You’ve seen it before. Pictures of perfect sunsets, unimaginably yellow sunflowers, and breathtakingly beautiful beachscapes. But have you ever wondered how they got that way?

The answer lies in editing. Digital photography most definitely sparks a conversation concerning ethics. After all, the whole purpose of photography is to capture what’s already existing, not to create something entirely different. In fact, photographs used to be synonymous with the truth.

Ironically, photographers have been manipulating images since the invention of photography. Its reputation as a truth-telling device is a significant reason why photographers debate over the ethics of editing in the first place. It comes down to whether photographs should reflect reality.

The History of Image Manipulation

Photographers have been manipulating images well before the invention of Photoshop. One of the oldest examples of this is an image called “Cloud Study, Light-Dark” by Gustave Le Gray in 1856-1857. This piece combined two separate negatives that were joined at the horizon.

Credit: Gustave Le Gray

The most common use of photo manipulation involved combining separate photographs, but a truly skilled artist could use airbrushes, paint, and ink. It was considered a laborious process, but editing was ideal if you wanted to project surreal elements or create eye-catching visuals.

Why We Debate the Ethics of Editing

If photographers have been editing photos for nearly 200 years, why does the ethics of editing debate continue? It’s because computers have made it easier than ever to edit photographs.

Editors are now able to edit digital photos to an almost flawless extent. The click of a mouse can turn a muddy sky crystal blue or bring an otherwise dull background to life. It’s possible to blur out unwanted elements, give an image a dream-like vibe, or enhance a person’s features.

We even have tools that allow you to adjust your images without the need for design or editing knowledge. If you have a computer, you can manipulate any photo you choose. However, if you want to automate this process and integrate it into your own software or application, you could use an API for that. The process is no longer in the hands of the few, which makes it harder for the community to draw a line.

Where Do We Draw the Line?

When discussing ethics in photography, there’s always the question of where we should draw the line. That answer is complicated and requires a more nuanced look at editing as a whole.

Where Historic Photographers Drew the Line

When photography was first invented, it was difficult for onlookers to distinguish fake from reality. In 1917, a photograph by Elise Wright called “Fairy” depicted a young girl surrounded by fairies. Many people, including the creator of Sherlock Holmes, believed the photos were real.

Image Source: WikiCommons

Another image called “Fading Away” was a combination of 5 negatives depicting 4 people, photographed initially in separate rooms. Many family portraits were taken this way.

Credit: Henry Peach Robinson

Stalin routinely used photo manipulation for political purposes. He would completely erase people from old photographs and records to effectively “erase these meetings” from memory.

Before photo manipulation became commonplace, the populous drew the line at images created to purposely deceive. The Stalin example wouldn’t be tolerated, and the “Fairy” image would only be accepted if the authors were clear that the image was touched up.

What mattered to people was the intent behind the image. If a photographer manipulated an image for aesthetic purposes, then most would have agreed that no harm was being done.

Where Modern-Day Photographers Draw the Line

In the modern day, the intention still plays a core factor in whether or not you can ethically manipulate an image. You can’t control how someone else will interpret your photo. As long as you’re honest, then you’re morally absolved. But the issues don’t necessarily end there.

Since anyone can use graphic design software to manipulate an image, many more images are manipulated as a result, including the use of the green screen effect. When you throw social media in the mix, it’s almost expected for photographers to digitally enhance their photos. It’s hard to compete with well-edited photos.

Take a look at this image of two McDonald’s burgers side by side:

Credit: Lifehacker

The image on the left is the edited burger, while the image on the right is the real burger. The left burger is what sold the right burger, and the deception is clear here. Unfortunately, customers expect this kind of behavior, meaning fast food companies can continue to do this.

There’s also the impacts that edited photos have on our mental health. Even if we know that image isn’t real, others don’t, which causes both camps to feel insecure about themselves.

This image of Katy Perry shows how drastically editors change images of celebrities:

Credit: Rolling Stone

It’s interesting to see how editors will still change how a person looks, even though they’re conventionally attractive. And this heavy editing doesn’t stop at traditional celebrities, either. Influences like Tana Mongeau and Alicia Stern have admitted to editing their photos.

While most people are against the practice of editing images of people, 71% of people won’t upload a photo without editing it first. This shows that, while we love the things that editing can accomplish, we also want a more authentic world that doesn’t require photo manipulation.

Some photographers are completely against editing, while others will manipulate their photos to the point they’re unrecognizable from the original. There’s also few consequences for artists who lie about manipulating their photos, as it’s so commonplace that “everyone” is doing it.

What Should We Do?

Ultimately, the decision lies with us. We must decide where we draw the line. This doesn’t mean that digital photographers should stop editing. On the contrary, post-production will allow digital images to be improved and can even allow an otherwise dull photo to look extraordinary.

The image below wouldn’t be possible without editing techniques:

Image Source: Adobe Photoshop

What it does mean is that photographers should remember to be ethical. We should strive to make sure that the edits we make do not change the intended story. We should also take caution not to overdo our editing, as it could lead to a sense of disingenuity regarding our work.

By considering the ethical implications of digital photography, we can, as artists, make sure that our final images remain true to the original intent and don’t intentionally mislead other people.

In Conclusion…

The debate regarding ethics in photo editing is as old as photography as a medium. It’s also about to get way more complicated as AI becomes more prevalent. But as we look towards the future, it can be helpful to look back at the past for advice on how to handle ethical issues.

As a whole, photographers care about the intent behind the edit rather than the edit itself. With that said, other artists won’t see edited photographs as real art. As long as both camps can agree to disagree, we can continue to make the art we like without too much conflict.

If you would like to learn how to edit and improve your photos to make them stand out while keeping the integrity of the original photo intact, please check out our photography-related course, articles and sessions below.

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