Why The Cloning Tool Can Be Such A Temptress

This is the kind of shot that breaks a bird photographer’s heart…


red tailed hawk cloned 7266 ron dudley

 1/2000, f/5.6, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

This Red-tailed Hawk image from last week in Montana is an example of what I’m nearly always hoping to get when I’m on a perched raptor while it’s facing away from me and about to take off.  99+% of the time all you’ll get is a butt shot but if you’re extremely (and I do mean extremely) lucky you’ll get a nice look back from the bird as it banks, a widely flared and beautiful tail, good light on the entire dorsal surface, light in the eye and maybe even something interesting in the background other than featureless sky.   And this time there was the bonus of a small falling feather below the left foot (something I like but others may find distracting).

The only problem is, this image isn’t real.  Or at least significant parts of it aren’t real.



red tailed hawk 7266 ron dudley

This version of the same image is true reality – including a damned wire going completely through the axis of the hawk and the top of an ugly power pole that had been the bird’s perch lurking in the frame corner.

Typically when something like this happens I delete the image to get rid of the reminder of what “could have been” but occasionally I simply cannot resist playing around with it a little first.  In the first version I’ve cloned out both the wire and the top of the pole.  It would be easy to add canvas up top and if I wanted to take the required time to clone in the feather tips I clipped I think I’d have a striking (though fake) image.

I’ll  keep the original RAW file of this shot as a reminder of the potential of situations like this but other than that the image will remain dormant.

I thought this shot illustrated well the temptations for cloning faced so often by bird photographers.  I’m of the opinion that in many ways birds in flight are the most difficult of all nature photography subjects because of their speed and unpredictable flight patterns and many things have to go right to get a truly spectacular shot.  That makes it all the more tempting to “fudge” a little when one of those requisite elements eludes the photographer but everything else comes together.

Adobe’s relatively new “content aware” cloning tool which has been available since the release of Photoshop CS6 makes it much easier for even the novice at processing to clone elements into and out of an image.  Perhaps some of these new and powerful tools are double-edged swords for the photography world…

Ok, back to “real” photography – starting tomorrow.



26 comments to Why The Cloning Tool Can Be Such A Temptress

  • Ron:
    Here are links to two blog posts related to the issue of modifying images.
    Both are worth reading IMO and a number of excellent points are made. For example, the astropix link points out that photos are not perfectly objective recordings of reality, that no film or digital camera perfectly and accurately records nature. What comes out of the camera depends on the film used, the white balance selected, etc. This article also notes that perceived color is created in the mind of the observer and is not a physical property of objects in the world. Another interesting point is that in some situations it would be unethical not to digitally alter a photo when it records something incorrectly, such as red eye or the green cast of an image shot under fluorescent lights on daylight film. One more point from this post is that in some cases the only way to present a truer representation of the external world is through a composite rather than with a single exposure. The example used is of a rising moon over city lights. The dynamic range of modern cameras cannot accurately represent what we perceive when viewing such a scene.
    Here is a quote from the original version of the second blog post … I was the person who asked Guy Tal to recreate the post, but then later found my copy of the original.
    “Photography and seeing are different in many ways. A case can be made that they are not only unrelated, but in some ways may be at complete opposites.
    In the waking hours our eyes are continuously open, constantly processing visual information to create context and meaning, not from any one impression, but from a sequence or progression of images. Every now and then we blink and lose an instance which, in the overall process of seeing is rarely even recorded and is completely insignificant. Photography in this sense is the exact opposite of seeing – the camera is blind most of the time and has no sense or context of place, time, or sequence of events. For an instant it blinks open and captures an image – an instant that is more meaningful than all the time spent in dark disconnect from its surroundings.
    To put it another way – seeing is about creating meaning from a continuous stream of visual information, where any given instance is meaningless. Conversely, photography is about creating meaning from one fleeting instance, where all events preceding and following it are irrelevant.
    Seeing is about interpreting the world for ourselves, photography is about interpreting or communicating it to others. Perhaps rather than the “art of seeing” we should be thinking of photography as “the art of showing”?”

    • Lane

      Mr Sparks, thank you. Exactly what I was trying to say, but stated far more elegantly. Everything we do in the digital darkroom was done in the chemical darkroom, for decades. What I appreciate most about the images on this blog is that I know there has been no human intervention to attract the birds, and the images are usually very pretty, very informative, or both. I couldn’t care less that a fence post or barbed wired was excused from the party, show me the bird! Some of these birds I’ve never seen, and others are inspiration for my own work. The birds are being done justice, no need for fretting. Best to all!

