Deceased Fiance Edited Into Wedding Photos: What Are Acceptable Editing Limits?

Deceased Fiance Edited Into Wedding Photos: What Are Acceptable Editing Limits?

A woman from Arizona has had her late fiance's images imposed into wedding photos. She is absolutely thrilled with the results but it opens a wider discussion in this age of digital photography: where is the line drawn when it comes to creative editing?

Tragically, Debbie Gerlach's fiance, Randy Zimmerman, was killed in a motorcycle accident 9 months ahead of their scheduled wedding. But thanks to photographer Kristie Fonseca, Gerlach could create some beautiful images of her and Zimmerman together on what would have been their wedding day. You can see the photos and read more about the story here. The article describes the photos as "touching" and "otherworldly". Gerlach loves the results and the shared photos have since gone viral, with incredibly positive feedback from almost everyone who's seen them.

To me, this is a perfect demonstration of the unique opportunities that digital photography affords us. Whether it's in-camera with creative uses of the aperture, shutter speed and filters, or in post-production with the myriad editing tools we have at our disposal, we can pretty much do whatever we want to get an image that we like.

However, many in the photographic community and beyond have wildly different views. My dear old mum, for example, scoffs at long exposure photos where the water is silky and milky. Yet she absolutely loves shots I take of my newborns in black and white with creamy, dreamy bokeh. I can't reason with her and explain that neither are what the "real scene" was like. To her, long exposures are fake while black and whites shot at f/1.4 are gorgeous.

Then we enter the world of composite photography, Photoshop, dropping skies in, adding vibrance, removing people, adding people — the list is endless. But what's acceptable and what's not? And how do you reach that conclusion of where you draw the line on "real" or "fake". Thanks to modern digital photography, Debbie Gerlach can savor photos with her late husband-to-be that would have been impossible as recently as 30 years ago. But some will look at these photos through traditionalist's eyes and frown.

What's your view on it all? How much editing is acceptable, and what criteria do you use?

Lead image by Kristie Fonseca and used with permission.

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John Dynia's picture

Unique, really? We did stuff like this in the darkroom all the time.

Iain Stanley's picture

With all due respect, I didn’t say this, specifically, was unique. I said digital photography affords us unique opportunities in as much as we have so much more creative licence to do as we please in post-production

Dana Goldstein's picture

Shhhh John, the kids get very excited about these sorts of things.

Kirk Darling's picture

"But some will look at these photos through traditionalist's eyes and frown."

"Traditionalist's eyes?"

That exact kind of photography--a composite or montage of a dead relative against living survivors--was some of the very first photographic manipulation that was ever done. Photographers were doing that over 100 years ago. That very thing was the first big hit photographic specialty product. Composites were the next phase after they stopped propping the actual dead body in the picture (you can tell the dead one--that will be the sharpest one).

Photo manipulation is as old as the technical ability to do it. It was the first effort of photographers to distinguish photography as an art rather than a purely mechanical representation of reality.

Manipulating a photograph to the greatest extent current technology permits has always been "traditional."

Iain Stanley's picture

Look at posts here on Fstoppers (or elsewhere) that talk about adding reflections, or playing with colours, or manufacturing silhouettes, or any type of compositing. There are always a number of people who comment with “fake” “not real” etcetc

Mick Ryan's picture

She is the one who suffered the loss, It’s not our business to criticise her.

Dillan K's picture

I came here to say the same thing. This lady should have the wedding photos that she wanted. We can't criticize. I am happy the photographer did this for her.

Iain Stanley's picture

I’m not sure there’s any criticism going on anywhere in my post....? I’m more interested in the editing aspect and peoples’ views on how far we can push things

Spy Black's picture

It's an odd request for sure. It's certainly her choice, although really she needs to let go and move on. This won't help.

John Dawson's picture

Beyond ethics, there's the creepiness factor. Its clearly her choice, but it's creepy to me.

Motti Bembaron's picture

I feel the same but it's her lose and what she wanted.

The more I look at the photo the sadder I get...

Jordan McChesney's picture

Regarding this story, I think if the client is happy and the photographer is happy to do it, then there nothing wrong with it. It’s like taxidermy, I think having your dead stuffed dog in your house is weird, but if it brings you comfort, it would be incredibly selfish and simple-minded to call it “wrong”.

