Photo is blurred, but ethics guidelines aren’t

A Hacienda Heights resident who described himself as a 50-year reader of The Times questioned a photo (above) from the May Day immigration rally in downtown Los Angeles:

Forgive me, but for some time now I thought it was the policy of The Times not to print “manipulated” news photographs of any kind.  Looking at the subject image, it is obvious that techniques were used to achieve a “selective focus” effect after the original picture was taken by Brian van der Brug.  This “manipulation” by someone makes the image look more like a piece of propaganda, rather than a legitimate news photograph.

He is correct in his understanding of The Times’ policy on news photos. Indeed, the newsroom’s ethics guidelines are explicit on this point:

Photographs and graphics must inform, not mislead. Any attempt to confuse readers or misrepresent visual information is prohibited. … We do not add color, create photomontages, remove objects or flop images. We do not digitally alter images beyond making minor adjustments for color correction, exposure correction and removal of dust spots or scratches required to ensure faithful reproduction of the original image. Exaggerated use of burning, dodging or color saturation is not permitted.

In fact, this photo has not been altered. Deputy Director of Photography Steve Stroud addressed the reader’s concerns and explained how the photo, which was published Sunday, was taken:

The Times steadfastly maintains its ethics policy stipulating that news photos not be manipulated.

The subject in sunglasses in the center of the photo in question taken by staff photographer Brian van der Brug stands out from his surroundings for two reasons:

First, Van der Brug was using a telephoto lens, and, as is the case with all telephoto lenses, it has an inherently shallow depth of field. That means the point of focus will be sharp, but elements in the foreground and background will be less sharp. This can be further induced by using a shallow depth of field (large aperture) when determining the proper exposure.

Second, Van der Brug used a slow shutter speed, causing a blur effect to anything in the picture that is moving, such as waving flags and body movement.

At the time the shutter was released for this photo, the subject’s head was relatively still compared with his hand, which was waving a flag.

This column was originally published on on May 6, 2010.

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