It's OK to Make a Fake Photo, Just Don't Be Fake About It

It's OK to Make a Fake Photo, Just Don't Be Fake About It

You hear it all the time from photographers across the entire range of experience: “I don’t Photoshop my photos.” That photographer is most likely afraid of Photoshop or afraid to disclose that they Photoshop images, and so instead they wrap themselves in this puritanical line as cover.

Don’t fall for it.

I use the term Photoshop in the sense of any photo editor, whether it’s Capture One, Lightroom, Affinity Photo, or whatever you use. Somewhere along the way, it’s probably prudent to edit just a little bit, even if that’s just toning and cropping. You better believe that’s what all the masters did.

Here’s the issue, though: In the era of "fake news", where we get undisclosed Photoshop coming from both the White House and photojournalists, it’s probably time to get to the heart of the issue: As photographers, we need to be telling the truth about our images.

It’s OK to talk about editing your image. I’m of the mindset that every image can use just a bit of toning after it comes out of the camera (and if you can nail it every time, more power to you). I’m also not afraid to say that I composite an image or swap heads on the occasional family photo. I don’t always list the details of editing on family photos, but usually for anything else I’m mentioning it in a caption or in conversation. As long as I’m not holding it out there as photojournalism, pretty much anything goes.

When National Geographic published an amazing photo of an eclipse over the Grand Tetons, it didn’t initially disclose it was a composite illustration and not an actual photo. It took a lot of pressure from the industry and people calling out the photo for this ostensibly journalistic organization to label the photo as such. It’s a mystery as to why National Geographic wouldn’t have either not used this photo or at the very least put this information in a caption so that readers would know that the image they are looking at was faked.

It’s important that all of us with cameras, as visual storytellers with cameras, get back to a basic fundamental behavior: Telling the truth. It’s something that has become lost as “influencers” and photographers try to one up each other on social media every day.

A good place to start would be the photo at the top of this post. Here’s what it really looked like when I went out there:

Not what I was hoping for that night, but what the sky actually looked like when shooting at the Valley of Fire.

I had one night in the Valley of Fire and a cloudy sky, and so a composite is what it became. The star shot that made up the sky was one I did at Mount Laguna near San Diego months earlier. Ironically, I had never really thought or had the desire to change out a sky in a photo before, but while editing the photo on an airplane coming back from Las Vegas, I was seated next to a decades-long photojournalist who leaned over and suggested the edit. I’m glad he did.

How do you feel about photo editing? Should editing be disclosed or kept a secret? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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Denni Russel's picture

Nat Geo used to have a strict policy of disclosure. I wonder if that changed when Fox bought it. Does anyone out there know the answer?

Matthew Saville's picture

Their policies have not changed much if at all for their printed publication. They don't allow composite images, period. "Artists' rendering" is a common tool in astronomy, for demonstrating scale or color in images that our technology can't yet capture natively, but other than that...

NG does ask to see raw originals for all published images. And they'll nix an image if it has even the slightest bit of cloning to alter the scene from what it originally depicted. (For example, removing dust from your sensor is OK, but cloning out litter to make a scene appear more pristine is a no-no.)

The recent fiasco was related to a very "sub" branch of their online publication, which apparently has much less oversight. Although I suspect that has changed since that expose...

Jen Guyton's picture

Hi Matt :). Nat Geo actually has a long history of printing composites in its magazine, but in recent history (since the Pyramids cover debacle some decades ago) they always disclose (as long as they themselves know; e.g. the recent incident with Beth Moon's images).

To see what I mean, just consider:

-Most of Stephen Wilkes' images in the magazine (e.g.,

-That famous Redwood image from "The Tallest Trees" in 2009, which in fact became a foldout centerpiece (

-Jim Richardson's 2017 coverage of Scottish moors, which includes a composite of 6 images (

All disclosed, of course.

