Sometimes a big part of what makes a photo interesting isn't the image itself, but what it tells us about something that exists or that happened in the world.

As an extreme example, I would be interested to learn that there was a tiger on my local street in London, or that a photographer saw someone juggling 25 balls at once. I might not be especially interested in a photo that appears to show these things if I didn't trust it to be truthful.

Or I might be interested to learn that some city I care about has a pleasing shape when viewed from a certain angle, but I wouldn't necessarily be interested to know that you can create a pleasing shape by deleting ugly buildings from the cityscape image and just showing the beautiful ones.

I might even enjoy learning that a splash of water or a cloud had a particularly nice or interesting shape one time and that it was captured, but again relatively uninterested in something that was created through image manipulation and didn't happen in reality.

So my question is: is there a recognised term photographers can and do use to claim that an image is in some way a true likeness of reality? Or in other cases to expressly avoid making this claim.

When photos are published as journalism the publisher will generally require some sort of claim of truthfulness, so I'm wondering if there's an equivalent photographers can use when self-publishing, including online through social media, and for work presented as art rather than as journalism.

I realise there will always be nuances and some edge cases where reasonable people could disagree about whether an image is a true representation of reality.

  • You are just looking for a term to use to describe your own photos?
    – osullic
    Jul 1 at 19:10
  • @osullic Possibly, but also just curious about if there are relevant terms in general use.
    – bdsl
    Jul 1 at 19:26
  • "manipulated" / "unmanipulated" are pretty common terms. But there's nobody policing these labels.
    – osullic
    Jul 1 at 20:03
  • Right - and those terms are pretty ambiguous. There always automatic manipulations going on at every stage the image goes through, from the front-element of the lens to the viewer's screen. Often manual manipulations don't make the image any less truthful than relying on automatic manipulations would do.
    – bdsl
    Jul 17 at 15:16

1 Answer 1


While there are clear conventions and expectations of photography conducted as "journalism" and as "art", personal/amateur/hobby photography is much more amorphous and hard to pin down.

Journalists cannot alter photographs, at all. I recall Newsweek magazine (print) getting a lot of flack from PJs and other journalists because they whitened the "octomom"'s teeth in post. It didn't affect the content or impact of the photo at all, but it was still a violation of journalistic conventions.

Art photos on the other hand, are supposed to be manipulated, both in front of and behind the lens. Reality isn't the goal like it is for journalism. Whatever creates the artist's vision is fair game.

I personally lean more towards the journalistic side in my photography. That's not to say I don't make adjustments; rarely can you nail all the parameters for ideal capture and presentation at the same time. I draw the line on what I term "re-touching", which is alerting one part of a photo without affecting other parts. There's nothing wrong cloning out powerlines or ads, and many successful photographers do that, but I don't like doing so, so I don't.

I refer to my work varyingly as "un-retouched", "unaltered" or sometimes even "unedited" (which is maybe a stretch since I usually tweak levels and sharpness). Sometimes I throw the hardest-core terms "unprocessed" or "camera output" under a particularly extraordinary image, if the camera jpeg is good enough that knob twiddling will confer little benefit. I don't know how official or widespread these terms are, but they seem to accurately reflect my photographic approach.

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