Is Post-Processing Evil? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Is Post-Processing Evil?

by David Peterson 10 comments

Artists can be a self-righteous bunch. There will always be the purists, those who don’t even own a digital camera, and then there are those who recognize the importance of Photoshop and other tools. When it comes to the ethics of photography, post-processing tends to get the bad end of the stick because it involves the direct manipulation of a photo after it’s been taken. There is always the opportunity to cover up bad photography with computer-generated effects, so some consider it to be evil. But is it?


Whenever we’re addressing a question of morality, we need to realize that morality is somewhat a matter of perspective. Most people seem to agree on what is right and wrong, but there are always outliers, those whose moral judgments differ from the norm. Call them the purists, the elitists, or whatever you will. They’re out there, but they are the fringe element of society. It’s more important to pay attention to what “normal” people think.

What can make post-processing evil?

I think most people would agree that post-processing is only evil in certain circumstances. What might those be? Fakery can be one of them. If an image is intentionally fake, it can sometimes cross an ethical boundary. People who Photoshop spaceships onto an image and then claim it to be representation of the real thing are liars. Their “photography” crosses a clear ethical boundary because they are using it to make us believe something that is false.

But not all fakes are evil. Some fakes are welcome. We delight in the fake miniature pictures that are often the result of photoshopping techniques. The perspective they give us is so strange, so out of this world, that it’s remarkable. Even if you hate fake miniatures, you probably thought it was a cool effect the first time you saw it.


Is this photo evil?

Ethics is not black and white

O.K. So we’ve got a clear example of unethical post-processing. But ethics is rarely ever so clear. There are bound to be fuzzy cases where half of the population thinks it’s okay and another half disagrees. How much post-processing do you need to do to cross an ethical boundary? At what point does your work move away from being photography to being something that more or less resembles computer art?

Whenever I think of this, I’m reminded of the classic example of the old ship. Every year, a few boards and nails on the ship are replaced. As time goes by, all of the original boards and nails are taken out and replaced with new ones. Here’s a question to ponder. Even though the ship looks the same, is it really the same ship? How many boards need to be replaced for the ship to take on a new identity?

Keep this in mind when you’re considering the ethics of post-processing. The line is not drawn in the sand, but there is a line. It exists in the minds of those who view your work.

Trust your gut instinct when it comes to the ethics of photography

Do you feel good about the way you’re presenting your work? Here’s an example to get you thinking. It’s normally considered okay to touch up a profile picture. After all, nobody wants to have acne scars on their Facebook page. But how far do you go? At what point does it become false advertising? Is it okay to get rid of a few wrinkles but not okay to add intensity to your eyes? Where do you stop?

It all depends on the way the photo is displayed. If you display a heavily-edited photo as if it’s meant to be a representation of the real thing, people will call you out for being a liar. But if you present that same photo in a photography portfolio, next to other heavily edited photos, people understand that it is not meant to be real. They appreciate it as a work of art.

Nobody points their finger at cartoon characters, accusing them of perpetuating falsehoods. Quite the contrary. We love cartoon characters because they are so stylish, so free of the tiny imperfections and personality flaws present in all of us. Yes, they’re fake, but that’s what makes them so great. They are better than we could ever hope to be.

In the end, it all comes down to the way you present yourself and your work. Post-processing amplifies great photography. It is not a replacement for good photographic technique. If you’re a terrible photographer who over-processes your work, people will pick up on it. In that case, it won’t be a matter of ethics. It will be a matter of taste.

Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?

Comments

  1. Robbie says:

    Thanks a lot for the article post.Much thanks again. Awesome.

