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When Is It Not Okay To Manipulate Your Photos?

All photographers manipulate the pictures they make in some shape or form. The question is, what is and isn't fair game when it comes to the final image?

Manipulation in photography is nothing new. Right from the very beginning, photographers have been altering the pictures they make. From dodging and burning in the darkroom to crudely compositing images together and passing them off as one. Fast forward to today, and many of these techniques are still being used to change the image in some way. What degree of manipulation is acceptable in an image varies wildly from photographer-to-photographer and also which genre you work in. You only have to read the comments fellow photographers will make on other people's edited pictures to see how different people's views are on this matter. This week, photographer Nick Carver delves deep into this very subject in his latest video. Carver starts his conversation by talking about the expectations of the viewer and how the component of deception will change how the work and the photographer are perceived. I think we've all been there when we've fallen in love with an image to find out it isn't quite what we thought it was. It is strange to think about how dramatically it can alter our perceptions, and in some extreme cases, be a PR disaster for a photographer's career.

The video goes on to show some famous photographs and we are asked how we feel about the degree of manipulation in each. Carver also talks about his own red lines which he will not cross when it comes to interfering with a picture before, during, or after the image-making process. This subject is something I haven't thought much about before but it really did get me thinking about my own practice. For things like fine art, I do feel like it's fair game to manipulate the image in the same way a painter will create exactly what they want to see on the canvas. When it comes to other areas like news reporting and documentary, manipulation can often be dangerous and really should be off-limits. We only have to look at the "fake news" era we find ourselves in to see the negative implications that can come from being deceptive.

This hot topic is not going away anytime soon and as technology improves, it's going to become increasingly more difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. This video is an important conversation we should all be having with ourselves about what we think are acceptable manipulations in our work. I think many of us have never sat down and really thought about the exact position of those red lines. I do think it's a worthy exercise we should all be doing from time-to-time.

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47 Comments

Paul Parker's picture

Question.

If a manipulation to a photograph makes the final image more authentic to the actual scene captured, is that ok?

Answers on a postcard please, I'd love to hear your thoughts...

Kirk Darling's picture

The textbook answer is "no." But IMO "truth" never lies in the photograph but always in the intent and action of the photographer. That's why photographs entered as evidence in US courts require a sworn affidavit from the photographer that the photograph represents what he saw at the scene.

Paul Parker's picture

very well said, thanks for your thoughts : )

Christian Monnet's picture

More authentic than reality? How?

Kirk Darling's picture

A photograph doesn't always capture all of what happened, and certainly it does not capture what happened from every viewpoint.

And what is "reality?" Absolutely none of the Hubble telescope photos display what can be seen by the human eye. Do they or do they not represent "reality?"

derek j's picture

representing a 3d space in a 2d image is never real. even things like telephoto and wide angle can distort "reality" more than cloning out a piece of trash on the beach.

Christian Monnet's picture

But if someone doesn't like the fact that photography is representing in 2D the 3D reality, then he has to quit photography.

MC G's picture

CNN Manipulates the news all the time so I'm sure there are so qualms about doing it with images in todays fake news media.

stuartcarver's picture

"so qualms" ?

Dan Jefferies's picture

Tissue?

Kyle Stauffer's picture

Not surprised at the responses to this statement within a forum of mostly left leaning viewpoints that feed off of what CNN delivers. We used to care about truth, whether or not if fits the bias we'd like it to.

Kyle Stauffer's picture

Quintessential response! Quite the generalization you made there. Must have hit a nerve!

#CNNRAW.... Here's todays release. Continue to follow for the next month as they come out daily. Lets see how much you care about truth and journalism.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QY3NBTB0hfE

Kyle Stauffer's picture

I bet you do! So far they've been ultra sensitive and ironically fit my original comment beautifully!

Speaking crazy..... you have no idea who or what I support but the insults came when pointing out bias and the integrity of a major news organization. Which side of the aisle are those anti-fascists again???

