Controversy Tuesday! Disqualified from Smithsonian and Oprah Grabbin’ Rights!

Usually I post one new photo per day, but I thought I take a break today to talk about some interesting controversy. Both are worth discussin’, but I’ll start with the Smithsonian deal and finish with the Oprah thing.

So, I’m proud to have the first HDR photo to hang in the Smithsonian a few years ago. This year, I decided to enter again, and I did so with the New York Times Square photo below. It was a finalist out of 17,000 entries, and I thought that was pretty cool. Just recently, one of the editors emailed me to ask if it has been “digitally enhanced”. I was of course honest and I said yes, and explained the HDR process. She then said I was disqualified. To me, I thought I did the appropriate level of adjustment. I didn’t do any “painting” on top, no “cloning”, none of that sort of thing. I do not think my photograph belongs in the “Altered Images” category, because that is full of entries such as this. So, ultimately, I remained calm and told the editor that I understood, and made a good argument back:

“You have a tough job nowadays figuring out where that line is crossed. There is so much software INSIDE the camera that does adjustments for light. Similarly there is software OUTSIDE the camera too. Even the “Raw importer” for Photoshop allows drastic alteration of the photograph. Anyway, I understand the situation completely… and now that film is no longer used, really, every single pixel has a long road from the click to the final .jpg.”

Here are a few more things to consider… Here is the category from which I was disqualified. You can see that amusement park ride is in 3 places, and I assume it replaced DQ’ed entries. But, even lookin’ at that one, how are SOME people in focus but not the others? Could be a big aperture, but that’s pretty far away. And look at that barn. I GUARANTEE you that barn is HDR. No offense to the photographer, but it is kind of a sloppy HDR with the telltale halo around the barn and a dirty gray sky.

I am hesitant to submit other photos to the contest. I posted a few other shots below with questions…

Oh well. I’m kind of fed up with that contest. And here is ANOTHER contest that sticks in my craw.

Oprah, or now better known as @Oprah, is having a Nature Photo Contest which I almost entered until I saw that Harpo is claiming EXCLUSIVE rights forever for any photo that I submit to the contest. Comon Oprah… that’s not cool… Tell your lawyers to take a chill pill.

You can DIGG that Oprah story here and see a pic of the crazy terms, or read an article that is up on “Photo Attorney“.

Times Square at Dusk

The next shot below is one that would also fit into the Americana category. It is also an HDR, but probably not as evident. The photo after that of the Muslim woman in Mumbai is certainly not Americana, but it would fit into several of the other categories. With that one, it’s not HDR, but I did use Unsharp Mask and a few contrast adjustments. Is Unsharp Mask okay? I don’t know…

The Lonely Trinity

This is Secret

  • Areeb

    This is ridiculous. Wow.

  • i am sure you are not too keen in participating in any of the two now, but i think such issues needs to be brought up to notice of the organizers, because obviously something is wrong.

  • Wow the Smithsonian thing is such a bump. I salute/respect you for being honest at first place when the editor asked you. I bet many ‘so called’ pro photographers will be lying just to get their name on Smithsonian.
    And I don’t like the Oprah’s deal too. Looks like stealing to me.

  • What a crazy ruling.

  • Trey – good argument about the software/camera. It’s right – ever since we have shifted from film and went digital things have so much changed and you cannot tell what has been done to the pixels.

    Concerning the Oprah contest: Most contests that are aiming towards all those amateur photogs – and even some to pro photogs have those rules! And you hardly find the quote cause it’s hidden somewhere deep in the contest rules. To me this is a nasty and easy way for any company to get pics for free. Unfortunately a lot of people don’t take the time to read through those rules – and most of the times its laywer-chinese that you hardly understand. All I can say to the readers here is be aware and check before you submit a photo to anyone!

  • You got ROBBED Trey!!!!

  • Prashant Shresth

    Man thats a lot of BS…I support your arguement Trey…That editor need a reality check…

  • How can the barn image be left in, but yours disqualified? It is clearly HDR??? Thats frusterating.