      • Lane, I’ve learned a lot from “Mr. Sparks” over the years (he generously reached out to me, a stranger, and helped me fine tune my atrocious sharpening technique perhaps 6 years ago) and his comments are always insightful and thought provoking (and often subtly hilarious). I’m still not sure I’m convinced that some of the arguments presented here work for me but I’ll surely mull it all over for a while and see what comes out in the wash.

        I’ve enjoyed the give and take of the conversation very much.

        • “…helped me fine tune my atrocious sharpening technique perhaps 6 years ago…”
          Hmmm….when are we going to get some hints on that?
          Hint, hint…

          • Bruce, Hmmm, I’ve never thought of including sharpening technique as a subject for one of my posts. I’ll have to put it on my list of possible topics. In the meantime, if you email me with any specific sharpening questions (you could use my contact form at the top of this page) I’d be happy to help if I can. I suspect I could only be helpful if you use either full Photoshop or Photoshop Elements for your processing.

  • Charalotte Norton

    OK Ron! You’ve peeked my interest. I’m going to have to take a look at it.

  • Lane

    One more thing: those images from Ansel Adams most assuredly did not come out of ghe camera looking like the final product. And I’ve never seen any commentary attached to an AA image in which he told his audience all about the stray twig, ugly cloud, snapped tree, etc that he remived in the darkroom, and I never cared about all the changes. I want to enjoy the final image without all the photo-artist’s justifications for all the things he or she did in the digital darkroom. Beauty is beauty; let it be. (Again my $.02, not meant to offend.)

  • Lane

    I would have to respectfully disagree that a cloned photo is not real. There are many kinds of photographs; if you’re interested only in documentary photography, then I can understand a reluctance to clone and otherwise accomplish a lot of post-processing in CS6 and other tools. If, however, by doing post work causes your inage to move into the realm of art, then you may ethically and morally shake loose the boundaries imposed by documentary work. Not all images, heck, not -most- images can be rightfully called art, but I think in many ways your raptor does meet the threshhold. There’s a definite and palpable fluidity to its flight when the distractions are removed, and it’s quite fetching, regardless of the wing tips. Just my opinion, and food for thought.

  • I draw the line at combining elements from different images.
    The goal of my photography is to showcase the beauty of natural places and creatures. To show what can be seen, by casual observation.
    So, no replacing images of sky, for example. But I’d have no problem cloning out a distracting background, or even a branch as I did here:
    I do feel that disclosure is appropriate when non-cosmetic changes are made.

  • … not to beat a dead horse, but I’ve had lengthy conversations about this with other photographers (as, I’m sure, have all of you!) and I think the line in the sand is, if it’s more than color / straightening / bug removal stuff, it falls into the digital art category. So I consider myself both a photographer and a digital artist. it remains for the photographer-artist AND the viewer to decide which category an image falls into … but without the disclosure of the edit process itself, that can be tough for the viewer. Well, for those viewers who care, of course!! Great conversation … good to hear what others think!!

  • Ron; I’m with you 100%. I love to be able to mend the horrific backgrounds that remind me of human civilisation.

  • Patty Chadwick

    OK. Now I’m completely paranoid. All I can think about is, “How many really great shots did that Dudley guy zap because they had some kind of minor ‘flaw’? What amazing shots have we missed?”. I won’t sleep tonight…thanks a bunch, Ron!!!

