What Are the Ethics of Editing Images?

Modern post-processing technology allows us to drastically alter or even fundamentally change images, and this has created entirely new ethical questions about the boundaries of digital manipulation in different genres. This great video features a seasoned photographer discussing his thoughts on the matter and how different situations change those boundaries.

Coming to you from David Bergman with Adorama TV, this thought-provoking video discusses the ethics of image edits. I always find this to be an interesting and ever-evolving topic. Certainly, there are genres with very established rules, such as photojournalism, where only the most minimal edits are allowed for the sake of preserving truthful representation. Other genres are constantly in flux according to the general trends and beliefs of society. For example, as standards of the truthfulness of representation evolve, the sort of retouching that is acceptable in advertising has changed as well. And then, there are some genres in which these standards change even more quickly, sometimes depending on even the client or the audience. These standards often dictate the work of photographers, at least to a degree, and guide the larger-scale evolution of the industry and its associated creative trends.  Check out the video above for Bergman's thoughts, 

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19 Comments

Kirk Darling's picture

My portrait clients fully expect as much emphasis of the positive and de-emphasis of the negative as they can get away. That's why they hire me instead of shooting a selfie. As Bergman said, it depends on what your audience expects.

Rick Knight's picture

This is a subject covered many times and always boils down to the same simple answer. If something is remove or added to an image then it's no longer considered a photograph and becomes digital art.

Who cares. Unless you’re a journalist (or doing research) and you’re making a newsworthy or factual statement, it does not matter. It mattered in the age of film because you were dealing with a piece of physical matter that was then changed by directly painting on the negative or retouching the print. I knew some airbrush retouchers that were better than digital retouchers for making faces look natural.

Soon, a new generation of photographers will be shooting 8K video at 120 frames a second, and every of those 120 frames can be scrutinized for the best shot. Is this photography? The one thing that mattered was the integrity of the image-maker who wanted to make a statement about their own ability to take great photographs. But as they shoot the next world gymnast with their Otus up close at an occasional 20 frames per second, the rich kid behind them in the audience with the latest rig will be shooting 120 frames a second, and will capture the perfect image that they will just shake their head at. And when that capability is in a smaller handheld camera body, how will we know how that photographer made that image? It will not matter. Like all skills, technology will make the photographer, in many cases, redundant.

was it called "digital art" when something was remove or added when they did this in the Darkroom to?

Kirk Darling's picture

That must be YOUR same, simple answer. That wasn't Bergman's answer. It's not many people's answer. Manipulation has been going on for as long as photography has existed, even before the negative was created. Manipulation blossomed with the invention of the negative more than a century before "digital" imaging was invented. You think they called it "digital art" a hundred years ago?

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Depends on message and use. A lot is overdone and quite honestly with the volume of creation today, it has become expected and boring for quite a while. Despite not caring much for landscape, I have a huge respect for those who's work is about planning and find out when and where to shoot something as natural as possible. Enhancing the images contrast, colors, etc, I think are fine. Alterations and combination of multiple images can be okay for some commercial use, but I have very little positive to say about such images as art. They typically pale in comparison to vitrines such as Bergdorf Goodman at Christmas time. Grabbing pictures from stock for art is kind of weird too. I don't find it to be a photograph if the artist has to borrow someone else's work. It might be art but when someone integrates something they did not create into theirs, to me it no longer falls into photographic art. It's more art that includes photographs. But if all elements were shot and planned by the photographer it can have some merit. On the opposite, I would consider the images recreated by the photographer who build and shoot scaled sets depicting a real historical photos to be photographic art.

they did Combination printing back in the 1850´s so this not a new thing like pepole think it is.. so everybady just relax!

Rick Knight's picture

Everyone has a right to their opinion.

i did not slamming someone else's opinion..

Rick Knight's picture

Everyone has a right to their opinion.

why are you attacking people?

Rick Knight's picture

Everyone has a right to their opinion.

Kirk Darling's picture

Manipulation was how early photographers justified photography as an art.

Rick Knight's picture

Everyone has a right to their opinion.

STEVE SLATE's picture

Ethics are determined by the constituents of that society. What’s acceptable and what isn’t is determined and agreed upon by those living in that society. If you want to dictate retouching ethics, then get together and determine the criteria. That’s the only way you’ll ever get a set of guidelines on retouching etiquette. The problem you’ll run into is Art has no boundaries, and those that don’t like rules will always call their work art. So who can really argue or regulate that? The problem with retouching ethics is that too much distorts reality. It builds a fantasy world. Young people growing up today learn that fantasy trumps reality and thus accept it as reality. You can’t go onto Instagram or any other social media site and not see altered bodies, faces, etc... of people. When you meet those people in real life, most of the time, it’s a shock. They don’t look like their social media portrayed selves. So to wrap this up, the human spirit most always wants to see itself as better than what it currently is, so no matter who sets the rules, you’ll never get all people to follow them, especially if the retouching makes the person out to be better than they really are. It’s an Unanswerable debate. There will always be two sides. And the majority usually dictates the norm, but it doesn’t make it right or wrong. That’s my $.02. I

Michael L. McCray's picture

I was glad to hear what was expected of images shot on film by David Bergman. Images are powerful forms of communication, we learn to see before we learn to talk. All sorts of games are played with them politically and I do not think it is ever going to change. The idea of the photographer as some guardian of truth is a lie, and I love photojournalism. The only photography that I have ever done that was honest in representation was pathology.

dean wilson's picture

Anyone else remember this article from Alex Coleman just this last February? Covers the same thing.

https://fstoppers.com/film/truth-behind-one-americas-most-famous-photos-...

Rick Knight's picture

Wow... I forgot about that video. You just gave the best debatable question in this post.

It's not a question of ethics. It's just idiots who don't understand photography!