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Technology: Is there room for Hipstamatic in photojournalism?

Hipstamatic New York Times photographer Damon Winter recently took third place in the prestigious Pictures of the Year International contest for a photo that ran as a part of "A Grunt's Life," about American soldiers in Afghanistan. The photo, however, is the subject of controversy because it was taken on his iPhone with Hipstamatic, an app that treats an image with special effects while it's "developing."

Critics such as photojournalist Chip Litherland say that using Hipstamatic crosses the line; it turns images from photojournalism into photography. And in the past, this would have been a clear-cut issue. Like altering facts, manipulating an image with Photoshop changes its meaning. Take, for example, the infamous Time magazine cover that presented a darkened version of O.J. Simpson's mug shot, thereby editorializing and casting doubt on his innocence.

In a statement reacting to the criticism, Winter defended his decision to use Hipstamatic and lumped it in with the many options -- film, cameras, lenses, flashes -- available to photographers when making aesthetic choices.

We are being naive if we think aesthetics do not play an important role in the way photojournalists tell a story. We are not walking photocopiers. We are storytellers.  We observe, we chose moments, we frame little slices of our world with our viewfinders, we even decide how much or how little light will illuminate our subjects, and — yes — we choose what equipment to use. Through all of these decisions, we shape the way a story is told.


Take as an example the image that won first place in feature singles in this year’s Pictures of the Year International competition. It is black and white, shot with an extremely shallow depth of field to focus attention on the intended subject and blur other distractions and to give it a certain feel. It features a very heavy use of vignetting.

Much of the information in the image has been obscured in the interest of aesthetics. We humans do not see in black and white. And we do not see the world at f/1.2. These are aesthetic choices that do not contribute to the accuracy of the image. They are ways that the scene has been enhanced aesthetically.

Winter also went into how using a camera phone helped him capture more candid photos, though that's almost beside the point in this argument because he could have just as easily used the iPhone's regular camera.

One of the sticking points in this debate is whether a photo should be considered manipulated if the special effects are applied while the photo is still developing. Here's the thing though: You know in advance that using Hipstamatic is going to change the look and feel of your photo. So if you wouldn't use Photoshop, the same logic should be true of Hipstamatic. Yes, Winter makes a compelling argument about the choices photographers make before shooting. But there's still something disconcerting about using an app that you know will alter your image.

Here's how the Hipstamatic folks describe their product.

The Hipstamatic brings back the look, feel, unpredictable beauty, and fun of plastic toy cameras of the past! […] Characterized by vignettes, blurring, over saturation, discolored images, Hipstaprints have a casual and seemingly accidental snapshot feel.

I love the vintage aesthetic of Hipstamtic images, but within the context of photojournalism, do we really want a photograph taken today to look like it's from 1969? Personally, I think it can be misleading. But it's the second point here that really raises a red flag. What if we applied these adjectives -- oversaturation, blurred, discolored -- to published news stories? Would we be comfortable with blurred facts? 


Cartoons: New media, old foes

Is the Washington Post trying to put one over on readers?

--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: Screenshot of Hipstamatic app taken from writer's iPhone.


Comments () | Archives (13)

The comments to this entry are closed.


Can "oversaturation, blurred, discolored" really be applied as adjectives to a news story?
Written words and photographs are different mediums.
Besides, the photographs in question are not "blurred" or distorted to a point where they are misleading.
Considering some of Hipstamatic features can produce more extreme effects, clearly the photographer chose the combination of lenses,film and flashes.

Meh.. in my opinion it was just an aesthetic choice


How is this any different than choosing either b/w or color to shoot? Color would certainly increase the impact of bloody scenes. What if the photographer chose Kodak film instead of Fuji to accentuate the reds and oranges? All color imaging is a lie, it depends on which lie you like, or suits what the photographer is trying to do...


This is just one of the reasons journalism is suffering today...the rules are too rigid...the internet doesn't care and that is why people would rather go to the internet than the newspapers or mags...If the picture looks better or gives it a 'feel' that you wouldn't normally get, then what's the problem?...I personally hate technical photographers, they are BORING!...give me a photographer who just loves playing with different scenes and different settings any day!


The artist's aesthetic has always becomes part of the work, if you think otherwise that is naive.

Choosing a type of camera, film, camera preset or filter... they are all aesthetic choices photographers use to render the image.

Everything lies in the intent, in a "journalism" world the image must adhere to the "truth".... if a contrast choice or saturation boost doesn't change the "truth" of an image I am fine with that.


"What if we applied these adjectives -- oversaturation, blurred, discolored -- to published news stories? Would we be comfortable with blurred facts? "

Oh, the horror! This NEVER happens in modern journalism, does it?

