You may have heard from a veteran photographer that editing or retouching an image breaks the rules of photography. Once an image is captured, that is the final result. However, is that fair to those who want to do some post work to enhance their images before sharing or uploading? This may be a divergence in viewpoint between traditional photographers and digital photographers. When I say traditional, I am referring to analog workflows where film is the medium of choice but it can also be digital but involves no post editing. Digital refers to the more modern digital workflow used by commercial photographers.
In the digital workflow, the post process requires plenty of retouching to process images. Most of the retouching are edits to enhance the final image. This is usually done to change the contrast, color correction, sharpening and even cropping the image for a more visual appeal. This is common in publications and web content. The more traditional analog workflow is purely film, but there are also digital photographers who do not use image editing software. They either shoot in high resolution JPEG or TIFF, not even RAW because that would require processing the image in software. They follow the rule of what you see is what you get … nothing more nothing less. No need to edit or retouch an image.
First of all, I do not believe there is an actual rule in photography where you cannot edit the image. If it was a rule, then many should be in “photographer jail” for violating it. Perhaps it is best presented based on the photographer’s purpose. In its purest form, photography is just about capturing the image. That in itself is what photography is for. It becomes a debate as to what photographers do with the image next. Should the photographer just leave it as is or do some retouching or editing?
Photography Is A Skill
I sometimes hear people say that photography is a skill that becomes a talent that is much sought after. I agree with that because not all people are experts when it comes to photography. There is a skill involved with composing and exposing an image as much as just clicking the camera. A true photographer understands the lighting as well and is able to produce clear, sharp and properly focused images that the average person will have trouble doing.
Another skill that more traditional photographers have is working with film. The photos of some of the best photographers in the world are also shot in film, which is for the most part on the spot and unedited. Some minor touch ups can be done in the darkroom (e.g. dodging and burning), but the purist just wants to develop their image and display the prints. Whether they can develop their own film or not, these photographers have a passion for capturing a more authentic and genuine image at its most basic form. Shooting with film or digital that does not involve editing is quite fundamental.
You can also say that retouching is a skill. It requires knowledge of image editing software like Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom or Capture One. Photographers who have a digital workflow will shoot with a DSLR or mirrorless camera using the RAW image format. RAW preserves the most details from the camera sensor’s capture and provides photographers more options when retouching in post. Retouching also allows photographers to get more creative as they edit the image using filters, color profiles and other effects to enhance the look of an image. This is a more artistic and creative process involving the use of a computer.
The more skill you have in camera, the less likely it is for you to require any editing in post. It is a matter of whether you are satisfied with your image or if you need to work on it some more. Shooting with film will probably not require any editing other than developing the film in the darkroom. This is the way traditional photographers work when producing prints of images.
A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words
An image or still in photography, can convey many messages to the viewer. The purist among photographers wants to preserve what they have captured through film in a very subtle way. What this represents is the moment the image was captured in reality, so it should not be modified in any digital or analog way. That is exactly what you want to represent the authenticity in an image.
Take for example a photograph of a rare or endangered animal like the tiger. It would be so much better to see it in real life, but the camera can help capture the image. Would you prefer to see the tiger like it appears in the wild or does enhancing it with filters and touch ups best preserve the memory for ages? I would prefer the former because it gives you a better representation of the tiger as seen through the lens rather than the perspective of the retoucher. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, you want to be genuine.
If you don’t stick to that basic formula and edit the image, it can take away the authenticity of it. If the tiger appears ruddy and dirty in the wild, there is no need to tidy up the image to give a nicer appearance. It gives the wrong impression since tigers do not look same as the ones you see on TV shows or illustrations. Retouching gives a view that can be a wrongful representation of the image, and that can affect people’s impressions of it.
Another example that has become a hot topic is when it comes to capturing the human body. The fashion industry is notorious for air brushing and body morphing to meet a certain standard of beauty. That is mostly a recent phenomenon that became possible with Photoshop and the digital camera. Prior to that, images captured on film showcased a more accurate depiction of fashion and beauty. Some magazines are now requiring photographers to not edit or change the original image in order to show the actual form. It is a response to counter body shaming and allow people to embrace who they really are.