Kyle Stauffer's picture

lol... i've gone wild? That's some perception you've got! "Angel"? Look who's trolling now. It's kinda comical actually. I too am enjoying our conversation!

Correction... ANTIFA is on the extreme left. Now if you would have said fascists are on the extremes of both sides, that would have been something we could agree on.

Perhaps we can get perspective on what growing fascism looks like from Brett Weinstein (A liberal). Also a story CNN failed to cover.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cMYfxOFBBM

Kyle Stauffer's picture

"Sweetchecks" is done lol. Albeit begrudgingly as i'm missing out on adjectives waxed eloquent to paint a view of my character. Sad face!

Merry Christmas!... I mean... Happy Holidays!

Kyle Stauffer's picture

Not on this side of the aisle that crazy cares not!

Kyle Stauffer's picture

Perfect!

Yes! The dark side of the media force, you must fight (in the voice of Yoda)

Kyle Stauffer's picture

Ha, this whole conversation has been very telling!

bye for now as my British friend always says....

Andrey Lutsenko's picture

Let me guess, you're a fan of Fox News and OANN?

Ivan Lantsov's picture

why you trim beard -

Timothy Roper's picture

For landscapes, I always physically remove trash from a scene if I can (and pack it out). And if it's too far away, and I can't get too it, I WILL retouch it our of a photo. It shouldn't be there in the first place, and I see nothing wrong with returning things to their "natural" state, before taking a photo. And while I avoid major photo spots, these days even the backcountry can get a little crowded, and I will also photoshop people out of a landscape photo if I'm forced to give up on waiting for them to leave before taking the picture.

Paul Parker's picture

I think thats all fair game IMO, thanks for your thoughts : )

derek j's picture

for some reason, there is always a piece of trash in the photo that i didnt see when taking the picture.

Robert Lype's picture

From a photojournalist view point producing an image which portrays the actual scene is not an easy task which takes time to develop a style in which one learns how to either add or work around object which distracts from the scene. Taking the time to watch a scene unfold to capture the right moment at the precise moment has been replaced with shoot and spray by the upcoming media photographers. An other attitude is I can fix it in photoshop which is now becoming a big no no even in documentary related work. By no means is it easy things have to be thought out quickly to capture to moment with out disturbing the mood this takes time and practice. Luckily my career started before digital was even thought of with the limits of film and deadlines there wasn't much time to manipulate. Knowing what you can get away with in the print media days was an art form with in it self.
Manipulation of a scene in some cases is acceptable for instance if you look back at Gordan Parks, his work in Life magazine a lot of the scenes are clearly set up but are iconic images but he got the point across clearly.
It takes a lot of effort to produce effective images while on assignments below is a shot I took a few years back in Seattle during protest march. In this shot it took about five minutes of waiting for everything to come together to get a clear shot without getting noticed which is a key factor here.

Paul Parker's picture

Great shot! I'm a huge fan of the Life magazine photographers myself. Thanks for your thoughts : )

Julian Ray's picture

Lots of good food for thought. Thanks for posting this video and sharing your view point.

Paul Parker's picture

It a longer video than normal but well worth it. Really got me thinking. Glad you enjoyed it : )

Leon Kolenda's picture

"The question is, what is and isn't fair game when it comes to the final image?" No, the question is, What is Fair Game! We can change, rearrange, manipulate, any image that is ours, for any reason, "Fair Game" is in the eyes of who needs it to be so. I don't care about Any Standards, so called "Fair game", or what is right or what is wrong in regards to Shooting, or any Post Work of my images. It's what I Visually like or find appealing! One's approval of there work is in there own eyes and should be for there own eyes only!

If you take a paid assignment, then what you agree upon between the two parties, is just that. I have a certain style of shooting and post work, If I'm contracted for a finale image or images, and the client does not like my style, that's the way it is. They contracted me for my style, and I make that very clear in the beginning of exploring what there expectations are. "Fair Game" to me sounds like I should abide by a set up of rules.

