Photo Manipulation: ethical?


An interesting look at photo editing over the last two centuries, current differing views, and my thoughts on the topic. Written for an ethics/philosophy class in 2012. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic as well. Please feel free to comment and share your response or reflections. Thanks!

Is it ethical for photographers to edit or alter their photographs? In looking through any magazine, a nature photographer’s gallery, or recent album from a friend’s wedding, it is likely that some, if not all, of these photos have been edited in one way or another. Whether the photographer simply tweaked the color, brightened the sunrise, or pasted a mountain over a garbage pile, one can’t say for sure, but it is possible. A thorough examination of this issue requires that we not only look at arguments for and against it. We must also understand the origin of photography, and attempt to define the role it played then and now.

When photography was invented in the early 1800s, it impacted science, art and culture at large. The camera was a tool that captured a precise, detailed reflection of nature with more accuracy than even the most skilled painter. The photograph was held in high regard as being an honest depiction of reality. It was a proof of something, a picture of “truth.” Its credibility and clarity set it apart from all other art forms. A thousand words could be discounted or confirmed with a simple photograph (Lodriguss).


Shortly after the discovery of this “visual truth” also came “visual fiction,” manipulation carried out in the photo darkroom (Lodriguss). One of the first examples is a photograph of Abraham Lincoln standing by a flag, globe and table of documents. This is actually a composite image of Lincoln’s head carefully pasted over the heroically posed body of another politician, John Calhoun (Connor).


Another photograph, originally thought to be General Ulysses Grant seated on his horse with his troops in the background, is actually a combination of three images: Confederate captives, the horse and body of a fellow general, and lastly, Grant’s portrait. Erasing traces of political enemies from photos was also a common practice of leaders such as Stalin, Hitler and Mao. The media began to manipulate photos to achieve desired images as well. In 1989, the cover of TV Guide featured an image of Oprah Winfrey’s head over the body of actress Ann-Margret (Connor).

At this time it was not a controversy issue, but with the arrival of digital photography and a much greater ease to manipulate with computer software, such as Adobe Photoshop, a greater concern has been expressed by photographers and the public alike. What does this mean for photographers in the 21st century? What standard should be held? Is the integrity of a photographer connected with photo alteration? Is it a crutch for the lazy and unskilled, or a tool to enhance photos? Is it a means for deceit and the portrayal of a distorted, untruthful reality, or to express greater imagination and creativity? Does it effect the value of a photograph? What are the motivations behind those who do and do not use it? Does it have any negative or positive effects of the public or on the artist? These questions address different areas of ethics: truth, integrity and excellence. The debate seems to differ depending on the field of photography as well, whether portrait, landscape, fashion, hobby or photo-journalism.

The LA Times published a photo of a U.S. soldier motioning for Iraqi civilians to find shelter. It was later discovered that this image was a composite. The photo-journalist had taken two similar photos and combined them in order to create a stronger composition (Connor). Was this ethically right or wrong? Is it better that a photo be mediocre but truthful, or aesthetically strong yet untruthful? If this was wrong, where does one draw the line? If editing is acceptable, how can the public know how true or false an image is? One might even argue that the very act of taking a photograph is already subjective and, therefore, incapable of telling a fully truthful story. The photographer chooses an angle, focal length, composition, exposure and timing. Should the aesthetics be a concern during the capturing and processing of an image? If so, how much can an image be changed before it becomes unethical?

 The National Press Photographers Association code of ethics states: “Visual journalists operate as trustees of the public. Our primary role is to report visually on the significant events and varied viewpoints in our common world. Our primary goal is the faithful and comprehensive depiction of the subject at hand. As visual journalists, we have the responsibility to document society and to preserve its history through images.” In 1991 they released a statement declaring that any alteration of a photograph which leads the public to be deceived is wrong (“National Press Photographers Association”).

Though this does not establish a line between photo fakery and photo enhancement, it addresses the issue from an Aristotelian perspective by establishing honesty as a virtue to pursue and accuracy as a principle to follow. Photographers who choose to live by this will use their skills, during capturing and processing, to present the most honest and accurate depiction of a moment.

