Washington Post raises eyebrows, questions with ‘composite’ photo on front page

Washington Post readers saw a stunning photo, and an unusual caption, on the front page of Friday’s newspaper.

The photo depicts a plane taking off from Reagan National Airport, the 14th Street Bridge in the foreground and the orange glow of the setting sun in the background. The photo references the Air Florida jet that crashed into the bridge 30 years ago.

This image ran on the front page of Friday’s Post. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

The caption included a note: “This image is a composite created by taking several photos and combining them with computer software to transcend the visual limitations of standard photography.”

That raised more questions for me than it answered, so Kenny Irby, Poynter’s photojournalism faculty, and I called Michel du Cille, director of photography for the Post.

The answer involves not Photoshop but HDR (high dynamic range) photography, which combines images with multiple exposures into a single image.

The Nikon D4, for example, can take two images with different exposures and combine them into a single image. The photographer can then use software to combine up to nine of those images into one. You may have noticed an HDR setting on your new iPhone, too.

“The technology offers broader dynamic range in tone and detail, and does not change the authenticity of the scene or situation,” Irby told me. It’s particularly useful when part of a scene is very dark or light, and choosing a single exposure means that only a portion of the image will be properly exposed.

That’s why Post photographer Bill O’Leary chose HDR this time, du Cille said.

“I think Bill was looking for the effect that HDR gives at a tough time of day,” du Cille said. O’Leary used software to combine five images with different exposures.

Editors wanted to disclose that the photo was taken with an unconventional method. But copy editors thought that the average reader wouldn’t know what HDR is. So they settled on the language in the caption, which said the image was a “composite.”

“We were trying to be upfront, to tell the reader we used technology to achieve this result,” du Cille said. “ ‘Composite’ is probably what confused people, because in this case, it is a composite of exposures, not of an element” of the photograph.

Irby said the Post had the right idea by disclosing the technique, but could’ve done more to explain how and why that photo was chosen. “The caption definitely does offer you new insight about the photo. However, it presents more questions than usable information.”

Du Cille said he may write something for the Post explaining how the photo was made and why it was used. But he said that the issue is transparency about techniques, not the technique itself.

“I want our photographers to be experimenting with a range of things, not just technologies,” he said. Although HDR is uncommon now, “Ten years from now, HDR may be built into cameras, and who will know it?”

But Sean Elliot, president of the National Press Photographers Association, said, “HDR is not appropriate for documentary photojournalism.” The organization’s code of ethics say photographers should respect the integrity of the digital moment, “and in that light an HDR photo is no different from any other digital manipulation.”

“By using HDR,” he told me by email, “The Washington Post has combined different moments, and thereby created an image that does not exist. The aircraft visible in the final product was not there for all the other moments combined into the final, and that alone simply raises too many questions about the factual validity of the actual published image.”

HDR wasn’t the only option for this situation. On the same night O’Leary took a similar photo without HDR; rather than aim into the setting sun, he took the image from the other side of the bridge and used the setting sun to light it.

This photo was taken without HDR. Du Cille said this image wasn’t as powerful as the other one. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

NPPA’s Elliot said that photo suggests that the HDR image wasn’t necessary. “The selection of photos is by nature a subjective process and the alternate, unmanipulated, image looks to be as strong a documentary image of the bridge in question as one could want.”

“I think the picture that we used is the better picture,” du Cille said, even though it required a more complicated – and perhaps confusing – caption. “It’s more pleasing to the eye because of the sunlight on the water, the sunlight in the sky, the blueness of the sky, the clarity in the bridge.”

This is the second time in a month that the Post has used HDR photography on the front page; the other time was for the winter solstice. It will be a while before they try it again, du Cille said.

“It would become its own cliché.”

Kenny Irby contributed to this story.

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  • mike brunette

    If it’s what he saw, my only question is, how was the rest of the acid trip? Substandard pj’s have been pumping up photos since the beginning of the profession. Most lacked darkroom skills to do this before digital, yet, the vast majority of images you see on a daily basis are built after the shot. Doesn’t make it right, yet, it’s nothing new.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1000061485 David Breslauer

    Like most things, photographic techniques like this require balance. Done properly, it is no different than accepted traditional darkroom techniques. Early Photoshop adopters learned how to acquire a raw camera image for the highlights, a second for the shadows and combine them. Not much different than the darkroom techniques of dodging and burning. And basically a simplistic version of what HDR accomplishes.  