  • I don’t understand the reasoning behind the dq. They need to revise their contest categories if digitally enhanced is not the same as altered images.grrr. the NY image by the way it has always been one of my favorites. Their loss

  • That stinks on both counts. Absurd that Smithsonian does not take the digital age into account. What the heck is the altered image category for.

    The Op things it lame to. Shame on them both. Wish you had given some contact info. I bet Smithsonian might start thinking about this if hundreds of photographers started calling them about it.

  • Sorry Trey. That barn pic sucks. I posted a comment in support of you on it. Your work is much better. Hell, I could have gotten in if they’re accepting crap like that. At least you took the high road and were honest about it. Good on you.

  • Facebook User

    With regards to the Smithsonian, what is the point of having an “altered images” category if you’re not allowed to enter images that have been altered?! I love your photos, but I think it’s pretty obvious that they have been altered, so I’m not clear on how your photo ends up being disqualified while others are still apart of the competition. Whatever. You’re better than all that now, you don’t them or Oprah! But it’s still a bummer.

  • wil


    You should have told them that that is how it came out of the camera…and then have them prove it is HDR…so they would have to show that they actually knew something about digital photography… granted you might have wanted to take down the tutorial you made about making this image lol…

  • Well if an HDR is not an altered image, I don’t know what is… The thing is, a lot of these contests will have to alter their rules because HDR has passed being just an experiment. Like you said, there are some “sloppy” HDR images floating around on Flickr, but there are also some very good images, like the one you submitted.

    One thing that gave me hope the other day was that Getty are choosing some HDR images for their Flickr collection. I’ve got a couple of them here:

  • Whatever. That photo is beautiful and it should win an award somewhere! They’ll regret their narrow-minded ways someday, just like Kodak did when they were the leaders in the digital field, then decided to go back to film. It’s the difference between silent film and talkies, Black and white versus color. Someone should tell them what century we live in!

  • Kind of a touchy subject huh? I don’t think the category he was disqualified from was a HDR category. I think it was called Americana. It is kind of BS that they disqualified yours while the barn is pic is also clearly a HDR picture.

  • Love a comment on the fairground ride:

    “Awesome shot, the colors so vibrant!”

    And remember you can do some pretty funky stuff in a dark room with film too. And at which point is a photo altered? If I put a fish eye lens on a camera I am altering the image – but before it is imaged… if you know what I mean.

  • Scott Engebretson

    This actually illustrates the classic photographic paradox; probably oldest and greatest issue the medium has dealt (along with that good ol and related battle, “is photography really art?”). Whether captured chem-mechanically or electro-mechanically the photograph has always carried the connotation of the true objective medium, with departures being dealt with harshly, as the “straight” photographers of the f/64 group vs. Pictorialism, film vs. digital, digital vs. “manipulated” digital, and photo-montage vs. everyone. The problem is, this suggested mechanically determinate photographic objectivity does not, and has NEVER existed; small apertures “manipulate” by capturing a plane of focus the human eye never could; fast shutters freeze motion showing a world unperceievable without this “manipulation”; development adjustments allow film to capture ranges of contrast beyond its “normal” capacity (an apt one to consider in this case); all of which allow the capture of an image which is perceived and exists, precisely, only as the photograph. All photographs are equally valid and real, as long as we don’t make the mistake of believing they are a valid and real extension of reality.
    …and the amusement park ride likely shows some in focus and others not, because the photographer was panning his/her camera with the motion of the ride; hence only the group immediately in front and coinciding with his/her pan are in the primary plane of focus, those moving toward and away less so, and those moving against his pan, in the back the least so.

  • Jacques (fotofreq on flickr)

    That amuzement park ride looks like it might have been shot with a lensbaby.

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  • 2 years from now, no professional photo will be free from the digital. Digital is everywhere! RESISTANCE IS FUTILE! YOU’LL ALL BE ASSIMILATED!


    peace 🙂

  • Even Ansel Adams said himself that most of his creativity comes from within the darkroom by altering his images.

  • Sam

    How can the Smithsonian even suggest such a thing? Even old photography is enhanced i.e. filters, angle, lens etc.. The object to be judged should be the picture in front of you as presented by the photographer in whatever altered state the photographer wants it displayed.

