I was recently looking at some landscape photography awards in Central London and noticed that quite a few of the images had significant post editing in Photoshop. The artists had even mentioned themselves that some of the images were edited.

I was wondering what the general opinion on post editing is when it comes to selling a photograph as "Art", for example should an artist say whether or not the photograph has been edited? I am thinking in terms of selling photography to clients. Lets say an image has a dull sky in and you replace it with another sky is it accepted that this sort of editing takes place? Just to be clear I am not talking about minor editing i.e sharpness, contrast etc.

In terms of the awards, I was quite surprised that that they were willing to accept "photographs" that had been significantly edited.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Sky swaps go back at least as far as Gustave LeGrey's mid-19th century work. "Straight" photography was an early-20th century California school fetish. If it isn't reportage, then Truth follows Keats' law. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2719
    Jan 18, 2013 at 11:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Surprised to hear that! I had no idea that editing in that way had existed for so long. I guess with modern software the process of post editing is far easier. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 18, 2013 at 11:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ No you dont need to admit for editing image until you have won all the competitions, later you can go to Orpah and confess. \$\endgroup\$
    – GoodSp33d
    Jan 18, 2013 at 12:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Editing photos" existed long before computers. Do you consider Ansel Adams images to be less because every one of them was edited by Adams? \$\endgroup\$
    – cmason
    Jan 18, 2013 at 14:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Unapiedra - From Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty". \$\endgroup\$
    – user2719
    Jan 22, 2013 at 23:06

9 Answers 9


I agree with apparently everyone else that the "ethics" depend entirely on context.

Here are some examples where I think editing is straightforward:

1800s: You could get a "headless portrait" with your head in your lap or on a pitchfork. headless portrait http://www.retronaut.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Headless-Portraits-From-the-19th-Century-3.jpg
Unproblematic. I doubt anyone thought that these were real.

1800s: Eadweard Muybridge became famous for his pictures of a gallopping horse.
From the Lensrentals blog:

It has since been said that Muybridge projected the blurry original negative through a magic lantern, had a local artist paint the projection onto a canvas, and then photographed the painted canvas to make his final print.

Unproblematic. He was pushing the limits of what was possible at the time, and found that he needed a few hacks to get around the technical limitations. As long as the result accurately represented the horse's movement, and he didn't make any false claims about how the photos were produced, I can't see any issue.

1800s: Muybridge also made landscapes, from the same Lensrentals article:

Muybridge’s landscapes differed from others of the day in their very realistic skies and cloud formations. [...] The truth is, though, that Muybridge also kept a large stack of cloud and sky negatives in his darkroom. If the sky was blown out of a photograph he just placed a nice sky-and-cloud negative behind it when he made his final prints. Truly, the man was ahead of his time.

No problem. When the result is presented as "here is a pretty landscape photo", it's mostly a workaround for technical limitations.
Replacing the sky could also potentially produce a result that is physically impossible; say Northern Lights over sand dunes in Sahara, or star trails from the Australian Outback over Manhattan at night. I still don't see any issue as long as you don't claim that it's real.

1940s: Ansel Adams didn't make composites (AFAIK), but he did put a ton of work into local contrast and exposure enhancements in post to make the final result better.
Quoting Adams himself on "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico":

Several years later I decided to intensify the foreground to increase contrast. I first refixed and washed the negative, then treated the lower section of the image with a dilute solution of Kodak IN-5 intensifier. I immersed the area below the horizon with an in-and-out motion for about 1 minute, then rinsed in water, and repeated about twelve times until I achieved what appeared to be optimum density. [..]
I burn-in the foreground a little toward the bottom of the print. I then burn along the line of the mountains, keeping the card edge in constant motion. In addition, I hold the card far enough from the paper to produce a broad penumbra in its shadow; this prevents a distinct dodging or burning line, which would be very distracting. I also burn upward a bit to the moon to lower the values of the white clouds and the comparitively light horizon sky. I then burn from the top of the moon to the top of the image with several up-and-down passages.

I included this example mostly as a counterargument to "any processing outside of the camera is evil": Even if you do your level best to faithfully reproduce what you saw, you will need postprocessing.
And the line between "this is what I saw" and "this photo would look even better if the foreground was a bit darker" is blurry, especially years later when you no longer remember precisely what it looked like.

That's even before we start talking about impressonism, as in "this photo may not be what I saw, but it does represent my subjective impression". (Although it's part of the story that impressionism in painting got a hostile reception at the start. I guess it takes a while to adjust expectations.)

Present: Artistic License is an article at Luminous Landscape that defends manipulation for artistic landscapes - like shuffling around trees, streams and mountains for a more interesting composition.
Premise: "Art is the product of deliberately arranging items in a way that affects senses, emotions and intellect".
So deliberately arranging the elements in your picture, by any means available, is what artists do!
Representive quote:

The problem with reality is that it's often far too real.

