After some recent discussions with my peers, I’ve started to feel that “honesty” is an underrated quality in many genres of photography. I’ve given the topic a lot of thought, in order to take some personal steps to ensure my integrity, especially when it comes to what is shown in my images.

When it comes to the idea of honesty I feel there are many different approaches, and that the concept of honest photography is fairly nebulous to begin with. Unless you are a true journalist I don’t think it is always the most important thing to approach subjects with honesty – for example, fine art imagery, landscapes which can use long exposures and filters to manipulate the scene, or fashion where the subject is posed and presented.

I think that in documentary photography – especially photojournalism – but to some degree street photography as well, I think that honesty of the image plays a role in the quality and impact of the work. I know that there are many different ways to make street photographs, but to me, if a subject has been posed, or light manipulated, it loses that spontaneous human element – an observational quality that I think the best examples of the genre usually embody.

One of the reasons I started taking film photography more seriously was after accusations that some of my images had been “faked” – either staged or manipulated in photoshopped. This upset me, as I put a lot of work into candid, unposed, unmanipulated street photographs.

More recently I have discovered the value of shooting film as a photojournalist, in an era of increasingly confusing and sometimes downright misleading propaganda and unreliable news.

Contact sheet - Kentmere 400
Contact sheet – Kentmere 400

Some aspects of honesty start with the shooting style itself. Unless you are shooting from the hip the majority of 35mm SLR and rangefinder photographers prefer to work with their camera to their eye. Framing, exposure, focus – all of these are achieved through the viewfinder as opposed to a rear screen with live view, as the majority of mirrorless and DSLR cameras now employ.

I’ve noticed that many digital shooters will employ “tricks” to use their camera without making it seem like they are making an image – something inherently difficult for a film photographer. Whether it’s using a tilting screen and shooting from the hip, holding the camera as if you are recording a video, or using cable releases and burst modes, these techniques usually imply an intention to keep the photographer’s intentions towards photography a “secret”.

I never enjoyed shooting like this, and much preferred the way I felt with a more open approach. To me something just feels more inherently honest about holding my camera to my eye, accepting my place and role as a photographer, and everything that goes with that. I don’t feel the need to obfuscate my intentions, as they are never negative.

Self portrait - Kentmere 400
Self portrait

When it comes to working with my negatives there is an honesty in the physical artefact offered by the film medium. Digital photographs don’t “exist” in a meaningful way to me – in my mind it’s all copies of copies as soon as it leaves the SD card with nothing as unique or special as holding an original artefact; the exact physical negative that was with you on the day you made the picture, and will always be that original.

Beyond this, I find that there is so much variation in the results from digital files. Many people make an effort to find a digital camera with good “colour science” which will give them the results they are looking for straight OOC. You could line up ten flagship digital cameras, with the same focal length and automatic exposure/WB settings, and receive some very different results. When shot consistently film has a consistent aesthetic, something which is really taken advantage of by film photographers who have a go-to film stock, exposure, and development/print methodology.

Negatives and scan - ILFORD Delta 400 Professional
Negatives and scan – ILFORD Delta 400 Professional

Once developed there is much less to do in terms of editing/alterations, as compared to a digital file. Whatever occurs to darkroom prints or scanned files there is no escaping the anchor of the original negative, which can be referred to for “accuracy” when examining the displayed image. With digital files, there is no such anchor, and this leaves room for manipulation by editors of any skill. Digital fakery, adding and subtracting elements, altering colours, tweaking crops – all of these are inherent steps in most editing software. It can become second nature, thoughtless act to tweak an image until it’s right – which is usually fine unless the intention is journalistic, as I stated in my introduction.

It can be very easy as an audience to become skeptical of any digital image. Once you’ve seen the possibilities in surreal landscapes or subtle changes that affect the meaning of an image you can become disinterested in “believing” any image you see. I think that the fashion industry especially has suffered from this, and some magazines and publications now enforce a caption/indicator to show when an image has been manipulated beyond simple technical corrections – ie manipulation of the content of the image, rather than the image itself.

There are a few publications which define themselves by their presentation of film work only, including Pylot Magazine, which has an emphasis on no beauty retouching specifically. So far I’m only aware of these kinds of outlets within the fashion industry, but would be fascinated to hear if any of you readers know of such a film only photojournalistic/street outlet – do let me know!

