There are two physical different steps on creating the photo:

  1. Actual shooting (including preparing to shooting)
  2. Post processing on PC (all what starts after downloading the photo to PC)

On the current technical level, there are almost no borders in the image editing using all kinds of the Image Manipulation programs. So, the difference between actually shot picture and the post processing result can be a really significant.

So my question is where finishes the image correcting and starts image creating?


4 Answers 4


It is all image creation.

Please, let me explain. When you take a photo, regardless of the medium used to record it, what you are recording is a virtual image projected by a lens onto a focal plane. The nature, intensity, and direction of the light illuminating your subject, the design of the lens and the focus and aperture settings, the amount of time the shutter is left open: all of these affect the properties of the image you record. Two identical cameras pointed at the same subject can produce incredibly different results by altering one, several, or all of those variables.

The digital age just moved the manipulation of transforming the recorded image to a print from the darkroom to the desktop. It is true that it has also expanded the possibilities of the degree to which an image may be manipulated, but perhaps not as much as some might think. What it has really done is made that manipulation much less time consuming and allowed us to do it much more efficiently. In the film era we could have shot the same scene with dozens of different types of film. Now we can take a single RAW image and retroactively apply the characteristics of each of those films. What would have taken weeks or months to meticulously combine several varying exposures into a single image of a high dynamic range scene we can now do in a matter of minutes.

From the moment we select what to leave in the frame and what to leave out, we are creating something that is different from the reality it represents. Susan Sontag once said, "...to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude."

A photograph is always an expression of the photographer's vision. Sometimes it may closely resemble what others see when they look at what has been photographed. Sometimes it can be totally transformational. On rare occasions it can be both. "Some photographers take reality... and impose the domination of their own thought and spirit. Others come before reality more tenderly and a photograph to them is an instrument of love and revelation." - Ansel Adams

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ So true. I have never understood how anyone can draw a distinction. Creativity begins with the decision to create an image and continues through the process of exploiting the capabilities of a medium you are familiar with. The final image is by definition the product of the entire creative process. \$\endgroup\$
    – Triskelion
    Commented Apr 12, 2013 at 15:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ I draw a distinction. All thought where that line is is not clear but in my opinion it is somewhere close to reality and even darkroom work can cross that line. Since the advent of digital cameras i have felt many photos cross the line and that there should be a recognizing of the fact that at some point a photograph crosses over from a moment of time captured, and becomes digital art. I believe if you change a digital photo to the point that it does not represent reality as seen by the photographer, or any human that may have been there, than it is no longer a photograph but digital art. 2¢ \$\endgroup\$
    – Alaska Man
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 21:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelClark Great "answer". image creation or photograph? That is the point, and there is as of now no definitive answer. Great question and probably can not be answered in the context of the stack exchange format or at all. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alaska Man
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 21:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Nice answer, but i still think that at some point you cannot call it a photo anymore. Take the work of Erik Johansson for example. \$\endgroup\$
    – Orbit
    Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 12:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @rickboender I don't think I am saying there is no such point. I think what I'm saying is that the point at which a photo ceases to be reality is when one takes a photo of some portion of reality. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 16:07

Note: This answer was merged from a question that was almost identical to this one - the only difference was a minor focus on ethics, which is what I tried to explain in the second part of my answer.

This question is one for philosophy-courses and is therefore open-ended and purely opinion-based. Therefore, it will be hard to answer it at all - more so if I want to make it factual and less a piece of opinion. I have learnt about all the things below in philosophy-in-media courses - mind you, I'm not someone who likes to follow someone else's philosophy, so I have no citations; if I find some, I will offer them, of course.

First, a disclaimer: To me,

enhancing < retouch < editing < manipulation.

Therefore, I think it is not really possible to differentiate between the four - one might say that "enhancing" is something like de-noising, that "retouch" is something like cloning away a pimple, and that "editing" is something like compositing (i.e. adding persons from other photographs in your current photo); but still, they all are just forms of manipulation.

1: What is manipulation?

And already, there is no straight answer on the horizon.

Some people would argue that we manipulate the image in the moment we look through the camera - as we clip away unwanted stuff outside the framing, and even more so because we take something three-dimensional and make it two-dimensional. Also, cameras do not work like the human eye (which in itself manipulates the real world) at all, so...you get the idea.

Other people - like me - see it that way: A photo tries to be an accurate representation of the world as hard as it can - at least if you take a DSLR and capture in RAW. Sensors are not made to manipulate the image - they work within the boundaries that physics set. Also, taking a photo does not manipulate any more than if you point at something with your finger and say "Hey, you! Look over there!" So in this philosophy, manipulation cannot be done by framing alone.

Then, there are the questions of exposure times and multiple exposures (not the same as HDR!)

image by Marubi

Image stolen from some blog - really, I just DuckDuckGoed "Marubi".

See the ghost-curtain in the above image? That is the kind of multiple exposure I am talking about! It is from one of the Marubis - Albania's first photographers. (I can really recommend the Marubi Museum in Shkodra ;-) ) The picture itself is quite old - the Marubis worked somewhere between the late 1800s and ca. the 1950s. It is a simple matter of exposing the same film multiple times - clearly, some kind of manipulation!

...or is it? Some people would still say "no!" - and I'm one of them - because to them/me, manipulation begins when someone cannot possibly spot the manipulated object as such. I know, this is not a consistent argument. ;-)

The same goes for long-time exposures:

image by Krisztian Birinyi

Image stolen from Krisztian Birinyi.

Have you ever seen a tram that is made out of lights alone? Me neither.

There's a lot of other techniques that will produce "manipulated" photos - be it black-and-white, be it over-/underexposure, Infra-Red, Tilt-Shift-photography, etc.p.p. - all above applies to those, too.

