What Are The Ethics of Digital Manipulation in Photography?


From the moment we’re old enough to play games with other children, we’re told that cheating is bad. The same principle follows us throughout the rest of our lives, but as we grow it takes on far greater implications and applies to so many more situations than a simple schoolyard game of hide-and-seek, hopefully exhibiting itself in personal, academic, professional, economic, and all other aspects of life.

Because no one likes cheaters and liars, of course.

The Case of the Cottingley Fairies

In 1917, two young girls age 16 and 10, residents of Cottingley, England, made the first of an eventual five photographs that showed Frances, the younger of the two cousins, posing delicately amongst a quartet of fairies.

Yes, fairies. Like Tinkerbell.

The girls claimed to have seen the fairies down by the stream where they often played. And for anyone who scoffed at their assertion, they had photographic proof to offer. It didn’t take long for the cousins’ astonishing photos to reach the rest of the world; some looked upon the portraits with nothing but disbelief, while others believed the images to be real. Chief among the believers was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, and avid spiritualist who was convinced the girls’ photos were legitimate evidence of psychic phenomena.

Even if you have never previously heard of this affair, you can probably guess with reasonable certainty where it’s all headed. Frances’ and Elsie’s photographed were eventually revealed as fakes, with the fairies being nothing more than cardboard cutouts that had been pinned to the girls’ surroundings in a variety of creative ways.

We could chalk it all up to kids having harmless fun, a premise that would be easier to accept had the perpetrators not carried their delusions with them into adulthood. And to a modern, tech-savvy observer, it’s probably rather easy to chuckle at the naiveté of all those who bought into the scam, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that we’re immune to such ethical issues today.

Digital Manipulation: What’s the Limit?

How much does the means by which a photographer arrives at his or her final image really matter? I’m sure you’ve heard one photographer being labeled a “cheater” by another photographer over the liberal use of Photoshop to finish an image. For those who see things that way, I guess the perceived overuse of Photoshop invalidates the work as genuine photography and casts it into some other form of art; there are those who strongly believe that a “real” photograph is made strictly at the moment of capture and that any sort of alterations and enhancements made later amount to lying or cheating. I suppose such a hardcore stance isn’t necessarily “wrong,” though it surely is impractical.

But how far is too far in terms of manipulating and enhancing photographs? Are we limited to correcting white balance before we begin down the slippery slope of handing over our artistic integrity? Ethical implications matter, but so do aesthetics. And let us not forget that everything we create as photographers, as artists, is an interpretation of what we see around us. Choice of camera, choice of camera settings, composition; we’re constantly imposing ourselves in one way or another upon “reality.” In this sense, there’s no such thing as absolute truth.

Making an Exception

When it comes to taking a more hardline approach to not tinkering with photographs after the shutter has been pressed and the files transferred to a computer, I believe the only genre that benefits in any way that actually matters is journalistic/documentary photography.

In considering the photo above, it’s not difficult to understand why any degree of Photoshopping would be not only unnecessary but, more importantly, dishonest. Airbrushing the mother’s face and sharpening her eyes would be unfathomably shallow and would defeat everything this photograph was intended to represent.

So Much Gray Area

Generally, all the chatter about digitally enhancing photos is overblown. It’s an issue that consists mostly of gray areas; there are no one-size fits all answers. It just depends on what you are trying to achieve with your work. Again, the reasons for leaving documentary-style photographs relatively untouched by photo manipulation are fairly obvious. But what about something like astrophotography? These photographs benefit immensely from some tweaking in Photoshop in order to make more apparent things that we can’t normally see with the naked eye; it’s a necessity, nothing evil about it.

The same could be said for using software to get rid of red eye — no one can seriously argue in favor of not removing it.

The ethics of manipulating and/or enhancing photography is fraught with innumerable potential dilemmas. While I’m fully aware of why so many people get so worked up over this topic — sometimes with good cause — there is no reason for photographers to engage in excessive handwringing. It becomes a distraction.

Nobody should care if you punched up the vibrancy in your photos of the Grand Canyon; viewers still know it’s the Grand Canyon. If you’re an avid astrophotographer whose favorite subject is Mars, make all the adjustments you need, so long as we still recognize it as the Red Planet and not a planet of some other color.

However, if your intent is to create fiction, then do whatever you want, just be sure that your motives are clear to your audience. Only when a photographer presents his or her work with the intent to deceive should we call into question their professional/artistic integrity — their ethics.

We all know fairies aren’t real. The idea that there is a universal set of rules or an objective reality to which artists must adhere at all times is just as much of a myth. Do what makes you happy, yes; but also make sure you can proudly stand by the merits of your work as well.

About Author

Jason Little is a photographer, author and stock shooter. You can see Jason’s photography on his Website or his Instagram feed.

People have been manipulating photographs since the beginning of photography, usually in the darkroom…not so different from today really. As long as you dont misrepresent wheres the harm?

Manipulation happens not necessarily after the “click”.

The sample image from Dorothea Lange is a good example for content manipulation prior to taking the photograph. The “migrant mother” has seven children, but only two are shown in the final picture, in order to comply with US middleclass standards of the time.

To me, in journalistic/documentary photography any change that alters the content is wrong. When talking artistic photography, such boundaries are not needed (you wouldn’t limit a painter to what he sees, would you?).

Best regards

Agree with Mattes. Its often the way to move a piece of rubbish, or throw a few items of interest into the foreground. We have all done it, perhaps even moved a branch or cleared the area before taking a shot. but we all would have done without given it a second thought. Manipulation starts on the shoot!

