Is Digital Manipulation Evil?

I’ve spoken at length about my stance on digital manipulation on the This Week in Photography (TWiP) podcast. On the show we banter about the topic, but in this quick video I explain how I really feel about it.

Pixels are born to be punished… unless they weren’t.

  • Jim Cutler


    Back to the old Ansel Adams example. He did tons and tons of manipulation in the darkroom. In the case of making ART (as you said in the rant) do whatever you wish to the image without guilt to create the emotion you wish to express. By the way, the B&W frames look great against the deep color of the wall behind you. Cheers.


  • I really don’t understand why this is a problem for some people. In my opinion, the only thing that matters is the end product.

    I realize that some people put more appreciation into the actual photography than the photograph itself, but aren’t we then introduced to two different problems of which the first should really bother commenting on the latter?

    Because if we are talking about the end product, then why should it matter how you got there as long as you actually did?

    In this digital world we live in today, it is often hard to say for sure whether or not a photograph has been digitally manipulated. Programs such as Photoshop, and definitely Lightroom, has completely taken over as the role of the dark room. I always do some level of manipulation of my photograph before I considered myself “done with it” – everything from small adjustments to layers from nine different photographs.

    No, I can’t see the problem. Unless someone is looking to embrace the art of handling the hardware (which is a completely different discussion, if you aske me,) the end product should be what matters.

    Still – there is room for all kinds, so why can’t se share the spotlight? 🙂

  • Frederick,

    I’ve been following your discussions on this topic with great interest on TWiP. Here are my thoughts. I tried my best to edit a complicated thought into something manageable.

    I think the debate about whether photo editing is being dishonest stems from the misconception that photography “captures the past.”

    Cameras don’t actually capture a moment in time, they capture photons of light. Those photons are abused from the get-go. They are sheared and bent through optics, they burn onto a recording surface. That recording surface is then processed in a way that allows the photographer to reproduce a 2D representation of a 4D universe.

    It’s the art and science of photography combined with higher reasoning skills that allow us to perceive those images as something we can relate to.

    Without our psychological awareness photographs would be indistinguishable from any other sheet of paper.

  • I never thought of Photography the way you explained it. How every change in the camera or attachments to a camera can make a photo “unreal”. Our eyes perceive reality differently. So what is “reality” to me, might not be “reality” to you. I have had many arguments over whether something was purple or blue (purple is my favorite color). You make a lot of valid points and I agree with you. I guess what upsets people are the people who edit their photos and then lie and say they didn’t do anything to it.

    There is a famous photo of Grace Jones that was used for the album cover of her album Island Life, where she is standing in what looks like a very difficult yoga pose.

    It turns out that the photo was comprised of many photos cut and stitched together.

    It is a beautiful photo and there have been arguments that the real pose can be done. I guess people don’t like being tricked and get upset when people trick them into thinking something was real, when it was edited to look that way. But this then leads into how much editing on a photo makes it fall under the category of Surreal, Photo-Manipulation or Photorealism (I think this might only be used for paintings)?

  • P.S. there is a blog dedicated to finding advertisers who publish images that were altered but done badly:

  • Jesus V

    For some photographer, the fact of being able to get a picture to look like they envision it, at the time they snapped the shutter is a point of pride. Having to go back and make changes to the image the camera captured (in film or digitally) seems like cheating.

    To this group of photographers a good test of talented and ability would be taking pictures on slide film. Slide film does not allow for manipulation of any kind and forces the photographer to do ALL his work with the camera. Choosing different lenses, F/stops or any other camera setting even filters does not require a talent that a photographer would not have.

    That being said, and while I do believe every person who uses a camera should aspire to this lofty goal, it is unrealistic. Like Jim Cutler (1st commenter) said, even Ansel Adams manipulated his images in the darkroom to get what he wanted on the print. We have to expect that most images we find and see have been manipulated, some more than others. We also have to recognize those images that have been captured and displayed without editing and done completely on camera, display the talent of the photographer and his craft.

  • hey frederick,
    how about you sign up for a seesmic account the next time around or you could actually still upload the video to seesmic, then we could chime in with video responses. could make it even more interesting. RANT FTW!

    and I agree with you! 😀

  • Steph

    Hey just found your site through a google search for LR panorama tips, and wanted to say I love it! Thanks for doing what you do, it has helped me!

  • bee

    I often have these discussions – especially with non-photographers within my family – whether it’s ok to change the photo afterwards in Photoshop. And I completely agree with you. “Manipulation” starts with choosing WHEN to take the photo. Maybe if I’d taken it a few seconds later or earlier, the meaning would be completely different…

    As long as it’s not for documentary reasons you should do with your photo whatever you want to.

  • I don’t mind any sort of digital editing until it’s used to fool people. By that I mean including a stock image of the moon or a skyline etc then not letting on that it wasn’t really in the photo as taken nor even taken by the photgrapher. Flickr is running rampant with people using stock in their “creations” lately and a lot of them aren’t acknowledging it very well. I find that a pretty shady practice that reflects poorly on the integrity of that person. That’s my two cents.

  • There is a difference between art and journalism.

    The question here isn’t whether it is proper or not to digitally manipulate photos. There is no such thing as the One True PIcture, but that is not the same thing as saying there are no ‘truths’.

    It seems to me that the real question is to what degree and in what contexts are these distortions are acceptable.

    If your intent is to is to explain what a pig looks like but instead your picture has been distorted so that the said animal in the photo looks like an elephant, that distortion is not appropriate. It violates, at minimum, a social norm of trust and good faith.

    On the other hand, if your intent is to show me what your vision of a pig is independent of any normative idea of Pigness, then the elephant cum pig might well be a perfect product.

    The problem with digital manipulation isn’t that the photos are manipulated, the problem is that sometimes the intent is one of duplicity as opposed to one of artistic expression.

  • Hey just found your site through a google search for LR panorama tips, and wanted to say I love it! Thanks for doing what you do, it has helped me!…

  • I am responding to Chris Marquardt’s comment on the podcast re: photo-journalism that even in photojournalism, the photographer has made all kinds of creative decisions with the camera such as shutter speed and aperture etc.


    But that misses the point. The question isn’t whether the image IS Real, we take for granted that there is no platonic copy of reality. All photography, art or otherwise, involves choices.

    The difference between ‘Art’ and “journalism’ is perspective. When one creatives from a Subjective perspective, all bets are off, the image comes from within, so to speak.

    In PJ, we are constraint by two things; 1) our ethical responsibility to shoot from an Objective perspective (form the Outside) and 2) our responsibility to produce images that is honest about the subject (based on facts) and consistent with social memory.

    So, yes, PJs can capture mood, emotion, elect to omit things from the frame, elect to highlight things in the frame, pick the best light, and otherwise make thousands of photography decisions at the time of Click but the moment that outcome fails to respect the integrity of its subject or corrupts the social memory of the subject, it tips over into the realm of art.

    In plain English, the task of photojournalism is to tell a story base on evidence. Facts are fact;, do not lie about the facts. Everything that is supported by evidence is free game. If it is not supported by the evidence, it is not photojournalism REGARDLESS of the emotive or creative disposition of the photo.

    Frankly, I am a bit tired of the squishy relativism with which we photographers (amateur and otherwise) are batting around. Just because there is no True image doesn’t mean that the ethical boundaries constraining photojournalism don’t matter. We take this subject too lightly; the fact that we are the creative end of these images ought not to make us careless or arrogant about this stuff.