Is post processing cheating?

October 11, 2014  •  6 Comments


I was giving a presentation the other night to a local camera group and was challenged by a member of the audience about the amount of editing I do.

I am not a journalist, constrained to present the literal truth as it sits in front of me. My opinion about post-processing of images is that, for my own pictures, I care only about getting to the image as I saw it in my mind's eye and what other people do with their own work is irrelevant to me. 

So when an audience member, on seeing some heavily edited images, brought up that he thought editing was 'lying' and 'cheating', I was, honestly, a bit surprised.

The issue of whether and how much to edit images or not, usually occurs to photographers early on in their development and they make a decision yeah or nay. Like people who do HDR or alternative techniques or large format film work, a no-editing path is taken to satisfy specific interests within themselves and, while they do pursue it avidly, they should recognize that, like collecting snakes or weaving macrame birthing chairs, it is a personal interest rather than 'the only way'.

However, like many technically intensive pursuits, one's choice in how to do photography sometimes ends up becoming a validation of the operator's ego and choice, and almost inevitably the judgment is made that 'my way' is not only the best way but the only way for right thinking people and other ways are 'wrong.' Then the conflict becomes personal.

“Regarding manipulation, it is important to understand that it is impossible not to manipulate a photograph. The lens manipulates, the sensor or medium manipulates, the camera manipulates. the developer (chemical or computer-based) manipulates, the printer (machine or human) manipulates, the paper (or screen) manipulates, and even the light used for viewing manipulates. Beyond that, even the human eye and brain extensively manipulate the image we "see".”

from “The Game of Photography — What Are the Rules?" By Harold Merklinger on the Luminous Landscape site

Within the ranks of those who inveigh against post-processing, (let's call them 'those guys') there seems to be the accepted belief that the camera is some magical instrument, that it performs this semi-magical task virtually without any help from any outside agents and this image resulting needs to be untouched, treated as almost a holy object.

Clearly that is a misconception. A camera is a remarkably sophisticated tool for gathering and recording light but it does this only on command and input from two sources – either the photographer or, failing new detailed directions, from the default decisions of the original creating engineers back at the factory.

There are typically two positions held simultaneously in the anti-post processing group.

'I want to reproduce it as I see it is.'

Well the human eye has a field of view of about 180 degrees horizontally but the operator chooses the field of view through his/her choice of focal length. The human eye has a f stop equivalence somewhere between f2 and f8 but can adapt the areas in focus and integrate that in his/her brain. (Thus the visual impact of a well exposed 4x5 image shoot at a medium to small aperture giving a great depth of focus and clarity so as to appear hyper real.)

This same brain has the unique capacity to not see what is not important. So what the operator is saying in reality must be understood to really mean "I want to reproduce something that my brain told me looks right or 'natural'."

Since, if several people stood in approximately the same spot and took individual images, each image would vary from the others in some small or large way according, not to the difference in reality, but to the difference in what each operator thought would be attractive.

I don't process the image. I use it straight out of the camera.

This implies that Mother Nature is somehow on the photographers side, always providing those guys with the correct illumination for both the shadows and the highlights, always providing those guys with light that is neither too golden warm or too blue-cold. This also implies that camera sensors, and the engineering behind them, always records exactly correctly the hue and tones of the light that falls on them.

(Just as in film, different makes of camera sensors reproduce color differently.  I chose Nikon early on because I liked the color more than the Canon reproduction. By making the choice I am editing my reproduction of reality.)

I get the direct impression that second sentence above in bold could be understood as 'I get it right in the camera.'  And that can be inferred as meaning 'I am skilled, smart, dedicated so that I can do right in the camera what you guys are just too unskilled or lazy to do.'  I may be wrong but that's the impression I get.

Those guys  must shoot only in jpegs, because raw data (not an image because raw data must be translated into something) unedited, after a pass through ones choice of raw editor produces notoriously flat images with compressed tones. However, shooting jpegs, the camera must be instructed how to convert the sensor data into the jpeg, how to handle the colors, how much saturation, how much contrast.

If the operator, one of those guys, doesn't specify these adjustments, the camera falls back on the ideas of the creating engineers who have never seen the scene.

