This question is not as opinion based as the title suggests. Airbrushing, image manipulation and stitching have all been around since almost the birth of photography as we know it. I can't help but wonder how purist, if at all, a photograph has to be to remain a 'photograph'.

  • What are the definitions of digital art and photography that make them mutually exclusive media?
  • Are there any officially recognised distinctions between the two or are there merely rules of thumb for assessing if something is a photograph or digital art, in which case, what are the most popular?

I am aware that for many this is an arbitrary point about a highly subjective media, so I am only really interested in answers supported by official photography organisations or any governmental distinctions between the two for taxation purposes.


Photography, like any other art form, becomes art at the hands of the artist and in the eyes of the viewer. It doesn't matter if it's digital or analog. The type of camera or equipment used will not make it Art. Art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

Nowadays, the photographic community tries to make the distinction between manipulated and unmanipulated imagery, so as to define a line between "digital art" and the digital artist, but the means, to the end, is just a tool. If one says a camera is a recording device and thus records just what it sees, they clearly have no concept of what it takes to make a camera and the programming behind the look each company is using to differentiate themselves from the next.

Some photo contests differentiate their types of photographic art this way:


  • Photojournalism: Unposed, undirected, limited post-processed images.
  • Composite: An image that is made up more than one capture to create the final print.

PPA makes no such distinctions in their rules. So if it's printed and you made the original exposure and it's the right size, you're good to go.

AIPP is the same as PPA in that they don't distinguish the differences.

Neither of the distinctions above change the artistic impact of an image. That comes from the photographer. How they chose to record it, what equipment they liked or had on them, and how they made their creative decisions.

When your talking to the tax people, you take their rules and see what fits. When it comes to photography though, all great photographers are artists, and recognized as such by the art community. How they do their taxes is probably a very different matter entirely.


Digital art is still generally considered a photograph if it is based on a photo and still uses mostly the imagery of the photo. It is not a documentary photograph, but that distinction is mostly made for photo journalism rather than photography as a whole.

Photography and digital art are not mutually exclusive media as your question suggests. Photography as art is rather a form of digital art, but only one of many. In fact, one of my majors in college was Electronic Media, Arts and Communications and it covered a wide variety of topics including standard audio/video production as well as some photography. It is entirely possible for a heavily modified photo to be a photograph and not art. It is equally possible for a completely unmodified photo to be a beautiful work of digital art.

The only officially recognized distinctions would exist in the realm of news media and what they accept as photos portraying real life. Even that is generally more of a general guideline that the industry holds itself to rather than a set standard though. There isn't really a good way to characterize what is or isn't modified too much to be a photo just like their isn't a good way to measure what is or isn't art.

Rules for various news media organizations may prohibit certain techniques, but that doesn't mean the use of those techniques makes it art or makes it not photography, just that it makes it unsuitable to the standards of that particular organization that may be choosing to err on the side of caution. A good example to look at might be the standards that Reuter's uses for their photo journalism, found here.


In the days before digital cameras photographers aimed to capture the image in camera as much as possible and then pictures were manipulated in the darkroom or on the airbrusher's bench. There were specialist darkroom workers and airbrushers but there were also photographers who did all three.

Nowadays in the post digital era all the darkroom and airbrushing work has been transferred onto digital platforms, the computer and manipulation software such as Photoshop. The same rule applies as before. Some photographers aim to capture the image in camera but many others take simple images and make composite images on the computer or get retouch artists to do it for them.

Photographers are now having to adapt to the new technology because not to do so is to be left behind because Photoshop and other software makes the impossible possible and so not to adapt creates a vacuum which competitors will fill making the non conformist look old fashioned and inept. Photographers can't stick their heels in the mud and say I'm not changing because the consumer expectations change with emerging technology. This means at the professional level, you adapt or fail.

  • I'm not sure I see how this answers the question about the distinction between digital art and photography or how you tell which something is. – AJ Henderson Jan 8 '14 at 17:50
  • My answer basically explains that there is no distinction and never has been because in the image making process all options are open to the artist but one should bear in mind consumer expectations at the professional level which means accepting the dividing lines are now blurred and one must take all steps possible to provide saleable images. – user25107 Jan 8 '14 at 17:53
  • Can you attempt to clarify how it relates in the answer? It seems to be more talking about documentary photography than art photography or even further, artistic photographic manipulation. I agree in principal that there isn't a clear difference or distinction, but there are different contexts of photography, not all of which are necessarily considered digital art. – AJ Henderson Jan 8 '14 at 18:00
  • Getting back to the poster's question about taxation. Perhaps some governments give tax breaks or incentives to encourage certain artforms. If that is the case then they must have certain guidelines. I would expect that any image would need to have a certain amount of obvious manipulation to distinguish itself from an ordinary digital capture image or photograph. – user25107 Jan 8 '14 at 18:10

As we search for individual photographic interpretations both left and right of natural or lifelike characteristics, it is vital this journey that almost always contradicts nature in one form or another, should also be subject to full disclosure of intent: the integrity of the photographer is center stage, and as a consequence, the art world, including both artists and patrons of the art, are entitled to disclosures revealing any and all digital post-production manipulation used to create a fine art photograph.

For several months, feedback on social media, or the lack thereof, by photographer’s presenting (or posting) their work, but either never respond, skirt the question or state it is a trade secret on how they produced their final piece, when ask to do so, gives me pause, and genuine concern. At this very moment, as we head with increasing speed farther along the digital photography highway, cruciality of transparency and integrity is vital if we are going to successfully destruct the virtual wall that continues to nurture a variety of suspicious discourse between painters, traditional fine art photographers and photographers choosing alternative (and extreme) digital processes in creating fine art photography.

My advocacy is directed for definitive and consistent categorizing of photography in museums, galleries, online competitions and photography clubs, to clearly differentiate between naturalistic and imaginative photographic styles. We have ventured far past extreme “dodge and burning”, (both in traditional wet darkrooms and the digital darkroom) most notably documented when studying Ansel Adams landscapes, for example. Adams heavy contrasted interpretations never transcend our sensory perceptions that we are viewing a scene anything other than an authentic natural aesthetic, regardless if Adam's final piece represents an exaggerated aesthetic compared to the scene at time of capture. Most notable of these aesthetic extremes was Adam's frequent use of strong contrast, for one example.

Conversely, more recent photography practices are 1. transcending the basic characteristics of a photograph and instead reveal an alternative to reality or 2. are false representations of natural landscapes that may include composites, focus stacking, multiple exposures in conjunction with digital software ingenuity, indeed, fooling the viewer in what they believe is a wonderfully composed natural scene. In fact, the authenticity (of technique) of the photograph should be in question, unless full disclosure has accompanied the work.

Time and time again, I emphasize it is not the style or function of practice a photographer utilizes that is at the heart of my disdain, but instead how photographs are categorized. It is so unfortunate photographic artists, museum curators, gallery directors, and even more disturbing, national and world wide photography organizations that refuse to categorize between photographic category-genres, and instead present these different types of photographic work side-by-side! To be continued.

Best regards, Lance A. Lewin

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