In terms of “acceptable editing limits”, I don’t think there are any, generally speaking. If people want highly processed epic landscapes, that’s fine. If they want a black and white photo of a man on the street, that’s also fine. I enjoy a lot of different kinds of photography and I don’t care for others, so for me it’s the old “perfect pasta sauce” problem.

My only concern is that all of the exposure to highly processed images has altered the idea of what a “good” photo is, at least for some. Looking through the “popular” or “top rated” photo sections and you’ll be hard pressed to find a subtle intimate landscape or street photography. Looking through the “Editors’ picks” you’d be led to believe that highly processed portrait photos of good looking men and women and highly processed epic landscape photos are just about the only way to “stand out” around here, which is a little ironic. (with a few expeditions here and there.)

I think real photos look better, but fake looking also have their place. That’s just my opinion, and I can accept that. Whatever conveys the message the photographer is trying to tell, works. But again, “perfect pasta sauce”.

Iain Stanley's picture

Define “real”.....I’m not being terse, coz that’s exactly what I’m questioning....”real” to you could be “fake” to the photographer next to you. How do we define and categorically determine “real”?

Jordan McChesney's picture

Well, it depends on the style of photography, and of course some of it is subjective. However I’m confident that if you compared the work of Thomas Heaton to Peter Lik, any photographer worth their weight could point out which one looks less processed.

As for “fake” I was mostly referring to shots that use a lot of photoshop. For example, that top rated photo of the birds flying around the astronaut. It’s fake looking and not my cup of tea, but it’s a great image and would make a wonderful movie poster or book cover, so it has its place and it is very well put together. I’m not trying to say one is better than the other, I’m just saying it would be nice to see a little more variety of photography styles on a photography site.

Iain Stanley's picture

I think trying to debate what constitutes “real” would have us walking round in circles trying to find the corners.....

Jordan McChesney's picture

Indeed, truly photography is the professional wrestling of the art world, haha.

liliumva's picture

Editing will happen regardless of what people say or do. Nothing is real, everything is fake. Events are captured in the blink of the eye can be altered even without editing. It's all a matter of intent, where you put yourself, and what side of the fence you are on.

Remembrance photography is nothing new. Back in the older days of film and plates, people would pose and be with their deceased loved ones. It was not common to have a ton of photos of your family, so in situations like that it was all too common to do it just to have something to remember them.

I've sadly seen this sort of work far too often in the military community with service members who've fallen, and were later added to maternity/newborn work. With the digital age a lot of people all too often take photography for granted when it comes to family work, and having it be a permanent fixture in their home...and just something online.

I find it sweet, and memorable. She will never get to walk down the aisle to him and see his face light up when he sees her in the dress. So this is the next best thing ;/

Jon Sharman's picture

Frankly, I find this post inappropriate. It's absolutely none of your, or our, business how this woman wants to grieve and remember her dead fiance. Maybe find something else to write about?

Jonathan Ferland-Valois's picture

I was just thinking the same. I see no reason why this wouldn't be acceptable and the specific situation is not for any of us to judge.

Iain Stanley's picture

Firstly, it was posted on Fox News before here. Secondly, the lady who had the photos taken posted them on Facebook, and her post went viral. So quite clearly, it’s well and truly out there in the public domain

Deleted Account's picture

His post used her situation as a test case but asked us to comment on editing, in general, and NOT relative to this example.

Seamus O'Hara's picture

A lot of the problem with this post is the heading.

Deleted Account's picture

Good point. I didn't think of that.

Jonathan Ferland-Valois's picture

That's fine. There should be no limits to what people do with processing, as long as it's not fraudulent.

Tom Lew's picture


Toshi Tazawa's picture

Whatever makes the bride happy. Why not? It's not fakery but a keepsake of their genuine love.

Tom Thumb's picture

If it makes her happen then it's all good.

Terry Waggoner's picture

First of's none of our damn business on what she wanted..........................secondly, as long as it causes no harm to me or anyone's none of our damn business!

Iain Stanley's picture

As I posted above, this was on Fox News and the lady in question posted on FB. So evidently, it’s out there in the public context to look at and comment on. Thirdly, the issue isn’t on “what she wanted”. My first couple lines say she was thrilled. My question, in the context of photography, relates to editing

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