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

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to you as the photographer and your creative vision, but there are instances where photography is used as an accurate historical document.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.

Read more from our Post Production category

Gavin Hardcastle is a fine art photographer, writer and instructor from BC, Canada. Become a better photographer today with his free photography guides and photography tutorials. You can learn from Gavin directly at his global photography workshops in some of the worlds most spectacular locations. Upgrade your post processing skills with his online video tutorials for Photoshop and Lightroom.

  • 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.
    ????? ?????????? ???? ????

  • John

    Signs you’ve gone too far:

    1.you point out that ansel Adams dodged and burned.

    2.you tell people that all photos are manipulated and altered by the camera.

    3. You say that it’s an artist’s results that count, not how they got there.

    4. You bother to justify your use of post processing.

  • Kevin Kinnett

    Simple one word…..Distraction. Thats what you remove. I understand perfectly, and I agree thats perfectly fine, and left up to the individual to critique, as you know they do.

  • Mary Martindale

    I see no harm in post processing to enhance a shot, but top create something that is just not there is where I draw the line.

  • PK

    For me it depends on the purpose of the shot. If it is because I want to make art, then there is no limit to the editing, no line to be drawn. If, however, I am capturing a memory, then I want that memory to be as close to what I saw when I wanted to take the photo – so I limit my editing to minimal post-processing for dust spots, contrast, lighting and blur – with an occasional foray into hue and saturation. I will also crop where necessary – especially to remove unknown people who have moved into the edge of frame or whom I can’t compose out of the shot. Personally, most of my photos are SOOC, as I am a firm believer in photorealism (and I don’t shoot RAW, since I don’t yet know how to process RAW files), however, I have nothing against people who full-on edit every shot. I do however have issues when highly edited (not just minimal post-processing) photos consistently win competitions against low or non-processed photos in amateur competitions – I feel there needs to be a separate category here.

  • harold

    depends upon what you want or need, a picture of a pretty young girl with a large pimple on her nose, she probably would want It removed from the picture or if you have a great landscape with a beautiful sky and there in the sky is a spot from dust or something probably remove it. Raw gives one many opportunities to correct things like white balance and other things. What I mean by rambling on is do what you want, its your picture.

  • Tom Ang

    I think the best way to tackle this is to agree on a way of measuring,
    using a subjective, ordinal scale. I’ve written it up here:

  • Clarke Warren

    I feel we are fully justified in making ANY image into what the artist wants it to be. Period. Has anyone ever judged a painter over the need for absolute realism at all times? “Mr Bierstadt shouldn’t that tree should be over a few feet to the right?” “Mr Wyeth – Christina’s dress seems awfully wrinkle-free?” Seriously, stop imposing artificial limits just because we start out with a camera. We make images… period.

  • longshadow

    You draw the line where you want. They’re your photos.

  • Lorri A

    I think much of it comes down to personal taste. I only have an issue if someone claims SOOC when it isn’t. My personal taste is mine, to each his own. And yes, I’d most likely clone out the plastic bag, the stray foot, just to clean up my image.

  • Ted Dudziak

    I think the decision to alter an image is situational. The only time I would not consider altering an image is to deceive someone by claiming that the image represented reality when it did not such as a journalistic image. The “picking up the trash” example in the article is a time that I would alter an image unless it was to illustrate littering. Otherwise it is up to the photographer to decide when to alter the image. Over baked landscapes, sunsets,etc are examples of the art side of photography. These result in high impact images which audiences like and frankly sell. I like to “fix” signs showing how they looked prior to weathering, bullet holes or normal deterioration with age. I did this for a restaurant and got comped the appetizer and desert when I presented them with a framed image of a sign that they had replaced. I also altered an image of a notable hotel in Todos Santos and presented them with a copy. I felt it inspired them to get the street in front of the hotel completely redone removing, of course, all the phone poles, wires, etc. The value of photography is impact which we should choose wisely when considering to alter our images.

  • There are categories for ‘Fantasy’ photography or Art, try that and enjoy the rewards.

  • Simon Williams

    A category for “Art”? Are you implying that ALL photography is not a form of art?

  • I’m referring to the way they are listed (categories). Of course all photography is art…good and bad.

  • Simon Williams

    If all photography is art, why have a separate category? It is logically contradictory.
    Also, you suggested that I categorise my own work – if I want to digitally-enhance my images – as “Art”. Again, if all photography is art, why should I categorise? 😉

  • Martin Schiffer

    When it comes to portraits or advertising photography, the last thing the typical client wants is reality.

    In photojournalism alterations are a no-go, but otherwise it’s about the aesthetics, not about the truth.

  • Jacques

    My criteria for acceptable post production transformations are:
    * Necessity to fix defects introduced when shooting (compensating sensor limitations, cropping, spots…)
    * Faithful representation of the scene by removing accidental, ephemeral or parasitical elements that do not belong to the scene; they do not participate to significant elements of the image
    * Enhancing the perception of the subject to highlight a distinctive context of the image, the particular mood; amplify the emotional impact
    * Any excess in such transformations should be clearly attributable to a deliberate intent, artistic or otherwise
    * The transformations must not betray the ethical norms of the target publication media

  • Patricia Anne Greening

    I take photographs to please myself, and will edit them as I wish – often applying filters which change the picture completely. However, it would be unethical of a newspaper photographer to make substantial changes to what is supposed to be a factual report. The same goes for the estate agents who disguise flaws in property advertisements. They could probably end up at the wrong end of a court case for misrepresentation. P.S. I’ve noticed a trend in landscape photography to over-cook the saturation, and end up with a totally unnatural picture. Am I the only one to deplore this trend? I’m not referring, of course, to a little gentle improvement – just to a wash of gaudy and discordant colour.

  • Truelight

    What I strive for most is a photo that captures how I felt when I made the image. How it looked is a secondary consideration. I want images that emotionally involve the viewer. Were I a photojournalist I would still want emotionally impactful images. I’d just have less creative license.

  • Robert Carter

    Well said, Gavin . . .

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