  • Steve Gray

    While I understand their interest in limiting the amount of “enhancement” in the entries, I agree that your is no differently “enhanced” than the examples you provided. I guess the difference is that you don’t hide your process – you make it well known how you produced the image (well, generally, at least). The Smithsonian folks need to take a good hard look at their evaluation criteria, and perhaps get some consistency in their judges.

  • Chris

    The barn is HDR and the swing has been enhanced – come on! What a croc, and I don’t mean the shoe.

  • Hi there!
    I think your New York Times Square photo is a work of art. 🙂
    You must have made some enemies in the Smithsonian 🙂
    I’m a newbie in photography, but I know for a fact that even the best film photographers “enhance” their photos in the darkroom. Example in the documentary “War Photographer”
    A photography is not just the framing and push of a button.
    It obviously doesn’t end there.
    Trey’s postprocessing is just an example of how you turn a photography into something unique.
    If that ain’t art…
    And thank you for sharing the tutorial with us.


  • Jess Hughes

    That’s really unfortunate, Trey. It looks like the only reason you were disqualified was because of your honesty. I’m betting the owner of the barn photo claimed it to be unaltered, which is pretty much nonsense. It looks like a blatant (and yes, sloppy) HDR… even if it’s not, the halo and grey sky still point to poorly done adjustment layers. Yes, the editor has the right to limit the amount of alterations permitted for a given category, but it’s completely unfair to do so when she doesn’t have a clue what to look for and has to rely on the photographers’ words. That’s a raw deal… sorry Trey.

  • As the convergiance of intellegent software and the camera body continue to merge, the “OLD” ways of judging and exceptance will evolve as well. We are but nano seconds away from HDR technology being part of the camera itself. As the paridigm shifts, the old ways of thinking and judging competitions will fall with the old judges that make the old rules. Its a shame that sometimes the human decision is reluctant to try to keep up with the technology that it creates in the first place. Makes you want to scream out “OF COURSE ITS DIGITALLY ENHANCED YA JACKASS’S…..THATS THE NAME OF THE GAME!”

    OK, I’m down off the soapbox now….carry on 🙂

  • People would be shocked to learn how much “post” Ansel did to truly recreate the landscapes he saw. I’ve never seen in 8-bit JPEG, but some people think they have – well fine. Sometimes being rejected is a pretty big complement – and I love that this photograph is in your tutorial yet they still had to ask. And Oprah – who’s surprised. Sam Adams does the same thing with their brewing contest. Who needs ’em.

  • wayne gregory

    Regardless of what others think (Smithsonian) i think your work is awesome… I Just bought a Nikon D40 after Christmas and a few bottom end lenses and started researching photography( i knew nothing at all except that the button is on the top right) and came across some off your pictures and now visit StuckinCustoms EVERY day. I guess for what its worth, and it’s no picture hangin on the walls of the smithsonian.. But your work inspires me everyday and i hope to be able to produce and have the eye for a picture like you someday.

  • Facebook User

    Well, guess I gotta add my two cents worth. The Smithsonian is wrong. They should not have disqualified you. And the barn pic is so clearly an HDR (badly done, as you said) that I have to wonder what the qualifications are to judge these contests. Don’t they know anything? Isn’t there somewhere we can email, protesting their decision? –Fenraven

  • I think there was a mistake. There is no way they could take your piece down when the barn is obviously a HDR (and very poorly done). I bet one of the other contestants wrote the editor and said that yours was “digitally enhanced” and therefore felt they had to take yours down. There is no way the editors all of sudden, after they made the selection on your photo, decided yours was digitally enhanced.

    I agree, it’s hard to find a good photo competition. Why don’t you start one for your site? Chance for an amateur to be noticed or a pro to get noticed even more. I would enter.

  • Wow!

    This one hit a hot button with you guys! 🙂

    Thanks for all the support! Your comments were all good and reasoned (and funny!)… That’s the tough thing is that there are really reasonable arguments on both sides. I certainly see things from my perspective, and I am much more open-minded about photography and the final product. The key is to use the camera to make something that is enjoyable to look at.