Fristen Lasten's picture

Enjoyed this video. Thought provoking.

Paul Parker's picture

great to hear, thanks for stopping by : )

Lee Christiansen's picture

For commercial clients, whatever they want is fair game. (Although I did try and explain the ethics of retouching one client's headshot to make her look slimmer and younger when she was a face-lift practitioner...)

For fun, I shoot street photography. With this I'm often doing quite a bit of dodging and burning because my camera just isn't showing the world I just viewed, or maybe I want a more creative take on the shot so I'll introduce carefully placed vignettes.

In some cases there may be tiny details that won't replicate well if seen smaller or printed. So if there's any litter on the street that is very small so as to look like sensor dirt or a bad print, or maybe there is a tiny detail very close to the edge of frame and I don't want to crop it out. I've had the occasional TV aerial which has been very faint against a bright sky and it would probably look awful when printed - so away it will go...

For me and my personal stuff, as long as I'm not radically changing the story, I'm happy.

I did one posh private party and the party girl has a small mole on her cheek. So in images for the album where she was larger on the page, the mole stayed. But on images where she was small on the page, I deleted the mole, because it started to look like a single pixel printing error. No one minded.

I once slimmed the backside of a bride in one shot because I knew she'd been on a diet and was convinced (wrongly) that she'd lost weight. She even announced it proudly to her husband when viewing the finished album. (We both wisely kept quiet...) Made her happy and she never knew.

For some, editorial integrity means never changing a single pixel, but curiously enough they'll be quite happy skewing the story by a carefully placed camera angle or crop. For me, integrity is about not telling a lie of the story with my images.

Paul Parker's picture

I think we are in a similar camp Lee, thanks for your insights i appreciate your time : )

Graham Taylor's picture

It's pretty straight-forward to take an image in-camera that is out of context of the scene and presents an intended narrative. Photoshop just means you can do that from home.

I've never really got the hang-up around editing. It seems to be a misplaced trust in 'the old ways' which can be every bit as deceptive.

Lee Christiansen's picture

The funny thing is in "the old ways" old yesteryear, some of the post production retouching was less than subtle. Or did those movie stars really have porcelain skin... ? :)

Timothy Roper's picture

It's more a mistrust of the new digital ways, with "deep fakes" being a current example. With digital, it IS much harder to determine what's true. Just take the recent Chinese photo of Australian special forces killing a child. To date, there's been no way to "prove" it's not real. And it's only going to get worse, as the "agency" costs of trying to determine fact from fake becomes greater and greater (people learn to cover their tracks, so to speak).

Lee Christiansen's picture

From a photography point of view, it is actually quite easy to determine whether images have been manipulated at pixel level. Forensic software, (that is now becoming available in an affordable manner), looks at the noise patterns of an image to see if there is any change. Even the most talented retoucher will leave behind disturbances in the background noise patterns and these give the game away.

So where it matters, people can check the authenticity of an image with relative ease. (Didn't Adobe recently just develop something to help verify stills and video authenticity ?)

John Ohle's picture

I'm very surprised the Steve McCurry was not mentioned in this. His most famous Afghan Girl may have been manipulated even before the shot (https://www.diyphotography.net/this-is-the-disturbing-story-behind-the-i...). Also there was some photo manipulation of a shadow on her face in later versions. So is it still a strong image, yes. Does it depict “fear” as it was meant to, yes. Is it still an ethical image, hmmm.

Even Robert Capa may have manipulated photos too, (https://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/18/arts/design/18capa.html). His most famous photo of the shot soldier in the Spanish Civil war may have been staged.

So if you manipulate photos you are in the best of company!

Christian Monnet's picture

When? When you pretend to be a photographer.

iris-imaging's picture

Any photographer that creates his images to please other photographers more than likely does not make his living from it.

My major was photo-illustration and I do not call my business photography but imaging.

