photojournalism competition that “Winning images in this category deemed to be composited images will be stripped of their category placing, prize money and or prizes.” [5] The International Pano Awards is less convincing, but still notes that manipulation may lessen the photographer’s chances: “Images may be from single capture or stitching software, film or digital capture, but must be 100% photographic in origin.  Manipulation is allowed but excessive manipulation may be scored down by judges.” [6] And the Smithsonian says of their photographic competition that “we do not accept digitally or otherwise enhanced or altered photos, except for those entered in the Altered Images category … If the judges determine that a photographer has altered his or her photo, they reserve the right to move the photo to Altered Images or to disqualify it.” [7]

I welcome these photo credibility-related terms and conditions in photographic competitions.  Even more, I welcome the thinking that seems to be building that gives weight to the connection between the aesthetics and meaning of photographs and the real world they purport to interpret on our behalf.


Kitten head photograph by Sabrina Caldwell;  other than re-sizing for webuse, has not been altered in any way.


[1] Canon Light Awards Frequently Asked Questions
[2] For an interesting and very thorough explication of the issues raised, I recommend
[3] World Press
[4] National Geographic
[5] International Loupe Awards
[6] International Pano Awards
[7] Smithsonian
All websites listed [1-7] accessed 1 January 2015

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9 responses to “Photographic Competitions in 2015: Keeping it real

  1. Mike W. Strachan

    January 11, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    Always a fascinating debate and one I’ve had with my dad quite a few times. We’re both keen (amateur) photographers. I always tell him that no matter how much someone photoshops, you can usually still tell whether it’s an image that appeals to you or not and I guess that’s the main thing. The issues surrounding the Gaza Burial are interesting and it goes to show how blurred the lines are. I don’t particularly like it, although I appreciate the story it tells.

    This issue is a concern in journalism because we don’t want news articles accompanied by photographs that don’t represent the real story (I’m not saying that’s what happened here). If someone goes crazy with the colours, vibrance, contrast etc etc are over the top, then that’s cool – we all know what sunsets look like and we can decide whether to like the photo or not.

    Good post, and it’s a debate I’m sure will carry on for years to come.

    • sabrinacaldwell

      January 12, 2015 at 6:19 am

      Hi Mike, thanks for your thoughts. Yes, it is a concern particularly in journalism because people form opinions and sometimes make decisions (that can have significant ramifications) based on the information they are given whether it be in words or photographs. It seems to be easier for us to evaluate truth in words than in images. And then there is the question of degree – yes, these events in the photo happened, but was the sunset really that brilliant? Or much more insidiously, were there really that many missiles deployed? It is only a matter of time before we have to truly take these issues of image credibility seriously. Thanks for contributing to the debate!

  2. Faraday's Candle

    January 17, 2015 at 3:00 pm

    Pretty interesting!

    • sabrinacaldwell

      January 17, 2015 at 3:04 pm

      Thanks! Yes, there seems to be increasing recognition that manipulation can skew the outcomes (and the public perception of the outcomes) of photography competitions, which is great news.

  3. Cole

    October 21, 2015 at 2:55 am

    What is your take on the latest Epson Pano Awards wining photograph of the Himalayan Cave scene looking out? Taken with a digital Nikon D800E.

    • sabrinacaldwell

      October 22, 2015 at 4:07 pm

      Hi Andy, Thank you for your question. It prompted me to write an entire new post, doing a photo-critique of The Ice Prison image. I hope you find it interesting and I would love to hear how my perspectives match or differ from yours.

      • Mr. LaBrada

        October 23, 2015 at 2:15 am

        Hi thanks for your prompt reply. I believe you are being political, which is understandable. To me this photograph is a fake (as not a photograph but CGI.) Attached are some marks I placed where one can see clear manipulation. After doing my research on Himalayan photography specifically from a national geographic photographer found here I can not believe that this graphic designer took his d800e with lithium batteries at such high altitudes and had time to compose the set of photographs to create a perfect panorama in such cold environments. It is hard enough in regular terrain. He must have had a heater in the cave or something and major oxygen setup. In my opinion this CGI is what is destroying the art of landscape photography. In my opinion Epson coned the other legit photographers from a win and prizes. If landscape photography is going the way of CGI then we must label it what it is and I believe you have a good label for it – photo art. This photo in my opinion is majorly CGI mixed with previous HDR photos he took during his excursions. Epson should have labeled the contest Photo Art panoramic photo contest or had a separate category. Let me know your thoughts. I really appreciate you. You are keeping photography real. Best Regards, Andy LaBrada

  4. sabrinacaldwell

    October 23, 2015 at 9:31 am

    Hi Andy, Thanks very much for this great response. There is nothing I want more than to inspire collegial debate on these issues and I’m very interested in what you have to say. I have read the link you sent me and it raises some good points about high altitude photography. Thanks. Also, you reminded me of something very important – I completely failed to make the comment in my review about the lack of an image authentication framework that allows us to understand to what degree an image has been manipulated – and that’s my main area of research!

    The image with marks of manipulation that you note didn’t come through in your comment; I checked and according to WordPress this can be accomplished by you posting a URL to the image that is hosted by a server somewhere online into a comment, then I can approve and see it. It would be great if you have the time if you could do that.

    In the meantime, I shall go away and consider/investigate the points you make, especially the operating temps of a Nikon d800e and the problems with photographing at high altitudes as well as the idea that Epson could be usefully contacted on this point – other competitions are starting to build in authenticity rules, and even they have those rules for a couple of specific prizes, so they must be starting to think about these issues.

    Also, thank you for caring about photographic reality too – I think it is a lot more important than the world understands yet.

    Cheers, Sabrina


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