I still object to photos that are used to make misleading claims about reality. Examples:

But you can lie with pictures even without editing. I suppose many people have seen hotel rooms that looked large in the brochure, but in real life turned out to be barely big enough to hold the bed. You don't need editing for that, it can be done all in camera.

In conclusion, I don't see any problem with editing as such.

There are problems with making false claims about reality, but in a sense that's a different discussion and doesn't depend on editing: People can lie with doctored photos, but they can also lie with photos straight from the camera, or without any photos at all.

For e.g. journalism, product photos and tourist brochures, there is - or should be - a point to make the photo at least vaguely resemble what you would see in real life.

But for entertainment, art and decoration, anything goes. Especially if you are upfront about the editing when asked.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Wow! +1 for the history lesson! \$\endgroup\$
    – Omne
    Jan 18, 2013 at 20:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Very good response! \$\endgroup\$ Jan 18, 2013 at 21:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ Nice answer! God links. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 18, 2013 at 21:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ best answer!!!! \$\endgroup\$ Jan 19, 2013 at 22:42

There's a tendency these days to think that photo editing is a modern phenomenon, when in fact it's nearly as old as photography itself.

How 'ethical' editing is depends on the genre and the expectation of the viewer. One would expect photojournalism to use little editing other than basic exposure adjustment, whereas an artistic landscape or portrait shot may be heavily edited. In these latter cases, the ends justify the means.

Nowadays, actually taking the shot with the camera is usually only half the battle. Personally I always have post-production in mind when I take my shots. Some cutting edge studios are now combinations of photographic and CGI; automotive marketing especially makes heavy use of computer generated scenes.

As for competitions, rules often vary. Some allow no editing, some allow basic adjustments, others are no holds barred.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good point about the journalism, I suppose you do need to take into account the type of photography i.e. art. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 18, 2013 at 12:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Natural History would also, aside from very basic edits like dodge/burn & cropping, come under the category of 'no tampering tolerated' - I'd say this is more strict than even than reportage where the story is what's important. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 18, 2013 at 18:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 "How 'ethical' editing is depends on the genre and the expectation of the viewer" \$\endgroup\$
    – Omne
    Jan 18, 2013 at 19:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JamesSnell: Things like levels, saturation, etc. get edited even in natural history/wildlife. You want to show the viewer a faithful representation of what the animal/plant looks like to you, not what it looks like to the camera (which might be different, for example due to the camera having a lower dynamic range than your eyes). \$\endgroup\$ Jan 22, 2013 at 22:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ChinmayKanchi - What you've listed comes under the category of basic editing just as they would do in traditional printing. More complex edits like cloning and adding/removing elements for example, especially applied to the subject will get you booted out of a natural history competition - even if the image represents what you believe the subject looked like. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 23, 2013 at 20:23

I'm a gallery represented artist and I want my work to stand for what it is when you see it, not the process I went through to make the piece.

I don't do things like add sky, not because it is "wrong" but just because it isn't what my vision does.

My tools are my camera, my lenses, my tripod, my miscellaneous gear and of course my laptop and host of post-processing software. The software is just another tool.

If asked, I wouldn't decline the question, but instead would treat it as an educational opportunity.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you class your photography as art? I know what you mean in terms of what you see at the time of taking the photograph. I am just wondering that one classes there photography as "art" does this give a little more freedom to edit. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 18, 2013 at 12:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Absolutely. I'm not a journalist, I'm an artist. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 18, 2013 at 12:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Why the downvote? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 18, 2013 at 17:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sorry, I thought it's pretty obvious and I don't need to explain that you didn't answer the question! you only provided a personal opinion and said what you would do, instead of telling what is acceptable in general, for that matter, I prefer the answer by @ElendilTheTall. \$\endgroup\$
    – Omne
    Jan 18, 2013 at 19:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ oh, ok, I don't recall the question from this morning but now it says "I was wondering what the general opinion on post editing" and I gave my opinion, I can't speak for others.. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 18, 2013 at 20:23

I adopt an "opt out" approach. I assume everything is edited unless it is explicitly stated that this is not the case.

I use the same approach, therefore I wont label every photo as being edited, but if I capture something particularly unusual or hard to believe in which case I'll say "this was straight out of camera!", or "this hasn't been composited in any way!"


You should only ask yourself, if the edits fits into the genre or not.

Of course works for documentary and journalism should generally be free of any manipulations, but even in those genres editing should be ok as long as it doesn't affect the message that the photo is supposed to deliver.

For anything else that you can call it "art", any kind of manipulations is justified, why? because it is art. whether the work was made by camera, lighting and lens or by montaging different images together or by other extreme editing techniques, it is a creation of the artist's mind.

