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Reality Versus Fantasy in Photography: Where Do You Draw the Line?

Your client’s terminally-ill grandfather is the only one not smiling in the shots of the entire family. Do you liquify his facial features to make it look like he might be smiling? Do you transform a flat gray sky in your latest landscape to a dramatic sunny one? Where do you draw the line?

Apart from journalistic and other strictly documentary-based photography, there are no hard boundaries in most branches of photography to govern the distinction between the hard truth and an imaginative work of art.

A Version of Reality

Over the years, photographers have earned a notorious reputation in the eyes of the general population. This is because a large majority of “beautiful" photos in mass media fall under a gray area which I call “a version of reality.” Near perfect skin to the last pore, ideal proportions of body parts on glamour magazine covers, virtually empty beaches with the most vibrant blues and greens, and the must-have epic sunset couple shot on their wedding day. These have built a common perception that everything is “photoshopped.”

Perfect Skin

There are valid arguments on both sides of the divide. Some photographers argue that in person you may not notice the blemishes on someone’s skin as much as you do in a photo as it is a frozen moment. So the removal of blemishes helps direct the attention of the viewer towards the more natural areas of attention, e.g., the eyes. This argument, however, raises two questions on the other side: first, if imperfections are removed consistently from all beauty content, does that make the subjects less human and change our expectations of what is considered beautiful? And second, is the replacement of skin to the pore level also an extension of removal of imperfections?

I Look Fat

Then there is the “please ensure I don’t look fat in these photos” conundrum. The arguments here are that a) the society in general wants to look a certain way and if our clients want to look “thin,” we're bound to oblige to their request; b) the way we light and two-dimensionality of a photo can sometimes mean that people can look smaller or bigger than how our eyes see them, so we need to correct for that illusion. The latter raises a simpler question: is that an excuse to submit to our biases and if it’s not, how do we know where to stop? The former argument raises a slightly a more complex question: what amount of responsibility rests with the photographer to contribute in solving the body-image issues of the world? 

An Extension of Historical Practices

One can also argue that perfection in art and beauty is not new and in fact, photography has inherited the yearning towards the “ideal” from human sculptures with perfect bodies and exquisite paint masterpieces with impossibly dramatic skies. However, the general population or at least a section of society believes that photography is supposed to be different, that it’s primary purpose and feature is to capture a moment as it occurred. In light of this, should there be more of an effort to educate the masses? Or should photographers somehow create a clear separation between in-camera photography and the enhanced reality and imaginative art?

It Needs to Be Instagram-able

Social approval plays a big part for today’s photographers. If you didn’t get an epic photo of hot air balloons over the early morning Bagan sky, with you, your photogenic half, or you both in it, did you even go to Bagan, dude? Alternatively, imagine this. You’ve finally landed your first wedding in the Bahamas. It’s going to be huge! You’re going to send these photos everywhere. But on the wedding day, instead of the sun, the weather gods send you a flat-gray sky. In either situation above, one could argue that social pressure is way too hard to cope with and thus you're going to add dramatic sunlight in a few wedding photos or composite some hot air balloons in some Bagan photos. But obviously, what we fail to see at that moment is that we are contributing to that same social pressure. 

I’m not a documentary photographer and have often photographed with the adage, “don’t let the truth come in the way of a good story.” I do not know the answer to the question of what is too far or if we’d even consider our practices to be too far outside the ethical fence. But I know it’s time we, as photographers, at least started discussing the question: where do we draw the line?

Where do you stand and what would you like the community to change? I’d love to hear your own experiences and ideas about these issues. Put in your comments in the section below.

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Edwin Cobbinah's picture

I do not make much corrections to human skin to attain the "perfect" look. Love to have it simple and natural even if it's a wedding photograph and my clients love it, though I once was asked by a client to make thier teeth a bit white after a pre-wedding shoot.

When it comes to landscape photos, I admit taking them to a whole new level if that's what it takes to get the look I want.

David Penner's picture

I'm the same way with landscapes. I will do whatever to them. I dont try to pass stuff off as real though. Hell I'll post timelapse videos on my instagram stories of all the changes I make to the photos.