Matthew Saville's picture

Indeed, and each of the composite images were created for a reason that is usually far more "scientifically accurate depiction of scale or an event", than "artistic liberty". At least in most cases in their main printed publication. Their online publications clearly have different standards, and since their change in ownership I do feel like they've tended more towards eye candy type content and imagery, unfortuantely. So that's why I'm not surprised that Beth Moon's imagery slipped between the cracks.

Either way, my point being, that if they had known, they never would have published those images, because they're extremely inaccurate from a scientific standpoint.

Matthew Saville's picture

"As photographers, we need to be telling the truth about our images. ...It’s OK to talk about editing your image."

AGREED. Photographers need to stop being afraid of how they earn "likes" from viewers.

Many digital composite artists still assume that their art needs to be labeled as a photograph in order to achieve maximum praise and impressiveness. While it is true that certain viewers who are hoping to enjoy photographs that depict "real moments" will NOT appreciate an image if they're told it's an "impossible" composite, (as is putting the Milky Way over that particular North-facing composition, BTW) ...there is still plenty of appreciation and respect to go around for those artists who do disclose that their imagery has departed very significantly from the classification of "photography" due to its representation of an impossibility of astronomy/reality.

This notion of, "I must aggressively defend my right to call my images PHOTOGRAPHS, because that's the only way they'll be appreciated as ART" a complete fallacy. In fact, most of society has already been appreciating "fake" scenes for decades, in the form of CGI movie effects; the imaginary worlds of George Lucas, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, and the thousands and thousands of "compositors" who work long hours to fabricate those fantasy worlds.

So, yeah, go ahead and create your impossible fake-scapes. But if you want to be the proudest of your own artistic skills that you can possibly be, honesty is the best thing you can do for yourself in the long run.

"That photographer is most likely afraid of Photoshop or afraid to disclose that they Photoshop images, and so instead they wrap themselves in this puritanical line as cover."

DISAGREE. I think there are a whole lot of photographers out there who have plenty of skill, but choose not to use it simply because they have made the personal decision to keep their imagery as truthful as possible.

Personally, I do photographic work full-time, and I've done advanced composite imagery for clients on many occasions. I know another landscape photographer who actually works in the movie effects industry, and creates scenery from scratch essentially, or enhances/alters an existing video clip to be a part of a completely imaginary sci-fi/fantasy world. This person also chooses to keep their personal passion for landscape photography 100% "pure", even though they have access to software that would make Photoshop look like a caveman tool.

But, who cares about me and the people I know. Let's consider for a minute one of the most highly praised landscape photographers of all-time, who also is a photographer that everybody likes to quote when arguing in favor of advanced photo manipulation: Ansel Adams, of course.

Ansel was the master of both negative film exposure/developing, and the printmaking process. He has numerous quotes about how you don't "take" a photo, you "make" it, and how the negative is just the sheet music; the print is the actual performance of that score...

Well, guess what. Ansel had his rules, too, and he was in fact very strongly against certain categories of manipulation. Specifically, he had all the skills necessary for doing advanced techniques such as negative splicing, if he had ever wished to "fake" a huge oversized moon in a wide-angle scene. Just look at Moonrise, Hernandez, and note how tiny the moon is. That is certainly not because he was afraid of the darkroom. That "puritanical line" was his personal creed. And he wasn't afraid to disclose his methods, either, in fact, he is truly the father of the whole "zone system" process, which was extremely advanced for its time, indeed decades ahead of HDR photography and anything else related to tonal control that has ever come since then.

So yeah, there's plenty of landscape photographers who say, "I don't use Photoshop" simply because they don't yet know how. Just like there's loads of portrait photographers who say, "I shoot all natural light" simply because they're terrified of flash and light modification.

HOWEVER, I think that is mostly beginner and aspiring photographers. Serious, experienced photographers out there have drawn their own line in the sand, and it has nothing to do with knowledge or capability. It has everything to do with what you want your body of work to stand for. Do you want a portfolio of eye candy? Or do you want a collection of photos that depict reality, within certain boundaries that allow you to tell viewers, "yes, that moment actually happened, with that timing, juxtaposition, and scale etc."...