Sometimes when presenting my work, especially in my blog or Instagram I think it’s nice to include a shot of the frame in it’s entirety. As well as being a very aesthetic way to enjoy film photography I think it grounds my work in the reality of unedited film photography. You can plainly see the elements in the frame untouched and untampered.

Negatives - Kentmere 400
Negatives – Kentmere 400

When it comes to potentially altering things in a scan or print, such as dodging and burning or global exposure changes I have much less of an issue with this – but again the film frame provided for reference alongside an edited image shows what has been affected (usually a minimal amount).

As many film photographers will point out when it comes to the topic of “editing” that dodging, burning, cropping, and masking were all invented in the darkroom, and that it’s unlikely you’ll have seen a historic image without these elements applied.

James Dean 1955, by Pablo Inirio (darkroom mark-up)
James Dean 1955, by Pablo Inirio (darkroom mark-up)

There are some film images which may cross that line between enhancing exposure and straight up manipulation. One famous example of this is Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lange (although I don’t think Lange was a photojournalist, rather a portrait photographer with a commissioned project, so her alterations are more acceptable), which has the ghost of the subject’s thumb in the lower right-hand corner.

Migrant Mother, Dorothea Lange
Migrant Mother, Dorothea Lange

Beyond the confines of an individual frame is the honesty provided by the context of a contact sheet. This offers not only the untouched individual negative but also context around that negative. One of the most useful photography books is Magnum Contact Sheets, which presents the context around some of the most iconic Magnum photographs. This gives us insight into the mind of the photographer and shows the way they worked the scene, as well as some of the moments leading up to “the shot” that we know.

This means that a contact sheet can verify/support a sequence of events, an aspect I find underrated and highly valuable for a sceptical audience. A film photograph naturally exists within context, whereas digital contact sheets are few and far between; what you see is likely the culled and curated result of a much larger sequence which is rarely shown.

I remember having a great conversation on this topic with one of my students during an editing session. I remarked how popular I thought any newspaper/media-outlet would be if they actually published their photographers’ contact sheets as standard. Imagine a digital archive where you could find any of the images they’d ever published, whether iconic or mundane and view the contact sheet for that image.

That publication, in my opinion, would hold a fantastic amount of trust from their readership, as the implications of this kind of transparency would extend far beyond their image department.

Negatives - ILFORD Delta 400 Professional
Negatives – ILFORD Delta 400 Professional

As it is, I haven’t managed to find any outlet that does this, which means I, like any other photographer, have power over only my own work. This is one of the reasons I publish my contact sheets on my blog and have written about them in the past a few times in the hopes that other photographers may see the value of the exercise.

Part of my original effort to adopt film was an accusation that one of my images had been photoshopped – which of course it hadn’t. Luckily for this example another photographer who I was with at the time shot a similar frame of the scene, so I was able to offer his example as proof that there had been no manipulation – but I felt there wasn’t much I could do about their follow up argument, that it had simply been staged.

My shot top, Harley's Instagram post bottom
My shot left, Harley’s Instagram post right.

If I had shot this on film I would be able to use the original as proof that no colour altering had been done. With the contact sheet I may be able to demonstrate what else I had been doing that day, and could show that this was taken spontaneously upon finding the scene, rather than something planned and executed – in all honesty it wasn’t even the image I was expecting to take, as I had noticed someone else with yellow shoes, but they didn’t walk this way; a bag never occurred to me, and was a very happy coincidence.

Despite all of this I don’t think I would be able to convince a street photography cynic, who thinks that everything is staged and that no image ever came together. This is a shame, but for those who value honesty, it makes sense to put the effort in. For street photography it is perhaps less important to have this level of empiricism – what matters to me is the way I perceive my own work and if I were to cheat, I would only be cheating myself. In order to maintain my integrity as a journalist however, it is important for me to offer the same level of care for the truth in any genre I photograph.

As I shoot more and more documentary work the sheer practicality of film as an honest medium becomes more and more apparent to me. Honesty isn’t as “optional” in film as it is with digital photography – the limitations of the medium ensure certain restrictions and the steps in digitising a frame of film mean it’s less intuitive to simply mess with the raw.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from truly staging a situation (perhaps cost) aside from my integrity, and this is something I’ve been asked about as well. I like to think that the effort I go to, in using film, in writing opinion pieces like this one, or when i demonstrate how I work to my students, that there is no room to question the amount of consideration I put to this topic. That integrity in photojournalism and street photography genuinely matters to me – and that’s as much as I’m able to do.

