NGS Photo Contest Winner: Does It Look Real to You?

©Aaron Lim Bon Teck

Aaron Lim Bon Teck of Singapore has won the $10,000 grand prize in the 2010 National Geographic Photography Contest with an image of the eruption of Indonesia’s Gunung Rinjani volcano.

It’s an impressive shot, but it’s hard to believe this panoramic image was created without High Dynamic Range imaging (HDR) and some stitching.

Not that those techniques are against the contest rules. But National Geographic did try to discourage them.

“I strongly urge you to submit photographs that are un-manipulated and real,” National Geographic told entrants in an addendum to the contest rules. “The world is already full of visual artifice, and we don’t want the National Geographic Photo Contest to add to it. We want to see the world through your eyes, not the tools of Photoshop.”

Oh, well. There’s always next year.  (For more about the controversy over HDR, see our story here.)

Lim Boon Teck’s image also won in the Nature category. The winner of the People category was Chan Kwok Hung of Hong Kong. Jana Asenbrennerova of San Francisco took top prize in the Places category.

20 Responses to “NGS Photo Contest Winner: Does It Look Real to You?”

  1. Troy Freund Says:

    There’s no denying that this is a great-looking image. It’s just that it’s not a REAL image; it’s a created image and that National Geographic, known for so long as the publisher of “real” photos, would choose it for the top prize is rather disappointing.
    keep it real,

  2. Jamie Says:

    You could shoot that shot for real. You’d need to expose for the volcano and then run around with a flash gun to get some fill in on all of the fore and mid-ground

  3. Melo Says:

    The day a camera produces that image via a simple shutter click is the day Photoshop goes out of business.

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  5. Brian Carey Says:

    Doesn’t look real to me. The people are actually back lit by the sun and so without artificial lighting should be silhouetted and the photographer on the left is taking a shot of something to the right of the frame.

  6. Melissa Lyttle Says:

    what’s the controversy? says in the natgeo story: National Geographic magazine senior photo editor and judge Sadie Quarrier noted that combining multiple images into one stitched image “gives us a wide, powerful, and unique view.”

    i mean we can argue aesthetics all day and whether or not it’s a good photo (personally, landscapes aren’t my cup of tea, but it sure is purty!)… but the judges acknowledged it was an “illustration” with contest judge Joel Sartore commenting, “This image best represented the craft of photography”… and they didn’t seem to have a problem with it being a stitched pano for their contest. why should we (er, why should pdn?!).

  7. Max Says:

    How real is a B&W photo?
    How real is this one?

    Let’s stop for a moment and think about it. 😉

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  9. Chicago Photographer Says:

    Hard to tell from such a small photo. Is there a link anywhere to a full size image

  10. Eric Moore Says:

    This drives me crazy. Ansel Adams the godfather of nature photography was a master in the darkroom. EVERYONE KNOWS THIS. He manipulated photos like crazy. A little dodge here, a little burn there = manipulated photo. A polarizer filter (or neutral density filter, neutral grad, or even a warming filter) on a lens = manipulated photo. Use of strobe lighting = manipulated photo. The point being is that most photos are manipulated in some form or another. The only time I personally feel this is wrong is when it’s a journalistic image that is representing a fact or truth. The core of what makes photos art is their manipulation.

  11. shitaki Says:

    I hope it looks a lot cooler big

  12. TheNewSurf Says:

    Not only does it not look real there were some other questionable entries, the giraffes for instance…

  13. Ann-Marie Stillion Says:

    Maybe just badly overworked in the digital darkroom. But a great photo? NOT!

    Really a sad chapter in photography.

    Maybe if they photoshopped some fairies into the image, it could be a $20,000 prize?


  14. Russ Bishop Says:

    I agree that it is a fantastic image, but I also agree that it doesn’t seem plausable that it was made in one exposure without blending or stitching. I don’t have a problem with using these tools, but I do feel that National Geographic is seen by most as the grand master of un-retouched imagery and as such should not have selected this photo.

  15. Ryan Says:

    I think a bigger stink should be raised about one of the Canon Photography in the Park – that contest had EXTREMELY strict rules about post processing and HDR was explicitly banned..

    But… one of the winners is a horrid looking HDR monstrosity.

    ( see the third prize winner)

    Anyone who submitted to this contest had to read through they rules – they had an example that if you so much as cloned out a reflection or something you would be tossed for too much post processing…

  16. laurence cannings Says:

    quite frankly I’m not sure I like this photo but that is not the point, national geographic chose this photo as their winner, and as it is their contest and they are the judges, it is really their decision.

    but i do agree that it does contradict their principles, that you should be capturing the world as it is and showing us it’s beauty, not creating it artificially, even if it was like that in really life.

  17. Janey R. Jonesj Says:

    Natl Geographic is hypocritical as hell. At least among insiders, NG has always been famous for staged photos. Or altered ones. The famous incident of moving the pyramids around via retouching (long before Photoshop, incidentally) is only one example. The more common practice is styling photos. For example, if the NG team went to some god-forsaken jungle village to shoot the “isolated” natives and found the village drab and the natives ugly, NG would truck in models and clothing and props from the closest city, and stage the whole “photo” project.

    NG is, photographically-speaking, as crooked as a three dollar bill. As for the contest, either it should be no manipulation, or anything goes. In either case, the rules should be absolutely clear rather than about “discouraging” manipulation.

  18. Janey R. Jonesj Says:

    A poster above said, “I do feel that National Geographic is seen by most as the grand master of un-retouched imagery…”

    I COMMENT: The colleague is in error, unless he believes NG’s own propaganda. NG is infamous, at least among those in the know, for retouching, staging, phonying photos. And more recently, for biasing photo reportage for political purposes.

  19. Bill Daniels Says:

    What we have to ask ourselves as photographers isn’t “is it real or is it HDR?” but “is it a representation of what the photographer experienced?”

    Note that I did not say “… what the photographer saw” since as we all should know film does NOT accurately represent what the eye can see. Even the often-misunderstood zone system only divides the black and white world into 10 shades of grey, while the human eye/brain combination can make out many more. And color film (or digital image) is even worse.

    Looking at the Canon third place winner, I can easily imagine that this is what the photographer experienced and was unable to capture in a “straight” exposure. So HDR was chosen to change the overall contrast into an image that represents that experience. The zone system does EXACTLY the same thing, and I don’t see anyone complaining that “Moonrise, Hernandez” doesn’t represent what Ansel Adams experienced that winter afternoon back in the 1940’s. In fact, art has a long history of manipulating images for emotional impact (Salvador Dali comes to mind…).

    Photoshop, HDR and the like are only tools… used by humans like you and me to create images. Can they be overused? Of course… is it “right”? I cannot judge that.
    Is the Munch painting “The Scream” right?

  20. Chris Rusnak Says:

    This image looks pretty real to me. If this image was captured from multiple exposures then I have no problem with these results.