Utilitarian Ethics could take a stance for or against photo manipulation, depending on the photo and context surrounding it. If the photographer believes that telling the truth and maintaining integrity will bring the greatest amount of good, then altering the content in photos will be avoided. At the same time, although the photo-journalist may be an honest person, he or she is not bound to telling the truth. It would be best to alter the photo if the belief is that the happiness and pleasure coming from this will outweigh the pain or suffering. This may be why some photographers are willing to deceive the public with a false image in order to bring about what they see as a better consequence.

Kantian Ethics would argue against photo manipulation in photo-journalism. Regardless of the intent in making major or minor alterations, it is wrong simply because it is a dishonest act. It deceives the public into believing something that is not true and violates their individual freedom and reason. Some editing might be allowed, such as basic cropping, contrast, brightness, tonal, and retouching adjustments. Anything beyond this, such as altering photo content, color, orientation or cropping in any way that changes the original meaning of the photo would be unacceptable (“Policy for the Ethical Use of Photographs”).

Does the standard change when addressing the area of fine arts photography? Some photographers do not necessarily mind if a photo is edited or unedited, but find it unfair for those who work hard to capture the perfect moment. This would be more of a Kantian argument. Isn’t it only right that they receive credit for mastering their camera skills and being in the right place at the right time? Why climb to a mountaintop to capture a majestic sunset behind a soaring eagle, if another photographer can create a similar image with the use of Photoshop? Can the viewer tell the difference, and would it even matter? Tom Mangelsen, a wildlife photographer, describes the effects of digital manipulation as a “loss of incentive to compete in the wild, the loss of a sense of adventure, the loss of pride in one’s work, and the loss of the public’s respect for wildlife photography” (Brower).


The goal of nature photographer, Christopher Burkett, is to capture and show “something that is precious and real: something that most people do not see.” Viewers are often surprised to find out he does not digitally alter his photos, and tend to value and appreciate them more as a result (Burkett). Does the fact that his photographs are so unbelievable, but very real, make them more compelling? When the virtue of honesty is recognized within an image of high excellence, is the viewer more deeply enriched and impacted? Will this virtue and skill fade away if photographers begin to rely on editing software instead? These concerns seem to be related to Aristotelian ethics, placing excellence and virtue at the forefront.


Lewis Kemper is a nature photographer who travels and teaches workshops on how to use Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. In order to be successful in this profession, he believes it is important to have an understanding of these programs. He has found it not only enables him to produce images closer to reality than possible with film, but is also a means to express greater creative freedom (Kemper). For photographers like Kemper, it seems that photography is more of a platform for the imagination than truth. This might be more of a Utilitarian perceptive, placing more value on the overall consequences.


What stance should photographers and the media take when it comes to editing a photo of a human being? Is it ethical to fix a blinking eye or stray hair? Is it ethical to make minimum enhancements, such as erasing blemishes or whitening the teeth. Even further, how about a “tummy tuck” or changing the body structure or shape? What is the overall purpose of these changes, and is there a point where it becomes unethical?

Self magazine received criticism for an excessively “digitally slimmed down” photo of Kelly Clarkson on their September 2009 cover. The editor defended the criticism, “Photoshopping is an industry standard,” and she explained further in her blog, “Did we alter her appearance? Only to make her look her personal best…But in the sense that Kelly is the picture of confidence, and she truly is, then I think this photo is the truest we have ever put out there on the newsstand” (Beauty Redefined).

Utilitarian ethics could argue that if the goal is to sell merchandise and increase business, it does not matter if a person is edited a little or beyond recognition. Clothing brands are not responsible for the body image they are portraying, or any unintended result that it brings to the public, as long as they stay true to the merchandise they are advertising. If creating an unnatural ideal appeals to the public and attracts customers, then the end justifies the means. It might be asked further, though the economy experiences immediate positive consequences, does this really produce the greatest good for the greatest amount of people?

How is this “industrial standard” body image effecting individuals and society as a whole? Kantian Ethics would point out that it is unfair and disrespectful for those whose bodies are being altered as well as to those who may feel pressured to meet this standard. These images distort the public’s perception of what is healthy, normal and beautiful. As people compare, strive and pursue to meet this impossible standard, self-esteem drops and eating disorders are developed. Clothing brands like Ann Taylor and Ralph Lauren have recognized and apologized for going too far during the retouching process, yet continue to repeat this mistake (Beauty Redefined).


