How much editing should you do before declaring images have been edited?

Image manipulation has been with us since the earliest days of photography. Combination printing was introduced in the 1850s by Hippolyte Bayard. Before panchromatic film was invented, the orthochromatic films of the day made blue skies appear as white in prints. Bayard was the first to suggest capturing images of cloud-dotted skies by photographing them through orange or red filters, which absorb light in the blue end of the spectrum, thereby darkening its tones. Negatives shot through these filters were sandwiched with scenic shots for printing to simulate the tones observed in nature, which were otherwise impossible to record in the black-and-white photographs of the time.

Combination printing evolved in the mid-19th century in the hands of photographers like Oscar Rejlander, William Lake Price and Henry Peach Robinson and quickly became controversial. Photographs had formerly been regarded as truth, but the demonstrated ability to manipulate the final product quickly shattered that illusion.

Even today, filters are used to impart both subtle and dramatic effects to images, and the range of options has expanded dramatically with in-camera digital effects. Most people can recognise images that have been altered by filtration and accept the practice as ‘artistic’, particularly when the manipulation is obvious.


Polarising filters are less easy to identify, save for the fact that they can make skies appear unnaturally intense.


Use of graduated colour filters is usually so obvious that it need not be declared.

The same is true of the composite images created by Jerry Uelsmann in his darkroom from the 1960s onwards. The results were so surrealistic that nobody could ever see them as anything else but carefully crafted works of art.

However, in the 21st century the divide between ‘true’ and ‘manipulated’ images has become blurred. And this creates ethical dilemmas for photographers because few of us have considered the ethics of image manipulation. To complicate matters, members of the public are usually totally unaware of ““ or uninterested in ““ whether an image has been adjusted.

Ethical dilemmas

In some photographic genres, such as fashion and product photography (including photos of food), a high level of manipulation aimed at producing perfection has long been general practice. People accept these images because that’s what they’re accustomed to, and only the most naive believe them to be real.

Where it’s plain that images have been captured and altered with an obvious creative aim, the photographer’s intention is usually quite clear and viewers should not be deceived. It’s different when photographs create an impression of replicating reality but have, in fact, been quite heavily edited.

Most photographers acknowledge some degree of editing is universally accepted. For example, all digitally captured images require a certain amount of unsharp masking to overcome the softening caused by colour interpolation. Colour and brightness corrections are also considered acceptable ““ provided their aim is to produce an image that replicates the subject in as lifelike way as possible.

But what about removing elements that ‘spoil’ an otherwise marketable image? Where do you draw the line? Is it acceptable to remove power lines, contrails, stray branches and other items that interfere with the composition or integrity of a shot? Or move an element to make a more pleasing composition?

Should you declare what you’ve done when you combine two or more images, either to produce a panorama, create a high-dynamic range picture or produce a more interesting shot by combining actions that happened within a tight time frame but not at precisely the same time?

The well-known American landscape photographer, Galen Rowell, applied the following ethical litmus test when faced with such dilemmas: never do something to a photograph that you wouldn’t want revealed. This begs the question: In what situations should you reveal the adjustments you’ve made?

Standards are particularly strict for scientific photography, where no manipulation that affects the lifelike replication of the subject is permitted. In this case, even unsharp masking should be declared ““ and how much sharpening has been applied. Any other adjustments (such as colour and contrast corrections) should also be declared.

Landscape and wildlife photography are marginally less constrained, although there’s more cachet in shots with minimal editing. Some competitions require all editing adjustments to be listed, and most publishers will request details of the changes that have been made to images when they are being presented as lifelike representations.

Unfortunately, because they are so accustomed to seeing altered images, many buyers of photography are unable to detect whether shots are altered. And they usually don’t care. Provided the image meets their needs, they’re prepared to pay the photographer.

Highly manipulated landscapes often earn fortunes for their producers because the buying public has a taste for colourful, digitally-enhanced shots. Judging between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ manipulation in this case remains the prerogative of the purchaser.


Panoramas are usually revealed by their non-standard dimensions and seldom need to be declared as such unless they have been highly manipulated. Most photographers shoot panoramas like this one to encompass scenes that are beyond the scope of the camera’s lens.

Private or commercial?