I normally find that the “straight out of camera” brigade are younger photographers who, have never had a chance to work in a dark room with chemicals. Do any of them seriously think that the greats, such as Ansell Adams for example, didn’t manipulate their work in the dark room or, that given the chance to use Photoshop, lightroom etc., they wouldn’t be rubbing their hands together in delight?

Have I moved a piece of driftwood on a beach to get a better composition or removed a footprint from sand in Photoshop or lightroom? Of course I have and I’m not to proud to admit it.

You then have to ask if the use of filters is “cheating” or even adjusting shutter speeds and apertures can be construed as manipulation.

There is no right or wrong answer to this question as it will always be up to the individual artist to decide which course is right for them. It is much like five people seeing an car accident and being asked for their view of what happened….you will get five different stories.https://www.redbubble.com/people/lesboucher/works/10236273-summer-cloud-sunset

Much documentary photography is deliberately manipulated (like the news) to make an image look more harrowing than it actually is. Of course, there have been truly amazing pictures, remember the little Vietnamese girl after a napalm attack? How could anyone say that image was manipulated before or after the event?
When people are photographed as models, skin blemishes are removed because we are told by the advertisers that perfect skin should be seen.
Nature photography for certain bodies, such as the Royal Photographic Society, should have little or no work post production and certainly nothing removed from the shot, such as a twig – prior to the shot being taken, yes.
Other than that, I view photography as making an image, not taking an image, and if I can make something look that little bit more interesting from using Photoshop, then I will. Most of the time, for me, it is the final image that counts.

In the realm of photojournalism, I think there is a line that, when crossed, can be considered dishonest. When an image is manipulated such that it deceptively rewrites history, for example.

Let’s say, I digitally paste an image of myself into another photograph, now depicting me shaking hands with a world-known dignitary, and I did it so skillfully that it looks convincingly real. Then I pass it off to the public as genuine, as something that really happened.

I’m all for complete freedom with manipulation of photographs, but for complete honesty in communicating what has been done, or not done.
Lens distort views……but then each human eye perceives uniquely. Aiming the camera is selective, but not necessarily creative. Doctored images may change the course of history….but maybe for the better. Divine judgement would be better than a democratic vote on the issue.

Anyone who takes a jpeg image is allowing the camera to manipulate the image. There is no difference between that and enhancing a RAW image in Lightroom or Photoshop.

Sometimes we have to escape reality to appreciate humanity. There is time for everything. When to manipulate and when not to. Photography is all these things. Just take your pick and enjoy while doing it.

I find that the people that complain the most about “Photoshopping” are those who can’t do it. What is more manipulated than a “real” B&W photo of a natural scene? Why did we have 5 or 6 grades of paper in our smelly chemical darkrooms? I’m sure Ansel Adams would have “made” marvelous images with Photoshop.

as a novice photographer (only a few months in)I find it all pretty frustrating and soul depleting when I look at a shot on the web or magazine and think wow that is amazing ,and then realising after trying to achieve the same sort of shot that it’s all photoshop etc

I am also a relatively new photographer…..but from the beginning……realized that post production was just part of the process. I kind of expect a great shot to have been edited in one way or another. I never found that fact to be disappointing. I do believe that photo journalism is in a separate class….and there shouldn’t be too many alterations that would change the story that is being told. If the alteration changes the story…..then the ethics of it come into question. Removing the stray thumb as in the picture above…….did not change or hurt the story it told. In reply to Alan above…..those great shots are not “all photoshop”. The photographer had to be in the right place…..compose and think about the light…..lug the equipment……burn gas……set up…..and wait and wait and wait for things to be just right. They dangle off of cliffs on ropes, stand in freezing streams……. I am 60. I lay in the snow sometimes, my knees are often wet or dirty…..and while my shots come out pretty well straight from the camera……I know that they are not finished yet……. I remove dust spots, bring out the shadows a bit….and yes….get rid of that OTHER photographer that was standing in the picture. It is all part of the whole. It is like mixing up a cake… you bake it……but when it comes out of the oven and it is cool…… you put frosting on it. Editing is putting the frosting on it. 🙂

Well said Pamela comparing it to baking is a great analogy. My thoughts are that it`s there if you need it but don`t be disappointed if you haven`t used it and others have for a better result.

Any photograph that is used to confirm or represent fact should not be altered e.g. Crime Scene Photos, Journalistic Photos, Nature Pictures and Scientific Images. Photography that is art is a creation by the photographer and can be manipulated in any way as long as the originator does not try to hide the fact. Ethics vary from person to person and are therefore subjective so not everyone will agree with my thoughts and feelings on the subject.

Just stumbled on your article Jason – very interesting discussion. I think there is also an ethical dilemma for photoshop practitioners as well as photographers, particularly in regard to body image. If a client asks for a tweak here and a pinch there, are we really doing any harm. Ultimately, I think photoshop is a tool just like any other, and it should be the intended and/or resultant use of the retouched image which is scrutinized for any ethical shortcomings.

A good picture taker can believe they are a good photographer with post manipulation. A true photographer needs little to no manipulation.

Times have certainly changed. With digital photography, it is most often necessary to adjust your images due to the short coming’s of digital technology itself. I do both analog film and digital, but 95% of my photography is transparencies, and since after 50 years of photography, I find little need to manipulate my analog images. I guess with the digital photo age, spending as much time photographing as you do at the computer to make your photos better is the new norm. Perhaps we should think about going back to the basics and use both mediums and see which is most enjoyable. Perhaps that is why film photography is making a resurgence.

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