Badwater Basin

The Ethics of Digital Development

Did this photograph go through Photoshop? Absolutely, it did. I’m an artist, and developing my photographs in Photoshop is an important part of my artistic and creative process in the digital medium. But what are the ethical implications of modifying a photograph? The answer is that it depends on the context.

Sunset at Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park

In this earlier blog article, I presented two photographs I took of a kitchen to demonstrate the value of professional real estate photography. Here are the two photographs.

Snapshot of a kitchen

Professional photograph of a kitchen

In the photograph on the right, notice that among other changes, I removed the air vent in the ceiling. I also removed the magnets on the refrigerator. If it's hard to see, click the images for a larger view. I made these changes during the development, or post-processing phase of production. Let’s discuss these kinds of changes in different contexts.

We’ll start with my area of photography, fine art landscapes. For fine art photography, I believe it is acceptable to exercise artistic license when creating a photograph. It is, after all, an artistic process we are talking about. Art does not necessarily need to represent reality exactly, even in the case of photography. Art is about communicating a message, and removing distracting elements from a photograph focuses attention on the message. In artistic photography, anything that does not add to the message or add to the aesthetic value of the photograph detracts from it. From an artistic perspective, an element that detracts from the beauty or value of a photograph should be removed.

During development and finishing, I make many changes to my photographs for artistic reasons. Sometimes the lighting is not quite right, or the photograph needs to be cropped to make it more effective. Sometimes the color is off. I make these kinds of changes freely, and I never feel bad about making them because I know what I’m doing is creating art. I’m not preparing a photograph to serve as evidence in a courtroom. Of course it’s best to get as much correct in camera as possible, but often it’s not possible to create a perfect photograph in camera because of both the technological and physical limitations of the camera. In those cases, I do whatever is necessary to shape the photograph into an image that expresses my artistic vision.

Fine art photography represents one extreme on the spectrum of acceptability for image development. At the other extreme is photojournalism. In photojournalism it is completely unethical and unacceptable to change a photograph in any material way. What constitutes a material change? Removing or adding elements is a big one. Even making significant lighting changes could be unethical. Cropping could be unethical because it can remove relevant items from the image, thereby changing or completely eliminating the context of the events depicted in the scene. Very little retouching or development is acceptable for photojournalism. A photojournalist might make some minor color and exposure adjustments, but that’s about it.

So fine art photography and photojournalism are on separate ends of the spectrum of acceptability for development. Now let’s shift over to real estate photography, which presents its own set of issues. If I make a photograph of a room and decide that the air vent in the ceiling is a distraction and should be removed, I would not make that change. If a photograph is being made to showcase a home or office in a real estate listing, it would be unethical to remove the air vent because doing so results in an image that misrepresents the product being sold. The ethics of photojournalism apply to real estate photography in this case because it is important to represent reality accurately and completely.

If the real estate photograph is being used purely for marketing purposes, however, then the situation is different again. Let’s say a company wants a photograph of its office for a brochure. They want a photograph that flatters their space. If an air vent or other element detracts from the aesthetics of the image, I would remove it. In these cases, I want the photograph to be a little nicer than reality. It’s more of an artistic representation of their space, so the ethics associated with artistic photography apply.

It still is best to try to get everything right in camera. Is there a way to exclude the air vent or other offending item from the frame by moving around, zooming in, or shifting perspective? Sometimes it’s not possible, and in those cases the post-processing edit may be needed.

On the other hand, when I removed the magnets from the refrigerator in the photograph above, I did so purely for aesthetic reasons. The difference is that I would make that change even if the photograph were made for a real estate listing of the house for sale. The magnets on the refrigerator contribute nothing to the scene. They are simply clutter that distracts the viewer’s attention. For this reason I should remove them. It is ethical to remove them during post-processing because they are not physically a part of the room. I’m simply removing personal items that would not be transferred in the sale in any case.

Now, here again it would have been better to get it right in camera--physically remove the magnets before taking the photograph. But that’s not the point here. The point I’m making is that there is no ethical dilemma in removing those magnets or making other similar changes in post-processing in cases where it was simply not possible to do it on location, or where the photographer may have overlooked something.

That’s a brief overview of some of the ethics of development during post-processing. As a creator of fine art photographs, I enjoy the freedom I have to make the changes I see fit to express my artistic vision.