    I expect the Washington Post image was done in this fashion (multiple acquires of the same raw image combined into one) rather than multiple original raw files, since the jet in the photo appears in the same spot and their is no blurring of the water.

    HDR is easily “over-cooked” but when done with respect, I do not have any issues with it. NPPA may need to update their ethics.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1000061485 David Breslauer

    Like most things, photographic techniques like this require balance. Done properly, it is no different than accepted traditional darkroom techniques. Early Photoshop adopters learned how to acquire a raw camera image for the highlights, a second for the shadows and combine them. Not much different than the darkroom techniques of dodging and burning. And basically a simplistic version of what HDR accomplishes.  

    I expect the Washington Post image was done in this fashion (multiple acquires of the same raw image combined into one) rather than multiple original raw files, since the jet in the photo appears in the same spot and their is no blurring of the water.

    HDR is easily “over-cooked” but when done with respect, I do not have any issues with it. NPPA may need to update their ethics.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    @google-b3cfd421c2158ba6018b5e33dd450fd1:disqus , the Post said the only unusual aspect of this photo was HDR. Some have wondered about the differences between the HDR and the non-HDR image; they were taken from either side of the bridge — one from the south and the other from the north.

    Steve Myers

  • Peter Tunison

    “The photo depicts a plane taking off from Reagan National Airport, the 14th Street Bridge in the foreground and the orange glow of the setting sun in the background.”  I guess that is accurate to a point but I can’t put myself in a position where this could be anything but a compelling view of the bridge at sunrise not sunset; unless there was other image flipping etc.  My spectacular drive to work view.

  • dtribby photography

    aweful.. Not even good technique. And HDR has little to no place in photojournalism.

  • Anonymous

    One of the most blindingly stupid controversies of all time! Should Anselm Adams have “respected the moment” and not used the zone system – a complex interaction of exposure and darkroom adjustment, to capture tonality in a way that better represents what the eye sees? Should Sebastio Salgado have used high iso and high contrast paper to produce his photojournalistic work – after all, his images are less realistic looking than they might be if shot with flash? Sean Elliott seems to be staggeringly unaware of both contemporary photo technology and the history of photo technology – not to mention aesthetics. The key advantage of digital is that it offers a greater tonal range than film, and thus captures what the eye sees better than before. Bill O’Leary could have – in theory – achieved his exposure with hours of wizardry in the darkroom. That’s how things were done before digital made everything easier. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/davidabarak David Barak

    For me, the second photo is more powerful because it shows the bridge in a more ordinary way. The first photo turns the bridge into a symbol or icon, and I feel it dilutes the impact (sorry for any unintended puns in my post) of its place in history. The bridge is more “real” in the second photo, and that makes the tragedy less abstract.

    However, I agree with Matt Dutile. Niether photo is all that interesting.

    About the ethics of using HDR… if the photos are all snapped within a second or two of each other, is that unethical? If it’s unethical, what is it about cropping or dodging or burning or even color correcting that makes all THAT ethical. Where’s the dividing line? There are no easy answers. I think that with the advent of digital photography, the standards of conduct may need to be looked at again and adjusted for the new technology. That could even mean tightening the standards more than they have been for the last few decades. I’ve been writing a series of tutorials for my job, one of which covers photo editing. This could be an interesting case study for it.

    And HDR has always been a possibility even with chemical photography, hasn’t it? Not as easy though.

  • Matt Dutile

    Honestly, neither of these photos are really great.

  • http://twitter.com/StevelImages StevelImages

    Note that the HDR image is ugly and overdone; while the non-HDR image is subtle and beautiful. That’s one of the biggest drawbacks of HDR — most of the time it produces ugly results that pixel-peepers think are impressive.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_COIIW7OJFOO4ZHVIWVEKYJUYGA tom

    As a photographer for over 30 years with some small town press experience in the past I cannot see what the issue is. There was full disclosure on the modification, it was not a breaking story but instead a more reflective piece. I never published a colour photo of news…that how long ago it was when I was doing it but the number of images that been published over the years across the world that  have had a bit of burning and dodging, close cropping, long lenses to reduce  the angle of view and all the bag of old tricks that were employed in the darkroom is incalculuable. Pure photos just do not exist. Honest ones do and as long as reputable organizations identify images with modifications very clearly thenwhats the deal.

