When is Altering Your Image Acceptable? A Debate on Post-processing
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When is Altering Your Image Acceptable? A Debate on Post-processing

Have you ever used Photoshop’s ‘Content Aware Fill’ tool to get rid of some unsightly object in your otherwise perfect image? Have you ever cropped your image in order to give it a more pleasing composition? I know I’ve done both on many an occasion and I feel no guilt or remorse whatsoever.

The Plastic Bag You Didn’t Notice

Here’s an example of a shot I took at Monument Valley in Utah. The foreground was completely covered in litter, so while editing I decided to cut out the more obvious offenders like this plastic bag. Should I have left it in? What is an acceptable level of post-processing and alteration?

Monument Valley Landscape Sunset

Monument Valley trash

I’m curious to know where you feel the line should be drawn? Would you judge me for cloning out that plastic shopping bag? Perhaps I should have walked over and picked it up, either way, it’s gone from my shot and I’m happy with the result.

Truth or beauty, the age-old question?

Landscape photographers like myself are always creating composites of multiple images just to get the tourists and other photographers out of our shots, it’s no big deal. Or is it? Are you one of those rigid purists that believes that the camera should not lie, not even a teensy little white lie? But if you are, doesn’t the camera lie the moment you frame your carefully placed shot and hit the shutter?

I can see both sides of the argument. But, given the choice of performing a ruthless crop and getting a keeper, or leaving my image untouched and forever condemning it to a digital graveyard, I’ll go for the former thank you very much.

Here’s one of the very first pictures I took with a DLSR from back in 2010. I cut all of the people out of the image because they weren’t adding to the composition in any way. The eagle eyed among you will spot where I got lazy with my ‘people removal’. See the unaltered version below it and tell me if I crossed the line.

Angkor Wat Cambodia Landscape Photography - Gavin Hardcastle

Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Where does it end?

The problem is, where do you draw the line? When do you decide that enough is enough and the image should be left alone? Ultimately it’s down to you as the photographer and your creative vision, but there are instances where photography is used as an accurate historical document. In Photojournalism, we rely on a photographer to tell a story and capture a moment in history, albeit from their own unique perspective and how they choose to frame a shot.

Couldn’t it be argued that a photographer who chooses to omit certain elements, is manipulating the viewer just as clearly as when they chop out an ugly plastic shopping bag in Photoshop?

Consider the real estate photographer who carefully manages to exclude the crack shack next door to the million dollar home, no alteration but still a little white lie.

It’s all so very subjective and the truth is that you’d never know the difference if the photographer didn’t confess.

Oh what’s this below? My wife’s 24-105mm lens creeping in to the lower right of my shot, now there’s a surprise. What do you think are the chances that I’m going to be leaving that in my final edit?

Antelope Canyon Landscape Photography

Where do I draw the line?

As a landscape photographer I strive to keep all of the permanent or natural elements of my images intact. I won’t flinch at removing a discarded water bottle that I hadn’t noticed while shooting. I won’t bat an eyelid at cropping out my wife’s left foot as she reliably walks into the corner of my frame just a split second before I hit the shutter.

I draw the line however, at removing or moving objects that are natural or permanent. If there’s a tree or even a lamp post in a less than ideal spot in my composition I will not alter it. I want the viewer of my image to be able to stand in the exact place I stood when taking the shot and know that everything is in its right place. That doesn’t include the used condoms and the KitKat wrapper.

Tell me, where do you draw the line? Let the debate begin!

Share in the comments below where you stand on this subject. Do you do any post-processing on your images, and if so how far do you take it? How far is too far? Let’s discuss it.

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Gavin Hardcastle is a professional landscape photographer from Vancouver Island, BC Canada. He teaches photography workshops all over the world and writes extensively about his experiences on location. You can read his photo guides and tutorials at his photo adventure blog FotoTripper His fine art prints can be purchased from www.gavinhardcastle.com.

  • Myer

    excellent answer but there is Steak Tatar
    Photography is an art form I post processed my B&W in the film days and I not the camera post process in the digital days

  • Martijn

    I try to get my shots as good as I can, so I need to do as little post as possible. I shoot RAW, but I dislike the process of post processing. As it is, I find myself spending more time at a single image than I want already.

    So, exposure, white balance, curves and all that is what I do in post process anyway, and if there are smudges (dust, specs) that are distracting and the tool I use can remove them, I will.

    If someone is willing to spend the time to remove all people out of a shot of the Eifel tower in Paris, I don’t have any objections to that. I am more amazed someone is willing to invest that time.

    Unless it is a shot which is supposed to be a journalistic representation of an event and the photograph is used as such. Is a crop then allowed for a journalistic photo? Only if it does not manipulate the context, so the uncropped picture would leave a rather different impression in the head of the viewer than the cropped one. But then again, by framing the photo at the moment of shooting, a decision about context is already taken by the photographer.

    What does bug me though is the opposite. The moment people assume I have photoshopped (I even don’t own Photoshop!) a picture when it is careful composition where I took my time to get the shot right on camera. These days people do assume everything is manipulated when you actually are showing your skills as a photographer. That’s almost an insult :)

  • Timothy B Fontenot

    Photographic Art Competitions … ? I believe post-production is expected, rather than frowned upon. It is part of the photographer’s skill set – a large portion of the “art” in photographic art, it seems to me.

  • Stephi

    My objection to processing is that it tends to produce lazy photographers. Or it produces lots of photoshop artists who also happen to take pictures.

    I was raised on film, though, and had to make every shot count. I remember tearing off the end of the film box and putting it in the little holder on the camera so you’d know which camera had what film. I remember having to choose film and filters before you left for the shoot, making location scouting very important. I remember needing to have a bank of knowledge about my camera, and my film, and lenses and filters and what all of it will or will not do in what circumstances. I remember having to be patient, and wait, and wait and wait for the right shot. There was no turning back, once you took the shot. You could fix some things in the dark room, but beyond that, you’d need the resources of an art studio to “airbrush” etc.

    I don’t like hearing glib comments like, “I’ll just fix it in post”. “Ooops that was way blown out, let me try a different setting”. Etc.

    I also don’t necessarily agree that photography “is art”. I see it more as a skill, something learned over time, and someone very very good can elevate it to an art. And that person would do little in post.

    Every time I read “Photography is art” I couldn’t help but think of a bunch of hipsters riding around brooklyn on their fixies, taking pictures of shadows of park benches, doorways with peeling paint, and macros of ice on bike chains and railing handrails.

  • sadra

    Hmmm, colour calibration and custom white balance seems like a good idea
    for another article. Good tip about using the Targeted Adjustment Tool
    for desaturating faces too, I like that technique.
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