Do You Honestly Make Photographs?

Do You Honestly Make Photographs?

Each and every one of us is looking for appreciation. Showing our images to friends and family, most of us hope for a nice comment or feedback. Professionals are even dependent on their clients’ excitement and recommendation. How far do you tweak your images to reach that?

Your Photographs Are Not Objective

In every image, there is a subjective touch. We depend on our camera, a certain perspective, a selection of subjects, and a photographic point of view. Every image is unique in the way that it describes reality and our artistic view on the subject matter.

It might seem, though, that even if we create our images based on a subjective concept, we can still be as honest as possible about it — or just try to impress others by delivering something supernatural. In a world of images, how can you still create something unique and new if you don’t alter reality just a little bit more?

How tolerant are you regarding this tweaking? Where do you stop? In this article, I’ll go from obvious to subtle to demonstrate that it’s really hard to be honest.

The Most Obvious: Retouching an Image

Just before I started writing this article, I saw a photograph on an online platform that made me cry. It was a landscape image, but the sky was replaced by a supernatural sunset that did not even fit the colors of the rest of the image. Neither was the direction of light close to what it should have been. It’s all fine with me. Photoshop is exciting, and just like photography, you have to make your mistakes to grow. The only problem is that claiming “this is how it felt when I was there” can’t always be an excuse.

In this case, it would hardly have been possible without some psychoactive substances. If you're caught, you’d better excuse yourself with: “This is how I thought I’d get attention.”

If you want to get attention by having a great sky in your image, why don't you just go and try to find it? A little bit of planning and waiting in the cold for hours made this image possible, which was soon copied by a "sky-replacer" in a Facebook photography group. Great effort.

Of course, it’s all up to the artist, as long as the message is not affected. A few years back, Steve McCurry, one of the most famous photographers of our time, was caught with Photoshoped images. His assistants had made some mistakes while retouching one of his images, and it was found that many of his “documentary” images were a little beautified. 

I’m Getting It Right in Camera

The good old claim of “getting it right in camera” to ensure the honesty of an image still hasn't died out. Yet, it’s invalid. Just like you push and pull the sliders of your raw file in Lightroom, your camera does the same for you when you create a JPEG. Film had to be developed in the darkroom (that’s probably why Lightroom is called that), and your digital sensor’s data has to be developed into an image on your screen.

Of course, there are ways to push the slider more than what you really think is good and honest. I personally love the Split Toning module, which makes me create an image beyond what I saw and felt. Does that matter when I want to create a beautiful image?

Camera Settings Don’t Reflect What You See

Processing the image always starts with appropriate camera settings. We can even make multiple exposures to make detail visible that the sensor cannot capture in one single shot. Our camera has less f-stops than the human eye. And the dynamic range of light covers far more f-stops than our eyes can see. So, isn’t an overcooked HDR realer than a single exposure? But is it also honest?

That’s a tough question, and we didn’t include filters and exposure time yet. Using an ND filter to soften a water surface or to blur the clouds is also not very honest. Yet, it’s often beautiful and stunning. After all, a still image is also never what we witness ourselves.

Creating a Story

It’s hard to detect and probably the most dangerous way to shift reality: false storytelling. An honest story includes the representation of the narrator's (i.e. photographer's) perception of an event. The story is told in his or her way, based on his or her experience and knowledge. It’ll never be an objective reality, but it can be a conscientiously acquired concept.

Unfortunately, there are many ways in which images can be used to create a whole new story. In 2014, the image of a four-year old boy who seemingly crossed the desert alone went viral on Twitter. It turned out that he was part of a bigger group, which one couldn’t see in the image. That’s a photograph used in an exaggerated context. The story itself is already cruel, because the child was indeed a refugee in the desert. Yet, the issue shows that people struggle getting attention for their cause and draw on alternative storytelling. Stories like these will harm the liability of photographs in the long run, though.

But what if a person does not consciously create a false image, but simply isn’t capable of understanding the situation? Especially in documentary photography and photojournalism, a photographer should always reflect on his or her work and understand his or her responsibility. The most obvious and dramatic image is often not the most honest.

Delivering the Expected

People tend to push the representation of reality further and further. Especially in the non-professional area, we are witnessing a boom of beautifying apps and filters. Ansel Adams’ images might have been stunning at his time; today, he’d need to adapt to the current possibilities. The more people push their images, the further we all push the line of what is acceptable.

On the other hand, we also use the current tools, tricks, and tweaks to create some stunning images that will catch people’s attention. We’ve got to go with the flow or fall behind. It’s the economy! But is there really no way out?

I know one shouldn't chase likes. But this is my most successful image on Instagram. Obviously, there is a lot of stuff going on regarding its colors.

Will Honesty Become a Future Demand?

