How much can you edit a photograph until it is no longer a photograph?

There was a recent* post online that got me thinking of a HUGE debate in the photography community:

How much photo editing is “too much” editing?

The debate often divides photographers into two main groups we’ll call the “purists”, who believe any edits change what you really saw and make it fake.  And the “editors” that believe editing is an integral part of the process of creating a photograph.

I’m going to be straight out confrontational but the “Purists” are inexperienced noobs; all photos are edited.

The first consideration is that digital cameras don’t accurately recreate images as film did and much less accurately than our eyes.  To make up for this cameras edit the picture theselves in the camera before you even see it.  When you shoot JPG images the camera is already adjusting the contrast, sharpening, and saturation the moment it takes the shot.  You may not have edited it but a computer processor did edit using a set of rules laid out in our camera settings (I prefer to take RAW shots and take over the process of the edit).

But what about the “Good-Old -Days” of film?  Often times this debate is really a complaint about Photoshop ruining photography because pictures have so much post processing they’re not the same using film; when you got back picture from the developer. There are many problems with this line of thinking.  For one thing the negative, developing emulsion, and print paper all have an impact on the image.  Some have higher saturation, some have higher contrast, and if you process with different emulsion it can completely change the image colors (basically the original instagram filters were cross processed film).

And snapshot weekend photographers may not have edited their negatives and prints but professional photographers did heavy editing.  Watching Ansel Adams dodge and burn a photo is like watching a painter work on an image.

This is one of his most famous works (and a personal favorite), “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico”

Ansel-Adams-Moonrise-Hernandez-New-Mexico-1941And this is the “Contact Print” of the same picture.  A contact print is the unedited version that hasn’t been dodged and burned and is used as the starting point in planning what edits to make.


There is still a lot of skill involved in getting a film print with this perfect exposure giving he potential to finish in the darkroom, but the contact print seems so much more ordinary to me.  You can see that the contrast was increased a lot, adding definition to the moon face.  The sky was darkened to the point of erasing a few higher clouds, and the gravestones lightened to make them stand out more.  It shows how much post-production skill is needed to create a masterpiece, even in the pre-photoshop “Good-Old-Days” of film.

The final issue and most important to me is that Photography is an art.  Apart from journalistic photography who cares if a photo has been edited?  The whole point is to create a work of art that invokes an emotion or depicts a scene.  So what if you cloned out an awkward light pole or increased the saturation of a sunset (although usually I have to tone down sunsets)?  While I prefer to do as little post production editing as possible my ultimate goal is to have the picture look as I remember it, not just the image in my eye but the emotions I felt and the memory it left so that somebody looking at the picture is transported into my shoes and see the scene how I saw it.

Bottom line.  Don’t worry if a photo has been edited, enjoy it for what it is instead of trying to deconstruct it.

*Reposted from a few years ago


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