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Authenticity & Integrity in Photography

Updated: Jul 10

How do photographers foster trust in an artificial world?

AI-generated photo of snowcapped mountains with fog

Before I dive into my thoughts regarding the advancement of technology and its impact on photography, I want to acknowledge that my viewpoints are largely biased by how I personally approach the craft. The standards I hold myself to as valid and ethical approaches to nature photography are far from black and white and, accordingly, others may feel quite differently.

Even within my own collection of work, the boundary of those standards may fluctuate from image to image, or shift over time, although I feel I have been largely consistent over the past several years.

That disclaimer out of the way... my photographic art is rooted in two primary principles: being reactive to my surroundings and remaining true to what I saw and experienced. As the abilities of editing tools, and now AI, advance at ever-increasing speeds, I find myself committed to that second principle of representational photography more than ever.

What is Reactive Photography?


Rather than extensively pre-planning specific compositions, meticulously predicting sunrise and sunset quality and other events using apps, and allowing them to dictate my actions, I have evolved to embrace spontaneity. The preconceived notions of what constituted a "good" image gradually eroded my enjoyment of photography, as reality often fell short of (or just different than) my lofty expectations.

Instead of confining myself within artificially narrow boundaries, I now appreciate the endless offerings of the natural world. By relinquishing my dependence on extraordinary conditions, typically at sunrise or sunset, I compelled myself to explore more creative perspectives, leading to a transformative shift in how I perceive my surroundings.

I feel a stronger desire to remain faithful to the experiences

This conscious choice made me a better and happier photographer. Even today, I am more inclined to sit and savor a beautiful sunset sky, rather than frantically capturing it through my lens.

As my time spent in the field has become more fulfilling with this shift in mindset, I feel a stronger desire to remain faithful to the experiences when it comes time to process my photos, as well.

Nothing is as impressive as the real thing.

Why Does Authenticity in Photography Matter?


As someone who deeply appreciates the beauty and magnificence of the natural world, I feel strongly about protecting the authenticity of nature photography through representational work. To me, it is not just about capturing visually stunning images; it is about preserving genuine moments and scenes that evoke a sense of wonder and awe.

The falsification of photography through compositing and manipulation in tools such as Photoshop is concerning to me, although far more so when it comes with a lack of disclosure or outright misdirection (such as claiming an image represents an experience when, in fact, it does not). I don't begrudge anyone fulfilling their creative vision through compositing or significant alteration: that in itself can be an extraordinarily artistic endeavor. I do, however, expect honesty and integrity in how such work is presented.

My personal philosophy is that nature photography should capture real experiences and genuine encounters with the natural world. When I view a photograph, I want to feel a connection to the scene, knowing that it truly existed and was witnessed by the photographer. The use of software manipulation tools may create visually impressive images, but they often lack the essence and integrity of the natural environment as it was truly experienced.

Similarly, I feel the rise of AI-generated imagery - especially when the end result is passed off as a photo - poses an even greater threat to the authenticity of all genres of photography. While text-prompted AI algorithms can generate remarkably realistic and beautiful landscapes, these images lack the grounding in reality that I find crucial to feeling inspired.

The ongoing (and accelerating) erosion of public trust in photography concerns me deeply.

The ongoing (and accelerating) erosion of public trust in photography concerns me deeply. If viewers can no longer discern between what is authentic and what is artificially generated, it becomes increasingly challenging to raise awareness about environmental issues and inspire action as the impressions of and definitions of "nature" become corrupted over time.

By upholding the authenticity of nature photography through representational work, I hope to maintain a strong bond between my audience and the natural world, fostering a genuine connection that can inspire a deeper appreciation for my work and our planet's beauty, and foster or strengthen a desire to preserve diminishing natural environments.

AI-altered photo of the Merced River in Yosemite National Park

My Early Realizations in Photography


In the years leading up to buying my first camera, I had an ever-growing collection of saved images on my computer that I used as a screensaver slideshow. This Favorite Photos folder was full of nature, landscape, and night sky images that I found awe inspiring and beautiful. I marveled at the light, the weather, or the surroundings or, most often, a combination of all three elements.