When is it dangerous to manipulate the image? The question is what is the intent? Partisanship political manipulation editorially in media has become a way of life seldom challenged in today's world. Every photographer's work published has an editor and owner of the media who decides the nature of content around their own whims. Images and rumors start wars and destroy reputations. I have seen news crews arrange small groups of protesters to make it look like a crowd of protesters to add weight to dissent. That is the news business and it is a business first and foremost.

If it is commercial the buyer has the rights. In my street photography, some people pose themselves sometimes I catch the pose. It is too much work to pose them myself, but who cares.

Robert Lype's picture

After being involved in the media as a photojournalist for over 40 years as a stringer for various news agencies the trend of arming writers with cell phones to replace a qualified shooters is one of the main culprit here due to the cost of maintaining a photo department. As for the photo editors the days of the photographer editor relationship is long gone which is critical to the success of all parties involved. This is partly due to the instant news in todays world.
We all saw what happened with the Nick Sandman and CNN lawsuit a few years back and feel that more of this is coming and its about time.
All the standards which had been laid out by the AP years have gone by the wayside

derek j's picture

i think anything is fair game as long as you're not being deceitful

Steven Gotz's picture

We certainly draw the line in completely different places.

I will move trash cans, pick up trash, ask people to move (or stand still) and do anything I feel necessary to enhance the shot. To me it is no different than posing a model, or saying something that gets a real smile out of a headshot client.

When it comes to shooting for a zoo, I had a great shot of a bear taking long strides from one side of the habitat to the other. When the zoo wanted to use the photo on a 10 foot long banner, I asked for permission to digitally remove a piece of hay on his rear end. The bear deserved better. And it isn't like bears roll in the hay out in the wild anyway.

I took a photo of the main entrance of the zoo for the annual report and after taking a bunch of shots I got home and realized I could just see the edges of a trash can behind a bush. I decided to reshoot rather than Photoshop it. So I went back and moved the can two feet.

I wonder, since long exposures show waterfalls in a different way than the naked eye can see them, and we are using digital cameras, does that count as digital manipulation? I believe that there is a fine line between retouching and turning a photo into graphic art, but it isn't anywhere near where moving a couch changes the photo into a lie.

Lee Christiansen's picture

For a commercial shoot that would all be standard stuff. I wouldn't have bothered to ask for permission to remove the straw and that trash can would have gone in PS without a second's hesitancy.

If this was for editorial work, then to be honest I may have done the same - unless the story was about to much straw on bears or trash cans not being easily viewed... :)

I think sometimes we worry about the small stuff too much.

Stefan Gonzalevski's picture

What's wrong with the moon in front of the clouds ? As long as it's not flat... ;-)
I share many of the views here. It often depends on the intention of the images. I unscrupulously remove some minor details in a landscape photo to make it better, especially if it's for decoration purpose.
I'm a bit more concerned if it happens with journalism photography. But, before the digital era, some press photos were incorrectly captioned, which led to, at best, misunderstanding. And, at worst, to some distortion of the reality.
We all are manipulated, not only by photos. The point is to understand to what extent.

Jan Holler's picture

Paul, you always select some fine videos and subjects. Many thanks.
My answer to your question: It is all about the moral code and also the end never justifies the means. That said, we manipulate reality even before a photograph is taken; the choice of the image frame and composition, even the focal length and exposure already influences the viewer's perception.

stephen leonardi's picture

I agree but don’t. When I take photos I shot it as is and love real and canid. But yes all photos are fake staged and edited. All. Like when people places leaves in sports for fall
Photos so annoying but moving something out of the way I think is ok. It’s all got it’s what ifs. But yea can change how I look at a photos juts a limit to it. But it’s sad how much of today’s photos is not even close to authentic

stephen leonardi's picture

But I also agree with a vision and creating a scene and image that u want. Like if u places the horse in a shot is no different then waiting fir the light or sun set to get a shot.