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to you as the photographer and your creative vision, but there are instances where photography is used as an accurate historical document.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

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