When I took the plunge in 2015 and bought a camera of my own after I caught the photography bug myself, like many new photographers, I wanted to capture the same kinds of scenes. I quickly found myself frustrated that I was never encountering the same incredible conditions and was unable to find such amazing light. How did they do it? What luck they must have! How persistent they must have been in revisiting locations over and over to capture that special moment.

I aspired to have the same dedication to make my own opportunities to capture awe-inspiring moments with my camera.

Before long, however, as I learned more about photography in general, I began to discover more about the dirty secret lurking in the pixels of many of those files I had saved over the years: they were fake. What's worse, in many cases, they were also dishonest.

Instead of feeling awed and inspired and motivated by so many of the photographs that had once excited me, I felt cheated.

I had known about Photoshop and similar tools, but I didn't know to what extent some artists were using software to significantly manipulate and alter their photos. Not just for the sake of emphasizing existing light and shadow and color captured by the camera but painting in their own where it hadn't existed to begin with, or stretching and warping features of the landscape, or adding major elements while also removing others.

Have a good shot of the Milky Way core, for instance? Just drop it into dozens of blue hour landscape photos you have and share the results on social media... without disclosing the departure from reality, of course.

Suddenly, instead of feeling awed and inspired and motivated by so many of the photographs that had once excited me, I felt cheated. Lied to.

I also found myself increasingly skeptical of the images I was seeing online: should I still be inspired or was it all just an endless parade of fakery and deceit?

AI-generated photo of a stream running through a foggy redwood forest

The Foundation of Trust in Photography


Like many, I've felt a sense of wonder at the natural world for as long as I can remember. From National Geographic to Time/Life books and more, I would pour over the pages, marveling at the beauty of our world long before I had the opportunity (or desire) to explore it myself. There was a reasonable expectation that the images I was fawning over were representative of actual things seen and experienced by the photographers who made them.

In short, there was a foundation of trust between the photographer and the viewer.

Somewhere along the line, that foundation not only cracked: it began to crumble. Yes, one could argue that my initial trust was built upon youthful ignorance and naivety: photo manipulation existed long before the invention of the digital camera and Photoshop, after all.

But yet, to the general public, the word "photograph" meant - and still means - something. A photograph could be trusted. It represented something real. Something witnessed. There is a reason the term "photographic capture" exists: a photograph is a literal capture of (the light of) something as it existed.

Through deception they pass off fantastical scenery, weather, or light as a photograph.

Yet here we are. For many years now there has been a subset of photographers, often to great admiration and recognition, passing off highly manipulated imagery as authentic representations of real experiences. Through the deception of omission - that is, not disclosing how an image was significantly altered from its original raw form as captured by the camera's sensor - they pass off fantastical yet manufactured scenery, weather, or light as an authentic photograph.

Or, even worse in my opinion, rather than lying by omission, they outright lie by touting, as an example, the mind-blowing "experience" of a dramatic sunset that was, in reality, created on the computer by compositing a different sky into the landscape.

At this point, I should probably clarify something: I am not against such creative interpretation and alteration of one's work. I actually find it quite frustrating that so many digital artists refuse to take ownership of the actual work they are doing. There can absolutely be tremendous creative artistry and skill involved. Why shy away from it? Why deny it? Why pass it off as something it isn't?

I prefer to avoid the rabbit hole of speculating on their motivating factors, especially as it can be difficult to avoid broad generalizations that come across as accusatory and judgmental rather than seeking to understand. What I will say, though, is that such misrepresentation of photography is harmful to the artist and the photographic community as a whole.

AI-altered photo of Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park

No Harm, No Foul? Not Quite...


When an artist passes off an image as a photo when, in fact, it is more a product of their imagination and technical computer skills, it not only does a disservice to the actual work they've put into it: it damages the legitimacy of "pure" photography and photographers.

Inevitably, like me back when I started learning the ins and outs of photography, viewers will at some point learn that the image or portfolio of work they've admired, and the sense of awe at the beauty of nature they've felt viewing that work, was shared on a foundation of deceit (again, either by intentional omission or deliberate dishonesty).

