When Do Your Photographic Edits Become a Lie?


Huge advancements in technology have changed the way we approach editing. But maybe before adjusting our photos, we should consider what harm it is doing.

Boldly Go Where No Photographers Have Gone Before

The world we live in today is not the same as the one I grew up in. We walk around with devices in our pockets that are far more advanced and a fraction of the size of the computers that put humans on the moon. The first cell phone designs were based on the communicators in Star Trek, and they are already far more sophisticated machines than those devices imagined in science fiction.

TV series such as Star Trek are, of course, just made-up tales and don’t pretend to be anything different. That is unlike photographs that we expect to be rooted in reality.

However, the storylines were important. Star Trek episodes and the later films were often allegories, with the Enterprise’s crew facing contemporary moral dilemmas. Alternatively, they were tackling cruel regimes and corrupt leaders. 

What Photographers can Learn from Politics and Business

Once, it would be assumed that our politicians were leaders that had integrity. When their honesty was found lacking, they were treated with universal contempt. But now we elect some who have no honor, and there is almost an expectation that they will be deficient in moral fiber. These corrupt politicians use the same tactics that tyrants have used throughout history during their climb to power. Intent on undermining democracy and the courts, they spread big lies and use intimidation, and even violence to get their way. Furthermore, they employ fear and hatred towards those who are different, garnering support from the weak-minded who are susceptible to bigotry. Yet, at the same time, they claim the moral high ground.

In business, it seems anything goes too. Some companies create fake online accounts to promote their products with positive reviews and disparage their competitors with negativity. You can easily spot those in the comments sections of reviews on photography sites; accounts are created purely to slate their competitors and compare them unfavorably with their brand. Of course, they are shooting themselves in the foot because the comments they make boost the readership of the article, thus helping their competitors; more people read the articles than the comments. What is more, they are less likely to have their own products featured on those sites because of their behavior.

The Camera Never Lies. Really?

But what about photography itself? If some of our leaders and big businesses can lie and deceive with impunity, then why shouldn’t we? Truthfulness in photographs is being watered down and the problem we face is where we draw the line. Not so long ago, it was clear cut, but now the gap between the scene and what the photographer saw is growing wider.

Nevertheless, the manipulation of photographs has been about for a long, long time. Photos were once composited in a dark room. Possibly the most famous is the composite photo of General Ulysses S. Grant whose head was added to someone else’s body, and the background scene was changed. It makes for a weird image with all their soldiers disrespectfully turning their back on their superior officer and an illustration of how faked photos can tell lies not intended by the editor.

Of course, the fact that lies can be told in images has led to a lot of ridiculous conspiracy theories that suggest photos and films have been faked. Although most levelheaded people see them as outlandish propositions, these conspiracies are designed to dupe the gullible and uneducated for nefarious reasons. Sadly, it works and ridiculously stupid ideas that were once considered laughable are believed to be true.

Yes, man did land on the moon, and the world is a globe not flat; those pictures shot by Buzz Aldrin are real despite what some would have you believe.

Sometimes, these conspiracies are fed by other nations with evil intent. Consequently, some countries’ schools are teaching children how to safeguard themselves against these treacherous lies. But how do we protect ourselves against photos that lie?

Differentiating Raw Developing and Photo Editing

During the 1980s and ‘90s, portraits in fashionable magazines were airbrushed to give models unrealistically smooth skin. The models looked like plastic. The processing was awful and it was easy to see that the photos were faked. Yet, people still bought the magazines because they sold a dream of perfection, albeit an unrealistic one. Then, Photoshop took over from the darkroom and that airbrushed look was simulated digitally. These days, it’s Instagram filters and other apps that remove blemishes at the click of a button.

Gradually, editing photos became more sophisticated and less obvious. The raw file was seen as the truthful version of a photo. During processing, there was a clear demarcation between developing and editing a photo. Competitions often allowed the former and not the latter, and editing images for use in the news was banned.

Those two distinct operations have become blurred as raw development tools allow edits. In a lot of cases, this is inane, such as removing sensor dust. However, these days, raw development enables changing entire subjects in ways that were previously only available in editing tools. The following edit was carried out using raw development tools.

With some programs, editing is carried out with layers over the raw file. Skies can be changed, faces smoothed, and powerlines removed quickly and easily. No longer does the misrepresentation of reality take skill and time to achieve. An absolute novice can buy a low-end app and completely change a dull and cluttered image into something more appealing. The results are oftentimes over-cooked. They don’t compare to the subtle developments of photographers skilled in developing and editing photos, so the lie is obvious. However, these apps are becoming better at editing photos using AI to achieve results.

