Much has been written about the ethics of image manipulation, with numerous commentators passionately debating what falls within the bounds of acceptability. I enjoyed reading Nasim Mansurov's take on the topic in Photography Life, which explores image manipulation in a range of different contexts in addition to other ethical considerations. Ignacio Palacios presents another well illustrated perspective in Luminous Landscape and neatly separates technical retouching from creative retouching.
Rather than reigniting the debate, my intent here is to simply state my position on the matter so that you understand what you're looking at when viewing our library.
Objectivity is a fiction
My personal feeling is that photography is inherently subjective and cannot be otherwise. The photographer makes a choice with every single shot about what is included within the frame -- both the primary subject and the surrounding elements. It is simply not possible to take an objective global snapshot of reality, and the act of choosing to photograph some specific event, person or object imbues those elements with a higher importance than anything else that could have been chosen. Further, the photographer decides what story they want to tell with the photograph, using things such as focus and depth of field, relative sizing of elements within the composition, over or under exposure, movement, timing and a range of other techniques.
Then there's the challenge of trying to translate the physical world into a photograph that other humans will feel is a faithful representation of the scene. The spectrum of colours perceivable by humans exceeds the capabilities of current display devices and print processes. Compounding this, we have no control over the conditions in which someone views our photo: computer, tablet and phone display calibration can vary wildly; printed photographs may be viewed under all sorts of lighting. Human vision is also adaptive, rapidly adjusting for changes in brightness and colour temperature (white balance) as we scan our eyes over a scene -- something we're unable to accurately mimic in reproductions.
There are also the more extreme post-processing techniques where the intent is clearly to create an artificial reality or achieve some artistic effect (creative retouching). This may involve actions such as cropping, combining multiple images, retouching skin tone and texture, adjusting body shape, removing distracting elements, modifying colours and a whole lot more.
Intent is important
So if all photography is subjective, why does it matter whether a photo is manipulated? Well in a sense it doesn't matter, but it's helpful to understand the photographer's (or editor's) intent as this provides the context within which we interpret what our eyes are seeing. If I see a striking photo of a natural landscape, I like to understand whether it's just an aesthetically pleasing image that I might hang on my wall or, instead, a reasonably indicative representation of what I might see if I visit that place. Both alternatives have their place, and if the intent is clear then there's no room for confusion or deception.
Where do we stand?
AEROmetrex, as a company, prides itself on the quality and accuracy of the data it provides. Being in the business of aerial photography, surveying and mapping, we aim to represent the physical world as faithfully as possible and provide stated accuracies and tolerances. While scenic photography may be a new addition to our offerings, we remain true to our heritage: we do our best to show what the photographer (subjectively) saw. For most people, seeing the perspective offered by aerial photography is novel enough in itself, without there needing to be additional creative manipulation.
Putting this into concrete terms, we capture all images in RAW format and then process these to produce JPG images in the sRGB colour space. During processing we make minor technical adjustments (technical retouching) that affect things like overall exposure, tonal balance, white balance, distortion, vignetting, noise contrast, sharpening and saturation. These adjustments are subtle -- we're aiming to reproduce what you'd see if you were there, not to make things look excessively saturated and high contrast like so many images these days. We don't "enhance" our images with Instagram filters and the like. We do some minor cropping -- helicopter rotor blades and skids look pretty distracting -- and resizing to fit the constraints of various websites and apps.
Having spent plenty of time looking down at some amazing scenes, taking photographs and then viewing images on the computer, I know how hard it can be to discern a high quality, faithful representation from an idyllic fiction. Rest assured that with our aerial images, what you see is what you get.