On the whole, whether you declare the extent to which an image has been edited will depend largely on how the edited image will be used. And it all comes down to who benefits and whether the producer of the image has set out to mislead viewer(s). Have the adjustments been made to communicate more effectively with the viewer ““ or were they done to enhance the prestige (or bank balance) of the photographer or the organisation commissioning the work?

Where a manipulated image is for your own use and you’re happy to reveal how you created it to the people you show it to, no deceit is involved. Consequently, you’re free to edit as much or as little as you like. Images manipulated for artistic reasons and displayed as such can also be edited freely.

However, if you plan to enter the shot in a competition or sell it in the open market, you will be constrained by the laws associated with these arenas. If you submit the shot as a true representation of reality when it has been manipulated you will be guilty of fraud. Claiming otherwise is plainly dishonest.

You can possibly trick some people into believing your edited shots are a true representation of the subject, but you certainly won’t be able to fool all viewers all of the time. When images are published they may come under the scrutiny of hundreds of thousands of eyes, many of which know what to look for to uncover any deceit. Clues that can reveal falsified images include:

1. When everything in a natural scene appears equally sharp it’s likely the image has been composed from several shots. Each image should have a discernible zone of sharp focus, outside of which focus should fall off towards the camera and behind the main subject.

2. When an object is added to or deleted from an image, an edge is created that is usually inconsistent with the sharpness of the rest of the image. Even an in-focus image will show some blurring due to the diffraction of light from the camera aperture.

3. Cutting an object from one image and inserting it into another image leaves a sharp boundary that is easily seen and creates an obvious sign that the image has been altered. Using smudging tools to blur these edges will usually produce blurring that is inconsistent with the rest of the image.

4. Shadows pointing in different directions indicate an image was composed from several segments that were probably photographed at different times of the day.

5. All elements in an image should have a consistent perspective and geometry. When parallel lines in a shot fail to converge to the same vanishing point as the rest of the image, then this object could not have been photographed with the same camera or perspective as the rest of the image.

6. Extra replicas of elements created by cloning and ‘stamped’ into the picture to create an illusion that there are more of them are quite easy to detect. Repetition is the key to identifying shots in which this has occurred.

7. Some things are obviously impossible ““ or extremely unlikely. Examples include penguins and polar bears in the same shot; animals looking and behaving like people and compositional elements that are out of proportion with the rest of the picture. In fact, anything that looks impossible probably is.

8. Finally, image processing alters the image characteristics in ways that can be revealed in histograms. Boosting contrast can create gaps in the graph showing where tones have ‘dropped out’. Objects inserted into an image can also alter the shape of the histogram.


This picture is a composite of the two shots shown here, which were taken three minutes apart, one containing the Orca and the other with the penguins. They were combined in Photoshop, to show what can be done to deceive inexperienced viewers. This type of editing is unethical unless it is declared.


This image was produced by merging two shots (shown here) covering a group of wading birds on the edge of an inland lake. It was also combined in Photoshop but doesn’t distort the reality of the scene. However, the editing should be declared if the shot is submitted for publication or entered in a competition.

Copying shots

Although students of the graphic arts were often urged to copy works by renowned master practitioners in orderto learn and fine-tune their techniques, the final paintings were never accorded anything more than ‘practice’ status. In an age where interstate and international travel is easy, can budding photographers follow the same steps and visit well-known places to take pictures?

From a practical viewpoint, you can never return to a spot and expect exactly the same conditions as existed for a previous photograph. Not even when the original you’re copying is your own. If you try to replicate another photographer’s work and come close, is there a moral issue associated with this practice?

Visual coincidences may be difficult to avoid when photographing iconic sites like Uluru, Cradle Mountain in Tasmania or the Sydney Opera House. And plenty of special pull-off areas have been created on many roads to enable photographers to take pictures of popular or spectacular landmarks. Taking pictures in these areas virtually guarantees you’re copying someone else’s shot, even if you don’t intend to.

Professional outdoor photographers usually avoid such places in principle and seek out views that are different and unique. To avoid trite repetition of shots that have been taken many times, we believe photographers across all genres should always search for new perspectives whenever possible.

As Photographic guru, Thom Hogan (www.bythom. com) says: “Images have half-lives and styles get copied, so an image is worth the most when it first appears. If you want to maximize the value of the image, you need to maximize your marketing and sales of it the day it first appears in public.”

Article by Margaret Brown – see Margaret’s photography pocket guides  

Excerpt from  Photo Review Issue 50   

Subscribe to Photo Review magazine