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I am a very basic level amateur photographer. My question is "Is it ethically correct to edit photos to make my photos look good?".

I believe that the photos taken by my camera should not be touched in order to maintain their originality.

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It sounds like you answered your own question in the question. If you believe that they should not be touched, then that sounds like your ethical standards. –  dpollitt Aug 20 '12 at 12:48
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Painting a watercolour: Is it ethically ok? –  Matt Grum Aug 20 '12 at 12:48
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All photos are original. Actually if you edit them, you may get with something more original. I've even read a book about an artist who does that to produce unique works because his images cannot be shot by anyone. The reason to not manipulate is for fear of damaging the realism and trust. –  Itai Aug 20 '12 at 13:01
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Take an Ansel Adams negative and print it with no manipulation, and the result will be flat and boring. Photography has always been about using an imperfect medium to capture what the eye sees. EVERY image is "edited", even if only to correct exposure and contrast. That said, I agree that you should strive to get as close as possible to your vision "in camera". As @Nir says, it's deception that's unethical, not editing per se. –  Jim Garrison Aug 20 '12 at 17:55

7 Answers 7

up vote 36 down vote accepted

Editing is definitely not unethical (making a deceptive photo can be unethical, but it is also easy to deceive in-camera, it's the deceiving part that makes it unethical not the editing)

There are two very different types of photography - there are photos that are intended to show what something really look like (photojournalism, pictures for eBay listings, etc.) and there is art.

For photojournalism anything that distorts reality is unethical and anything that shows reality is ethical - even if it's the same operation in Photoshop - color correction is ethical but changing colors isn't, cropping to remove blank space is ethical but cropping to hide something isn't - you get the idea.

For art, well, there aren't any rules for art - do whatever feels right for you.

But think, does blurring the background by changing the aperture ok? does making the picture intentionally darker by changing shutter speed ok? does changing the relative brightness by adding flash ok? your photo is already "edited" by the choices you make when you shoot, why is editing by changing camera settings ok but editing on the computer is suddenly wrong?

So, editing in not unethical but you don't have to edit if you don't want to.

You said you are a very basic level photographer, at that level you should learn to control your photos using the camera better and not rely on excessive editing but I guess that when you get better you will come to appreciate that just a little editing can turn a good picture into a great one (and that making great pictures is a good an ethical thing to do)

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+1 This answer extends nicely when talking about "night vision" and other "enhancing" techniques. –  hydroparadise Aug 20 '12 at 16:20
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+1 for "you should learn to control your photos using the camera better and not rely on excessive editing" –  Jahaziel Aug 20 '12 at 16:36
    
+1 — Search for "Jamie Baldridge photography". Now, is it ethical to, say, drop a safe on a baby in a pram, to cut off the top of somebody's head, or what have you, just to say "I did it all in camera"? Is it ethical to leave a zit that wasn't there yesterday and won't be there Thursday on a portrait of a teenager? Different vision, different aims, different statements, different tools. –  user2719 Aug 20 '12 at 19:39

The action of editing is neither ethical nor unethical. What you do with the resulting images is what counts.

Those who manipulate their images to deceive are doing something unethical. If you are just doing it to produce an artwork which pleases you better, than you manipulate at will and still sleep well at night.

Ultimately you have to chose what your art is. If you want to represent reality, then you will have to keep your edits limited. Some things are obviously easy to accept like a correction in white-balance and some things are obviously wrong like replacing elements.

If you sell your work, you have to follow the publication's ethical standards. In publications where credibility is of utmost important the photographer is often required to hand in unedited images and it is the job of the photo-editor to do the edits. The still do some edits to match the format and tone of the publication and clean up noise or dust-spots. Having a separate person doing it, gives them more control and validation of the edits that make it into the publication.

You should produce artwork in a way you enjoy. Some people like editing images for hours and being very creative with there imagery. Personally, I don't. I prefer producing images very close to reality and spending most of my time on photography rather than processing.

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This question is a little subjective and is going to get views from both sides of the fence.

Short Answer

  • Do what you want to deliver the vision that you see
  • Be aware of rules/dogmas/standards
  • Accept that afore mentioned rules/dogmas/standards can be broken
  • Be prepared to push your boundaries and improve your artistic and photographic capabilities

Long Answer

No camera is able to replicate what the eyes and the mind see. What I see in a scene would/should be different from what somebody else would see, given all variables except the viewer being equal.

To this end, I believe released images should be used to show others what you see in a scene

This may mean lots of post-processing and very limited post processing.

Photography, and for the matter Art, is more than just an image, it touches on Psychology and the emotional trait of the human viewer.

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One time, when my grandma was in assisted living, I snapped a photo of my sister, her, and me together in her livingroom. While she and my sister chatted, I photoshopped the picture so that we were on a beach in Mexico. I showed it to her, and she was startled and confused - living far inland in the US, even trips to the beach were rare for her, and she had never seen Mayan ruins in person! When I revealed my secret, we all laughed, and she marveled by what a convincing job I had done.

