We live in an age of unrivaled photographic imagery. Everywhere you look, there are stunning images to be seen; images that play with our emotions, images that draw us in and make us think more deeply about the world we live in, and this is a good thing. The problem is that many of these images are misrepresented by the photographers that take them. In a crowded marketplace, photographers are trying every trick in the book to get their images noticed. Of course, the biggest trick of all is photo manipulation.

As an old-school photographer, I have nothing at all against Photoshop. It is a powerful – indeed vital – tool in the digital photographer’s armory. The problem I have is when incredible-looking images are passed off as real-life when, in fact, they have been heavily photoshopped or composited using photo manipulation. Many of us photographers will recognize a photoshopped image and shrug it off as the work of a skilled artist; however, the vast majority of non-photographically-minded people will often believe what they see. To me, there are several issues with this.

photo manipulation - black and white image of a manThere is nothing wrong with manipulating images, but honesty like this is needed

Image: Flickr

Firstly, a good photographer must be skilled in the art of photography,

understanding exposure, composition and light. Photographers who are not highly skilled in these basics, those who take good-but-not-excellent images and raise them to a higher level using photo manipulation, should be honest about this. By this I do not mean that they have to claim that the image is heavily photoshopped, but perhaps list some of the techniques used to get the particular style that the image exhibits. To my mind this will enhance the shooter’s reputation not only as a photographer but as an artist too.

photo manipulation - HDR shot of two men in front of windowGreat use of HDR. The photographer here understands his craft and is honest

Image: Flickr

Over recent months I have come across numerous images on sites such as 500px which claim that there is no photo manipulation involved, yet as an experienced photographer I can tell that, in the conditions the image was taken, it would be impossible to get that type of exposure. When I have questioned this, on more than one occasion I have had my own professionalism and experience called in to question, not only by the photographer but also by his or her fans. This to me is one of the more unacceptable faces of photography today and, to be honest, if it was a product for sale, it could be called misrepresentation.

photo manipulation - panorama shot of a beautiful buildingShots like this are being passed off as natural. In this image the photographer has explained that it was created using HDR, but unfortunately this is not always the case

Image: Flickr

The second issue is the use of photo manipulation in competitions.

Whilst showing heavily-manipulated images online to garner likes and followers is questionable, the misrepresentation of images in competitions is, depending on the rules of the competition, cheating. Obviously, there are plenty of competitions that allow photo manipulation to be used. Some require that you declare it; others don’t. However, the higher-end competitions often have strict rules as to what can and can’t be done using Photoshop. Typically, these allow simple editing such as the manipulation of exposure and color, but not more complex editing, such as removal of errant objects or replacing the sky, for example. There have been a number of recent, high-profile cases where competition winners have been stripped of their titles for grossly misrepresenting their work. To my mind, trying to gain a competitive advantage to win a few thousand dollars’ worth of prize money by putting your entire reputation at risk is beyond stupid.

The last issue here is perhaps the most important, and that is the use of photo manipulation in photojournalism.

Here, we are stepping beyond the world of self-marketing and personal gain in to a much more serious political issue. Of course manipulating news photos has been done for many decades, but nearly always it was done by people in power to enhance their own reputations. The old-school photojournalists had a reputation for integrity. Whilst they would enhance their images, making them look grittier, burning and dodging, etc., they would not misrepresent them.

As with all photography these days, photojournalism has become a highly competitive field. Cheaper cameras and low airfares mean that even the most inexperienced photographers can get themselves close to the action in a war zone. However, they need to finance these trips, and obviously this is done by selling the images they shoot. Getting your shots noticed by major media outlets means you need to have images that have a high impact and tell a story, something which comes naturally to experienced photojournalists. For the less-experienced, the temptation to add impact and story to a shot can be too high, especially when money is involved.

photo manipulation - Afghan forcesIntegrity in photojournalism is vital

Image: Flickr

As I mentioned at the top, photo manipulation as such is not a bad thing. What is problematic is the misrepresentation of images to gain a competitive advantage. There is no easy way to solve this issue, but perhaps the best way is to educate the non-pro-photographer public about the power of Photoshop by being honest and open about our own work.


About The Author

Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Odessa Ukraine. His work has been published worldwide in newspapers, books magazines and strangely on towels from a Turkish textile company.

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  • Hi Jason,
    No argument concerning the manipulation of content, especially in the PJ world, but I think HDR is a different thing entirely. I am certainly not a fan of HDR, but I think it, as it is used today, is more of a post-process way of overcoming technical shortcomings of image capture than it is manipulation. The fact that digital capture can only recognize and render a limited dynamic range is an artifact of the technology. We tend to think in terms of film and its being organic and natural in its way of capturing images, but it’s as artificial as digital. It’s just that it is everyone’s baseline. So if using HDR is manipulation, then so is using a curves layer to add or remove contrast, or any of the other tools to manipulate color. But aren’t all of those simply there, in their most basic form, to improve the image that the camera is unable to correctly capture? Didn’t we push b&w film and use different papers and PC filters in order to change the contrast and look of film prints?

    • Heather Nilson

      Hi Adrien. I just wanted to thank you for your comment, and let you know that Jason has been traveling and unavailable to respond. Your point about HDR is a good one. The technological capabilities of in-camera work vs. post processing make the idea of what’s “real” vs. manipulated a kind of moving target. HDR is, technically, just a way to show a larger range of contrast than most camera sensors can capture. We can use it to make an image that contains details that most of us are capable of perceiving when we are there, and which the camera cannot in a single shot.
      However, there is also the ability to use the exact same processing methods to render a look that falls decidedly on the creative side too–images can end up looking very different from the actual scene (as we all know–sometimes in a decidedly not-good way). When we are talking about photojournalism vs. creative art, I think it is far better to err on the side of full disclosure.