  • David Hanners

    The phrase “transcend the visual limitations of standard photography” has to be one of the oddest things I’ve ever seen in a cutline. If I were to use the same techniques when writing an article, would it be ok as long as it was accompanied by an editor’s box saying that facts were made up to “transcend the factual limitations of standard journalism”?

  • Anonymous

    Why not just acknowledge what is.  HDR, like other photograhic techniques, is just another way to visualize an image. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it.  It’s abundantly clear that folks enjoy HDR images, or so many of the naysaying pros would not have changed their tunes and now routinely shoot HDR.   Journalism, ultimately, is documenting what is.  Folks see what is differently.  Journalists tell the same story very differently, and each and every one thinks his or her view is the “right” one.  Why get panty wadded up about styles of journalism, when styles add breath to any perspective?  Whether stylistically motivated, or simply expanding the dynamic range
    of what the camera “sees”, it’s here to say, and more to come.

  • Anonymous

    When I saw the actual newspaper Friday morning, I enjoyed seeing the photo front page center, immediately wondering if it was actually HDR.  Then I read the caption confirming that it was.  I looked for it in their online gallery, but wasn’t able to find it during a less than thorough search on Friday.  The image as posted here is so much more dynamic than the printed version.  The newsprint so downplays this dynamic that it just looks like a good photo in the newspaper.  For the illustrative purpose of the story, I don’t think the photo was inappropriate or non-representative of reality.  It captures the dynamic range one would have perceived.  You can go all over the web to see surrealistic HDR, but the newsprint reduced the surrealism here to just plain awesome realism.

  • Anonymous

    I think HDR is fine for journalism as long as it does not change the content of the image and is used solely to make the content more readable (visible) in all areas, from highlight to shadow. This would be the same as a person looking at the actual scene, but focusing on the individual areas of the image.

  • Anonymous

    I think this entire thing is an absurd argument. I began back in 1969 in fashion and advertising. But I also did available light documentation photography for Brooklyn college while I was going there. We always had to fight quality issues. This goes back to the very first photographs in the early 18th century.

    HDR is little different from any other advance, such as slow shutter speeds to capture something that otherwise wouldn’t be in the photograph. Because these days, HDR’s can be captured in a small fraction of a second, the scene isn’t changed to any real extent. It’s different if the photographer is waiting several seconds between each shot. Then, it would be a true composite of a sort.

    We are all waiting for the 20 stop dynamic range camera with 100 MP sensor and lenses that take full advantage of it. Until we get one, there will be compromises, as there have been throughout the entire history of photography. This is certainly one of the least offensive.

    Documentation means to document, as should be obvious. If we can’t see everything in the picture because of lack of highlight and shadow detail, then we’re not really “documenting”, are we? We must see at least as much as we can with our constantly accommodating eyes. Anything less is a compromise, and not really the truth. A lot can be hidden in the shadows.

    Let’s get over this

  • Anonymous

    This may certainly be good for fine art photography but definitely not for photojournalism or documentary representations.

  • Emma Tayler

    We should know this, too.

  • Anonymous

    The NPPA had better find a better argument than “different moments in time” to disqualify HDR.  What about images that combine different conversions of the same image–i.e., converting one version of a raw photo protecting highlights and converting another version of the same photo protecting shadows, the combining them either in HDR or as simple layers in PS?  

  • Anonymous

    The NPPA had better find another criterion than “different moments in time” to rule out HDR.  What about images that use the HDR approach with different conversions of the same image…i.e., processing the same image twice or three times emphasizing highlights in one or more and shadows in others, then combining them? 

