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|| News Item: Posted 2003-09-29

What I Really Think About Grayscale
By Trent Nelson, The Salt Lake Tribune

(EDITOR'S NOTE: The controversy following Patrick Schneider's revocation of his awards in a regional photojournalism competition set off a fire storm of opinions and comments about the ethics of manipulating images to enter into contest. Sports Shooter asked several photographers their opinions and concerns about this issue. Schneider was offered and declined an invitation to contribute.)

"Oh great," you're thinking. "Another thrilling essay on ethics. Instead of reading this I'm going to page down and see who PhotoDude is ripping on this month."

Well, go ahead and page down. I didn't want you reading my stuff anyway!

For the cool people who didn't skip this (and the seven klutzes who tried to but missed the page down key), I'd like to stand up for pure color photography. I'm here to make my case to the people who, come contest time, feel their work is improved by changing their color photographs to grayscale. Like that one simple move will turn their photo essay into this year's Country Doctor or Spanish Village. As if.

(I'm using the word "grayscale" to describe the practice of removing the color from your contest photos, because to me "black and white" is something sacred that needs to be safeguarded. My own approach is to shoot black and white images-get this-in black and white! Call me nuts, but that's what I've done almost every time you see a black and white photo from me. Sound pompous? You bet it is.)

Let's talk about color. First we'll run a test to see how long you've been shooting. Read the following four phrases while paying specific attention to the level of nausea or headache you experience.

Photo by
1. Ektachrome P800/1600

2. 75 Yellow 45 Magenta

3. Unicolor chemistry

4. Ektapress 400

5. Blix (not Hans Blix)

If any of these caused you to shudder, then you do indeed recall how difficult color photography was before Photoshop.

Thanks to technology, color photojournalism has made great strides. Many of us are now in tune with how a scene's colors can evoke a mood or feeling in the viewer. In the right hands, color has become as important as composition, lighting, and timing. And with simple color correction in Photoshop, tungsten light bulbs are no longer the enemy.

We are no longer tied to our flash units. And when you are assigned to photograph someone working at a computer for the Science and Technology page, your first instinct is no longer to slap those blue, red, and green gels onto your lights to provide that "high tech" National Geographic look. At least, I hope not. What I'm trying to say is that things have changed and color is no longer in charge. We are. And if you learn to use it, incredible things happen.

I remember sitting through the monochrome film "Schindler's List" in 1993 and vowing to myself to be a black and white photographer forever. Of course it didn't last. (This is just one of several hundred promises to myself that have since been broken. The complete, handwritten, uncensored list is available for $25.) The fact is, a great color photograph has a beauty that rivals a great black and white photograph. And rarely can a photo pull it off both ways. As an example, look at James Nachtwey's work. One war he's shooting color and the next massacre he's shooting black and white. Can you picture grayscaling any one of his color images without it losing something? And would you want to see any of his black and white work in color?

Being a great color photographer takes a lot of thought. It's an entirely different mindset from black and white. At their best, color photographs stand on their own and don't require a grayscale switch. In fact they feel empty when drained of their saturation.

On the other hand, making a brilliant black and white photograph takes a whole different thought process (and the right developer). A simple switch in Photoshop won't necessarily turn you into the next Salgado. And trust me, it's not hard for contest judges to figure out that rather than shooting Tri-X through a romantically beat-up Leica, you were really shooting digital color through a crappy zoom lens.

Maybe I'm lucky. I work with editors who would back me up if I wanted to shoot a project in black and white, provided I made a good case for it. This didn't just happen automatically. It took a few years to gain that respect in the newsroom, to where people would follow me out onto a limb visually. No matter how ridiculous your boss is, I would argue that it can be done with the right approach and patience. In the meantime, go get a roll of Kodak's B&W Porta 400 or Ilford's XP2 black and white film. Both conveniently develop in C-41 and scan wonderfully.

Years ago, the Best of Photojournalism books ran the words "original in color" next to color images that had been grayscaled. Let's bring that back. Then we'll know who's faking it.


What I Really Think About Photo Fakery.

Damn, it has been a sorry year for journalism. So many scandals and with the Internet they're so public now. You used to only hear iffy rumors about stuff like guys getting fired for smoking marijuana in the lab or professors conducting "lighting workshops" with nude female students.

These days I read Romenesko every morning to see what poor loser just got fired. With liars, fakers, and lazy-ass-watch-the-game-on-television-and-write-a-story-like-I-was-there-sportswriters being fired left and right, don't think your editor is going to go to bat for you after you've pulled a minor PhotoStunt. You'll likely be packing up your belongings while your editors solemnly inform the readers about the steps they've taken (firing you) to preserve the newspaper's integrity.

You know what the real problem with photo fakery is today? It's just too easy. It's so easy to remove a logo from a background, to cover up a distracting element, to enhance colors. Even my 90-year-old grandfather with his shaky hand on the computer mouse can do stuff like that. It's common knowledge. And you know what? He could even do it on an AP deadline with nothing more than a $99 copy of Adobe Elements. And he's a Shriner, for hell's sake!

The Photoshopping of news photos is done by a horde of amateurs several times daily over at Check out some of their digital manipulation contests. They're pretty funny and continually full of inside jokes that you'll only get after watching the site for a week or more.

The bottom line, and I'm speaking to photographers who want to wear the journalist label, is that the accuracy of all content is of the utmost importance. This goes for stories, headlines, photographs, and cutlines. This goes for websites, contest entries, and portfolios. For the vast majority of newspapers in America you can't alter content beyond basic dodging and burning, spot removal, color correction. That is how it should be.

If you really enjoy making your photographs perfect in Photoshop, why are you working in journalism? You could be making ten times the money in advertising or commercial photography. Either of those fields would take full advantage of your nifty digital manipulation skills. Besides, when's the last time you heard of an ethics scandal in commercial photography?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not old fashioned. I'm all for digital manipulation. But only in the privacy of my own bedroom and only with my lawfully married spouse.

(Trent Nelson is the chief photographer of the Salt Lake Tribune and is a regular contributor to the Sports Shooter Newsletter. He will be leading a breakout on "Digital Imaging and Workflow" at the upcoming Sports Shooter Workshop & Luau.)

Related Links:
Trent Nelson's member page

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