Post processing digital images - right or wrong?

There is an ongoing debate in the world of photography over whether photos should be post processed. In other words, should image editing software be used to alter the image that came from the camera; or should the image be left alone as an unaltered record of the scene?
an example of how image enhancement can improve digital photography

First of all there are two types of post processing available to the digital photographer:
  • image manipulation
  • image enhancement

Image manipulation:
Image manipulation can include things like removing the drainpipe that is coming out of your daughter's ear from a graduation photo, to making a model appear to have completely flawless skin.

This is clearly altering what was originally in the scene when it was shot. And whether this constitutes a breach of the photographic rules depends on your point of view.

If you are creating a picture, in the way an artist creates a work of art, then it would seem perfectly acceptable. After all, we wouldn't expect a pencil artist to be without an eraser in his or her pencil box.

As the art work begins to take shape an artist will constantly adjust their work by adding or taking away elements of the picture in order to make it perfect.

In which case, why should a photographer employing the same process of adding-in or taking-away be criticised for doing so?

Simply because they use software to make their changes shouldn't make a difference. The artists' toolbox is pencils, brushes and erasers, the photographers toolbox is software.

If on the other hand a photographer intends to record a scene 'as is' then manipulating like this moves the photographer into the world of deception.

Image enhancement:
Image enhancement is another matter altogether. Image enhancement takes the image 'as is' and them makes it a better representation of the original.

Many photographers wrongly assume that image enhancement is a product of digital photography. And that in the days of film photography this sort of enhancement just didn't happen.

It did happen. A lot. The only difference was that you needed a darkroom, chemicals, filters, masks . . . and a plethora of other equipment in order to enhance your images. Today the same set of tools required can be bought quite cheaply, is available to all and is called software.

Take image sharpening as an example. Most image editing software includes a 'sharpen' tool. And more sophisticated software also includes an 'unsharp mask' tool. The origins of image sharpening using the unsharp mask tool lie in 1930s Germany, not in 1990s Photoshop.

In the 1930s no-one called the photographers of the day who used this technique frauds. They were admired for their ability to make images appear pin sharp. So why should a digital photographer be accused of image manipulation for making his or her images sharp?

Take contrast and saturation as further examples. In the days of film photographers adjusted the timings of chemical saturation in order to produce more saturated photos. And a similar technique could improve image contrast.

Make the same adjustments with digital photography and the fraud label begins to rear its ugly head once more.

Take this one step further - back in the days of film photography, certain film manufacturers were known to produce films that had better contrast and colour saturation. Velvia is a particular one that springs to mind.

So if you used Velvia film were you cheating?

The camera as villan
As a final point, a lot of digital photographers are unaware that the photo they have taken has almost always been enhanced by the camera itself, even before the image has been displayed on the LCD screen.

Digital cameras, especially pocket versions, save images as JPEGs. To do this the camera takes the raw image data from the image sensor, and then uses built-in software to turn that data into a photo.

The software is programmed to give the image good colour tone and sharpens it a bit. On some digital cameras you have to option to increase or decrease the level of enhancement the camera does to your photos. A lot of people just leave it at the default.

So straight away the photo you took has been enhanced using software.

But I can hear digital SLR photographers mumbling about 'RAW' images. Surely these haven't been enhanced?

Oh yes they have. But not directly. The RAW image is the data straight from the image sensor with absolutely no adjustments made by the camera.

But in order to view these RAW images you need to use software to convert the RAW data into a viewable photo - and instantly you have added software adjustments. You have the option of playing with the contrast, brightness, sharpness . . . and a whole host of other settings.

But by doing so you have now altered your original photo.

My closing points - don't be fooled into thinking image manipulation or enhancement are a product of the digital age; and remember that your camera is making adjustments even before you see the photo so don't assume that the photo you took is completely un-adjusted.


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very good article and information on dark room techniques
by: Anonymous

I follow a photographer in England whose work is excellent and each image is a JPEG out of the camera. But I don't believe it is or is not cheating to post-process a print; just to misrepresent what you did.

I would simply prefer if someone represented what their photograph really was: an out of camera shot? or a post processed one. I agree with the comment that post-processing takes away from the value of the shot; white balance off? just correct it afterwards. etc. Camera skills have become computer skills. Exposure is no longer a critical skill.

My suggestion is to simply mark photos as either: A photograph; or a photograph-pp. At least represent what the image really is and I am fine either way. But don't represent a great photograph that you spent days on the computer making without disclosing that it is "pp".

'nuff said...

Popular Discussion
by: Dave Simmons

An excellent article, right to the heart of the discussion between another photographer and myself. I like to consider my (current) approach as somewhat conservative, using restraint. However, to some extent that's the result of my not having mastered the software. As I learn more, I start to use it more. The elements I feel are most critical in photography are probably obvious; focus and composition. But I'm also an advocate of after processing; it's like turning a second light on in a room so you can see better. Photography is technology driven, and this article's mention of techniques used way back is interesting and informative.

Thank you.

moral of the story
by: Anonymous

I guess people do rely on image editing software a lot today..... a friend of mine asked me if I could teach him Photoshop, I asked why and he said that he needs to know it as he wants to buy his first camera!