If their primary motivation was viewing beautiful art, as opposed to having an expectation that what they were viewing was representative of true experiences, they may not be bothered by discovering the truth behind the images.

On the other hand, if their interest and admiration was founded on an appreciation of nature and the hard work (and yes, often luck) that the photographer put in to be in the right places, at the right times, with the right compositional knowledge, to make the photos... well, odds are they will feel betrayed.

Viewers lose the ability to appreciate nature for what it actually is, in all its forms, from loud and bold to quiet and subtle.

The creation of fantastical art, and not being honest about it, also serves to set unrealistic expectations and standards for traditional photography. If everything the public sees is an idealized version of nature, or hyper-realistic interpretations, the more representational work quickly gets overshadowed, overlooked, and dismissed. The viewer loses the ability to appreciate nature for what it actually is, in all its forms, from loud and bold to quiet and subtle.

If and when they become aware of the deception perpetrated by some, they will also experience an erosion of trust in photography as a whole.

While a dash of skepticism is generally a good thing when it comes to photography, when an entire genre of photography is seen more skeptically than not, it's an indication that the foundation of trust has been completely eroded.

AI-generated photo of a storm over sand dunes at sunset

The Rise of AI Photography


I have so far only made a passing reference to the latest evolution of what is being passed off as photography: images created by artificial intelligence. What has become clearer as the capabilities of AI-generated imagery has advanced at surprising, and to some degree terrifying, speed over the past year or so is that we are not far off from living in a world where literally any image (or even more concerning, video) we see could be inauthentic, yet completely indistinguishable from those that are legitimate.

Even worse is, once again, we are seeing artists, calling themselves photographers, sharing new work that is either AI-generated or AI-manipulated and deceitfully passing it off as photography. There are well-known photographers who have been discovered to have been posting work that was created entirely using AI text prompts without any disclosure (not until they were caught in the act, at least).

Imagine a famous photographer who has been sharing their photos for years suddenly shifting to sharing only AI art, but never disclosing it. Unsuspecting followers assume they are still viewing photos, at least somewhat representational of the photographer's true experiences, but they are not. They are viewing work created by someone sitting at their computer typing in various prompts to have an algorithm spit out images.

Sadly, there's no need to imagine such a scenario as it has already played out.

That same photographer, with nearly 70,000 followers on Instagram alone, never indicated anything had changed until they were questioned in the comments of a post. To their credit, I suppose, they did own up to the AI trickery at that point, but then proceeded to disable all commenting on their account. I can only presume that they became weary of being called to task for their dishonesty. There's no need to defend your actions or take responsibility for your deceit if you simply silence your critics.

The fact that they felt it necessary to take such a step would also indicate that a significant portion of their audience did, indeed, feel resentment towards their dishonest representation of their work. How many of them have now also begun to doubt the legitimacy of the work of other photographers they follow, without just cause beyond this one artist's behavior?

Viewers will need to be entirely trustful of artists to know what is authentic or not.

The issue at hand is not limited to misdirection around images created in-whole by typing prompts into an AI tool. There has been tremendous buzz around recent updates to Adobe Photoshop's beta software which allows for fast, easy, and often quite amazing alterations to photo files with only a few simple prompts (or even no prompts at all).

Even in its infancy, where it sometimes completely strikes out on its attempt to alter an image as prompted, it is still often capable of producing incredibly convincing results.

At the rate technology is progressing at this point, I truly feel that within one to two years viewers will need to be entirely trustful of photographers to know what is authentic or not. Certainly, one could argue that we've already reached that point, or that we reached it years ago with the advent of compositing and other tools in software like Photoshop (or, again, even in the days of film when negatives could be convincingly altered to significant degrees).

While a valid argument, it does not properly account for the tremendous ease with which such manipulations can now be made, nor the ability to create images from essentially nothing simply by typing in prompts to an AI generator, such as Midjourney, in our current technological environment.