Imagine a photographer handing you Polaroid images of yourself after a photoshoot and saying, “Don’t worry – we’ll retouch them.” Actress Aisha Tyler has heard these words and raises a challenge, “How flawless should skin be? First you remove a freckle…and next thing you know the person’s face looks like a department store mannequin’s” (“Glamour” 172-175). Every person should be an end in and of themselves, not as a means to anything else. In this pursuit of perfection, it seems that the humanity, the essence of life within that body, is forgotten.


Aristotelian Ethics would remind the photographer that “natural” is the goal and “balance” is the key. A photographer who does choose to use Photoshop should strive to develop those skills in order to do it with excellence. Excessive editing may indicate a lack of skill and unfamiliarity with these editing programs. The surface of the human face is not plastic, but rather, has texture and visible pores. If acne is removed from a face, it should be done in way that is subtle and still natural.

This is the standard of many commercial portrait photographers. Whether it be senior, engagement or family photos, photographers want to capture the life and natural beauty of their clients. Editing software is a tool that can be used to make basic enhancements as well as correct inconveniences that may be present on the day of the photoshoot. Blinking eyes can be opened. Crooked ties can be be straightened. Scratches and bruises can be removed. Stray hairs can be erased. In the end, the photographer aims to give clients real and natural photos that represent who they are at their best.

Kristina and Christine
Brock & Amber
Images by Laura Nerness Art & Photography

In conclusion, I see the film darkroom and photoshop as tools which can be used or abused, depending on the situation, purpose and context. When deciding whether or not it is ethical to alter a photograph, or how far it will be altered, the photographer should first ask, “Why was this photo taken? How or where will be used? What is my motivation for altering it?” If for documentary, “Can it be edited while still remaining true to its original meaning and message?” If for nature or wildlife, “ Is my goal to represent a true depiction of reality, or to express creativity, imagination and greater aesthetic appeal? And does the public know this, or will this lead to the viewer’s deception concerning my photography skills or something I photographed in nature?” In fashion or portrait photography, “Do I have the permission of the person I am editing? Will this disrespect their individuality or devalue who they are? Where will this photo be used and how will it be viewed?” If used within the context of honesty and excellence, it can be a very creative, helpful and beneficial tool.

Joy In The StormMatt & Kelli
Images by Laura Nerness Art & Photography

Works Cited

Brower, Kenneth. “Photography in the Age of Falsification.” Atlantic Monthly. 281.5 (1998): n. page. Web. 24 Jan. 2012.

Burkett, Christopher. In Certain Light Interview by John Paul Caponigro. View Camera Magazine. Web. <http://www.christopherburkett.com/pages/articles/certainlight.html

Connor, Kevin. “Photo Tampering throughout History.”Fourandsix Technologies, Inc.. N.p., 2012. Web. 24 Jan 2012. <http://www.fourandsix.com/photo-tampering-history/

“I Don’t Want to Be Perfect!.” Glamour. Sep 2005: 172-175. Print.

Kemper, Lewis. Lewis Kemper Talks Nature Photography, Photoshop, and The Photography

Business Interview by Charlie Borland. Pronature Photographer, 12 Dec 2011. Web. <http://www.pronaturephotographer.com/2011/12/lewis-kemper-talks-nature-photography-photoshop-and-the-photography-business/

Lodriguss, Jerry. “The Ethics of Digital Manipulation.”Catching the Light. N.p., 2006. Web. 24 Jan 2012. <http://www.astropix.com/HTML/J_DIGIT/ETHICS.HTML

National Press Photographers Association. N.p., 2012. Web. 26 Jan 2012. <http://www.nppa.org/

“Photoshopping: Altering Images and Our Minds!.”Beauty Redefined. N.p., 11 Nov 2011. Web. 24 Jan 2012. <http://www.beautyredefined.net/photoshopping-altering-images-and-our-minds/

“Webster University Journal.” Policy for the Ethical Use of Photographs. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan 2012. <http://www.webster.edu/~barrettb/journal_ethics.html

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