Just like any other business, in photography too, it is best to be honest with your clients. you don't have to tell every single detail about making of the artwork, but you shouldn't lie either, actually you don't need to lie, because anything that you make as an "art" and any technique you use to create that work is perfectly justified, of course as long as you don't intend to fool anyone or to misrepresent the realities.


People can do whatever the rules allow and/or what they can get away with.
You don't have to like it.

FWIW (possibly only what you paid for it) I personally tend to feel that photos are usually (not always) diminished by editing that substantially alters what was captured or seen (which are certainly not always the same thing)

AND I accept that the diminishing of works is the norm. AND I'm aware that my perception tends to be a minority one.

When I see "travel photos" that have been posed, artificially lit and then edited almost out of recognition compared to the original (such as I was shown recently by someone who was impressed with the results on a website), I feel very substantially less impressed by whatever is achieved than by a photo that is perhaps not quite so high in wow factor but is close to what was seen or shot.

When I see "photo" competitions that are won by "art works" that owe more to the digital paint brush than the original lens and light I am little impressed re their photographic merit. I may be impressed with their digitital artiness.

I'm happy to "hack things about" if the mood or photo so leads, but am happier when I can get something that please me as close to "out of camera " as possible. Each to their own.

THen there are photos that do not exist until you take them - eg one's of Schroedinger's cat :-). Photos that use a flash as the main lighting source are examples.
Using extreme amounts of flash produces extreme examples :-).
The photo below has been "colour unbalanced" to be far more saturated than it probably appeared to the eye. And/but however it appeared to the eye, it did so only for the duration of the flash burst. Without flash the impression here would have been totally different. Anyone who thinks about what this scene looked like will be immediately aware that the flash has utterly altered what would otherwise be seen, and the fact that saturation and contrast are pushed well away from "normal" is also obvious to anyone who manipulates images. So, it's an artificial image created by the equipment at the moment of capture, with some adjustments added latterly.
Despite the obvious artificiality of the image, many people would look at it without any thought of consciousness of it being "unreal". I think. Should this be brought to their attention? Does anyone care?
In this case, almost certainly not.

enter image description here

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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree. If you're going to present something as a "photograph", then it shouldn't be substantially altered. There is nothing wrong with artificially created pictures, only in pretending they're not. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 18, 2013 at 14:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Would the man-with-no-name downvoter like to explain the reason that this answer is not useful when it's about opinions, so hearing opinions is liable to help? Or just is it that you don't like people riding "sidesaddle"?. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 22, 2013 at 11:42

Here's my take on it:
Every image out there is edited to some degree, even if only to change contrast, colour balance, or crop it to fit the size needed for the frame. For B&W, the conversion to greyscale is implicit (and yes, using B&W film is editing in that respect, you're making the decision to remove the colours present in the natural world). No need to mention that ever.
If an image is to be displayed as art, or for enjoyment, do whatever you like. I'd love to have an explanation as to how you achieved the effects so I can try them myself (or know what to not try if I don't like the result).
If an image is to be used to report on something (like an image used in a newspaper report, or for a backdrop to a news program on television), anything altered that changes the scene should be reported. Yes, mention that you cut out that Israeli ambulance because you wanted to leave the impression that the nurses working to help the victims of the Hamas bomb attack (which your reporter wants to blame on Israel) were actually Hamas (just an example, and one that's very close to what many "reporters" are actually doing, and have been doing since the dawn of photography, usually of course without mentioning sources).


As answered already, the context determines the official rules. Mostly, there are no official rules, except in specific photo contests.

So largely it is a question of ethics and what viewers value most. Personally, I do believe the value of a photo (or better said, image) is not only in its result, but also in its process. I believe I am in a minority to say that, unfortunately.

For example, if a wildlife photographer camps for 2 weeks in the jungle to photograph a rare paradise bird in its natural habitat, versus another photographer articifically producing a similar image from a zoo + heavy post processing, I tend to favor and value the real and pure image more.

I personally believe that if you stage, manipulate or composite the actual contents of a scene, you should mention this in cases where this is not obvious or expected. The world disagrees with me though, one look at the 500px homepage says enough: only results matter, not process.


At the end of the day, what really matters is how good the photo looks. Is it appealing? If the PS work doesn't take the original photo to the negative side, then it's no harm to edit some of your photos where some part of the photo is really good but some part is no so much acceptable.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I disagree. It does matter when the photo is presented in a way others can assume it depicts fact. The more scientific, legal, or journalistic a picture is, or the expectations of the viewers are, the more this matters. If it's just a artis presenting a "cool picture", then it doesn't matter how it was generated since no implied promises were made about authenticity. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 18, 2013 at 14:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @OlinLathrop may be you are right considering a business perspective \$\endgroup\$
    – abhisekp
    Jan 18, 2013 at 14:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is where the idea of art comes into the question. The idea behind the question is to find out if by classing a photograph as art it becomes more exceptable from a business point of view to edit the photographs to improve them. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 18, 2013 at 18:29

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