  • Jim Prisching

     I  wonder what your views are in using artificial light or strobes and gels to manipulate the look with light of an image that is then published by a newspaper or new magazine. Or how about the use of the Hipstamatic or instagram app at capture. These are all tools that are available to us as photographers today as is HDR. HDR is nothing more than taking a single image at different exposures and using software to render the final image. If you are after straight journalism, then there should never be a need to use a flash if you are working for a newspaper. Unfortunately, we both know that is not true.

  • Jeroen Berends

    HDR is just a technique. Get with the programme.

  • http://www.facebook.com/garyobrien1 Gary O’Brien

    When we started doing 360-degree panoramas for the Charlotte Observer’s website, Bert Fox and I put together a brief primer for readers detailing how the panoramas were constructed.
    Each panorama on the site was posted with a link to “How It’s Done”, an informational link ( http://www.charlotteobserver.com/images/pano/how/01.html ) that explains that the image was made from several images taken over a short period of time, explains the process of shooting and stitching the panorama, and affirms that our commitment to journalistic accuracy in photography guided us when we created and published panoramic images.If one clicks the Next button on this page (yes, the page design isn’t great), we walk the reader through the process. The idea here is to be as transparent as possible about the process that created the photograph.In addition, the credit line on panoramas: “Panoramic photo composite by… ” notifies the reader this is not an ordinary photograph. We also used this style when we published a panorama in the print edition.

    I offer up this example only to suggest that any time we use a new or unconventional technique to create images in photojournalism, we must strive to be open about both our techniques and our commitment to accuracy. I certainly think we owe that to our readers – it does us no good to leave your wife and others in the dark about how we create our images.

    Gary O’Brien
    Tucson, AZ USA

  • http://alexwilliams93.wordpress.com/ alex williams

    I can but agree. Don’t you hate dogmatists? I suppose all those B&W from last century’s newspapers weren’t truth either. 

  • Anonymous

    “This image is a composite created by taking several photos and combining them with computer software to transcend the visual limitations of standard photography.” Limitations of standard photography….  Classic photography doesn´t have limitations,  your mind does!  Ethics, truth, newspapers are lost and for the fast picture they are  missing reality. 

  • Anonymous

    We are inundated with images in every form that have been manipulated.  The saying “seeing is believing” no longer applies. Please keep your photos straightforward and honest.  If we can no longer trust what we see, what about what we read?

    I was in the publishing industry for 20 plus years and am an avid photographer.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_X3X4LWAO7K7ZVP6YKQY7MHI6MA TerryF

    It’s crap.

  • Mark Mirko

    Do those who object to the editorial use of HDR photography also object to the editorial use of panoramic images when multiple moments are stitched together with software to create a single seamless landscape? 

  • http://twitter.com/GlennF Glenn Fleishman

    What happens when “HDR” can be performed “in camera,” which will likely happen soon, where the camera’s CCD or other sensor technology can be programmed to perform computational photographic operations while the capture is occurring to produce a higher-dynamic range without making discrete exposures? Is such an operation unreal, and will a photographer have to adjust the settings to prevent capturing dynamic range closer to what the eye can see?

    Computational photography, in which multiple exposures over time or multiple simultaneous captures over space are combined algorithmically, is already available in HDR and many other techniques. In some ways, it is more authentic to our perception. Just like other techniques, our notion of documentary and reportorial photography will have to adjust to encompass it.

  • M. O.

    The non-HDR one is striking and lovely. The HDR one looks like a movie poster or something from a video game. Blech.

  • http://laroquodexperiment.com/hypo/0.1/ Paul Laroquod

    The objections to this are utterly illogical. The National Press Photographers Association wants to bless only pictures taken “in a single moment”, but there is no such thing. There are long exposures and there are short exposures, but that doesn’t mean the short exposures are *instantaneous*. A truly instantaneous exposure would actually not be capable of capturing any light. Therefore every single picture ever taken is a ‘combination of different moments’. They are using the wrong litmus test and thus are they led to the wrong conclusions. A better litmus test would be, did you capture a single moment (again because that is impossible), but rather *was there* a single moment in reality when all of the elements lined up those exact positions, and the answer with HDR (unlike with inserting a cutout) is YES. That world did exist as shown in that photograph. So it is a documentary photograph. Capturing it in a single moment is both impossible and irrelevant.