I don’t think any photograph is without scrutiny or critics, and even some of the all time iconic images have been called into question over time, and so far I have yet to produce anything near those levels. This will not be an issue fixed solely by me and my efforts, but hopefully, we can all play a part in embodying the role of conscientious photojournalist when it matters the most.

What matters to me as a photographer and educator is that I am able to competently defend my work from sceptics, whilst also promoting a mindset which allows more photographers to feel comfortable sharing original frames, contact sheets, and context around their work in an honest, and respectful way.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on the honesty in Film Photography! If you enjoyed my photographs here please consider following me on Instagram! I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland

~ Simon

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About the author

Simon King

Simon is a London based photographer and photojournalist. He is currently working on long term personal projects, and has been shooting on 35mm film since late 2016. You can follow his work on Instagram, or read his personal blog, both linked below.

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  1. Incredible post and subject matter Simon. I really love the idea of the photo being anchored to the negative. I also love that you post your contact sheets. I heavily agree that Magnum Contact Sheets is one of the greatest books a photographer can own. You have a great voice and I would love to hear more from you! Thank you!

  2. I really liked thinking about how the negative was with you at the moment you exposed it and remains tangible evidence that we “were there”. Yes negatives can be manipulated, but that you choose not to which also chimes with me. Intentional honesty is the start point with film – there is no equivalent in digital.

  3. Interesting post Simon but my view is that you are chasing something elusive like unicorns. However well meaning no photographer is neutral or a disinterested observer of what is going on. Nor are reporters or publishers or the people viewing the picture. All photographs are selective at the time taken, when edited, when chosen for publication or display, when we decide who to sell them to and by the person buying. What we include in the frame and when we take the picture, the ‘decisive moment’ is also selective. We have preconceived ideas about what makes a good photograph that depend on the time and culture we live in and what our interests are. Even “honesty” depends who you are, what you believe and who you work for. As for the viewing public, do they care about honesty ? The answer is no. They prefer images with immediate impact or those that have emotional power. Is film more honest than digital ? No. Pictures have always been manipulated whatever the medium.

    1. I don’t think it’s as polarised an issue as “all images are fake” vs “all images are an absolute truth” – it’s somewhere in-between, and more nuanced. Of course every image is a manipulation of reality, but any image will contain more detail of a situation than, for example, the memory recall of an individual. Video and photographic evidence in court is often more reliable than eyewitnesses.
      I agree it comes down a lot to the photographer, but when comparing what’s possible to manipulate, to add, to remove in a digital composite, with no frame of reference to anything other than itself as an ephemeral file – to a darkroom print, with the proof and repeatability of a negative to back it up, I think the physical film is inarguably inherently more trustworthy.

  4. I have been saying for years that having a negative to compare the original to is why film photography is better for documentation – you have something to compare it to! Some commentators don’t seem to agree – well they’re entitled to their opinion. Yes, there is editing in one form or another (I personally crop pictures, sometimes darken or lighten) but the point is that a negative cannot be altered & can always be able to confirm what was in the original photo!

    1. Agreed! The goal most of us have is to tell a story. It is not to tell how many drafts it took to tell the story.

      A work of literary fiction is partly untruth (fiction), mixed with truth from the author’s life experience. The fact it is untruthful in part does not detract from the work being an art form. What matters is the story.

      There is nothing dishonest about editing photos in the darkroom or in the lightroom – to a point. I read a story today on PetaPixel where one photographer was supposedly stealing another’s imagery to make Photoshop composites of extreme weather without proper credit. THAT is dishonesty in photography.

      I am so glad Simon wrote this article. It was very thought provoking and made me evaluate the approach I take to my photographs. As I have “matured” as a photographer, I edit less from a combination of things, one being doing a better job of composing and exposing images. I don’t get it right quite often using film and digital. The image could have a crooked horizon or some other flaw. But the end-game of communicating intent is what matters to me. Whether my intent was good is for others to decide. Feel free to explore my photography blog. I love photography, and enjoy communion with others who do.

      Those who question the integrity of a personally crafted work are fully entitled to an opinion of its quality. But in my view, they have no right, absent the work not being produced by the artist, to question its “authenticity”.