Phil Tate's picture

The world would be a better place if Photoshop (and similar editors) had never been invented. Liquifying faces to make them have the expression you want? Good grief. Sorry, but that's not photography.

Deleted Account's picture

Then what is it? Who defined "photography" and gave it metes and bounds?

Phil Tate's picture

I did. My comment, my definition. You don't have to agree.

Deleted Account's picture

So you feel qualified to define something, you admit in your prior comments to being a beginner at? Okay. 🙂

Phil Tate's picture

Not exactly a beginner. I started sixty years ago.

Deleted Account's picture

My bad. You said you were new to Photoshop. :-)

Phil Tate's picture

Actually, I didn't say that, but I am new to PS. I've used LR since Aperture was dropped by Apple.

Deleted Account's picture

It was a comment in another article.

Daniel Medley's picture

Manipulation has been going on long before Photoshop and other software. Look at the old Hollywood glamour photos of the 30s through the 60s. In fact the studios often times employed more retouchers than photographers.

amanda daniels's picture

My brand is about self love. I shoot boudoir, but also lots of other things and self love is my brand for all my photographer, therefore I do not use Photoshop to make corrections/liquefy. If my client has a pimple or something I will remove it because that is not a permanent thing to their body. I am not opposed to people doing modifications however it is not my style at all and I make sure my clients know this before they work with me. It does bother me when the skin is so over done that it doesn't even look real, I will never understand that. To me photos should tell a story and should be a reflection of people's lives. If you modify someone where they don't even look like themselves I just don't get it. Like why would a woman want herself completely changed? Is she going to hang an image in her house of someone that looks nothing like her? I guess I just don't get it.

Deleted Account's picture

So pimples are temporary but fat is permanent? I know that sounds snarky but think about it. Doesn't it come down to what one is comfortable with? So, if someone is on the chubby side, but is okay with it, absolutely don't liquify them (that sounds like something a James Bond villain would do) but if they want you to remove the extra chin or a few pounds, what's wrong with that?

amanda daniels's picture

By removing a pimple that doesn't change the way my client looks, by making my client smaller in size that changes the way they look. As I stated this is my personal opinion and my brand. Fat is certainly not permanent, but by removing some "extra" I am changing the appearance of my client as the look in their current state, which I am not comfortable with. Extra fat or not, I try to promote self love and loving yourself in the exact body you are in, so I am not going to remove things to change their appearance. As I stated, I am not opposed to others doing this, it is just not my thing and No, I don't understand why a client would want to change their appearance in a image that is supposed to reflect them.

Dave F's picture

"No, I don't understand why a client would want to change their appearance in a image that is supposed to reflect them."

So they don't wear makeup either? I'll never understand the level of judgment passed on digital retouching by those who will do the same thing manually. At that point it's not the altering, it's merely the tool being used to do it that's being judged. Let's not conflate the two. Bear in mind, this isn't about changing somebody's weight vs. not changing it, this is about altering ones appearance, period. Primers, foundations, powders, concealers, contours, highlights, bronzers, blushes, eyeshadow, etc. are not how a person "naturally" looks. Yet you'll do that but maintain that you're not about changing how your client looks. I call shenanigans.

Also, reflect them how? How they look or how they feel? Those aren't necessarily the same thing.

amanda daniels's picture

Clearly you aren't reading my entire comments. In my very first comment I explained that MY brand is to not alter a person's body BUT that I am not opposed to other's doing it. I am allowed to have my own opinion and that doesn't mean I am judging anyone. It is my opinion and my feelings, just because we feel differently doesn't mean I am judging anyone. Adding make up to your face shouldn't change how you look in real life (yes, sometimes it does when over done), my only point is if you are a certain size in real life, why modify your body and change things? It is because they are self conscious about certain areas of their body, which MY brand is to help them see their beauty just the way they are. And for the record, I have done many of shots where woman don't even wear make up, they are all natural.

Please don't make an assumption that I am judging other without actually reading my entire comments.