AI-altered photo of Colorado mountains

How Do We Foster Trust in Photography?


This question is applicable to both viewers of photography and photographers themselves.

As a viewer, as noted previously, skepticism can be healthy. Certainly, when viewing images - or video - presented as "truth" to support political viewpoints or memes (a topic I have zero desire to delve into here), arming ourselves with skepticism will become more and more critical.

Veering back to the topic at hand - nature photography - where the ramifications of being fooled by deceitful parties may not necessarily have outcomes as dire for society as politically or socially motivated falsehoods, there are things that can be done to rebuild the foundation of trust.

Ask yourself what you know about the artist, their processes, and their motivations. What are they sharing - or not sharing - in their captions or on their website? Are they open and responsive to questions around their photography?

If you value authenticity in nature photography, seek out resources that honor the same values. A great example is the Natural Landscape Photography Awards, a relative newcomer in the photography competition space. The founders' mission statement is well summarized by the following quote from the NLPA About page:

"By constraining our photographs [awarded in the competition] to represent the natural world in a truthful manner, we create trust in our artform’s unique position to pair real experiences with artistic creation."

If you ever have the chance to enjoy one of the NLPA books that feature entrants' photos, it's abundantly clear that nature's beauty is more than enough on its own.

Those of us on the creative side of the equation must do more to reach out to our audiences and share what goes into our creative processes.

I feel strongly that those of us on the creative side of the equation must also do more to reach out to our audiences and share what goes into our creative processes, if we care about authenticity and being seen as trustworthy. And yes, that includes those who step away from representational photography into creating art that is less rooted in authentic experiences. We should be proud of our art however it's made.

It may seem unfair to put artists in that position, but at this point I am at a loss for how else to counter the rapid rise of new technology that allows for faster and easier manipulation or creation of work being falsely presented as photography.

I have begun to focus on sharing more about my experiences and what goes into making my photos primarily through written content, although I've also used social media to show more behind-the-scenes snippets from my outings. For others, trust may be forged by creating in-field videos for YouTube (a la Thomas Heaton or Ben Horne) or recording shorter clips of their experiences for Instagram stories or reels, or sharing looks at the unedited versions of their processed photos.

Ultimately, the answer is going to vary from viewer to viewer and artist to artist.

Shifting to completely shameless self-promotion, examples of my efforts in this area may be found in my recent trip reports or my UNFRAMED series on my blog. Although I love the idea of producing in-field videos of my own, I have found that it is quite detrimental to my photography. It adds stress, breaks my concentration on seeing and composing, and hinders my ability to achieve anything remotely consisting of a flow state.

Ultimately, the answer is going to vary from viewer to viewer and artist to artist. Open and honest dialogue, however it's presented by photographers, will go a long way towards rebuilding the foundation of trust in photography.

AI-generated photo of sun beams streaming through a forest with ferns

What's Real vs. What's Not?


View the following images and try to determine which are AI-generated and which are AI-manipulated. If the latter, what was added or changed?

If you think it's easy to identify the AI-generated images, keep in mind Midjourney, the platform I used to create them, was launched just over one year ago. How easy do you think it will be in another year? In the past six months alone, the results have progressed to a point that I can no longer consistently identify an AI creation (especially when viewed on a smaller screen, such as when scrolling through one's social media feeds).

Navigate through the slider gallery below to see what you think. You'll find the details for each image at the end of this post.

Final Thoughts


There are some in the photography community arguing that the concerns being raised over AI "photos" and manipulation are nothing more than photographers projecting fears over new technology onto the latest tools to hit mainstream awareness, akin to film photographers lamenting the rise of digital cameras twenty to thirty years ago.

I vehemently disagree with that viewpoint. Never before have we faced the introduction of tools whose sole purpose is to mimic various outcomes (focusing on photography, specifically) while the "artist" has absolutely no physical connection to or skill requirement for the actual creation of new art.

We must also recognize that, even though AI image generators do not directly reproduce parts of photographer's photos to create a composite image - contrary to popular belief - they are using those photos to learn. They are also learning to mimic the style and aesthetic of specific artists' work. That is a wildly different scenario compared to the transition from film to digital photography.

