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Just How Much Editing Is Too Much Editing?

September 18, 2013 by Jo Plumridge

Last year, the winner of a prestigious landscape photography competition – Take a view – was stripped of his title. David Byrne lost his title and prize money as it was deemed that he’d employed excessive digital manipulation.

Using Photoshop, Byrne had added extra clouds to the sky in his black and white image for added dramatic impact. But several photographers then took to their blogs to point out that the varying lights and shadows in the photograph were realistically impossible, leading to his disqualification.

Byrne stated afterwards that:

I added clouds because the sky was a bit boring. Unfortunately, while I don’t feel like I have done anything wrong, I didn’t read the regulations and it does say that replacing the sky is not allowed. The purists out there were not happy. Messing about with pictures has been done for over 100 years. I treat my photography as art and I try to make the best looking picture.

The decision by the judges to disqualify Byrne raises some interesting questions – namely, how much editing is too much editing?

Adobe Lightroom
image by Yu Morita

In today’s photographic world, digital manipulation is so common that most of us don’t think twice about it. As a pro, I’m aware that clients expect a certain amount of retouching to take place (even if they aren’t prepared to pay any extra for it) and I’ve become resigned to the fact that everyone wants to look 10 years younger and 20 pounds slimmer!

But as a photographer whose background and learning is firmly based in the film tradition, I’m firmly of the belief that Photoshop is best used as a digital darkroom.

Learning The Basics

I’ve done a small amount of teaching on the side for the last ten years or so and I insist that all my students learn how to do things properly. By this I mean that they have to learn how to use their ISO, shutter speed and aperture correctly and they must be able to produce a correctly exposed image without relying on the often-inaccurate LCD screen of their DSLRs.

It sounds simple, but so many students seem surprised that they need to bother learning the basics. There is a misconception amongst some new students of photography that everything can be done in post-production, which certainly doesn’t help with finding a happy medium ground when it comes to editing work.

Drawing The Line

So where does one draw the line? I have nothing but admiration for the fantastic digital imagery that talented retouchers can produce. The kind of digitally layered pieces that they create are a different kind of artwork entirely.

But when it comes to a photograph, I do believe that a line needs to be drawn. A photograph should remain recognizable as a photograph. There used to be so much skill involved in taking a photograph. Beyond the understanding of the fundamentals and basics needed to get the correct exposure, photographers needed an explicit understanding of light – the way it works and how it alters a photograph.

To loose those skills entirely because things can be manipulated on an editing programme such as Photoshop seems a step too far. That isn’t to say that applications such as Photoshop don’t have their place.

As a portrait photographer, it is undoubtedly an advantage to be able to remove blemishes from clients’ skin, or produce black and white shots at the touch of a button by setting up a suitable Photoshop Action for example. There are also some fantastically useful tools in Photoshop – the simple ‘dodge’ and ‘burn’ tools that allow you to lighten or darken small areas of a photo, or the amazing ‘content aware’ fill tool that lets you remove unwanted objects in a few simple steps.

Little tweaks like this are undoubtedly useful to all photographers. But surely the original ‘scene’ that the photographer has captured should remain the same?

The essential essence of a great photograph has to be there from the moment the shutter button is pressed. Yes, you can manipulate images way beyond the original, but something is lost in doing so. A truly exceptional image is the one you see before your eyes when you press the shutter and it’s the ability to see that shot that makes a great photographer.

What do you think? Make sure you share your opinion in the comment section below!

Jo Plumridge

About the author: Jo Plumridge

Jo Plumridge is a UK based photographer, writer and lecturer. She specializes in portrait, corporate and travel photography, and writes photography, travel and comedy pieces for magazines, websites and books. You can see some of her work at her website, follow her on Twitter or Google+.

  • Fox

    I’m with you on this. Photography as an art is still about producing a picture with a camera, not a computer. As evident from films like Avatar or Star Wars, nowadays one doesn’t even need a camera to produce something that looks absolutely real. So in order for photography to differentiate itself from mere digital editing, its upmost aim should mostly (not always though) be to try to reproduce what you yourself see. In this sense, editing can sometimes be essential as to date no camera can match the dynamic range of our eye (with the help of our mind, that is). Star trails or long term exposures of moving cars aren’t really what we are seeing either, but these are exemptions.

    All I do to my pictures beyond RAW development is slight adjustments of saturation and gradation curves. I recently took a picture of the Australian War Memorial at night and later digitally added scars to the sky. Looked great, but I deleted the whole thing because it felt like cheating.

  • Ty

    I recently took a photo with my phone (limited adjustments) and reworked it in photoshop express. I added nothing, just darkened the shadows and increased sky contrast. In the original the street was dark, but visible and in the final it is completely blacked out, like a silhouette. Te sky has more contrast and that only slightly alters the color of the sky. Do you think this is too much?

  • surfersam

    I totally agree with your article. There needs to be a definite line in what is accepted . I am an an obsessive enthusiast of photography. I understand the values of learning what makes the shot and how to be acutely aware of the fundamentals that put it together. I have basic editing tools and limit myself to those only . The satisfaction for me is producing a shot through ability , insight and instinct… Not a manipulation that borders the art of graphic design. Photography is an art and should remain so … The true essence of a good photographer is one who sees something in the world around them that translates that exactly to the shot they take ….Personally my respect and attitude for an image that has been ” over ” manipulated is a huge disappointment . I don’t want to use the word cheating but I cannot help but think that something is truely lost both in the image and to the reputation of photography when the use of advanced digital editing technology misrepresents the photo and photographer.