The thing about photography is that it has always (generally) been a two-step process: get an image onto film, then get it from the film onto paper. Amateurs (not in any bad sense) tend to automate those processes whereas enthusiasts tend to take them under their own control. During either stage of those processes, any number of techniques have been used to render images more or less lifelike in all manner of ways: adding tints, reducing contrast, lowering the exposure in part of the picture while increasing it in another part. When these processes are automated - either in the camera or in the development process - someone or something else makes the decisions about how the process is carried out, but those decisions always get made, and in fact, you have never seen a photograph in which there were no exposure- and post-exposure-processing decisions made. They don't exist.

The question is (1) who makes the decisions; and (2) for what purpose?

(1) When you move into SLR photography, or for that matter, into photography with a point-and-shoot camera that gives a modicum of control over settings, you make those decisions. To some extent, when you select settings like "portrait", "no flash", "high quality JPEG output," you make those decisions. Working in manual mode and with RAW images does not increase the number of options available to the camera/software package, but only increases the number of options that you can directly control.

(2) Fraud is immoral, unethical, and in some contexts, illegal. Fraud differs from mere deception in that it has the point of extracting from the defrauded party something they would not part with otherwise: money, their good opinion, etc.

A mere deception might be, like with my grams, part of a funny joke, or a surprise party.

These things are all clearly different from art, which is intended to show something good, interesting, or beautiful in some way, and not merely to present the thing as a casual passerby sees it. To bring to bear the full range of skill and technical means available to show the good and beautiful in a thing, or to show it in a new way, is hardly novel or particular to photography. It is what artists of all stripes have always done.

Just my two cents.

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Excluding working as a photographer for someone else, there are really no rules in Photography. Which means, you can make up your own rules for yourself and use those self-imposed rules as part of your style or as structure for your own creativity. I try to avoid judging anyone else's rules as unethical or wrong.

That said ... for me control over the tones in the final image is part of the craft of photography. Because there are differences in the kinds of tones that exist in nature, can be captured by a camera's sensor, can be displayed on a computer monitor, and can be displayed on a print -- I depend on adjusting camera settings to get the best capture and then adjusting the resulting image in the computer to get from a "good capture" to the tones I intended. I'll even crop the image if I want. What I don't do is lots of strobe work, selective color, heavy vignettes, HDR, and adding rendered elements like borders or lens flare.

But all the above "rules" are only my rules for me -- I don't even dislike HDR or strobist work, I'm just not very good at it. :-)

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Yes. It is ethically right. (IMO)

And it also depends on your definition of originality. Let's have a different argument than other answers here: Imagine if you take a photo using a good P&S camera, lets say the photo is really good i.e. it conveys a strong subject/meaning etc. Now some other person takes almost same photo with the best DSLR + best lens available*, conveying same subject/feeling. When you look at the photo, the other person's photo would certainly be good in terms of contrast, colors etc. So a casual look at both photos will make your P&S photo look less impressive. So if you just touch up this photo a bit, enhance contrast/colors, sharpen it a bit, you might make your photo look more impressive and have more impact. Photography is all about presenting things visually. And if something (e.g. post processing) is actually helping you to make the presentation better then I would certainly consider it ethical. Otherwise better quality presentations will only come from high end cameras*.

TL;DR If you insist that even most basic touch-ups kill the originality.. then you are actually making your 'art' look bad by following this rule. Isn't photography all about visual impact?

*(Apologies for generic conversational language and vague terms like best DSLR, best lens, impressive etc)

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I have two comments:

  1. From an historical perspective, this idea has been thought about since the beginning of photography. In the earliest days, the agreed goal was to produce a "true likeness", very much like reportage. That was because the whole prior experience was derived from drawing and painting. There was a fascination for detail. By about 1900, the leading thinkers moved 180 degrees to photo-pictorialism, producing an impression or feeling, which was the beginning of the acceptance of photography as an art. Later came even more radical approaches. Other answers go into detail about some of the modern approaches. Photography was never a trustworthy conveyor of fact. There are too many opportunities for intentional or unintentional interventions.

  2. From my personal perspective, which seems to be shared amongst other answerers, the original shot is just raw material. I enjoy manipulating images freely and commonly introduce elements of many alternate shots into a single print. I often take dozens of shots of a subject just to have material to work with. I call these "Frankenphotos" and I enjoy the creative opportunities. I have never thought about the ethical implications because I am not representing my images as some kind of objective fact. I like what I do and I take great joy in producing images that are, in my opinion, better than what was in front of the camera at any one time. I like to stitch together panoramas, I like to do 3D photography and play with perspective and depth. My suggestion, as others have said, is to find your vision and shamelessly pursue it.

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