The Democratization of Photo Editing

This is where I am torn. On one hand, I am all for making photography and editing easier for everyone and single-click edits have come a long way since the early Instagram filters. Why should great results be the sole right of a photographic elite? Sure, it will affect the income of the pros who make a living from selling pictures – that has already happened – but we professionals don’t have an inalienable right to earn money that way. But there is a dark side to it. This democratization of photography will inevitably end up with the same problem that we have with some of our leaders: dishonesty in the pursuit of personal gain. If someone can earn money by faking a photo, they shall do so.

It’s Not a Black and White Argument

Even then, there are degrees of dishonesty. When one is creating an image purely as art, does it matter if the sky has been altered, or the position of an object in the frame has been changed? Except in a competition scenario where it breaks the rules, possibly not because it usually doesn’t hurt anyone. However, one could argue that it is using dishonesty to put one’s work ahead of another’s.

In the following photo, I removed two geese from the photograph because they overlapped and created a large, unsightly blob in the sky. Does it matter?

The header image at the start of this article is a composite of two images; the sky was shot a minute or so before the sea. If you think that such a composite is problematic, then how about the following picture?

That photograph was created entirely in-camera using the OM-1‘s Live Composite mode. It’s a single camera raw file, but the camera took multiple exposures a second and added new light – the lightning – to the original frame. Thus, the overall exposure remains the same, but the flash of lightning appears in the shot.

To my mind, none of those examples matter because they don’t hurt anyone, and I am honest about how the photo was made. There’s no attempt to deliberately deceive.

Moreover, I believe it is okay to manipulate photos if the intention is good. Some time ago I shot a wedding and the bridesmaid had developed a pimple on her chin. I edited it out of the pictures. Nobody would remember it was there and editing it out would do more good than bad. The only person who noticed the edit was the bride. She thanked me for being so considerate. To me, there is a huge difference between doing that and creating airbrushed photos in magazines that have a proven detrimental effect on the self-esteem and mental health of, especially, young women.

Why Barry Manilow Demonstrates the Lack of Interest Anyone Has in You

Interestingly, contrary to what people believe about themselves, in everyday life, nobody is aware of things such as pimples on other people’s faces, whereas the individual sporting the spot will be conscious of it. That is called the Spotlight Effect, where far fewer people notice us than we believe to be the case. The effect is greatly exaggerated when the individual is suffering from stress or depression.

In a famous experiment some years ago, a student was sent into a room of his peers wearing an embarrassing Barry Manilow T-shirt. The student was convinced that more than half of the people in the room had noticed it, whereas fewer than 25% had. In a second study, students chose to wear one of three non-embarrassing T-shirts picturing well-known faces: Bob Marley, Jerry Seinfeld, or Martin Luther King Jr. Once more, the students wearing the shirts thought that 50% of their peers would notice the shirt they wore. When quizzed after the event, fewer than one in ten had noticed who was on the shirt.

Are photos any different? Numerous experiments have shown that most people won’t recall accurately the contents of a photograph. Without scrolling up, how many horses were in the picture of General Grant? How many people were standing on the right of the frame? How many free-standing trees were in the shot? (When I ask questions like that in articles, there is always someone who claims they remember. Do you believe them? I’ve only ever met one person with a truly photographic memory.)

I haven’t even mentioned images generated entirely by AI. Pictures produced using these algorithms are the ultimate lie, creating a false truth out of… I was going to say “thin air” but what is often created is based on stolen images. By using this tool, I have discovered that many of my photos have been stolen and stored in their database.

The Importance of Moral Integrity and Accurate Photos

The point of this article? Perhaps we should start thinking more about the moral integrity of our photography, and work for the greater good and not solely personal gain. When we edit photos, going beyond developing them in raw and removing sensor dust, when we cross that line where our image becomes a lie, when we make substantial changes that would otherwise mislead, we should be honest about it and include it in the images accompanying text. I try to do that, but have sometimes forgotten when I’ve uploaded an image to Instagram.

What do you think? If we don’t attempt an accurate interpretation of reality in our photos, might we as well hand image production over to AI? Does misrepresenting the world with faked images help us fit in with the current moral vacuum that dominates public life? Or should we go in the opposite direction and not change pixels at all? I would be interested to hear your views.


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