Basic Image Clean-up: Right or Wrong? « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Basic Image Clean-up: Right or Wrong?

This drake Kelp Goose was photographed with the tripod-mounted Canon 300mm f/2.8 L IS II lens, the 2X III teleconverter, and the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 200. Evaluative metering -1/3 stop: 1/2000 sec. at f/5.6 in Av mode.

Central Sensor AI Servo Rear Focus AF and recompose. Click here if you missed the Rear Focus Tutorial.

Kelp and Upland Geese are the two common goose species on the Falklands. In most locations they are a bit wary but on West Point those that hang around the dwellings are quite a bit more forgiving. See image last to learn what was inside one of the dwellings….

Basic Image Clean-up: Right or Wrong?

Take a moment to check out the animated GIF below. As I do with most images (except those to be entered in the major contests), I used the Patch Tool and a few small Quick Masks to perform the basic clean-up, eliminating some distracting white feathers and small bits of debris. A 40% hardness Clone Stamp Tool was used to get rid of several large specular highlights. Instructions for using all of the basic clean-up tools are detailed in our Digital Basics File. Digital Basics includes my complete digital workflow, dozens of other great Photoshop tips, and free annual updates for as long as I am pushing the shutter button. Advanced Quick Masking techniques are covered in Robert O’Toole’s APTATS I (Advanced Photoshop Tips and Techniques Simplified.)

Right or Wrong?

In your opinion, is basic image clean-up right or wrong in nature photography? As always, be sure to let us know why you feel that way that you do.

The Cheesemans’ provided some very nice extras on the trip. At West Point in the Falklands those who wished a ride up the hill with their gear, about a mile in total, were provided one by the locals. That included me :). In addition, a sumptuous mid-morning snack along with coffee and tea was provided. That’s my roommate Pablo in his yellow slicker. As I mentioned earlier, there were lots of tame birds around the buildings. I took a tiny bite of a brownie just before leaving….

Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris

I traveled to the Southern Ocean with Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris; find out what I thought about them here. You can learn more about CES by clicking here. If you have any questions you can shoot them an e-mail or call them at 800.527.5330.

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Comments on Comments

I commented on the comments in the giant sunflower image repost of January 2, 2012 here. There is lots of interesting and educational material there especially in my response to the comment by Bob McColley who asked about depth-of-field with different lenses…. His misconception is a common one.

Support both the Bulletins and the Blog by making all your B & H purchases here.

Remember: you can earn free contest entries with your B & H purchases. Eleven great categories, 34 winning and honored images, and prize pools valued in excess of $20,000. Click here for details.

Shopper’s Guide

Below is a list of the gear used to create the image in today’s blog post. Thanks a stack to all who have used the Shopper’s Guide links to purchase their gear as a thank you for all the free information that we bring you on the Blog and in the Bulletins. Before you purchase anything be sure to check out the advice in our Shopper’s Guide.

Canon 300mm f/2.8 L IS II lens. This lens proved to be ideal on a tripod for both birds and wildlife with both the 1.4X and 2X III TCs. All images were super-sharp and the lens was light enough for hand-holding both in the zodiacs and when doing flight photograph from the ship.
2X III teleconverter. This new TC is sharper than the 2X II version.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV professional digital camera body. My two Mark IVs are my workhorse digital camera bodies.

And from the BAA On-line Store:

LensCoats. I have a LensCoat on each of my big lenses to protect them from nicks and thus increase their resale value. All my big lens LensCoat stuff is in Hardwood Snow pattern.
LegCoat Tripod Leg Covers. I have four tripods active and each has a Hardwood Snow LegCoat on it to help prevent further damage to my tender shoulders 🙂
Gitzo GT3530LS Tripod. This one will last you a lifetime.
Mongoose M3.6 Tripod Head. Right now this is the best tripod head around for use with lenses that weigh less than 9 pounds. For heavier lenses, check out the Wimberley V2 head.
Double Bubble Level. You will find one in my camera’s hot shoe whenever I am not using flash.
Be sure to check out our camera body User’s Guides here.
The Lens Align Mark II. I use the Lens Align Mark II pretty much religiously to micro-adjust all of my gear an average of once a month and always before a major trip. Enjoy our free comprehensive tutorial here.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV User’s Guide. Learn to use your Mark IV the way that I use mine. Also available for the 7D and the Mark III here.
BreezeBrowser. I do not see how any digital photographer can exist without this program.