And those guys must never use exposure compensation to change that chosen by the camera or increase the contrast when the scene is flat or even use a polarizing filter to reduce the glare.

Someone is editing, perhaps just not the operator. There is no such thing as 'unedited straight out of the camera'.

Sometimes there is an appeal to tradition, homage to the past. But of course, those 'ancients' processed and edited whatever they could. They developed more or less, they printed darker,or lighter, they masked or burnt in. Ansel Adams was known much more for his skill in the dark room (the Zone System and meticulous printing techniques) then for his photography, which I find, after the first few, rather tedious and boring.

In that long process that goes from choice of recording medium, through choice of lens, through choice of viewpoint through choice of exposure through choice of editing, the choice of where to stop, when to exercise agency at any point is only a personal decision.

Believing that any 'stopping point' is superior to any other point for anyone but oneself is ego asserting itself over reality.

Saying that to stop at some specific point makes one a 'real photographer' is silly and self involved and has no relationship to the quality of one's work.




7.Don Eaves(non-registered)
Bravo! Well said.
6.John Petro(non-registered)
Very well put, I agree 100%. If one considers one's photography to be art, then last I checked, there are not 'rules and regulations' in art. Journalism, perhaps documentary, yes, there are rules and guidelines, but after that, one is free to go where the spirit moves him or her. Of course once completed, the viewer is also free to admire, be unmoved, or dislike. Calling the creator of such a piece a 'liar' or 'cheater' is asinine, not to mention, in bad manners.
5.Sharon Horn(non-registered)
Lew ... as we talked by email I again want to say that I very much enjoyed your presentaton. I agree with other comments that it is a debate that, I'm sure, will go on and on. I do post-process my images because they are "my images" and I should have the right to have them look the way I want. I think it is a very individualized issue and each and every photographer should have the right to do what they want with their images. I don't think there is a right or wrong ... it is up to the creator of the image what they do with it. My issue from the presentation last Thursday was not with whether images are manipulated or not ... was not with whether images should be manipulated or not. My issue was with the way several people in attendance seemed to attack the presenter. It was said that one of those people is new to photography and was gathering information. That's wonderful and maybe they didn't mean to come across the way they did but it came across as horribly rude and almost confrontational and I've spoken to some people who were in attendance who felt the same way. When someone is a "guest speaker" they are just that ... a guest. A guest should be treated accordingly. I think questions are great, discussion encouraged and differing sides are not only good but informative to all but there is a kinder way to ask those questions, to start those discussions and to gain the information you are looking for. Because this presenter chooses to post-process his images is perfectly acceptable because they are his images and he chooses that method. If others choose not to, that's fine as well. That is their decision and their choice but NO ONE should be made to feel bad because of the choice they make. Guess that's about my two cents. Thanks for listening.
4.Lew Lorton Photography
Thanks for the comment, Tim.
I am incredibly jealous that you are now living in Vietnam. Repeat, incredibly.

I hope to be there either winter of 2016 or later. (Going to Laos in Feb, 2015)
3.Tim Barnsley(non-registered)
Dont blame you for being a bit "surprised " by the critics comments ! I personally am a sharpen,crop, maybe adjust some colour and don't add or take out objects with photoshop or any other means (apart from the crop !) type of guy. I think that this is always up to the individual and "lying" or "cheating" are strong terms to describe manipulation ,especially if it is clearly obvious that the image has been "worked" to achieve a certain look or feel. Images have had this done for over 100 years and will for the next hundred (more so now with the software that's available) and there are too many examples of known and unknown photographers who have "cheated " in some way.If the viewer is aware of the manipulation then who cares,sit back and look at the work and hopefully enjoy.Its always up to the individual creator and to get too high and mighty about it is just silly.If you choose not to manipulate an image very much,great.I go with this technique as I worked in newspapers for 25 years and what I saw was what I tried to "give" the editor and the readers.Its up to the photographer,not a moaning purist as to how much work you do on your shots ! I have moved back to Vietnam Lew and am now based in Hanoi..look me up some day ! Cheers,Tim
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