I have seen many photographers creating images as honestly and natural as possible, and in my opinion, they're the best! Especially in the world of overcooked images which we experience today, these images are outstanding. They work with emotion and don’t need supernatural saturation, perfect sharpness, or fancy filters. I admire their ability to gain attention just through original ideas and the eye for honest beauty. No special effects needed.

With computational photography becoming revolutionary in the smartphone industry, we have more and more people who can create high-quality images and flood the world with new and flashy developed images. A.I. and deepfakes can threaten our trust in media, too. The demand for down-to-earth, honest, and natural images might see a revival, though. Honesty is a very complicated issue and is hard to achieve. With so many fakes out there, it might be demanded soon. We never know what the future will bring, but the beauty of an image often lies beyond the in-the-face attention-seekers.

Nils Heininger's picture

Nils Heininger is a photographer on the road. He loves long rides on motorbikes, camels and old trains. While discovering the world, he uses his camera to share stories from people across the globe. With a Micro-four thirds in his pocket and a full-frame in his bag, he's always ready for new adventures.

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I think that if a photo is to be used in the context of a news item, it should depict something as close to reality as possible, including a description of the context in which it was taken. For everything else, everything goes.


With the exception of photojournalism, the only thing that matters is the emotional response of the viewer.

I would argue that much of photojournalism is also intended to evoke an emotive response. Sure, maybe not for the local paper but I would think the standard for the NYT and WP goes beyond surface level documentation.

I believe that post-processing is fine, whether basic or extreme. "Honestly" making photographs is not exclusively determined by processing workflow - it depends entirely on context and presentation. Presenting a heavily post processed photo while claiming it was "how it looked in reality" is dishonest. Photojournalism with exaggerated stories and bias are dishonest. Retouching a glam portrait is not inherently dishonest, but claiming that the model's look is 100% natural is where it becomes dishonest. I think it's important to be open about workflow and not use post-processing or storytelling as some sort of secret magic to fool others.

A photo only shows what happened at the specific moment of time. How we interpret it is on us.

If you rely too much on post-processing, you lose the ability and desire to see and capture honest, natural beauty (or whatever other aesthetic you're searching for). It's a downward spiral.

This will be my final post here as I see too much criticism among photographers here and else where. Most rate images too low here out of envy or some preconceived idea that it is not how they would have shot it and they are the one who shots correctly, processes correctly etc etc. What a waste of creative energy.

I process the majority of my images in HDR and try not to “overcook” them as they say. The landscapes I photograph do not look right to my eyes, when processed as an individual image, nor does it look as how I remembered seeing it. With HDR it is more close to how I remember seeing it.

I see other photographers processing their images by masking and dodging and burning, basically adding light and shadows where there was not as much as they liked. This is also altering from the reality they say they portray. I have no problem with what they do and actually like the images. But what works for them is not what works for others.

Recently I even heard photographers making crap of images they see. I have to wonder about their reasons for doing this and why they just can’t accept those images as another view of how they see the world. I came to the conclusion that their work is good but then so is mine and I have had success this past year selling many of my images and in having them published. Some of these photographers are trying to sell photo workshops and they sell their style as the preferred way of doing things. They sell these shops to people wanting to shoot like they do and in essence they become a clone of them. They are missing out on their own journey.

How about becoming mentors for someone and not critics? Constructive not destructive.

Well said, I’ve only been involved with the online photography community for about 2 years and have to say it’s shocked me how toxic and negative it is, this website isn’t too bad though compared to others.

You gotta have thick skin to write here sometimes :)

Haha yeah, although I feel for the DPreview writers more, especially the ones who do sample galleries, like a war zone on there.

Personally I don’t see the point of wasting energy on posting pointless negative comments just for the sake of it.

I wasn’t actually talking about photo critique alone but thanks for rambling, and ‘this is shit’ does not count as anything other than toxic negativity.

You used the words precious and snowflake in a comment so it automatically nullifies anything you had to say.

Also I notice you don’t care to share your own images on here?

You make a number of points I agree with. However one which we disagree on and could maybe be expanded upon is using a favourite YouTuber or taking courses (whether in person or via online course) to up your game.
Whereby people without the knowledge can learn first-hand and then drive their work in the direction they wish to go. They don't have to be copycats but a basis and understanding of how to achieve a certain look is important to drive creativity beyond that.

Nice try, but I guess without much success. "Back to the roots" seems to be a niche and not a big trend. Exaggerating, dramaticising and overcooking to gain attention is the way of life. And "overcooking" is the right term. Take the nutrition and cooking industry. Artificial flavors, heavily spiced food, highly industrialized "ready to eat" meals. Many children do not know how an apple or a tomato tastes. May be the won't recognize some locations of which the saw photos of.