Another Photo Manipulation Case Raises Question: Is the Penalty High Enough? | PDN Pulse

Another Photo Manipulation Case Raises Question: Is the Penalty High Enough? | PDN Pulse.

I do believe photojournalism must be held to the higher standard of representing reality. But this still raises the question for everyone, including myself, of whether there can be too much manipulation of a photograph? Is it ok to manipulate the photo as long as you’re not claiming that it’s reality?

Photo manipulation is done to every single photograph taken digitally today, whether you think you are manipulating it or not. If you shoot jpgs, you are letting the camera manipulate the colors and levels and sharpness. That vivid scene from your vacation—was it really that vivid? (Remember, most cameras have “vivid” and “landscape” settings to boost color saturation.) For those who shoot in a RAW format, then we control the manipulation in our software, from minor to major processing. But that’s not the issue raised with this article. Reality is the issue, and the accurate capture of the scene.

We’ve all received those emails with cute pictures of animals who are natural enemies snuggled up to each other that make you say to yourself “that’s amazing, but, is it real?” Do you care that you are likely being duped? Does it matter that the photos might not be real? (I’m not saying that these aren’t real. I’ve not researched it. If anyone has, I’d love to know!) This isn’t a reportage situation, so it’s not like it’s an article about these natural enemies in the New York Times. It’s not a big deal. Right?

And now let’s throw in artistic photography—more the camp where I reside. There is no comparison. Right? If you see a photograph of a red tulip poking its head through the snow, do you care if what you are seeing is real? Does it matter that it might be a composite image? Or do you just care if it’s “pretty”? (I don’t have a photograph of a red tulip in snow, so I figured this was a safe example to provide. 🙂 )

For myself, I avoid major manipulation like cloning (erasing) like the plague. Of course “major” is a relative term, but for the sake of definition, let’s use the example of removing a big red barn from a pastoral scene. I just don’t do it. One, I’m lazy. It takes a lot of work to do it right. But now what if all I have to do is crop the photograph to get the image I want? How is that any different? I sometimes take some artistic license with color. But for the most part, if you see a scene of trees in winter, that was the scene I captured. Just my image may have been “buffed and polished” to convey more of an emotion, or draw your eyes to part of the scene, or converted to black & white for one reason or another. I think on the continuum of purist (very little photo processing) to no-holds-barred, I’m basically centrist with purist leanings.

There are obvious photo manipulations. I have several examples in my portfolio. (In the real world you just don’t see those textures that make the image look “grungy”.) There are a few not so obvious manipulations in my portfolio. (Could the sunset have really been that orange?) But then the majority, for the most part, are “what I saw is what you see”. And a few, like the one I’ve included here, people think I’ve manipulated, when I did very little to this image other than convert it to black and white! I simply used the tools I had with me—rain on a windshield, a Lensbaby lens, my camera, and the brains to seize the moment.

So to bring back an old commercial tagline,” Is it real, or is it Memorex?” Does anyone care?


About Barb Kellogg

I'm a people, pet and nature photographer who loves great bokeh, dark chocolate, and a good cup of tea.


  1. I’m glad you brought up this topic since it’s something I’ve struggled with (along with the rest of the world.)
    My take on it is that people who are taking photos for journalistic purposes should be held to the high standard of no manipulation after the photo is transferred off the camera / card. (I have the same attitude about editorial comments / editorial slants on a story that is represented as fact.) Some editing already takes when the photographer chooses how much of a scene to include in the shot, just as journalistic writers choose which facts to include in a story; it’s a matter of ethics for them to convey the entire scene, and to convey it truthfully. But I think that manipulation of photos that are presented as art is a different matter: the artist is trying to convey a mood or feeling, which may not come across if there are power lines or bird poop in the way. Artists who choose different media for their art have the option of choosing what to include, and photography should be no different.

    • Barbara, I agree with you totally. But I didn’t want to skew my post too much, and I wanted to write so that I raised questions, which I’m glad has resulted in interesting responses from readers. 🙂 Thanks for responding, and have a great weekend!


      • I’m glad you put that question out there! It made me do some thinking. I also came across this pdf that lists 38 different photo-manipulation policies including those of many news organizations. It occurred to me also that manipulation should be (and generally is) a no-no for scientific purposes as well. But, since I’m neither a journalist nor a scientist, I’ll enjoy my right to manipulate. 🙂

  2. ranger

    I’m just a person who likes to take pictures. I see something and click. Sometimes the “clicks” turn out to be “clunkers”, but I have that moment of time recorded(if I choose to keep it). Reality is what you(the person)sees with their eyes. If you have poor vision you do not see the details on leaves; whereas if you are colored blind..well that’s another matter. I tend to agree with Edith. I do not like the pictures of animals that would never be together; together. I have to admit that when I look at a tree I sort of like to see a tree. The question is, is my tree that I see the same tree in the photo.

  3. What is reality? Does reality exist? When you and I are looking at the same subject, I guess we see different things. When we both take a picture of that subject, I guess the photos will be different too. “Manupilation” is already in your brain…
    The world you see is your world…
    And I would like to see your world in your photos and would like to express my world in my photos…

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