27 comments to Basic Image Clean-up: Right or Wrong?

  • If my wildlife images are to be used by scientists then I’ll be guided by their desires. I usually show them the raw image and then we decide how to proceed. I will not add animals or change their shape or form but I may eliminate reflections or highlights, or garbage as was done in the “basic image cleanup” if requested.

    As for fine art, let your conscience be your guide, works for me.

    If I’m entering a contest then I simply follow the rules.

  • Doug Zoern

    I can go either way, depending on the purpose of the image. Fine Art – knock yourself out, Documentary – Don’t touch (or very minimal), Eductional – do it, document it.

    When I first got into photography I shot slides, editing wasn’t possible. I read books with wonderful images but mine were never as clean. A lot was written about lighting, DoF, perspective, etc. but not much was said about post processing, captive model shoots, or # of shots taken to get that magic one.

    I only recently got back into photography and went digital. It’s been less than 6 months since picking up Lightroom and the ability to edit images. I think I improved many images and saved some. I’ve even converted some into something that they weren’t originally. This has gotten me excited about the craft again but I also recognize that it could make me lazy or careless behind the camera.

    I’m loving the digital age. The new capabilities are handy but more I appreciate the openness and discussions on sites like this one. For me knowing what is possible removes the stress about perceived shortcomings of my own images and it allows me to appreciate each image for what it is, post-processed or not. I don’t worry as much about how something was done, I can just enjoy, despise, or anything inbetween an image for what it is.

  • Joel Eade

    I see absolutely nothing wrong with it with the exception of photojournalism or perhaps altering an image that might have legal consequences like a crime scene or something like that.

    Cameras and software are tools, use them and your ceativity in as many ways as possible. Just don’t mislead anyone about what you have or haven’t done. Photographers have been using devices and methods like this ever since the invention of the camera. One of Ansel Adams quotes “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication. It a creative art.”

  • If the natural history of the image hasn’t been changed, then I’ve got no problems with image optimisation.

  • Derek Courtney

    Right or wrong? I’ll say both … or neither 🙂 The only thing we as photographers can do is decide for ourselves. For me, removal of natural elements from a photo falls outside my ethics. But I am not trying to win any contests or sell any images. Specifically as to the image above, I don’t think the removal of blades of grass or bill smudges adds anything to the image. So I wouldn’t do it. I don’t think that the cleanup above detracts in any way from the “natural history” of the image (a phrase SO important to contest photographers). And I fully concede that the cleaned up image above would probably sell better in a gallery. So, if the photographer’s cleaned-up image makes him/her smile more, or sell better, more power to him/her. One would hope that, if that is the case, the photographer would follow Artie’s lead and openly divulge that info from the get-go. I will say that (I hope) photographers on both sides of the right/wrong line would rather the “distracting” elements be removed from the scene in post-processing as opposed to disturbing the environment/bird/birders/photographers beforehand to create the mirage of perfection.

  • Chuck Garrett

    When composing a truly great image — minimizing background distractions becomes paramount! However, no matter how hard we try, theres always a few that sneak in undetected. So what do we do? Chances are we are not able to go back and redo the image the second time — and if we could, conditions would probably have changed. As for me, removal of small distracting items is not that great of a sin! After all, you were probably the only one there when you took the image — only you know if any distraction(s) existed — and besides, who wants to buy your image if it’s loaded with distractions???