Dave F's picture

I read your comments (now who's making assumptions), I just disagree with your selective ideas about what constitutes someone's "appearance". You say that removing a pimple doesn't change their appearance but by definition if you can see a pimple, it's part of their appearance. That's not subjective; it's a fact, whether you like it or not. It's certainly reasonable to argue that a pimple doesn't represent who someone truly is, but to say that a pimple doesn't reflect who a person is but that fat does means you're being selective about which physical elements define a person. I'm not disagreeing that you have a right to make a decision based on this criteria, I'm simply pointing out that the criteria itself is contradictory. It's one thing to say "physical elements don't define a person" because that would at least be thinking with some sort of consistency, even if the point itself is debatable. Heck, I'm not even saying that selectively choosing which physical elements matter and how they should or shouldn't be concealed is inherently wrong. I'm just saying that it doesn't seem to be the result of a cohesive thought process in this case.

To be clear, I'm not arguing whether people should use digital retouching or not, or whether they should wear makeup or not. I'm pointing out that a good number of the reasons people say they do or don't do certain things are based on these types of selective rationalizations, which makes them hard to take seriously. Again, you have a right to your opinion, but that's not the same thing as having an idea that's impervious to fallacy, regardless of your conviction to it.

amanda daniels's picture

If you did read my comments than you would understand that I am not judging anyone or their beliefs, but you stated that you will never understand the level of judgement passed. I understand what you are saying but you are twisting it or maybe I am not explaining my opinion clear enough. Let's say someone has short hair, will their hair grow long by a day or two? No. Therefore I will not make someone's hair long. Let's say someone is skinny, will they put on 10+ lbs in a week or two? No. This is my point. A pimple will be gone in a day or two, the rest will not. The only thing I pick and choose on, is literally a pimple or something on the skin (bump, etc.). I will not alter the body in any other way. If I had it my way, I wouldn't remove a single thing because I do believe that everyone should try to love themselves exactly who they are, pimple or no pimple. I would photograph woman without make up every single session. But I do think that is a bit harsh and I can understand why someone who want a pimple removed and to wear make up, so I make an exception, but that is the only exception because at the end of the day I have to stay true to myself and my beliefs and if someone wants to be re-touched then they aren't the client for me. To each their own. Every photographer can do as they wish, as long as they make their clients happy. You have the right to your opinions as well, but i do believe your opinion of me is completely off.

Dave Terry's picture

"what amount of responsibility rests with the photographer to contribute in solving the body-image issues of the world?"

I ponder this question constantly. The following are my un-edited first thoughts. I promise, I will probably just end up rambling. So continue reading at your own risk.

Firstly, I had to deal with these self-image issues within myself when I get photographed. At some point long ago I realized that my attempts to preemptively point out what I saw as my own flaws before anyone else could point them out and use them against me (a skill I sadly picked up growing up feeling fat and ugly) made most people feel uncomfortable. I literally just had to "get over" my own face and body eventually (I was already in my mid-30s by the). I spent most of my life between middle school and 30 years old hiding from all cameras. I already loved shooting photos myself, but I would not let anyone get me on the business end of a lens if I could help it - or I would lay all my body image issues on the person with the camera until they just didn't want to take my photo anymore. As much as it surprised me, this really bugged the people closest to me who WANTED photos of me, basically, because they loved me.

My perception of how I looked, especially in photos where I had no way of controlling how I was being perceived, hindered me from sharing in the incredible experience of capturing moments of my life... moments that meant something to the people around me. Not even just moments, but "me" - the person they love... which is something that transcends the way I look.

It has been difficult getting over those issues, but letting people take my photos and NOT offering any commentary about how I look has been very freeing to me. However, it also has greatly affected how I deal with these issues in other people as a photographer. I want people to look their best, but I don't want them to look like something they are not. Honestly, internet dating had a lot do with how my views evolved about this. How I define attractive is pretty broad, but one thing I don't like is deception - as a character issue, but also in photos. A lot of people (men and women) lie with their photos.