    2. I half agree and half disagree with toro. It’s certainly nice to have a physical, tangible copy of your photo as opposed to just a digital file on your computer. It feels nice to be able to pull out my binders of negatives and physically feel the weight of all the time and money i’ve put into this hobby. With that said, I still don’t find negatives to be that much of an honest medium because negatives MUST be altered to get the final print; whether that’s through darkroom or lightroom. I suppose the negative can confirm that you actually took the photo, but not much more. I can give 5 skilled photographers the same negative (this is especially relevant to color negative film stock) and I will get 5 different positive images back because the reversal process has soo much up for interpretation. It’s never as simple as just inverting a negative. You have to set the white balance, you have to adjust contrast, and for color negs you have to adjust color balance and deal with the orange mask; all these adjustments are to personal taste, there is no right way.

      You could certainly argue by my logic that slide film (or developing b&w as positives) is the only true honest film medium (although I’d probably still disagree) because what you get in camera is what you get on film more or less. There’s not much latitude for error like with b&w neg or color neg, but this becomes a moot point for the hobbyist with the price of slide film and limited selection of it today. Even expired slide film is selling for just as much as the new ektachrome! Although I develop at home I still can’t afford to exclusively shoot slide for $13 a single roll unless it’s for a special occasions. I guess my main point is that you can’t really compare “the original” to the negative in any meaningful way other than in terms of ownership of an image.

      Maybe i’m looking at this all wrong though, even though the interpretations of the negative will always be different, it’s not like the content of the image is going to be radically different from one person’s reversal process to another. Maybe at this point i’m just arguing for the sake of arguing. If that’s the case then it must mean that this was a really great article to stir up all these responses from me!

      1. I agree that the purpose of a negative is to be ‘altered’ through a projector for a darkroom print, or scanned – but there is a big difference between this kind of technique and, for example, removing a cloud from a landscape, or adding a bird in the sky. These are much easier to achieve through digital manipulation, and often harder to identify. The negative ‘proves’ the result in a way that isn’t available in a digital format.

  5. I see my comment hasn’t been posted about how the article is actually drivel.
    Honesty is not a word that can be applied to photography. For instance how can you possibly say your B&W photos are honest when the world is in full colour ? You make photos B&W for a reason, to create a viewpoint, to manipulate the feelings of the viewer, so please don’t be disingenuous with your pious stance.
    I’ve been photographing using both film and digital still and film media for over 50 years and would say every image, by definition is a statement. Pure and simple. And honesty is in the eye of the beholder.

    1. Let’s say an embedded photographer in a conflict area captures images of a war crime. Which do you think would be the most trustworthy documentation to show to a skeptic–an endlessly malleable digital file or an original photo negative? It’s either binary code on a chip or actual light etched indelibly into a physical medium, a material witness you can hold in hand. Yes, I can easily see how film can trump digital in terms of honesty when it comes to documenting real-world events.

    2. Hi Mike! Thanks for your reply – I think you raise an interesting point about the difference between ‘objective truth’ and ‘honesty’. I don’t think the idea of objective truth is something that any photographer is capable of capturing – different lenses offer different perspectives, different film stocks or digital sensors will produce different colours.

      However in my opinion honesty is a different value, one that rests with the photographer rather than their camera or methods. I don’t think that honesty is at all in the “eye of the beholder” as you put it, and instead rests with the storyteller, the one with something to prove. Whether they actually convince their audience or not will not always be under their control, but they can always put in the extra effort to lend credibility to their argument.

  6. With respect this age old argument is complete drivel. There is no more honesty in film photography than in digital and having a negative or contact sheet is no more proof of honesty than having a Lightroom image. Why? Because both are totally artificial and only represent a reality. The very act of taking a picture with a film camera could be called dishonest as you are editing the scene by framing it in a particular way. And possibly by using black and white film to create a more historic and ‘authentic’ look. Have you ever seen yourself in black and white other than in a photograph? Like hell you have. So stop trying to pretend you’re any more honest than a digital photoshopper. Some could say you’re more disingenuous.

    1. I don’t think this discussion is tired at all, and I hope that any photographer struggling with these issues finds my article helpful.
      Honesty is inherent to the individual photographer, and not to their method. Of course it’s possible to be an honest digital photographer – but photographs are increasingly falling under scrutiny and doubt. I think any effort to remain ahead of this post course discourse should be respected.
      Black and white is no less ‘real’ than underexposed Kodachrome, or a cyanotype, but it is not the colour of these images that ought to engage with the viewer it is the content: the subject, context, and story. In a digital photograph any of these aspects can be composited, superimposed, or removed altogether; not so with an original negative.

