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Triggered by a recent Facebook group post, I’m going to talk about something that seems to be a really controversial thing in photography – editing.

There is such a lot to unpack with this and everyone seems to have an opinion. There are those, for example, who claim you ‘should just get it right in camera’ or say they ‘never edit’. Others edit liberally to the extent you can sometimes not see the original image under the processing. And, just as in the aforementioned Facebook group post, it seems to polarise the community.

I guess there is good reason why it does. After all, there are often celebrity controversies about it. Claims that they present an unrealistic body image are justified. In a recent (September 2020) government survey (https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmwomeq/805/80502.html) the following question was asked:

This indicates that social media images (mostly edited with filters and similar) and celebrity images (both on TV and in social media) are huge influences on how many feel about their appearance. The use of photoshop style editing is part of that.

However, my opinion is that this is a more nuanced issue.

First of all, those who claim they never edit or ‘they didn’t edit back in the days of film’ are a little misled. Back in the day of film a hell of a lot of editing did occur. The very act of processing film required making decisions about exposure and timing the developing process to suit and many of the features of Photoshop (layers, dodging, burning) are based on activities that used to occur all the time in dark rooms. For example, photographers would use acetate sheets with different elements layered over an image in the same way a modern editor will copy and paste layers of image to make a composite.

As for ‘I don’t edit my digital images’, it has to be understood here that every digital camera – whether it is your camera phone, a compact ‘point and click’, a DSLR or a mirrorless – edits the image before it shows it to you. All digital cameras will record the data of the image taken as a RAW file – usually a huge file that takes up a lot of storage space – and will convert that into a more compressed jpeg or similar so you can view it on the screen. In making this compressed file, the computer in the camera uses algorithms to make decisions about the exposure etc. based on what it thinks you want to see in that image. Some cameras (e.g. DSLRs or mirrorless set to ‘manual mode’) store the RAW file so you can do your edits. Others (such as most camera phones) delete the RAW file after it has made the conversion.

Now, in my opinion, the issue should not be so polarised. We can accept that editing can be used in a way that causes harm to others. We can also accept that all images need some editing, even if that is achieved by an algorithm. What we actually need to be considering is not ‘whether editing should be done at all’ but rather ‘editing should be done as appropriate for the image’. Journalistic or sports photography is always going to need less editing than high art. The trick is deciding where you feel your image fits and how much editing it needs as a result and whether that editing is ethical. This can be a very personal decision.

I do a lot of fantasy and SF themed photography. While you can do a lot with make up and special effects on the set, there will inevitably need to be some form of edit in photoshop to give the images oomph. This might be changing the background to a fantasy scene instead of the studio backdrop or plain brick wall of the original. It might be replacing a bland sky with something with storm clouds. It could be adding lightning flashes or other things to make a character look like they are doing magic. All of these are changes that an editing critic might say were deviating from the original image too much. However, in these specific examples, I would argue they are essential to create the image. The two images below are an example from a trip out with a vampire a few years ago…

Before
After