It's one thing to try and find your best angle. It's a good thing, but when that is the ONLY angle (or angles) you feel comfortable being photographed from, and therefor never allow other photos to be taken OR only every post the "correct" ones for others to see, we are presenting a false image of ourselves. The split second you meet someone in person, all of those carefully posed selfies matter for nothing. It's impossible to keep your date standing no more or less than 2 feet away from a slightly elevated angle, and to your left side in person. Thirty photos shot just like this mainly communicate that you have a lot of self-image issues more than any sexiness you may or may not possess.

And I get the instinct for this. Twenty six years ago a buddy on my yearbook staff took a photo of me on the floor as he stood elevated a foot above me on some bleachers. It was the best I felt I had ever looked in a photo. But that ain't how I look at eye level, or, how I look to most people looking up at me from a few inches below my chin, which is most people since I am a rather tall dude.

What does this all have to do with photography? It has all informed me when dealing with subjects in my photos. First off, by this point most people who shoot with me sort of know what to expect with me. They know I am not going to cater too much to their own self-image issues. But they also know I will still try and capture photos that they like. My approach is to simply re-cast in their minds a different way to look at themselves in images. Simply put I tell them I want to take the sorts of photos of them that the "people who love them most" would look at and say, "yeah, you really captured so and so." Those are not always the most "flattering" images. But I try to help people appreciate realness and embrace (or at least make peace with) what they look like.

Some people will never be at peace in this way... and that goes for people at all levels of perceived beauty. But in order to change society, we simply have to actually just fucking change. There will be no sudden revolution that changes how the world sees body image issues, but there can be a slow evolution. I choose to be a part of that movement.

Something I learned from working with models as well as many musicians (musicians often find themselves having to get their photos taken even if they don't like it) is that the best ones to work with aren't always the allegedly "best looking" ones. It's the ones who are fearless to face the camera from any angle... or at least they demonstrate fearlessness outwardly. Maybe this is because by all quantifiable societal standards they have very little to be worried about in terms of potential criticisms from other people, but that certainly doesn't apply to everyone.

There may be no such thing as "objectively beautiful" - but things like symmetry, pore size, and weight are all things that can be objectively measured, and there are certainly some seemingly hard connections between those things and cultural perceptions of beauty, that, may be ignored if we wish, but that doesn't make them less real.

Trying to convince people that these things don't matter is the wrong approach in my opinion to getting people to make peace with the way they look. The greatest photographer in the world can't change the way you look without actually "changing the way you look" - so if you take that off the table as an option, you can begin formulating ways to help people see themselves differently and maybe be an important part in their personal journeys to self-acceptance. Photoshopping the crap out of them will just make them another self-diluted person who still doesn't really want to look at themselves in the mirror.

We can't fix the world's problems, but we can help shift the tide. IMHO.

Nesh Soni's picture

Beautiful comment! I’m going to be quoting you for a long time 😊

Daniel Medley's picture

Unless specifically asked by a client, I generally don't remove permanent blemishes, but I always remove temporary ones. However, even with permanent blemishes, like scars or wrinkles for example, it's a good idea to tone them down a little bit. The reason is because it actually looks more natural.

Why? Because when you interact with someone it's not a static presentation. They are generally always moving. Because of this, blemishes aren't generally as noticeable or as prominent as they are when looking at a static image of the same person. In a photograph blemishes and wrinkles will generally be more noticeable.

People are acutely aware of their blemishes. They know they are there. When it comes to photographing them, keep them, but just tone them down a bit.

Kirk Darling's picture

Daniel Medley, I was about to write exactly the same thing about blemishes, scars, moles, and such.

I would add that for darker-skinned people (talking melanin, no tannin'), people sometimes accumulate moles as a sign of aging. Usually the larger moles are the lifelong moles and all the smaller ones are essentially age marks. So people usually don't mind losing some of the little moles.

My first attempt at a formal portrait was my 9th grade Latin teacher, Mrs Shutz. She was a "teacher emeritus," who was 'way beyond normal retirement age. She was an extremely keen, witty old lady, with sharp crystal-blue eyes and a quick smile, and an even quicker barb if you weren't on the ball. But she also had some of the funniest stories of her exploits as an adventurous young woman.

My portrait of her was a total failure. It was a sharp, accurate picture of an old woman.