There is a very large grey area in the processing of digital photos in today’s world. Many photographers don’t understand the notion of photo manipulation. In addition, others stand behind the “it’s art” justification. The larger concern in play is that photography is a realistic medium. While photographers can claim the art justification, where and how do we draw a line between manipulation and mastering?

Since many struggle with understanding the difference between mastering a photo and manipulating one, I am going to start by defining the word manipulation. Then I am going to discuss my opinion of how it fits into the context of photography.

Defining Photo Manipulation

Definition of manipulate from Merrian-Webster

manipulated; manipulating
transitive verb

1:  to treat or operate with or as if with the hands or by mechanical means especially in a skillful manner

manipulate a pencil

manipulate a machine


a :  to manage or utilize skillfully

quantify our data and manipulate it statistically — S. L. Payne

b :  to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one’s own advantage

being used and manipulated by the knowing men around him — New Republic

3:  to change by artful or unfair means so as to serve one’s purpose :  doctor

suspected that the police reports were manipulated — Evelyn G. Cruickshanks

By very definition of the word manipulate, photographers who make adjustments to their photos automatically call that manipulation. We “skillfully treat” our photographs after we shoot them. In today’s digital photography world, we need to MASTER our photos. Cameras are manufactured to produce middle ground exposure and contrast photos. That balance found in our devices has nothing to do with art. Manufacturers produce cameras to work for the masses. Years ago photographers chose films to get the look or effect for what they were shooting. Now we HAVE TO make those adjustments in post (after we shoot the photo). We need to MASTER our photos not MANIPULATE them. The word manipulation leads our viewer to a negative connotation in my opinion.

Difference – Manipulation & Master

How do we define manipulation in a photo? If a photo concept is created in-camera, and the history to that single capture can be traced, then the final photograph is not a manipulation. Filters, flash, lenses of choice, pretty much whatever you deemed you needed at that moment in time to create that photograph, is okay. The initial photo should make its statement from the beginning of conception. If you were still shooting film, this is how you would produce a photo.

From a mastering perspective, adjustments are allowed to make your image presentable from your view point. Nothing should be added or taken away from that original composition with the exception of dust. I also believe in little to no cropping outside of the camera. My philosophy on cropping comes from the very fact that I paid for my sensor megapixels. Why would I throw them away by cropping my photo.

Some editors are even asking that you skip using Photoshop altogether. They allow you to only utilize Lightroom/Camera Raw. I think that this might be a little extreme. Many editors have been burned by publishing photos they haven’t verified though. By choosing a method this extreme, they are weeding out photographers who cover their tracks.

Manipulation reflects a change in that original capture, and not one of adjustment or mastering.

HDR – Manipulation

A good example of manipulation is when HDRs, multiple capture merges, and adds or subtractions happen to a photo. This symbolizes the “untruth” in photography to me. It is becoming a reason for many people questioning the validity of any beautiful photo released to the world. “Is that photo, Photoshopped?” Ever heard that term about one of your photos or someone you know? If the general public doesn’t consider a photo as truthful, how can it be realistic for an editor?

Now I know that there are many who would argue HDR is not manipulation. I know this because this used to be my fight. My change is simple, clients like National Geographic, Powder Magazine, Bike Magazine, Sierra Club, and Audubon, Etc., do not accept this type of work. Thus, in an effort to never send something that deviates from my clients’ requests, I have decided to work wholeheartedly for the in-camera response. I have to tell you that it has made me a much better photographer.

Photo Reality Check

Photography is a hard medium and artistic endeavor to really define. The reality of photography is skewed by lens choice, camera placement, and subject choice. Photography doesn’t skew reality the way a painting might. Photographers adjust what the viewer sees from the point at which we pick a lens that is not 50mm. This whole discussion is an argument of grey areas, of reactionary dualities and ironies. And in as much an artistic personal expression as the medium itself. Though, I do find that standing behind the justification that it is art and I can do what ever I want, not quite as valid now.

Two Cents

Don’t get me wrong either. I still think HDR is cool. Merging exposures is a great way to solve light issues that were never solvable before. To those using them – more power to you. I have decided to let go of it and purely create with my black box. To focus on what is standing before me in any given situation. Again, partially, because of my client base requests and partly because my life in the office has become simpler because of it.

Yes, I do master my photos. I add contrast, color changes, saturation adjustments, curves, levels, dodges and burns, vignettes, highlight adjustments, shadow adjustments, global and selective tweaks. My RAW does illustrate my exact composition, just on a much more muted palette. It is not missing the star trails. Or the tree in the corner that I just left in my frame because I figured I could crop it out later. Do I have those HDRs, merges, and Content Aware moves? Yes I do. The main difference for me is that I choose to disclose this information to my buyer. If they decide to use it, at that point, THEY MADE THAT DECISION, not me.

What is your point of view on this topic? Let us know in the comments below.

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2 Responses

  1. If you can use “dodges and burns” vignettes, etc. then you are really editing your photo. Cropping vs lens focal length or moving your feet seems like the same thing. In photojournalism just the time, focal length, and direction of the camera is editing. Only the photographer (or writer, or editor, etc) must have honor, and ethics; a liar will twist the truth any way he wants.
    Your choice of tools that you are willing to use plus the time and placement of your camera can make you truthful or a liar, it’s up to you.

  2. Even when we didn’t have digital, photos were manipulated in the darkroom. Digital just made it easier. The photographer in my opinion is presenting his artistic view of the situation.

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