Journalists (and their editors) choose words and sentences and turns of phrase and quotations the same way photographers choose depth of field or light exposure. Any sort of journalism, written word of photograph, is a story told through a certain lens. We shouldn't seek to add artificial boundaries to such by dismissing or rejecting photographs that have been developed or modified to paint a certain picture and tell a journalistic tale.

And we wonder why old mediums are dying?

Ruthene Glass

Most of us are reluctant to change.
Example film to digital etc etc.
Sounds like Hipstamatic picture taking is an amateurs way to take a decent picture. What is the problem? A picture that can tell a story is always nice to see.
What are the pros pouting about anyway. Art is art and great photographers will never be replaced with inventions such as this!
My opinion is if you see something worth sharing by all means get that shot and share it. My opinion only!

cadel favreaux

you people clearly don't understand the rules of photojournalism, you can not doctor a digital photograph with a post processing program such as photoshop. what he did was apply a series of photoshop type filters through a program to an image he captured with his camera. you could achieve the same results as hipstamatic with photoshop filters and if you did so, it would violate the photojournalism rules.
to think that photojournalists are artists is really naive. these rules are in place to preserve the factual integrity of the material being covered, much like many of the rules placed on the journalist, he must write in a way that is factual or face consequences. so to act as if its totally the photojournalists artistic liberty to do things like this is like saying a writer should be able to say whatever he wants about anyone.
his excuse and explaination is really lame too, yeah we all understand that to capture the image a certain way in camera, we make a lot of choices, such as film types, the camera type, the lens, aperture and shutter speed, but those things are to capture an image, what he did was capture an image and then doctor it with a 3rd party program. he didnt even use his own skills to doctor it. its pretty sad.


Every photo ever taken has been a subjective and artistic decision, including combat photos. Even if news photos were restricted to 50mm lenses with absolutely no retouching, just the framing of a photo can include or exclude details. The point of photojournalism shouldn't be to be perfectly objective and non-artistic, but rather to represent the facts honestly and not change their fundamental meaning.


Your dilemma regarding whether journalism is an art or a science relies on the notion of an ideal image. There is no such thing as an ideal image. Where you state that manipulating an image in Photoshop changes its meaning, you are correct, but there is no alternative.

A RAW image is the closest candidate to an uncompromised image, but variables such as exposure, tint and color temperature ensure that even the most informed photographer must choose the set of parameters that best characterizes the average human's perception of the scene. This is no easy task, and scientifically there is no correct answer at your disposal. Artistically, the answer is clear: choose the image processing routine that best reflects your perception of the story, and that conveys your interpretation of the facts to the readers.

As much as journalism strives to be objective, there is no point in telling a story that won't change people's opinions or behavior. You can't advertise a boring story, because that would be a waste of resources. Whether it's misleading, sensationalized, or oversaturated depends on the reader's own preconceptions.

Will Burden

The deeper philosophical point is that NO photograph captures reality. We should not walk into the trap where we think that the image is the real world (map vs. territory, and all that) no matter what the depth of field, color settings, etc. It's up to the viewer to look while questioning the image and his/her response to it at any given time. To the extent that a photo makes us reassess our understanding of the world, to dig a little deeper into our understanding of "reality," it succeeds, as journalism or art.


I'm an audio guy with a background in radio news.

Is there a corollary here with the reporter or correspondent who edits his/her story a particular way to get his/her point across? Or EQ's a subjects voice so that the person can be better understood? Or uses deconvolution to get rid of the excess reverb in the background to make someone's voice more intelligible?

I'd say that both photojournalism and broadcast journalism are very subjective, even though we always profess to put forth the most objective viewpoint possible; well, at least before Rupert Murdoch polluted a whole industry we did.

There is a balancing act that must take place, take the photograph or do the interview through your own subjective mind's eye viewpoint, yet try to remain "removed" and objective about the subject matter or story.


I'm in the process of editing a book of photos that the photographer considers "photojournalism" and it's taking every ounce of self-control to NOT do what I do best - which is to get these photos into Photoshop and make them sing. So my working method is this: I will only do in Photoshop what I would've done in the Dark Ages in the dark room. I adjust contrast and color, dodge and burn, and crop. I DO NOT take out or add information or apply effects. But I must stress that this is NOT a science. Many things done in the darkrooms of old could alter the "feel" of an image and encourage the viewer to respond in a particular way. For better or worse (I think better) technological advancement makes things trickier, even as it makes things easier.


I agree with cadel favreaux. What none of you seem to be understanding is that this was a photojournalism contest, not a photography contest. As mentioned in this article, all changes made to the previous winner's photos were done by the photographer while taking the photo by altering the settings; Winter used an application to digitally manipulate the photo after it was taken (especially since the app works by taking a regular photo and then altering it).

Had this been a photography contest, it would have been considered great that such amazing shots were taken on an iPhone app. However, since this was a photojournalism contest, Winter did violate the basic fundamental rules of photography.



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