Christopher Eaton's picture

If you are swapping out skies and the like, then it is no longer a Photograph, it is Photo Art or the like. Even in fine art photography, buyers want to know that you are representing what you experienced. If you insert clouds where there were none or a Milky Way where it doesn't belong, that is akin to graphic design, not photography.*

*This doesn't apply to commercial photography where you are working to create a specific look for a client, but again, that is similar to graphic design as well.

Igor Kapovskiy's picture

I do agree with the sentiment of telling the truth about your shots, personally night-scapes is my hobby and i try to go out whenever an opportune moment arises. That said, every single time there is something - whether it's clouds, strong winds, humidity haze or something else, sometime there isn't a spectacular shot at all but at no point was I driven to composite an image just because I didn't get my shot. I am not trying to come off snobbish or elitist here in any way, I believe everyone can do and act as they wish but to me personally, it loses the point of the chase of that "perfect" nigh shot that doesn't just get the likes but makes you smile and feel happy for capturing/witnessing that moment. If it's not panning out try to make the best of it, if it's not working out try next time.

Last summer I was obsessed with going out and shooting MW on every no-moon night and as a result I got to a point where I was getting bored. This year I started early in the season but as a result of circumstances did not keep up the pace, in fairness it felt liberating, even on the nights I made all the effort (going to a location far away/hard to reach) I enjoyed the process more so than the final shot. Mostly I feel I was going nuts trying to capture as much because my followers were responding to the content, and I feel that it may be the case for a lot of people, where 'slacking' with regular post will potentially wreak havoc - in reality it won't and it doesn't, people appreciate quality content that was acquired through research and hours spent chasing that shot.

Composites are, as mentioned, a digital art but the point that gets away from me is why try and create a realistic portrayal if it could be done without (on a next trip or the one after). I honestly think if you are to composite a starry sky (provided you make it known) you might as well go bonkers with it, shoot the landscape wide and MW with longer focal length to create a surrealistic image where the sky is a giant carpet of stars nebulae and planets.

As far as your example goes, I feel that adding a milky way didn't really improve the image, don't mean to be bashful but in my personal opinion, there are bigger issues such as the composition, heavily distorted shed that springs out of the middle of the frame (a bit of space under it would do a great deal for it) which was lit in an odd fashion (instead of lighting directly at, try lighting up you foreground from an angle and with less intensity, will help create a bit more dimension and add a bit of realism). Being able to see the poorly treated/masked edge of the rocks doesn't help the situation. Lastly, if you do choose to composite, perhaps the MW needs to be fairly outstanding to bring up the overall artwork.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

As a former visual journalist, my compositing skills are ... somewhat lacking, and you're definitely correct about the flaws in my images. The ones in your portfolio are wonderful, though.

Igor Kapovskiy's picture

Please don't feel like I was attacking your skills or your work, I myself have a ton of mistakes and cock ups in whatever I do, absurdly so. I was just illustrating a point and it may have gone sideways, what I was trying to say is that if you choose the route of composites you might as well go a little nuts with it and take it far further, have a look at some milky way chaser groups on facebook and search composites to see what I mean (by the way, that's another interesting thing, groups that consist of enthusiasts, along with a lot of professional night scapers, more often than not require you to categorise your image i.e. blend, stack, single shot or composite and failing to do so will have your post removed) back to my point though, your original photo without added stars, at least to me, is actually more appealing than that with the stars. Not only because it's not a composite but because it feels more interesting, the contrast of blue sky, darker rocks and bright shed seem to work better and the compositional flaws are less noticeable - plus being able to see the angles of the rocks edge is quite nice. Lastly, compositing quality aside, the reason I'm not a fan of the composite is because most of the MW is obstructed and feels a little like a poor crop/composition and as above some of the photo's contrasting features go missing. Once again, I appreciate what you are saying about being truthful and was merely trying to add to your points, instead of being a keyboard warrior/know it all.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I took no offense! Hard to tell in text only. I sincerely mean that your photos in your portfolio are wonderful and that I have a ways to go to get there for sure, but I will certainly keep your tips in mind.