  • Neither right or wrong, this business comes down to personal comfort level, I think. I’ll speak for myself: I’ve been taking bird pictures for only two years and recently my eyes have changed; I can see that certain images can be vastly improved with just a little bit of cloning, masking, clean-up, etc. Because photography is as much technical craft as art, I believe that many photographers box themselves in with rules. Bird photography can be many different things: illustration, honest-to-goodness documentation, a brush and palette for non-painters, etc etc. But let’s face it: putting personal aesthetics into a small and rigid box is tantamount to lunacy! I’ll drift further off topic by saying that I know one very talented bird photographer who is vehemently opposed to manipulation in post-processing, but at the same time is a regular user of set-ups and home-made perches and staunchly supports this kind of pre-processing. Go figure, I say. This thing is an art for those of us who want it to be an art, and with art there must always be tolerance for both rules and rule-breaking. The pun on your name, by the way, is wholly unintentional…

  • Those of you who are relying on “habitat” to say that am image should not be cleaned up might first ask the photographer the purpose for the image. Frankly, I do not see a closeup of a bird on grass as being a presentation of the bird in it’s habitat; I see this as a presentation of a bird AND as teaching exercise how to clean up distractions.

    If, and I say, IF, the photographer makes clear in some manner that the presentation is intended to show the habitat, then I agree that what you see is what you get – it is the way it is.

    In my opinion there is no need for the black & white.

    Finally, those of you who are black & white, to wit: “it is wrong”, what do you do about lighting, contrast, etc. Obviously, if you are only supposed to present what you see at the time of the making of the image, you would never us a flash or a reflector, you would never intentionally blur a background since everything we see at all distances is basically in focus, …………

    Face it, the moment you trip the shutter you have changed what you eye is seeing.

  • kati


    I fall somewhere in between total clean up of a natural scene and gross removal of distracting light sources, tree limbs, etc. that distract from the main image. Sometimes your images do look “too perfect” and take away the sense of the natural world that the bird/animal inhabits. It really comes down to what are you as a photographer/artist attempting to convey in your image. There is room for both forms of expression.

  • Dan Smith


    Is this used editorially or for Art/Commercial usage?

    Cloning out and changing the scene is not Kosher for editorial and news use. Basic dodging/burning and cropping – no problem.

    For artistic and commercial you pretty much have leeway for most anything. Put the bird on Mitt Romneys head and clone in two pounds of goose whitewash if you want?


  • Fernando Diez

    I think cleaning the photo does not affect the essence of the photo. It’s just a cosmetic issue, I personally am in favor, and I really like the end result. In other cases you have to add a part of the animal that came out of the picture, in my case the picture is deleted.
    In the gif, you can see how simple things have greatly embellished image.

  • cheapo

    I don’t mind the cleanup, and I don’t think this sweet male Kelp Goose does either. I’ve heard that the Falklanders are legendary for their hospitality when required. :¬)

  • Mike Eckstein

    Image clean ups that enhance the image are what makes an image great. Very few images are not helped by enhancement. Ansel Adams was the king of image enhancement in the darkroom days and many people consider his work the embodiment of great landscape photography. I’m sure if he were alive today he would be a big fan of photo enhancing software.

  • I am surprised how many posters are against cleanup. I like Artie’s clenup much better than the original. He is not taking an image of a scene. He is taking an image of a bird. AS an artist he has the right to remove objects that compete with his subject.

  • In my eyes, I don’t believe it is right to remove elements from a nature image. For me, bird photography means providing the public with images to help put aside land/ protected areas to help conserve endangered species. If you begin removing elements just to make a pretty picture, it kind of defeats the purpose. Now this may not be the intent of another bird photographers images, but in my rule book this is wrong.

  • I think the appropriate question IMHO is what are you trying to present?

    If you are presenting what you SAW, and you so state, don’t remove anything and leave all of the distractions.

    If your purpose is to present and study the primary subject matter, e.g., the bird, then remove everything that distracts from that purpose.