    Whether it’s a darkroom or manipulating a RAW file… as long as it starts with the camera and, in the end, is still identifiable as a “photograph”, then it is all good in my book.

  • Kudos on your honesty.

    I think that the dividing line for “altered” should be actions that actually change the content of the photo: cloning, the liquefy filter, etc. HDR should go in the category of dodging and burning and thus, not be considered “alteration”.

    Also, that fairground image was almost certainly taken with a lensbaby or something similar.

  • Facebook User

    I am a little baffled as to how anyone could look at that and not know it was altered/enhanced in some way….

    I like your work, but I also know that it is an altered image…it did not look like that when you took the picture. So if the category is for altered images, whats the problem? You do very good work in this category

  • casusan

    I admire your honesty Trey! Too bad about the Smithsonian – it’s their loss!

  • Trey,

    Don’t the judges know that EVEN film photography is massively adjusted.
    There is no such thing as out of camera as the eye saw it.
    Movies, TV it does not matter. If it is not the human eye then it is processed.

  • In my opinion… HDR picture is not really “altered” but it is an “ADJUSTMENT” to the color of the photos. Just like the traditional method where they can adjust exposure of each shot. As for what I think “altered” images would be one that actually do more than color / exposure adjustment by actually cut, copy, paste, duplicate etc.

    what i’m really trying to say is… your entry should NOT be DQ!

  • I agree, that barn is definitely digitally enhanced. That photo of yours is one of my favorites, it SO belongs in the contest! Oh well, someone doesn’t have a clue.

    As for Oprah, I’ve pondered this and had some thoughts. I am by no means a professional photographer, I don’t make any money off my stuff or have people waiting for my next photo to be posted. I’m not horrible at it, and have fun posting them on Flickr for others to view – I get excited when I see some comments or someone made it a favorite. If I were to enter her contest and win, she’d have all rights to my photo and could do anything she wanted with it, including make money off it where I wouldn’t see a penny. What I WOULD get is exposure, big time exposure. Maybe my photos are better than I think and others would start to enjoy them and want prints and such. For me, a total unknown, it could be a good thing. I lose one photo but gain lots in return.

    BUT, for someone who IS a professional, like yourself, would you gain enough to make losing rights to one photo worth it? Probably not.

    So while I’m not totally convinced what Oprah’s doing is OK, I’m not completely upset with it either. Will I enter? Probably not. Then again, I’ve been discovering it doesn’t hurt to send my photos to these things because maybe I’m better than I think. 😉

  • Julian

    Well either way, I love you photo of Times Square and all the photos you take.
    There are a bunch of photos that should be disqualified based on why they disqualified you.
    For some reason, I am not even mildly surprised about the Oprah “Photo rights” situation.

  • Wait a minute. I was under the impression you entered in the “Altered Images” category but your link for the category you entered, and the one everyone is discussing, is “Americana.” Which category did you enter?

  • First, an editor asking if that photo has been “digitally enhanced” shows how much an expert she is!

    This is a common case of those hyper-bureaucratic organizations, plenty of rules making sure to cover every situation, but no place for good sense.

    Keep your good work Trey. I am considering you as one the best “HDR photographer”.

  • Thanks for the continued good feedback.

    My entry was in the Americana category, and you can see the others in that category from the link (amusement-park-blur, halo-HDR-barn, saturation-crank-canyon).

    A few people have asked me for the name and email of someone to complain to at the Smithsonian. I decided not to include that because it didn’t seem very professional or classy… but I will direct the editor over to this thread so she can take a look.

  • Gonza

    Well, its time for some concepts to get revised. Every single picture is processed after being exposed. Even in film, you choose different ways to treat the negative, then you choose papers and chems to bring de copy alive. Some times you use a lot of them. Its the same with ps. The fact that photoshop (or whatever program people chooses) is much easier, faster and accesible to everybody, shouldnt be a reason to look at it as “cheating” or “faking” images. Photography is faking. We capture light, not reality. We create realitys.