  • I completely understand your sentiments and standards. I know we’ve had this discussion elsewhere, too. I think the most reasonable baseline for people should be disclosure on things that were clearly altered. I’m hedging, however, toward the more lenient side on post-processing for art’s sake. I process most of my shots because they’re RAW and that’s the whole point of shooting RAW files — to have PP flexibility. But, I think context does matter tremendously — whether you’re presenting your images, as Roberta suggests, for photojournalistic purposes or rather, in the context of exhibiting an artistic expression that evolves from your impressions. Nature photography, for me, can feel a bit limiting at times because, like you, I do not feel at comfortable changing scenarios to suit my whims — especially when changes would clearly misrepresent an animal, a species, a behavior, or the ecology of a place. But, I’m a creative soul at heart and truly enjoy the tools available to me these days. For me, getting the images into Lightroom is half the fun of my process — I really dig watching the final image emerge, if you will, from the developing fluid. That’s different from what we’re discussing here but still, I think there is room for the many thoughtful ideas presented here by other photographers. As Patty said here, I would hate to have *never* seen this shot because of the post-processing involved. It’s one of the prettiest Red-tail images I’ve seen, illustrating the reason for the bird’s name! I guess you could say that I’d have no problem arriving at your blog and seeing precisely what you’ve shown us now. You wouldn’t even have to post the before, just mention that you cloned out a wire for aesthetic reasons. That would be enough for me. As you say, it’s clearly the province of individual to decide those things and I appreciate and cherish that your conscientiousness stems from myriad examples where *no* consideration whatsoever was given to the ethics of a photograph and its processing.

  • I think it depends on what you’re presenting it as, and what the purpose is. As long as you are not claiming something that’s not true, it’s a matter of your artistic license. Beautiful work, and interesting to show the two versions. I never even knew what “cloning” was! (Except the clone army in Star Wars.)

  • Dick, Roberta, Patty, Tim, Sharon, Dwynn, Donna and Lois – Thank you all so much for your thoughts on this cloning thing. I’m sorry I’ve been late to respond but I’ve been out on the island shooting all morning.

    I think virtually all digital photographers clone but the spectrum of what is done is on a continuum from incredibly minor to adding or removing major elements. After all, simply removing dust spots is cloning. So we each must decide for ourselves what point on that continuum is going too far for our own purposes and sense of ethics.

    For me that decision easily allows cloning dust spots and often allows removal of unwanted out of focus flying bugs, a few spots on the water and occasionally a small piece of trash or debris in the image. I feel uncomfortable with any more of this kind of manipulation than that – though I’ve occasionally done so for blog images when I’ve disclosed it (which I do).

    My goal with my images is a standard used by many reputable photo competitions. An example is the The Peregrine Fund’s current calendar photo competition which states in the rules that “Photos altered beyond necessary cropping, color balancing and sharpening are ineligible. It is assumed that the submitted photo is what your camera recorded when the shutter was released”.

    I don’t always meet that rigid standard but I try to avoid straying from it any further than I feel fairly comfortable with.

    Each of us must decide what works for us and what doesn’t. That said, I think that full disclosure of any significant manipulation is essential to ethical nature photography.

    Very interesting discussion – thank you all!


  • Not a purist here … I freely admit I like fudge … I fudge all the time!! But I’m not trying to pass off what I do as anything else. With me, what you see is what you get, but it may not be what I got in the first place, and I make that very clear on everything I do. You’re so right … all the goodies in Photoshop are temptresses … I hear their siren call every day. To me, the fun of editing is equal to the fun of the shot itself. Big girl and boy toys. Which is why I admire the glorious images that you let us enjoy every day!!!! My goal will always be to get that perfect shot straight out of the camera … but as you say, it doesn’t happen very often!

  • Dawna

    you know, Ron … the ethical thing is sharing the truth and that is rare. I really appreciate it. however, I think this is really good use of the technology available for image editing. perfection is of course in our own eye, though few would argue that the photo of ‘things as it is’ would be preferred to the shopped image.

    where i run into objections on image editing is when an image is over processed and obviously touched up … think Airbrushing certain professional portraiture back in the 60’s and 70’s.

    almost all of your images are suitable for framing. Do you have any for sale?

    thanks again for the full disclosure and the feathered exposures … a daily treat!

    cheers, dawna
    san francisco

  • Beautiful combination of photography and post processing, Ron. Here are my humble thoughts on the subject:

    Compare a photo in which a power line has been cloned out to one in which the colors, contrast, etc. have been extremely exaggerated. The former has produced something that could easily have been observed naturally; the latter, something that never occurs naturally. Those are extremes, of course, but IMHO the former is still NATURE PHOTOGRAPHY in the strictest definition of the term; the latter, perhaps more of an artistic interpretation of nature, like painting. But, as they say, vive la différence.

    BTW, my favorite RAW post-processing software is Lightroom 4.4, but long “line removal” such as this is one area where LR is weak. Even Photoshop Elements makes it easier to do.