  • Adam Kenner

    In the gallery of photos that accompany the online article, there are shots in b&w and color, portrait and landscape, a variety of crops, still frames taken from video coverage, and one HDR photo (the first one, with a disclaimer). Each image presumably resulted from a series of choices made by the photographer, the darkroom staff and the photo editors. I think the question is one of artistic choice vs. journalistic choice, and in this case the line is a very fine one. The current photo is not a depiction of a news event, but rather an illustration to accompany an article about an event that happened years ago. Adding a disclaimer to this one and not to any other photos in the gallery is an interesting choice. For instance: “the roll of black and white film from which this photo was selected was developed using a chemical process that pushed the film one stop of exposure beyond its rated ISO” or “this digital photo was processed after shooting using an ‘unsharp mask’ to enhance clarity in the details” or even “the jpeg compression of this digital image may have resulted in the loss of some visual detail that may therefore be lost.” Simple choices like this are made every day to produce the highest possible quality visual images for use in a journalism setting, and they don’t get a disclaimer. Perhaps they should…

  • J.C. Burns

    Kinda like the second, non-HDR one better.

  • Anonymous

    The simple question is has truth been altered by technology
    that permits a more faithful reproduction of what our eyes can perceive?


    Perhaps if we believe that the use of High Dynamic Range
    techniques step over the line, we could make the same argument for the use of
    flash fill or adding any supplemental light source to lighten shadows or expand
    the dynamic range of a photograph. Perhaps too we could make the same argument
    for the compression of color, dynamic range and clarity of photographs that
    results from reproduction on newsprint.


    I must believe that we are faithful in our obligation to
    readers when content is not altered so as to be misleading.

  • http://twitter.com/strobist David Hobby

    Couple of things. One, HDR is not destined to become “its own cliché”. It has long been clichéd to death on Flickr. 

    Second, and what I found more disturbing, is that this is not simply an HDR of a static scene. That plane (hopefully) was moving. And an HDR is created from a series of photos taken with a different exposure. So it is also a composite image, with the position of the plane “chosen” from a series of photos in which the plane was in different places. This was not disclosed in the caption.

    Non-photographers have no idea about the process of the compositing and subsequent tone-mapping images to make a photo like this. My wife, a journalist who has been married to a photographer for 20 years, had no clue. But she was nonetheless pretty squishy with it when I explained it to her.

    This is the second HDR-as-A1-lead we have been treated to in a month as readers of The Post. But this was the first used to illustrate a news story. Within the same month I also noticed a stitched panorama image, done to illustrate a news story, on the Metro front of The Post. The explanation was clever. But my wife — as a layperson — again had no clue as to how they were creating the image.

    Just because you *can* do something and explain it away, doesn’t make it appropriate for straight journalism. I doubt the readers would have cut The Post much slack if Janet Cooke’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Jimmy’s World” would have had a little footnote at the end:

    * “Jimmy” was a composite of several different individuals and, in fact, did not exist as a single character.

    D Hobby

  • elf

    Well, the question with HDR is how one defines “truth” from the point of photojournalism.  The human brain, as we all know, can reconcile a much wider range of brightness than any photographic recording device yet created.  In this case, a classic multiple exposure situation, the image may come much closer to what the human eye will “see”.  For that reason I see no problem with this image.  However, as a 20 year landscape photographer I see another problem, namely that of saturation.  Pushing the saturation surely creates an image to which the average viewer is strongly attracted, but that does not imply that the image is truthful to the situation in which it was taken.  Ever since Velvia 50 hit the trade, the lure of deep saturation has been hard for photographers to resist, and the photojournalistic profession wiith its committment to “realistic” has had to resist that lure.

    I’m not certain, since I wasn’t there, that this image is truthful in that element.  I’m considerably more certain that it’s truthful in the matter of reconciling contrast.

  • http://twitter.com/KSriniReddy Srinivas Reddy K

    A photograph must be truthful. It must show the reader what is being shot. Cropping a picture to highlight a particular angle of the story is permissible, but not working on several photographs and making a cocktail is not warranted. A composite picture might look colorful, but is not truthful. Why should a news photograph be a composite one?