    By the way, you think the park ride photo has been touched? Maybe he just used a little longer exp time and moved the camera to the right while shooting. Dont like the photo anyway.

    Keep on the amazing work, Saludos!

  • Wow Trey, i surely would like to hear from the Smithsonian editor waht they are standing for with their decition.
    Only thing i know… they messed with the wrong photographer.
    Bad rep all over the place.
    Hope it works out fine.

  • Man…..this post is rockin!

    Once again, carry on folks!

  • Zim

    But you have a lot of people that thinks your work is great! 🙂

  • wow. how very unprofessional of them. hm. hope it works out for you as you want it now… and if you want we shall crush them!!! muuuahahaha 🙂

    good luck and don’t be annoyed by ignorant people!


  • Facebook User

    The inconsistency of the DQ is lame. If they don’t allow ‘digitally enhanced’ photos then everyone should have to submit the RAW file and be judged on that. So if this were a film only competition would they disallow dodging and burning? “I’m sorry Mr Adams, your image has clearly been manipulated in the darkroom…we must disqualify you.”

  • Jeff Clarke

    Trey, someone mentioned that you should host a contest. I second that idea, even if it meant the only entries would be those who faithfully read your blog each day. It would be interesting to see how your inspiration manifests itself in people’s photography.

  • You (and many of the other commentors above me) make a very good argument about the HDR and the argument over altered images, and clearly the barn was done in HDR as well. I entered this contest as well and some of my entries had a brightness/contrast adjustment but I am careful not to enter anything past that into contests like this because I know how picky they can be about “altered images.” It seems like the people running the Smithsonian contest don’t understand HDR or they would have investigated the barn entry more thoroughly as well. I think you should contact them again explaining your argument about the barn photo when you go to contact the editor. I would hate to see such a good entry such as yours go to waste! Good luck on this if you decide to pursue it further!

  • Hehe I’ve thought about having a contest here… Haven’t we, FREDERICK VAN ? hehe… yes maybe we will. And… Maybe I’ll heavily ENCOURAGE digital enhancement 🙂

    Thanks again everyone for the good comments and the interesting discussion… you guys are some smart cookies!

  • And, we don’t like over cooked barns!!!! Hee hee!

  • Peirce

    1. I just I want to say the Smithsonian editor is messed up because on that page there are multiply images that are HDR and if the editor can’t see that then they are ridiculous. 2. My response to getting around exclusive rights is simple. Take two images that are side by side and maybe only differ about 5ft. That way they will be different but they can keep their exclusivity. To Hell with Oprah. And I would like to say that anyone that doesn’t see you are an amazing photographer is either blind or stupid.

  • Frank DiBona

    All of the great photographers of the past manipulated their images. Ansel Adams wrote at least 3 books about the subject, (1) “The Camera” in which he taught about changing the f-stop, shutter speed, raising the tilt back of a view camera etc; (2) “The Negative” in which he wrote how to “push” or “pull” the sensitivity of the film with altered exposure and development.; and (3) “The Print” in which he showed how to use various “grades” of paper to increase or decrease contrast, how to dodge or burn some areas, how to tone the print to achieve a different effect.

    Richard Avedon published a book on how his photos were manipulated. There is one illustration of a proof that he sent to his printer that is full on red marks with instructions to burn, dodge, blur , etc.

    I think some people object to digital manipulation because it is so much easier than it was in the old days of film and paper and because ordinary people can do it. I think that what counts is the final product. If you look at an image and it appears attractive does it matter how it was done? I believe the only place where lack of manipulation is important is in forensic photography or other photos which claim to represent reality.

  • Man that barn sucks big time..indeed an HDR….and it made it to the finals?? Yikes! With judges like that who needs Smithsonian! Oprah is pulling a little FB deal? O stands for overated!

  • Yeah, I totally agree about the barn thing. I’m new at HDR and can still tell. You can see it in the grass to the left, as well. Goofy contest judges.

  • gh

    this junk certainly deserved a disqualification.

  • LJ

    dude, I’m a total HDR novice, and even I could get rid of a halo like that. It’s a travesty!

  • Thanks again for all the interesting feedback and the conversation.

