A question that I see constantly cropping up in photography groups is the question of whether or not it is considered “lying” or “cheating” to manipulate your images using Photoshop or some other editing software.
Now, there was a time, back when I was brand new in photography, when I was a “purist.” I didn’t consider it “cheating” to edit photos in post-production per se, but I really wanted to try to get everything right in camera, so that I wouldn’t have a need to post-process my images.
I would see images that people post on social media and I was sure that there must be a way to achieve the results that they did in camera. I tried everything I could think of to achieve the colors and other effects that they did. I’m a bit embarrassed to tell you how much time I wasted before I finally realized that it was a fool’s errand to try to recreate in camera what others had done using post-production techniques.
After I finally knocked the truth into myself, I began to think about whether it is “cheating” or if there was actually anything unethical or wrong about manipulating photos. I went back and forth on the issue for a while before finally coming to accept post-production. I thought about the common objections that are raised by people who insist that post-production is wrong, and tried to reason out what, if anything was wrong with those objections. Here are my thoughts.
It's Not "The Truth"
One claim I hear from people is that if the photographer manipulates the image, it is no longer a true representation of the scene. My answers to this are as follows:
I Don't Owe You "The Truth"
I am, primarily, a landscape photographer. Nowhere do I claim that my images represent the scene exactly as I saw it. I am always up front and admit that *every* image that I put out has been manipulated (unless otherwise stated). At the very least, it’s color corrected, straightened and other minor edits made. Sometimes, I remove or move elements from the photo. But it doesn’t matter because I do not make any promise of delivering to you “the truth.”
There are certain fields of photography where there is an obligation to depict the scene as close to reality as possible. Photojournalism comes to mind. Real estate and product photography as well. But outside those few specific genres, there is no professional obligation to deliver an accurate image.
My job, when photographing a scene, is to create a work of art. I’m not delivering a pictorial report on the state of the mountain, or the conditions of the flowers in the field. I’m producing a work of art, no different than a painter or a sketch artist who is painting or drawing the same scene. Is the painter not delivering the truth if he adds a flock of birds to the mountain scene that aren’t there? Is the sketch artist being untruthful if she sketches the trees and leaves in an indistinct manner even if they are not so indistinct in reality?
Is this photo “the truth?”
What if I painted the scene like this? Is this not true?
The answer, of course, is no. They are creating a work of art. Yes, it may be based on a real scene, but it’s still a work of art, and it is not expected to be an accurate representation of the scene. For the photographer, it should be no different. I have no obligation to present a scene as accurately representing what I saw. As a photographer, my objective is to create a work of art — and that’s what I’m doing.
What Is Truth, Anyway?
There are those that maintain that I, as a landscape photographer, am “cheating” because the images I create aren’t “true” to the scene I see before me. Well, to that, I have to ask… what is the truth and how can I possibly bring you the truth?
You see, first of all, the scene I see before me is three dimensional. The image I am going to show you however, is two dimensional. So, already, I’m not showing you the scene as I see it.
But it goes even further than that. Every photographic choice I make, from composition, to lens choice, to focus, to shutter speed and aperture and a dozen other variables are going to affect the final image. Which combination of these settings represents “the truth?” Am I not showing you “the truth” if I use a 200mm zoom lens on a scene, even though our eyes don’t see it that way?
I shot this using a 70mm focal length.
I shot the same scene at 135mm
Is one shot less “true” than the other?
When I post my image on the web, I will have to first convert it from a RAW image to another file format (usually JPEG). There are changes that happen when this happens too. Are all JPEG images “fake?”
The truth of the matter is that every photograph is shaped by the choices the photographer makes — both at the scene and in post-processing. There is no such thing as “absolute truth” in photography. Every photographer brings their own artistic vision and inspiration to each scene, which is why many different photographers will come away from the same scene with images that are different from each other – sometimes wildly so.
Your Camera Can’t Handle The Truth
Sometimes, the limitations of the camera require post-processing in order to capture the image as the photographer sees it. HDR photography is predicated on the fact that your eyes have a wider visual range (in terms of stops of light) than your camera does. Your camera cannot see the entire range of dark to light that your eyes can. One way we rectify this through HDR is taking multiple shots at different shutter speeds or exposure values to capture all the highlights, midtones and shadows in the image. We then use post-processing to put those multiple images together to give a more realistic view of what the scene was actually like.
… is actually combined from three different images shot at different exposures to properly expose the highlights, midtones and shadows.
As you can see, none of these images properly captured all the tones of the scene properly. Post processing is necessary to correctly show the image.
It's Not Photography
Another frequent complaint that I hear is that if a photographer chooses to post-process their images, then it’s no longer photography, but rather “digital art” or some other art form.
The truth is that post-processing has been around in photography for a long time. No one would say that Ansel Adams wasn’t a photographer, but guess what? He dodged and burned his images in the darkroom. Dodging and burning and other effects have been around for a long time – well before the advent of Photoshop. I think it’s safe to say that post-production is as much a part of photography as editing and proofreading is a part of writing.
Using Photoshop or other post-processing software to enhance your images is not “cheating” or unethical in any way. Granted, there are some genres of photography that are exceptions to this rule, but for the vast majority of us, there is simply nothing wrong with using all available tools to enhance your artwork. As photographers, we don’t owe anyone any expectation of “truth” or anything similar. All we owe is the best image that we can possibly create with the tools we have available to us and our creativity.
Do you agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.