So as we see, we do not even have a clear definition of "manipulation" - it could be as trivial as "everything", as well as "everything behind the exposure (if we take a neutral picture without filters, properly and only once exposed at a decent shutter speed of 1/25"-1/125")" to "manipulation must be invisible to be manipulation".

When you have set yourself with your own definition of "manipulation", the next question awaits you:

2: Is there a red line, morally speaking, for editing?

And again, there is no simple answer.

First, I will go with the example of fashion photography.

some fashion image comparison photoshop...whatever

Image stolen from Untitled Magazine's article "Photoshop In Fashion - The Times Are Chaning".

Psychological studies revealed that the heavy use of Photoshop in the fashion industry is a major factor for anorexia: making the (usually already quite thin) models look like they only weigh half as much as my left leg certainly does influence the perception of the own body.

Therefore, some countries try to regulate this: They either ban photoshopped pictures (if they manipulate the body-shape) or they at least require a visible disclaimer about it. France is one of those countries, and as far as I know, the UK is another one. Getty Images followed the French law later on..

Still: If you want to keep the picture to yourself, it would be absolutely okay to make yourself as thin as a piece of toast - both morally and legally.

Other people I know - I do not want to make it political, but most of them really have a overall liberal attitude - think that morally, there is no problem with any kind of retouching. In their opinion, everyone is responsible for their own perception, so there is no need to have labels, regulations, or even moral debates about a red line in editing.

Really, it comes down to opinion and what you do.

As Corey pointed out in his comment, there are of course differences between different types of photography, e.g. creating a fashion ad, an art-for-the-art's-sake project, and photojournalism. While it is okay to heavily manipulate an art project (even beyond recognition), photo journalists would (and should, in my opinion) stick to very basic editing - after all, journalism should be as objective as possible*.

* The question of "how objective can journalism be?" is a bit too lengthy and too off-topic for this answer.

I, for one, tried to avoid Photoshop (and even de-noising!) for a very, very long time - not because I disliked photoshopped pictures, but because it was my choice of style. Later on, I started to "repair" minor mistakes - red eyes, slightly open mouths, pimples,... . Much later on, I started to shoot portraits semi-professionally - and with that, I started to get into the whole business of brightening, softening, and what-else-there-is in retouching. I am still happier to have an almost-perfect photo straight out of the camera than a perfect photo out of Photoshop, plainly because photography is a destructive process, while photoshopping is not, and therefore, photography is a damn lot harder. What I really try to avoid is the above mentioned weight-stuff: I never made anyone look any thicker, slimmer, taller or smaller than they are; I simply despise the idea.

I know a lot of people who liked my initial approach and who are not very pleased with what I do today - and vice versa. It is the same when you look at basically any platform, be it flickr vs flickr, 500px, etc. (Except of course Instagram: that is as much manipulation as possible).

...And do I use Photoshop a lot? No. Most of the time, I simply clone a few things away, fine-tune exposure and white-balance (all that C1 can do from within its "Quick"-Panel) - but no ground-breaking compositing. That is something I only use when absolutely necessary - simply because it is an extremely time-consuming process.

At this point, you will most likely be disappointed, because I have not answered your question at all - I am sorry for that.

I can offer one definitive solution: Keep the original file - and be honest about your work. If you think about something as being objectionable, tell people about it: Post it in the photo's descrition, maybe add a link to a thumbnail to the unedited picture. I certainly would not do so as long as I just "clone away" unfamiliar people or blur away a pimple - but that certainly is something that is up to you.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Love this answer, especially the distinction between enhancing and manipulation. The only thing that I would add is the use case. IE if your profession is photojournalism and you're submitting your work to the local paper, you shouldn't go past basic enhancing for reasons of ethics and honesty. If your profession is art - then the door is open to do whatever you want. \$\endgroup\$
    – OnBreak.
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 17:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Corey included paragraph about use cases, and also, a reference to you. thanks! \$\endgroup\$
    – flolilo
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 18:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Many thanks! I saw your profile image and had to share - check out my wife and I's guineas at coreyharding.com - cheers! \$\endgroup\$
    – OnBreak.
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 18:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Corey Well, my guineas are my everyday photo challenge - they really are the perfect models ;-) Since we are talking here in a manipulation-themed setting: I have to confess that my profile picture is heavily manipulated! However, your guinea-pics (pun intended!) are about as dramatic as portraits can get - I really am astounded! \$\endgroup\$
    – flolilo
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 18:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Your little guys are adorable! For quadruped portraits, I absolutely love bouncing a speedlight off the ceiling. And for these guys, a 70-200 f/4 with a 12mm extension tube to get a bit closer than normal. It helps that the longer hair one really doesn't move around much when he's left in a new place. The short hair is mighty adventurous though. \$\endgroup\$
    – OnBreak.
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 18:40

In my view image creation starts when you remove or add things to the recorded scene, things that were not there when you recorded them or things you don't like afterwards. When the process becomes more like painting.

I'd like to make an exception for manipulation such as dust removal since that was not part of the scene but merely a shortcoming of the recording device. This is image correction.

Edit: Interesting case is the coloring in of old black and white pictures.


This is really a pretty subjective distinction, but for me, as long as the photograph is the starting point and inspiration for the artist's (photographer) work, then it is post processing. I think in general the terms image correction would be agreed to mean minor details, but there isn't really a clean cut dividing line. A particularly beat up photo may require far more work to correct than another image might take to invent something new with the content of the image.

I think it is more about artist's intent. If the intent of the artist is to enhance what is there, then it is image correction. If it is the intent of the artist to alter the image to induce some altered meaning, then it starts to push over in to something more than correction, though I'd hesitate to say that either option isn't image creation. Perhaps manipulation is a better term.


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