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How Much Editing is Too Much?

According to Merriam-Webster the word photoshopped has become a verb and is defined as: to alter (a digital image) with Photoshop software or other image-editing software especially in a way that distorts reality (as for deliberately deceptive purposes) meaning something has been altered to deceive.

Which is unfortunate, because it has gotten to the point where any photograph that has been edited is considered a “Fake Foto”. You cloned those phone lines out of your image? Fake! You ‘enhanced’ the clouds in a landscape? Phony! You shot a picture of a Cheetah pursuing her prey in the African Savannah? Not likely, especially when the photo is from a museum.

'Running' Cheetah. From a diorama at the Denver Museum of History and Science.

Of course, they have a point when the intent is to deliberately deceive.

But the question remains, how much editing is too much?

Not so long ago I came across a classic example outside a photographer’s studio in California. At the front door was one of those sidewalk signs advertising his photo-editing prowess with the typical before and after images. They were of an attractive lady, reclined on a sofa gazing up at the camera.

At first glance it was obvious the before and after examples demonstrated a drastic change. The photographer had so transformed her body and face that she was barely recognizable. She appeared to have been slimmed down by 4 dress sizes. The editing was so severe her arms were pencils and her face was as smooth as the bare bottom of a sheet of plastic. Something about the proportions of her new body looked wrong and after a few minutes I understood why. Her shoulders in the after picture were the same width as those in the before image. She looked disproportionately broad-shouldered and in my humble opinion she looked impossibly unreal and obviously photoshopped (see definition above).

The following week I described the images to my photography group to get their feedback.

Interestingly enough half of our group generally defended the photographer, pointing out perhaps that the final picture was what the client wanted, while the rest of us were critical at how far the editing had gone. In an attempt to make the subject younger and thinner the photographer had made her obviously unreal.

My thought was somewhere in the middle. While I could understand a client’s desire to look younger and/or slimmer, the photographer had missed the mark by leaving her shoulders so disproportionately wide. I do hope I’m not putting the wrong image in your mind. The lady in the photo was lovely to begin with, and would not have needed much touch up in the first place.

“On the other hand”, I said, “if it were true that the client insisted on such drastic changes to her image, why would the photographer choose to use that particular example in his advertising?”

A month long debate ensued in our group around the question of how much editing in Photoshop is too much. The portrait photographers among us contend that the client drives the final product of course, but in the absence of direction touch up should be done sparingly. After all we’ve earned those wrinkles and blemishes and to totally remove them would make the image unreal. Some of the landscapers decided that their editing should be limited to editing the image to the way the human eye saw the scene, and other had no qualms adding or subtracting elements from the scene. (Think adding sky or subtracting power lines). The wildlife photographers got into a cat fight over staged shots of animals drawn to the camera with bait or bird calls.

And then there are the so-called purists. You know, those photographers that eschew any processing and will only consider a photograph worthy if it is one that comes straight-out-of-the-camera.

I was reminded of the purist mantra when I recently attended a photographic exhibit featuring three or four local photographers. In front of me that night were two photographs that had captured the same scene: Yosemite’s famous Half Dome. The placards next to them told the story. One was a film black and white and the other was a digital color image. The black and white was flat, dull and lacked any detail in the shadows. By contrast the digital print was vibrant with a complete dynamic range. The sky was blue with puffy white clouds and the same treetops were tinged with sunlight. I turned to one of my colleagues and commented on the differences between the two prints, wondering out loud about the black and white print.

By that I mean wondering why it was even hanging on the wall. Yes, I said it out loud.

I was slightly embarrassed to discover the photographer of the black and white print standing behind me and listening to my critique. She introduced herself and proceeded to tell me that I had it all wrong. Her print was in fact a pure, unedited, unadulterated straight-from-the-camera photograph. The way God intended photos to look. She went on to build her case by informing me that the great film photographers in the past shared her view, and the digital age and Photoshop in particular had ruined photography. “If you get it right in the camera you don’t need Photoshop,” she said with her arms crossed.

In her world, anyone who made a change to a photograph after the shutter was pressed was an artist, not a photographer.

I wondered privately if she knew Ansel Adams doctored his photos in the darkroom. His most famous photograph, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941, Adams, had in his words, "allowed some random clouds in the upper sky area to show." Evidently they annoyed him so much that in later prints he ‘allowed’ those clouds to evaporate in the darkroom. In another famous image, Winter Sunrise, The Sierra Nevada From Lone Pine, California, Adams went to the darkroom and removed the giant letters “LP”, made of white-washed stones visible in the foothills above the town.

The original Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California,

Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California, with the letters LP removed.

I wondered if all purists develop and print their own film in a darkroom. I wondered if Polaroids were making a comeback. I even wondered why she wore makeup.

None of these thoughts left my mouth though. I already had enough shoe leather in my mouth for one day.

So who’s right? The photographer that created an entire new body and face for his client or the purist who believes that real photographs are those straight-out-of-the-camera?

In my opinion, photographs should represent reality but not be a slave to the camera’s limitations of capturing that reality. Photographers must realize the public generally believes that cameras don’t lie, and if photo editors push reality too far perhaps they should disclose that fact.

Editing a photo is like adding salt to a stew. A little is great, but a lot ruins the flavor. The landscapers have it right, make it look like the eye saw it. But don’t fret about adding a little salt.

But, then again, who am I to argue with God?

Join Tony Avila of Aperture Priority and me as we discuss this topic in his recent podcast:


About the author:  JS Engelbrecht began his photography career in a High School dark room for the school's Year Book. Later he entered the fashion industry and product photography before turning his attention to Nature. "I moved from shooting pictures of beautiful jewelry to shooting pictures of natural beauty."

Now JS Engelbrecht enjoys capturing beautiful scenes during his travels. He is also a gifted teacher and guide for local photographers. Click here to see his fine art gallery.

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