Actaully, to me one should consider handling the camera properly before thinking of post processing; especially the novice photographers......

Baffled by this discussion/argument
by: Norman Breslow

I have read the article and comments, but I am still baffled by this discussion/argument.

Apparently someone or someones have taken the position that light enters a digital camera through a lens and strikes a computer chip, and that?s the picture. Where did that person or persons get that from?

Expanding on some comments, photographers have 'post processed' the original image for as long as there has been photography. Among the tools-techniques-tricks used by 'wet' photographers are: dodging, burning in, use of Kodalith, Kodalk, reticulation, line resolution, graded papers, masking areas of images, airbrushing images, sepia toning, gold toning, intentionally increasing grain, etc., as well as preprocessing images by using color filters with B&W film to create dramatic skies, choosing to use orthochromatic film for B&W portraits, using polarizing filters to remove reflections from glass, using view cameras to keep verticals vertical and horizontals horizontal or to selectively focus or blur parts of an image, etc.

By its nature, photography is an imperfect medium. There are limitations of latitude in various films (called dynamic range in digital photography), the need to crop an image to fit into a specified space, a need to compensate for light fall-off when extreme wide angle lenses are used, the need to push film because of limitations in its light sensitivity and the light available to take the picture, etc.

I need someone to explain to me, in little itty-bitty words, why a digital photographer should be limited in using techniques when wet photographers weren't so limited.

Having a B.F.A. in photography from way back in 1968, and having been involved in photography for over 50 years, I have NEVER heard an argument by a photographer that increasing the contrast of a B&W print or warming the tone in a color print was 'cheating'. Nor that the use of a fisheye lens was considered 'cheating', etc.

Again, I have no idea what this discussion/argument is about.

A subjective matter
by: John

My position is that it's entirely a subjective matter, where personal taste vs. style and convention vs. creativity.

At worst it adds one more category for the judges and critics, which suggests that those who use it should make that declaration.

There's no easy answer to "what is art?" but good art requires more than skill and craftsmanship, whatever the tools.

Right AND wrong
by: Ted, CA

It is right to take the shot well in the first place. Practice makes perfect - if you spend all your time in front of the computer fixing shots, then you're not out taking 'em!

BUT, it is OK to improve picture quality. The camera can make mistakes. Software can put them right.


thi post
by: Lori Arnold

That is what is so great about the digital world, WE now can make our photos look more pure. I see nothing wrong with a little enhancement on some photos..I try not to manipulate mine at all, but sometimes it is absolutely neccessary. Ty for the post!

by: Anonymous

Sorry for the double post, it was a mistake.

Double post now removed, and thanks for your comments. My article represents my own personal opinion and I both welcome and value others' opinions too - even those who disagree with me!

Don't be afraid to post comments, or even write an article yourself (just type away in the box above). The only edits I make are to improve readability (if necessary) and to eliminate anything inappropriate.

Thanks again,


Coincidence? And my humble opinion.
by: Anonymous

Is this just a response to my comment on the photo the other day, or just a coincidence?
Anyways, there are many photographers (way better then me) that just don't like doing it. We ALL know the camera touches the sharpness, contrast, and such - and it's up to the photographer to boom the contrasts or try to adjust the camera to take the photos the way "it looks in real life".
There is NOTHING wrong in art - it just has to be on purpose, and cause the effect it was supposed to cause. So, if your photo doesn't meet those requirements, and you decide to get a higher-than-heaven contrast to "make it look better" (which isn't always true), you risk your shot. The point is, you're supposed to solve your problems in the shooting, not after it. Sure, you may not bring your polarizer everywhere, but don't PRETEND you took that photo like that. Editing contrasts most of the times end up in a total mess, and the photograph ends up horrible. You can't tell "noobs", "well, go boost your contrasts!" because, first, it's a rule of thumb; second, it doesn't always fit your photograph. Lower contrasts get more tonal range, which cause other effects in the receptor.

"The artists' toolbox is pencils, brushes and erasers, the photographers toolbox is software."

That is a lie imho. The PHOTOMANIPULATOR's toolbox (which is not the same!) is the software. Photography is a "finer" art (not in the usual terms, but I couldn't find a better way to say it), because you can't erase. Once a shot is gone, it's gone, like Cartier-Bresson said (not in those words, but I can't remember the exact quote). It's action, in the cases you mention. On the other hand, "artists" draw, for example, but it's a relaxed form of art. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying drawing is "less" than photography (I draw, too) but it's not the same. You ARE SUPPOSED to erase, in a drawing.
But, besides "action" shots, you can set up the photograph - which, in that case, would be like having an "eraser". You can remove and add things if it suits you. You can't mix photomanipulations and photography.

However, I find "wrong" that you are indirectly saying that it's a rule that photographs will be better with the so-called "enhasement".
"Image enhancement takes the image 'as is' and them makes it a better representation of the original."
Don't tell that to people who are starting. You may fool them into thinking that Photoshop is the solution, like most of them think.

Just saying.

by: Taigh

I'm glad someone has finally said this...I've thought about this...couldn't put it into words...

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