  • Knowing how to turn your regular photos into HDR photos and other different editing tweaks will defiantly give you a main advantage when it comes to your photography business.
    —–great video tutorials on creating HDR images!!!!

  • I totally agree with you!

    One day most digital cameras will have HDR sensors. So that would mean that all those people using such a camera are automatically disqualified 😀

    I know that people using film were already heavily manipulating images. What about them?

    The question about “digitally enhanced”, the one who asked that must be pretty clueless and stupid regarding photography, digital cameras and post processing. You don’t deserved to be judged by so narrow minded dick-heads.

  • An idea: the next time someone asks you about “digitally enhanced”, ask them first do define it. Everybody has another (but mostly valid) definition. I can really image how you explain about HDR in a very passionate way (I would probably do the same) but I guess the narrow minded dick head never heard about it.

  • WOW I was shocked to come and see this! It’s got my head spinning and this totally needs to be spread.
    I get frustrated these days when I see that you are only to upload ‘minimally edited photographs’ and how digitally enhanced photos will be removed. awesome discussion here.

  • Trey, your photography is too good to be up against those photos. You’re the winner in our books, keep kicking ass!

  • That was a very well thought out and well written argument against a silly decision. Obviously, based on your following, there is a huge niche for your type of product (and your following is well-deserved). The editor who disqualified you from that particular category is free to make that decision, but she’s wrong.

    And you’re absolutely right about the broken barn entry. That is downright amateurish. Keep making your kick ass “digitally enhanced” shots. I can’t wait to see what you come out with next.

  • Hmm… about the Oprah thing… if she can give everyone audience member a free car, looks like she has the power to do anything. I’m in a similar situation where my company is having a photo competition but signing the waiver gives them full copyright and I’m essentially a “work-for-hire” and only allows me to show it for private-viewing. This is making me seriously reconsider submitting a photo for the competition.

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  • It’s a bit difficult to comment on your photographs really as I like so many. That said I do like the vibrancy that you have captured. Vivid colours and the impression of a fast pace reflects exactly the New York I remember. I’m just not sure how difficult HDR images are to produce, although I am about to find out as I am going to trial photomatix.

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  • Here’s an idea:

    How about processing your photo, printing it out, and then taking a photo of that photo. Would that be OK…??

    This is getting crazy…

    I think photography should be about capturing an image of the world in a way that is engaging to the viewer. It is about the end result, the final picture. How you get there shouldn’t matter. Well… as long as you’re having fun in the process…!

    That is why I like your stuff so much, mr. Ratcliff. You are clearly enjoying the process, and that enjoyment is clearly vissible in your photos and also affects the viewers.

    So, please, keep shooting those wonderfull pictures, and don’t worry too much about stupid stuff like this. 😉

  • Old thread, I know.. but… god help you if you have dust on the sensor or lens and took a small aperture landscape shot 🙂

  • The negative is the score, the print is the performance” – Ansel Adams

    In one of his last interviews Adams talked about the coming of digital photography (yes, in 1982). He said that he saw a future where images would be digital and artist would need to learn a new language, a new way of seeing. Sadly in the world of photography there are so many who still do not understand the changes that have occurred and lie to themselves about what photography has been and is becoming. 

    Art is about personal taste and connection. By that editors guidelines Adams’ work would have to be removed as it was rare that his prints did not involve a lot of manipulation. Go look at “Moonrise over Hernandez NM” and you see an image that took around two decades before Adams came up what he felt was the right recipe for a print of that image. 

    I have a twelve images hanging in a show right now and all have been modified more or less. I take a more gentle approach to DR expansion and prefer a naturalist look, but the modifications are there. The question is where do you draw the lines between what is acceptable and not acceptable manipulation? During the Crimean War, Roger Fenton created a stir with his images that brought home the nature of modern war. Matthew Brady did the same with the Civil War. In the case of Fenton there is a famous image in which cannon balls where moved in order to create a better image. As a news image it would not be acceptable for documentation purposes, but as an image of war it was powerful for its unique place in history. To me that is where the lines need to be, what is the purpose of the work and how is it being used.

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