  7. Excellent article! I started my photographic life as a film photojournalist and have a great respect for reportage, and for what we now call “street photography.” Honesty is extremely important in those particular areas – not as much in some other forms of photography, and it has been something of a difficult transition in picking up photography (now more for art) once again after many years away.
    But to your point specifically, yes, film and the contact sheet are a very telling and true record of the shots as originally made, and the negative does indeed become “the anchor” – I love that phrase. Well done!

  8. I certainly have mixed feelings about this article; although it’s well written and gives plenty of counter examples to their main argument (which is the mark of a good op-ed) it still comes off as a justification for the writers firmly held purist attitude. I agree with lasousa overall when he questions whether honesty even matters. As a documentarian or street photographer you aren’t chasing honesty or truth, you’re chasing an emotional response like all other art forms. In my opinion, the nature of art is to evoke an emotional response within the viewer; whether it’s towards some end or for the sake of the evocation itself is irrelevant. A good documentary film doesn’t just show you raw, honest footage of something, it’s edited together to tell a story. A play set on stage isn’t honest, it’s entirely fiction but it may have authentic qualities about it that contain particularly salient and relatable aspects of life that evoke a response within the viewer. A history book may be “an honest” account of a particular moment in time, but that doesn’t mean the authors bias doesn’t cloud the “truth” of the period (for example think of Herodotus style as opposed to Thucydides style of history). I could argue that the image of the woman walking in the street that you took isn’t honest because you waited there for X amount of minutes or hours to catch it; regardless of it not being staged it still doesn’t sound like an honest capture. You manipulated that scene for artistic effect and it turned out great, but was it honest? I mean this idea of dishonesty in art goes all the way back to Plato when he claims art is 3 times removed from reality. Although i’m not in favor of platonism, i’m merely saying that art has always been a dishonest endeavor and to get hung up on the “honesty” of street photography or documentary photography seems to be missing the point of both the styles in question. Let artists manipulate their medium in ways that better convey their message and don’t get caught up on the difference between enhancing and manipulating because it doesn’t really matter in my opinion.

    On the other hand i’m sorta right there with you in a lot of ways. I’ve only ever shot film and i’ve been shooting film since 2014. Being a film photographer in the digital age means I’m always having to keep my purist tendencies in check. Just because I shoot film and know all about the film stocks and mix my developers from raw chemicals and have all these prime lenses and cameras, etc etc doesn’t make me any better than my digital counterparts. If anything, the limitations of analog photography fuel my creativity more, but that’s personal preference and besides the point. We are all just chasing that picture at the end of the day. Also i’m not trying to be a total cynic, honesty does count for something and for the most part people do pick up on that sense of honesty or authenticity in a good photograph, but at the end of the day if a bad picture is more honest than the good picture over there i’ll still be drawn to the good picture over there.

    1. Now that i’m re-reading this post I feel like i’m coming off oddly harsh… This was a really great piece Simon and your photos on instagram are A++! I never comment on articles and this piece has definitely made me think and feel the urge to participate in a discussion on the honesty of film as a medium. Good job and I look forward to the next article!

      1. I don’t thin you came off as harsh at all – I appreciate the thought you put into your response!
        Glad you enjoyed my work, and to have gotten you involved in the discussion – I think it’s absolutely worthwhile to participate in the community!
        Happy shooting!

  9. Interesting subject. Imagery used in today’s commercial realm is too often edited to the point of excess, especially in the fashion space. A model’s skin is perfectly unblemished and smooth and the lips and eyes are deep in color. This is “honesty” the fashion world and its customers want. A film image is not reality or honesty in and of itself. It is the effect of light on the emulsion introduced by the photographer, whether staged or not. In the end, whether a film image is edited in the darkroom or in Lightroom, it does not matter. What does matter is the impact of the end result (or lack thereof) on the artist or the viewer. Documentary or street photography in its raw form is a mix of luck and skill. One could luckily be in the right place at the right time and fire off a shot with baked in camera settings that hit the mark. A compelling shot could disappear in while one adjusts aperture or shutter speed. Or one might turn away at the crucial moment and miss the entire thing. It’s rare for me to make a compelling image while wandering the streets. I am not practiced enough at it. And I don’t have the learned skill or personal courage to enter the heart of a scene interactively. When I do make a personal connection and ask the subject for a photo, is it “staged” or dishonest? I found the compelling face. I made the personal connection. I took the image and expressed thanks. For me, it’s part of the journey and a helluva lot of fun regardless of the means to the end.