    I specifically state on my website under construction: “WELCOME! Presented on these pages are my personal renditions of what I saw and what I captured. I do hope you enjoy my “Digital Art” presentations!!”

  • Mary Stamper

    There’s no such thing as an image that is “as seen”. Neither digital or film can reproduce what is actually seen. Even if the dynamic range is within the reach of the recording medium, “As seen” would have to be 3 dimensional. The camera starts it’s journey into “not as seen” by flattening into 2 dimensions. Add wide open lenses and hot spots due to the lack of sufficient dynamic range of the recording medium, and “as seen” is even more a non-reality.

    I see no reason not to remove ugly highlights. They might not have been ugly in the real scene because our eyes could see the dynamic range. The highlights got ugly because the sensor couldn’t capture them “as seen”, so why not get rid of them.

  • David Barber

    This picture is so much better with the cleanup. At first look, I also expected the piece of grass sticking up to the bird’s neck to be gone also. For those who think this is not an acceptable practice, you should know that Ansel Adams did the same thing with some of his prints.

  • I echo Charlie Young’s comments. By also softening the white (using Recovery in Camera Raw, maybe?), there is a wonderful contrast between the bird and the brown, uncluttered surroundings. Lovely shot and great cropping! Congrats!!

  • Colin Smith

    The removal of distracting elements from a digital image, such as illustrated here, is by no means “wrong”. By creating a cleaned up image that draws the viewers eye to the real nature subject, the true integrity of the photograph is preserved. IMHO it is just a matter of degree. Any cleanup that alters the basic honesty of what the photographer saw, should be avoided.

  • Artie, I generally refrain from this topic as there are those who believe one way and those who believe the other, and there seems to be little interest in either side to consider that they may not be the way the true or the light. Be that as it may, my view is that so long as you are honest about what you have or have not done, I see no reason for concern. A significant part of my reasoning goes back to the early days of ornithology. Wilson, Audubon, etc., represented birds and other wildlife as they saw them. This was an inherently subjective view with the artist playing the role of visual editor as well as the role of artist/painter. I see little difference with today’s bird artists, the overwhelming majority of whom use cameras instead of paint. Likewise, I find the requirement of some photo contests of not permitting the removal of anything beyond sensor spots as just plain silly. A few years back, I took a very disappointing course at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography in which the instructor maintained that removing anything from an image was wholly impermissible if your intent was have it published. When I noted that there are industries, such as fashion magazines, where virtually if not all of the images are highly altered, I was in effect told to be quite as I did not know what I was talking about. He also did not want to hear about such works as Katrin Eismann’s “Restoring & Retouching” (2006) or “Masking & Compositing” (2005).

  • Pat Lillich

    hey Artie, I like taking out the bright spots, but would like to have seen it with the grass heads behind around the bird just toned down a little, not removed. somehow it feels less wild in the cleaned up version – but i’m betting you tried that and found them too distracting. Wonderful photo – hope we get opportunities like this next fall!!

  • Michael Wolf

    I counted about 25 small touch-ups you did and while would not have done them it does make the image look cleaner. How do we or do we disclose cleaning up random weeds & debris?

  • Charlie Young

    I think the image clean-up works. It gets rid of distracting elements in the photo but really doesn’t change the theme of the composition. Not allowing these minor fixes in competition is backward thinking IMO.

  • IMO you did the right thing. You took out any “shiny” highlights that might distract a viewers eye from the beauty of the snow white bird. Plus you made the bill “perfect”. Removing the highlights in the fore and background enhanced the “mood” to me any way.

  • George Cottay

    For me, contest submissions aside, such gentle and skilled cleanup is more mandatory than merely permissible.

  • Tim

    I don`t really see the need for minor cleanup.Nature isn`t perfect and our images of it should be natural as seen.If I wanted to shoot perfect images I would have become a studio photographer with total control of the environment.