Is Sky Replacement Ethical in Landscape Photography?

Sky replacement has been a method used in landscape photography for years but recently it has become much more accessible with AI assisted features in programs such as Photoshop and Luminar. That accessibility has ignited debates within the photography community raising the question whether or not manipulating an image in such a way is ethical.

The only thing more debated in the photography world is what camera is best at any given time. Every person has a different view and outlook on what they expect from a photographer and the digital age has overwhelmed many of us with images that appear so perfect that they can’t be real.

That brings up the question, is photography strictly intended to show what is only real in that moment? Is the medium not allowed to evolve as our world changes? These are all wonderful questions that I’ll try to tackle here but please remember these are all my opinions and how I personally feel about the medium that is photography. There is no right or wrong answer but I would encourage everyone to be open-minded to others as it fuels healthier discussion (I’m looking at you, comment section).

The Nat Geo Rule

The purest of the photography world follow what I call the “Nat Geo Rule” where photos shouldn’t be manipulated more than basic adjustments such as exposure or contrast. This viewpoint stems from the idea that if you’re capturing moments as a photojournalist then you shouldn’t change the “truth” of what is happening at that moment by manipulating a photo in any way. Personally, I agree with this ideal when it comes to photojournalism but I also think there is a distinct difference between someone claiming to be a photojournalist and a photographer. 

Every photojournalist is a photographer but not every photographer is a photojournalist. National Geographic has had a long-standing rule that photos published and submitted must not be manipulated outside of basic adjustments, hence why I call this the “Nat Geo Rule.” This applies to all forms of photojournalism but National Geographic covering nature and landscapes sets a precedent for many other publications that focus on similar genres. It goes without saying that nearly every nature photographer dreams of being published in National Geographic someday which puts some emphasis on approaching all their photography in the purest form. This entire mindset and idea are what drives many people to think photos shouldn’t be manipulated at all and in my experience, many everyday people that are not involved in photography somewhat expect this and are always surprised at what people can do within an edit. Steve McCurry of the “Afghan Girl” fame was found manipulating photos a few years ago and the backlash was not quiet. 

The question comes down to whether you should hold the standard of photojournalism to that of a landscape photographer or any type of photography for that matter?

Ansel Adams

Many people have different lines of what’s okay and what isn’t when it comes to manipulation. They don’t mind if a photo has been altered in small ways but they all have a limit of what is too much. Whenever the topics of exposure blending, luminosity masking, or dodging/burning get brought up, many reference that the father of landscape photography, Ansel Adams, used dodging and burning in a dark room to manipulate his photos. By using those we hold to the highest standards and arguably one of the most famous photographers of all time it helps justify manipulating a photo to enhance its appeal.

These techniques have gotten much easier in today’s world, such as sky replacement. With the advancement in technology, many times the images we capture aren’t even a good representation of the actual scene. Modern cameras take flat images with very little contrast, desaturated colors, soft edges, and distorted angles. What if the intention of manipulation is to create a more honest representation of a scene than what can be captured in a single exposure?

A perfect example is this image I took a few years back in New Zealand. I edited this photo in many ways but specifically look at the size of Mt. Cook in the frame. Many would say this amount of manipulation is too much but in reality, the first image is not how the mountain looks in person. Shooting at such a wide-angle distorts the frame heavily with objects in the distance appearing much smaller than they actually are, thus I spent time trying to better represent the actual scene. 

Photography Is Art

Where I find myself in this discussion is that photography is art and you get to do whatever you want within that medium that makes you satisfied. Above is an image I wrote about years ago that was a fun learning experience taking my photo and combining it with someone else’s into a composite. At some point, you merge digital art with photography but I’m not quite certain when that line gets crossed. If you’re upfront and sincere with whomever it is you are presenting your work to, I see nothing wrong with any level of manipulation. I do think it’s very important to be upfront though otherwise, we as photographers can find ourselves feeling a bit lost in a sea of perfect images. This happens in more than just landscape photography. Take the entire beauty industry as an example and reflect on the impact of perfecting skin, zero blemishes, and immaculate body features to create an unrealistic expectation of beauty in society. 

That same concept can happen within any form of photography and you can find yourself wondering why your work doesn’t look nearly as good as others. While we can all grow into better photographers it’s also important we are honest to our audiences and ourselves. I realize not everyone follows these principles and that’s their decision; morally and ethically for my own work I try to be upfront about how every image was captured and edited. 

Conclusion

So is sky replacement ethical? I presume the answer to that question depends on where you fall within the spectrum of opinions outlined here. The discussion of ethics in any subject is deep enough to need a college degree to fully comprehend. At the end of it all, it’s our decision as individuals to enjoy, consume, or even purchase based on the qualification we see as ethical within photography as a medium. Thanks for reading and I hope to see some civil discussion in the comment about your opinion on the subject!

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