Headshots and portraits are some of the most genuine type of photography. The photographer, whether film or digital, will want to capture the talent in the most natural way. This is where the photographer’s skill shine, since most of the work is done with the camera and not with editing software. It has to be genuine because the way the talent looks is the way the talent should appear for film and castings. Any over the top editing is a misrepresentation of the talent.
When Editing Is Necessary
When capturing images for an accurate and genuine representation, there is no need to edit. The purpose for editing is when it comes to commercial photography. When taking the best photos to get the best impressions, an edited image appears to be the one that gets the most attention (good and bad). This is good for advertising and marketing purposes since it helps sell products and services.
In product photography, plenty of editing does take place with a digital workflow. It is like a conveyor belt from the shoot at the studio or location to the retoucher’s computer. A creative director works with both the photographer and retoucher to create the final image. What is important here is to enhance the product’s look for maximum visual appeal. Vibrant colors, amazing contrast and cropped details are required to highlight the product’s features. The photographer’s part is capturing the image using the best lighting, while the retoucher enhances the image in post.
In the beauty industry, retouchers rely on image editing software to create the most aesthetic look. Beauty requires not only showing the product in use, but how it looks on a model. In beauty shoots, the final image is usually not the original capture. It requires some work on editing to enhance the details like color and contrast. A more natural look is always ideal, but not to look too normal. This is where retouching helps bring out the details so consumers will see the best example of a lipstick, moisturizer or makeup product.
Editing is required when it comes to portraying a less genuine but more extravagant image. You see this on billboards and ads all the time. An ad poster for a music concert has to look stunning in the eyes of consumers so they will more likely buy a ticket and attend the concert. Ads are also viewed by millions of people, so it only makes sense to make the images the best ones the campaign can put out. You can think about it this way, are consumers looking at an ad more likely to buy a shiny and vibrant looking laptop or a plain and dull looking laptop? I would assume the shiny one.
Red Flags For Editing
The more controversial part of editing is when it is done in a manner that offends people. This seems to happen a lot with public figures since they are noticeable. Some celebrities have been accused of altering their image to unrealistic proportions, thanks to image editing software i.e. Photoshop. This is when the result is the least flattering to viewers. What is offensive is more with the manner the image was retouched. Otherwise it would not be much of an issue if the image was edited but with a natural look.
When the editing is exaggerated and surreal, it can really be offensive. Other times it was meant to be just for fun, like with social media filters. That is not an issue at all, but when it comes to images used for commercials it can be problematic. That is because it does not portray what is realistic to the audience and most of the time these images look fake. Public figures tend to be about their image, but some of them get called out for over the top editing. People want to look good, and if editing removes 10 pounds, then they will prefer an edited version. Apple has been accused of enhanced beauty filters in the iPhone (e.g. Beautygate) that alters selfies and personal photos. It has since been corrected as a bug, after receiving plenty of backlash.
It is also not a good idea to change or manipulate images when it is fraudulent. For example, changing the colors or removing stains or defects from a product is dishonest. Consumers want to buy what they see in ads, so when their expectations are not met it can lead to lawsuits. This tends to happen more with non-professional photos used on websites where products can be sold. For commercial work this can ruin the reputation of a company so they need to take retouching seriously.
Perhaps another red flag in editing, and bordering more on ethics, is the use of AI. It levels the playing field for photographers and non-photographers, but at the non-professional level. The application of AI in imaging caters to a retail market (e.g. smartphone cameras) for taking photos. This is why filters are becoming so common. It is harmless, but when applied to professional work there arises many questions. It can be a form of cheating when the result makes the person appear totally different, like near perfect in appearance. While professional photographers and retouchers are exploring editing with AI, it is best to keep things at a minimal in order to preserve the integrity of the image.
Editing an image is not a general violation of any rule in photography. It only violates rules when it doesn’t meet its specific purpose. People can do what they want, but there are consequences. When the editing is done properly, it should be fine. If the image needs to be kept in its original form, then no editing is necessary. Editing is more for commercial work that involves a creative process for ads, editorials, digital art and promotions.
For more serious representations of an image like in a documentary, forensics, medical exam, photojournalism, headshot, interview or nature, less to no editing is the best. Purists who don’t edit can maintain the authenticity of an image when it was originally captured. You can take a photo of the Hollywood sign that needs no editing, but if you want to get creative with it for use as an art piece then editing will be involved. Whatever your preference is, there is no violation when editing if it meets the objective for capturing the image and its purpose.