  2. deadlock says:

    MartinC, I used to have the same opinion but now it's no longer the case. Concept of "reality" is a tricky one. When I look at a cat crossing the street, my mind sees a cat. My thoughts are fully focused on it and everything else is filtered out. If I take a photo of it, what do I see? Some cropped cars, maybe some garbage and some animal in-between. The sensation is no longer the same. Photography will never be able to capture reality - it can only try to reproduce the sensation or create a new one. I could go on and argue that 2D is not reality, cropped image is not reality, black & white is not reality, graduated filter is not reality etc... it's all manipulation. Sometimes we manipulate light coming into the camera, sometimes we manipulate light after it's been captured. No big deal. Obviously, it must not be overdone - it should only serve to focus your "mind's eye" or create a new perspective, a new way of looking at reality.

  3. MartinC says:

    I am a passionate photographer, I do own some of the most advanced photo gear and I shoot with DSLR, and although I appreciate it's benefits, I do not agree with post processing. The only circumstance I can accept it, is if it is clearly meant to be to gain this "post processed look". Otherwise, to me, photography is about capturing the reality. It's all about the subject, the camera, the person behind it and his/hers photography skills. Photo stuff (cameras, lenses, etc) allows the user to take great shoots without post processing, providing that he/she masters the technique, has the feel and happens to be in the right place at the right time. Using software to adjust colour, sharpness etc, is to me, transforming captured reality to something that do not exist. And what do you see on the photo? Sb's PS or else skills...

  4. Neville says:

    JUSTICE WAS DONE TO THE LITTLE OLD LADY. ENOUGH WRINKLES ARE DISPLAYED TO SHOW HER AGE. A NICE PORTRAIT. I'M SURE SHE WOULD HAVE BEEN EXCITED TO HAVE THE PHOTO. THERE IS NO "OVERDONE PROCESSING". I DON'T SEE "OVERDONE" IN THE TOP PORTRAIT. THE SCAPE'S A FAILURE.

  5. Neville says:

    THE CITYSCAPE IS POOR. THIS IS A SCAPE AND NOT A PORTRAIT. EVERYTHING SHOULD BE IN FOCUS. MOST OF WHAT I WOULD LIKE TO SEE IS BLURRED. INSTEAD MY ATTENTION IS DRAWN TO THE UNINTERESTING ANTS IN THE COURT-YARD AND AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PICTURE.

  6. Anne says:

    Wow! the girl looks beautifull in the altered photo.

  7. Brian Horn says:

    Astrophotography would be a whole different ball game without post processing. The amount of detail which can be obtained from images taken with quite basic equipment is staggering.

  8. RoyB says:

    Very few photos these days are "untouched" by post processing... and why not? After all we have all the "tools" in Photoshop. Many traditional artists (painters) are constantly seeking new ways and methods with their art (different pigments, sand, photo overlays and projections, etc) to enhance their art. What's the difference? However, I must admit I hate to see "overly enhanced photography". I believe one should at least "try" and make it believable. Some of the edits in "advertising" go way beyond the mark - models with not a single blemish on their face is so unreal (plastic like).

  9. RoyB says:

    The old days still did post processing, but it was all in the lab (and often not even done by the photographer themself - unlike today). Helmut Newton (as one example) had teams of lab specialists all employed to enhance shadows and burn highlights etc etc etc. So much for the so-called "purists"!!!

  10. Elvin says:

    Welll, actually I don't think there are (if at al) not processed digital photo's.
    If you are not postprocessing a picture yourself, most print-services do some automatic post-processing to get some more 'live' in a picture; if they would just print the pictures 'as they are' many look 'flat', have bad contrast, colours and so on.
    Most camera's do some 'post processing' of themselfes, especially if you go to 'jpeg' format and it makes a lot of difference how you process it. Settings like the colours in your camera, levels and so on do make a lot of difference, all 'postprocessing' since it could be done later or directly some post-processing in the camera - otherwise only the RAW-format would work.

    most pictures, I use some cropping and some contrast-enhancing if needed and I don't use the red-eye-function on the camera...
    Photography is a kind of 'art' and that keeps it nice to see pictures of others instead of only 'streetview pictures'...

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