The shift to digital sensors also did not fundamentally change the definition of what a photo is, yet there are declarations being made that AI-generated or altered imagery is somehow still photography. I find that assertion borderline offensive: imagine a photographer trying to argue to a painter that prints of their photos were instead oil paintings.

AI creations are certainly not photography if we adhere to the accepted definition of the term. I'm still struggling with whether it should even be considered art, given the core methodology by which images are created.

AI has the potential to unlock creative endeavors for individuals with physical limitations that prevent them from expressing themselves artistically through other means.

On one hand, an artist is defined as "a person who creates art using conscious skill and creative imagination." Assuming the person goes into the AI-generative process with a specific vision in mind, perhaps only lacking the skills or monetary means to realize their vision through traditional forms of art, it may be fair to consider them an artist.

AI also has the potential to unlock creative endeavors for individuals with physical limitations that prevent them from expressing themselves artistically through other means. That is, frankly, a beautiful possibility and perhaps the single strongest argument for its existence in the art world.

On the other hand, one could sit down at a computer and, in the case of the new AI-assisted alterations in Photoshop, not even type in any prompts to achieve something indistinguishable from a legitimate unaltered photo. No longer a photo, certainly, and I cannot imagine ever calling it art, or the creator an artist.

I am not, however, the arbiter of art.

AI "art" is another step towards the reduction of what makes us human.

That acknowledgement made, I do hold strong value in human connection and feel that is being lost more and more as technology and society advances; my gut tells me that AI "art" is just another step towards the reduction of what makes us human. Would we be as amazed by the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel if it had been imagined and painted by an AI-driven robot? I suspect not.

Bringing this full circle to nature photography and the importance of authenticity, I crave the sense of human connection that's cultivated through knowing the photographer stood in nature and witnessed what they've shared with me as the viewer. I want to feel wonder and awe at the beauty of our world; I simply cannot marvel at something an algorithm spat out when prompted by someone sitting at their computer.

I began sharing my own photos with the goal of showing others the beauty I was seeing in the world. I gather the same is true for many photographers. Why betray the trust that is inherent in our photography by disrespecting our viewers through misrepresentation and deceit? Why betray our connections as humans by diminishing one of the greatest things we can share with one another?

We are at a fork in the road of art and creativity and humanity. We have a choice in which path we take from here.

If you'd like to watch a great panel discussion about AI and photography, check out this episode of F-Stop, Collaborate, and Listen on YouTube (or listen to it on your podcast platform of choice).

Scroll to the bottom to see which of the above images were generated using AI and which were my own photos but heavily manipulated using AI generation in Photoshop.


Photography Michael Rung

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Breaking Down the Gallery Images


Generated using Midjourney

Altered using Photoshop's generative AI (swipe for original)

Generated using Midjourney

Altered using Photoshop's generative AI (swipe for original)

Generated using Midjourney

Altered using Photoshop's generative AI (swipe for original)

Generated using Midjourney

Altered using Photoshop's generative AI (swipe for original)

Generated using Midjourney

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Brie Stockwell
Brie Stockwell
08 aug. 2023
Betygsatt till 5 av 5 stjärnor.

I agree with you that trust will be earned on an individual basis. Since I now view photography as art, I don't assume that any image is portrayed as it actually was. I leave that information to the artist to share. Feels better that way. FYI- I got all the midjourney images correct. Whew! It's surprising how good the new PS tools are.

Michael Rung
Michael Rung
08 aug. 2023

Haha, yeah... if you know what to look for (or know my photographic style), the Midjourney ones aren't all that difficult to pick out. I do think they are very similar to the style of some very popular photographers, though, and it will only continue to improve over time. I'm sure if I spent more time massaging the prompts I'd have been able to get some different results, too. Regardless, I agree with your statement about photography as art allowing a greater sense of freedom - and awareness - for both editing and viewing. Heck, my own black and white work is definitely not representative in terms of the core concept, and I enjoy the resulting freedom to go far further…