The Ethics of Digital Photography: Part 2

The next question that came up when it comes to ethics in photography has to do with the other end of the spectrum. First we talked about what to do before you take the shot. Now that you have the shot, what are the limits for what you do in post?

There are a few basic schools of thought when it comes to this one and they both depend on your answer to the following question:

How are you going to use it?

Some uses allow for a more liberal approach to post-processing while others carry strict rules (not guidelines, rules) for exactly what is and what is not acceptable when editing your photos.

I’m sure there are some of you out there are working photojournalists and you can attest to the fact that when shooting for a newspaper or the like you are held to a very well-defined set of practices that you are allowed to employ. Though I can’t speak with complete authority here, from what I’ve heard you are pretty much limited to cropping and tonal adjustments when it comes to images being used for news purposes. But even that might be too much.

There are many instances (as evidenced on blogs everywhere, like 10,000 Words) where news organizations have been accused of going too far – and rightly so – when editing photos. Some of them are not merely misrepresenting the truth but the quality of some of the editing is downright embarrassing.

Likewise with fashion magazines and ads. Not only is the use of Photoshop so blatant and poorly executed, in many cases, the resulting images are providing a detrimental and false image of reality – which, of course, fashion isn’t about in the first place.

At the same time, though, you can take a look at any number of other magazines, ads, and other images that have been worked over in PS and there’s no ethical dilemma there at all. If the purpose of the image is to illustrate a concept, idea, or other message that isn’t meant to be an accurate capture of an event, there is no real limit to what is considered an acceptable amount of processing. If you are processing your own work for artistic uses, hey, it’s your stuff, do with it as you please!

The main issue at point here is intent and use. Everything else just has to do with personal preference and taste. I may not like some overly-edited photos, but there’s nothing ethically wrong with it if you’re just doing it as part of your own creative expression. But when the piece is meant to portray newsworthy events, there is a fine line. There is definitely a continuum present here.

What do ¬†you think? Where is the line between “ok” and not “ok” when it editing photos?

  • Jason, I agree with you that the first question we need to answer before we can determine where the line is, is how the image is going to be used. For me, if the image is intended as art, then I don’t think there is a line. On the other end of the spectrum, anything that is presented as fact, whether it’s a photo in a newspaper or a text book, then it needs to adhere to much stricter ethical standards. I like the way the AP puts it, “AP pictures must always tell the truth. We do not alter or manipulate the content of a photograph in any way.” ( They’re standards are pretty strict about even the way a shot is composed. If the composition leaves out important elements or includes elements in a way that makes them seem related when they’re not, it doesn’t fly. In between these two extremes you have a large gray area, where the line moves depending on the intent.

    January 13, 2010 at 4:24 pm
  • I feel comfortable with a degree of image manipulation around me, as long as I know that editors keep their standard. I know what I get, when I reach for National Geographic or Outside, as much as I know what to expect (on the other side of spectrum) when I look at any fashion magazines. With a footnote here, that a lot of pounds and skin imperfections can be removed from model just by positioning and lighting, not necessarily in Photoshop. On the other hand, I treat my images as art not depiction of reality, and the reason they won’t go through extensive “fixing” is just because I am too lazy to do it. But I don’t mind if others do, as long as it is disclosed (or at least not covered, if confronted).

    January 17, 2010 at 10:09 pm

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