What is considered an "unmanipulated" image? As defined by photo.net:


  • a single uninterrupted exposure
  • cropping to taste
  • common adjustments to the entire image, e.g., color temperature,
    curves, sharpening,
  • desaturation to black and white
  • dust spots on sensor cloned out


What else are you allowed to do to an image that falls under unmanipulated?

Would selective sharpening using a mask be considered unacceptable?

  • 11
    \$\begingroup\$ It is a pretentious image... \$\endgroup\$
    – Shizam
    Commented Mar 11, 2011 at 15:45
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ I basically agree with Shizam... I'll also add that I don't think such a beast actually exists. \$\endgroup\$
    – Joanne C
    Commented Mar 11, 2011 at 16:06

3 Answers 3


Considered by whom? This is both an issue that has intrigued and bothered people since the dawn of photography and a still-emerging topic that is far from settled. So, in a larger sense, there's really no meaningful answer, just a series of opinions.

But, in a specific sense, there certainly can be an answer. The definition you've taken above has a very specific use — it's the definition to use for photos in the photo.net image database. It's a pretty good, well-thought through definition and could be used elsewhere, but questions over details (like the mask-based sharpening you mention) can only be done in a specific context.

The US-based National Press Photographer's Association has this in their code of ethics:

Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images' content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.

and a more-specific "Statement of Principle" on Digital Manipulation, which says in part:

Accurate representation is the benchmark of our profession. We believe photojournalistic guidelines for fair and accurate reporting should be the criteria for judging what may be done electronically to a photograph.

Similarly, the Canadian Association of Journalists, in their statement of principles and ethical guidelines, says:

Photojournalists are responsible for the integrity of their images. We will not alter images so that they mislead the public. We will explain in the photo caption if a photograph has been staged. We will label altered images as photo illustrations.

Fpr both journalistic associations, the focus is on intent, and technical details aren't mentioned at all. It's probably fair to say that this is a far less strict standard than photo.net has, and, subjectively, that seems reasonable given the context. Note photo.net's reasons for their standards: photos in that database are intended to help others learn, and it is helpful to know whether or not a high degree of post-processing was required.

If you're entering a contest, that contest should explain their rules clearly. For example, the 2010 National Geographic Photography Contest has a statement including a list of okay and not-okay. This is summed-up as:

Please do not digitally enhance or alter your photographs (beyond the basics needed to achieve realistic color balance and sharpness). If you have digitally added or removed anything, please don't submit the shot. We look at every photo to see if it's authentic, and if we find that yours is in any way deceptive, we'll disqualify it.

For artistic and personal work, there's unlikely to be any expectation that your image not be manipulated, unless you create one — in which case, you have the opportunity to be as clear as you like about your process, and your views on photographic integrity.

  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ It's also worth noting that the journalist's associations are as concerned (or more concerned) with staged photos or manipulative use of imagery as they are with the actual pixels. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Mar 11, 2011 at 16:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you very much Mattdm. This is basically the answer I was looking for. I realized that this was somewhat of a "subjective" question but I knew that there was be some sort of answer. Thank you. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 11, 2011 at 16:20
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I think you need to distinguish between journalistic photos and creative work. In journalism cropping can dangerously change the context and intent which perverts the message. In creative work we have no such fear and can crop to our hearts content. \$\endgroup\$
    – labnut
    Commented Mar 11, 2011 at 20:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @labnut: am I not making that distinction? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Mar 11, 2011 at 20:53
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 -- Good point about the reasons for photo.net's rules. The point is to classify images to help others learn. One isn't necessarily better than the other, but, after all, there is more than one way to skin a cat. If I see an image that I would otherwise think was a Photoshop job, under the classification of "unmanipulated" I would want to know how they took the photo. I might learn a new skill! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 11, 2011 at 22:23

All photos are manipulated, simply because all photos are merely a piece of a larger picture, and by taking that piece out you lose the context they were taken in.

Does this mean that we shouldn't make rules? Well, no, obviously there is a code of ethics in certain cases (i.e. photo-journalism and documentary photography) where the point is to honestly tell as much of the whole story as possible. In photography contests, like any other contest, entrants compete at the level of specific skills; the rules define what those skills are. Just as it's appropriate to disallow road bikes in a foot race, in photography contests it's appropriate to define the skills contestants compete for.

At this point I would like to take a quote from a very applicable blog entry by photographer Brian Peterson that has some very good thoughts about photographic alteration.

The debate over 'natural' or 'altered' images is really OLD NEWS! In fact it can be argued that every lens choice, every point of view, every 'creative exposure', every filter, to name a few from the list, are all guilty of 'altering' an image. As far as I am concerned, you can even add the mere act of framing the image in-camera as another example of altering an image!


Usually an un-manipulated image means that it is not airbrushed or underwent heavy processing. All models in magazines are considered as manipulated (or photoshopped). Post processing an image by applying sharpening and toning colors to reflect a natural look, is not really considered manipulation but rather adjustment. Photographers may argue about the details, but as a general rule, a manipulation = heavy processing.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a good point. "Manipulation" carries the implication that the intent of the changes is to make the image differ from reality. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Mar 11, 2011 at 18:09

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.