I am on Flickr and 500px and also exploring award winning photographer's shots. They are beautiful, but I always wonder how much they edit their images? Can an image straight out from camera win an award?

  • \$\begingroup\$ I've removed the bits about ethics from this question as that's too opinion based for this site. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philip Kendall
    Dec 3, 2020 at 7:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PhilipKendall, nevertheless the answers will be opinion based. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 3, 2020 at 8:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Please be aware that Photo Stack Exchange ist not a discussion forum, but a platform to solve concise questions and problems. Open discussion style questions like yours is very hard to answer in a FAQ style. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 3, 2020 at 11:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Links to specific examples would be helpful. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Dec 4, 2020 at 10:26

3 Answers 3


The short answer to the question is: it depends. Some award winning images are entirely shot in camera, some are enhanced in the darkroom, some are enhanced digitally.

The ultimate question here is one of philosophy. Where does each individual person draw the line of what tools can be used and at what stage of the process before that individual will call it "editing"? Is it at the point of capture? Does it include basic techniques necessary to produce a print in a darkroom? Can you dodge and burn the image? Can you manipulate the contrast and color? Can you use a computer?

Every image has been "edited" even if you're only talking about adjusting the settings on the camera when capturing the image. The choice of lens, focal length, aperture, shutter speed, filters, even the type of film stock are all of artistic decisions in how to manipulate the light before and during capture. These, by extension, affect the nature and quality of the image. This is, by definition, editing the image. The only meaningful distinction is that it is pre-capture editing rather than post-capture.

Often, people think of editing as being something that is only done in a computer, but editing images after their capture is nothing new and has been part of photography from the very beginning. Adjusting exposure and contrast on the print, dodging, burning, tinting and adjusting the color are among the hundreds of analog editing techniques. Even the newest of these have existed for well over a century.

Even the greatest landscape photographers of all time would spend countless hours in the darkroom perfecting their images. Consider this quote from Ansel Adams:

The negative is the equivalent of the composer's score, and the print the performance.

This is why if you look at the rules of many photography competitions, they will include a declaration of how much editing is considered acceptable for that particular competition.

All that being said, generally speaking, a photographer's goal is to get the most perfect image they can in camera. Landscape photography in particular is often a game of patience. It is not uncommon for award winning landscape images to require a photographer to wait hours, days, even months to capture the perfect image.

Of course, as a general rule of thumb, the earlier in the process you edit the image, the better.

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    \$\begingroup\$ To add to the list of "editing" there is also literal editing of work whereby the public only see the best possible pics in the first place (sort of alluded to your mention of waiting for the right moment). EG Recently I went bird watching and shot 750 pics in 4 hours. I easily edited that down to 150 pics and I am now considering maybe 10 candidates as the best pics of that day. \$\endgroup\$
    – Peter M
    Dec 3, 2020 at 14:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the Adams reference. There's a guy that shot uneditable B&W negatives and then did everything in the darkroom using an enlarger of his own design (camera in reverse with a light-back)) on roll paper with dodging and burning using his hands and a stopwatch to get exactly what he wanted with detailed notes for reproducible prints. His books The Negative, The Print, and The Camera are still relevant, though his Zone System isn't talked about as much now as EVs and other equivalent but different concepts. Nobody complains now that Uncle Ansel "edited" his prints to get what he wanted out. \$\endgroup\$
    – Bill Barth
    Dec 3, 2020 at 15:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ The mere act of framing a part of a scene, that is - deciding what part of the scene to include and what parts to exclude, is "editing". "To frame is to exclude." - Susan Sontag. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Dec 7, 2020 at 6:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BillBarth Adams' negatives weren't exactly uneditable so much as they were "once-editable". He would adjust exposure times and development times to alter the relationships of the various tones in the negative. So he could "edit" the contrast, though he had to do so before he actually saw the results. That's what he meant by visualization, which the vast majority of those who study Adams casually will usually mistakenly apply to the composition and framing of the scene, rather than to the adjustment of contrast using variable exposure and developing times. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Dec 9, 2020 at 13:38

Pretty much everything on 500px that are at the top of various popularity lists have the everlasting stink edited out of them. Every.Single.One.

Nothing comes out of any camera on the market looking like CGI for a multimillion dollar movie. That's all I see in the "top images" at 500px.

Most of the "Featured Photos & Videos" at Fstoppers also have a lot of editing done to them.

With Flickr, it depends on which communities you're looking at. But many of them there are also highly edited, though not to the point many images at 500px are, and there are also a lot more that are much closer to what one might get from the camera's own raw conversion engine and user selectable options that can be selected before the shot.

Most of the work is done in the area of color temperature, color correction, adjusting the hue, saturation, and luminance of different colors individually, layering to adjust colors and brightnesses differently in different parts of the photo, noise reduction and smoothing, as well as blemish removal and the like from portraits. In extreme cases entire areas of the image may be altered by inserting something, such as a sky from a different exposure, or by adding other elements from multiple photos taken at multiple times in multiple places.

But beyond that, this whole idea, which seems to be informing your question, that only an image produced in camera is a "real" photo is a bit misguided. Well before digital photography existed, photographers were using various techniques to alter the way "straight" pictures would look. In the 1850s Gustave Le Gray combined parts of two differently exposed negatives of the same scene to create prints of seascapes with detail visible in both the bright sky and the darker areas. A century later increasing or decreasing exposure time and then compensating for that in development was one way to control contrast. It's what Ansel Adams' Zone System is all about. Adams also raised darkroom techniques like dodging and burning to a high art form. He even modified negatives after development either chemically or by etching the emulsion.

Art critics have called Ansel Adams' photograph of "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" one of the greatest photos ever. Art historian H. W. Janson called this photo "a perfect marriage of straight and pure photography". Yet if you examine some of the over 900 prints that Adams produced from the negative himself it is very clear that over the course of more than two decades he produced a series with a remarkable range of variation. Adams explored the relationship between the various elements in the scene until he finally seemed to have found what he was looking for. The prints we now view as "definitive" did not appear until the late 1960's. Adams exposed and developed the negative in 1941.

Artnet.com article about the history and current market values of "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico"

Wikipedia article for "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico"

A photo of Adams late in life posing in front of two prints of "Moonrise..."

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Of course they are edited.

Lets say I have an image.

Now: Where will it be seen? If in the subdued light of an entrance hall, I want a lighter print, with some extra separation in the shadows, because shadow detail is hard to see in dim light.

If it's going to be in a bright sunny room, I'll take advantage of that to make very rich shadows. I will also mount it and coat the print so that won't need reflective glass over it.

If it's going to be printed by colour separation, I may send 3 versions to the printer and collaborate with him for the effect I think would look best. But it's his publication so he gets last word.

If it's going to be used on a web page, I'll use every HDR trick I know to reduce it to 5-6 EV for the version for mobile, 8 EV for desktop, and 10 ev (if the image can use it) for 4000dpi highdef TV.

The final version will have different sharpening too depending on the viewing size and media.


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