  • Sharon Constant

    I echo the sentiments expressed in the previous posts. I don’t think it’s “faking” an image when all you did was remove the ugly wire and pole. You didn’t touch the bird. And what a magnificent creature this bird is. Thank you for posting it and rescuing the moment for us.

  • Patty Chadwick

    Ron-please remember that as with drugs, there’s use and abuse…photoshop,etc. is similar. Thanks to these programs, there’s a lot of monkeying around with reality (abuse), but they can also be a valuable tool for good, too…as you did with this photo…Please don’t go so super purist that we miss shots like these… experiences we can only have through your eyes, your lens. You can still maintain your sense of integrity by identifying any changes made in your comments..as you did here….Thank goodness you did clean this one up a bit…Like Elephant’s Child, many of us are under a lot of stress these days,(mental, physical, financial, spiritual), myself included. Looking forward to your incredible pictures and comments, and the comments of knowledgeable viewers, each morning, gives us something beautiful, distracting, and uplifting to start each day with. For me It’s pejuta/medicine. I thank you for it.

  • 48dodger

    We all have filters we look at life through. Infact, we continue to filter what we have seen and how we remember it long after it happened, i.e. “The older I get, the better I was”. Twenty people witness a car wreck and,surprise, twenty slighty different versions are shared with the authorities. Of course bias and opinion play heavily in the rememberance of any single or multiple events, but your image of a beautiful Red Tailed Hawk in flight. For me, that is art. You set the lens and waited for the subject…the pole was never invited. This makes it your art. If its a bird at the scence of a crime, then by all means, removing any shadow could mean removing poosible evidence of a second shooter! But my friend, all I would have ever remembered, if I was there, was the outline of a magnificence bird of prey in motion. Pole? What pole? I don’t remember seeing anything but the sky and the hawk, officer….

  • Patty Chadwick

    A gorgeous shot of one of my favorite birds…little brother to the eagle. Thank you for removing the hand- of- man “noise”, esp. the ugly line that looks like it’s going through the birds head…don’t mind the post as much. So glad you remembered you priorities and goals. You kept the bird “pure”, no fiddling around or phony “enhancement”, preserving and sharing the beautiful and eliminating the ugly…leaving your loyal fan club with something beautiful and inspiring rather than disappointing and disturbing. I love the fanning of the tail, this birds signature and the tiny feather “calling card” he’s leaving behind. I may make “digital giclees ” and sell them as copyrighted originals on Ebay and Etsy!!!

  • I guess I am a bit more “liberal” in my thoughts about cloning. I absolutely agree that modifying the subject of an image, just because we can, is inappropriate. But I have 2 comments about this particular situation: 1) you did not alter anything about the subject itself (and I absolutely agree with NOT adding the tips of the clipped feathers- that would directly affect the subject). All you did is remove distracting features in the background, that do not change how spectacular the bird is in your shot. 2) you disclosed it. That to me is crucial. You told us that you removed distracting and unessential elements, but did not touch the bird. I am just fine with that. Adding stuff that was never there to a picture is a different story, although I have done that too, in specific and very unique situations- not animals or wildlife, and it has always been disclosed (or in fact requested by the client).

    Unless your image is intended as true historical documentation of the specific instance and environment in which it was shot (such as photojournalists do), where even burning and dodging may be inappropriate, I see nothing wrong with trying to present the subject in the best possible way, but without altering the subject itself. But your goal i sto document the bird in ithis particular situation- not the wires. And by the way, I love the picture- as always, I wish I would get something like this myself!

  • Dick Harlow

    I agree with practically everything you say on this blog, because I feel very similarly toward photography. However, in this case ALL you did was to remove the wire from the photograph. I don’t have a problem with that as long as that is ALL you did. My problem with PP is what some photographers do to the picture that, in my mind, is NOT depicting the original image. And, because software programs out there are so pervasive allowing people to show scenes that are nothing like the original image, it makes one wonder, when shown a real neat shot, whether it is really real or not.
    That is why your blog is so important! Your philosophy and experience are out there for everyone to see and understand which hopefully prevents misconceptions.
    Ron, the images we shoot are what we get. If there is a wire in the way of or in back of a gorgeous shot of a Red-tail I personally don’t have a problem in removing it. I have to say though, I can’t do that because Aperture 3 doesn’t have that capability, but if they did I would have done the same thing and would have been delighted with that shot! Great job!!