On one hand I do agree with you Austin. When we meld images together, we should say that it is a digital composite, because it is no longer a “natural” image. For instance, I looked at your goldfinch image without knowing it was the digital composite (short term memory issues…), and it instantly screamed CGI to me. That has more to do with the lighting, special type of luminance noise, and detailing on the feathers, but just knowing that this paticular image is a photo composite does indeed make me value it less than your natural photo.
There is a line I would draw, however. There is a big difference, to me at least, between taking two photos and blending them and manipulating an original photo in any amount.
Personally I find that it is very hard to make composites appear life-like, and therefore they always appear “fake” to me. I’ve seen some really amazing composites that you wouldn’t guess were “fake”, but even in those cases, I usually prefer the original photos to the melded image. My feelings on direct manipulation on a single image, however, are vastly different. My philosophy on photo manipulation in general is that there always should be a good reason you are editing anything. It is possible I’m biased as a graphic designer, but when I see some manipulation, I don’t have a single problem with that, provided that it is done very well, the finished image is improved by that manipulation, and I can find a sufficient reason for the editing. If these boxes are “ticked”, I value that edited photo just as much as the original, if not more.
To give an example, James posted on the Lenspiration Blog back in November of 2016 on some editing that he did on some family portraits. In these photos, he had to fix up the background by adding in some extra cloth using healing tools and removing wrinkles. He did a great job on the cloth, and becasue tI can see why you would want to do that, and the photo looks much better for what he did, I value the finished photo more than the originals. You can look at what I’m talking about here: https://www.lenspiration.com/2016/11/simple-edits-go-a-long-way/