Is retouching … cheating?

I’ve had a running conversation with my photographer friend Craig for some weeks about processing digital images. For whatever reason, I’d come to think that “real” photographers produce great images straight out of the camera, and that retouching them in Photoshop is cheating.

But Craig took a different view. And through his gentle persistence — plus several articles like this one — he has slowly managed to convince me that not only is it OK to touch up digital images, it’s actually necessary.

My acceptance of this brave new world felt like a revelation at first: I no longer had to be ashamed of toning my images! But soon my sense of liberation was replaced by a new feeling of obligation: I would now have to re-tone all of my previous images!

The idea filled me with dread. You see, there’s no single “right” way to dodge and burn an image (Ansel Adams sometimes made two dozen different prints of a single frame). Some of it is dictated by your artistic vision … some of it by your mood or skill on a particular day.

Here’s an example. My original image isn’t terrible — a little low-contrast, perhaps, and it’s tough to know what the subject is, because the brightest spot is (unfortunately) the woman’s butt:

Cest lamour 1060833 BW BLOG

So I can even out the tone curve and bring out some of the midtone details:

Cest lamour 1060833 BW CR BLOG

… and then I can slightly burn everything around the couple, to make them the center of attention. But is the resulting image actually better than the original? Or have I gone too far? (I’d be curious to hear which version you like best.)

Cest lamour 1060833 BW CR 2 BLOG

Then there’s the question of cropping. Here’s my original shot of the Palais du Luxembourg, framed by the plane trees in the adjacent park …

Luxembourg 1050809 BLOG

… and here’s a slightly cropped version.

Luxembourg 1050809 CR BLOG

Is it too tight? Does it diminish the slightly claustrophobic feeling of being under that squared-off canopy? Isn’t there some merit in leaving the image as I shot it, if only to more faithfully reflect the scene as I saw it at that particular moment?

I don’t know. But I do look forward to sharing some of my newly retouched photos of Paris in the next few days.


  1. Agree nothing wrong with retouching. As for cropping, I recently discovered that my APS-C camera cannot produce an 8X10 right off the memory card and must be cropped – or shrunk.

  2. A simple retouch is nothing more than a simple retouch. It’s fair game as you’re trying to portray a scene the way you remember it. Removing people or unsightly objects is what I’d consider cheating and outright wrong in photojournalism.

    • Thank you for stopping by, Thomas, and especially for taking the time to comment. I’ve been struggling with the concept of processing because the trend these days is images so obviously processed (fake HDR, for example) that the entire frame feels as artificial as if an object or person had been removed. But clearly I’ve been too purist in my approach! Thank you for sharing your more level-headed perspective.

      • You’re welcome mate. Like I said, i would like to produce what I know or feel I saw first hand. To some that would mean i see the world in a more vibrant way, and to others in a more monochrome way. It’s a little subjective.

  3. It is enormously satisfying to get the shot right in the camera.

    But yeah, enhancing the image in post isn’t a sin. It really is about getting the best image in the end.

    • Way to get down to the heart of the matter, Jim: “It really is about getting the best image in the end.” Well said, sir!

  4. Although my blog here on WordPress is a blog about genealogy and not photography, I am actually a photographer. I’ve been a photographer for about 25 years, and my specialization is documentary photography. So, first, retouching and minimal cropping isn’t cheating. Not at all. Not in photoshop and not in the darkroom! making your work look its best isn’t cheating. Now, if you were cropping out significant things, adding things to the shot that weren’t there when you took it, changing the colors, etc., THAT is closer to cheating. What you’ve done in your examples above is basically minimal cropping and dodging and burning, only using higher tech tools. I only think photo chopping is cheating when it alters the meaning of the image significantly and creates a false truth (removing braces from teeth, removing buildings from shots, adding people, cropping people out, etc). I think your black and white digital images are great. There’s some real garbage BW work out there……

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Julie — and especially for your kind words. You are echoing what I’ve come to believe: It’s cheating only if it makes a “lie” of the image. So thank you for the reassurance that I’m not being dishonest by playing with my images a bit. (As for YOUR photographic pursuits … documentary photography, eh? That’s fascinating! I’ve just visited “itsabeautifultree” and I’m hooked. Your post about the SanFran earthquake was *extraordinary*.)

      • Thank you very much! If you are interested in documentary photography– it’s slightly different from photojournalism in that you aren’t really seeking out action, just documenting the existence of life and time– almost ethnographic, in a sense. Check out Dorthea Lange “Lightening in a Bottle” from the American Masters series from PBS. Also ANYTHING by any of the photographers of the Farm Securities Administration or the Works Projects Administration during the Great Depression. Back when I went to college (in the 1990s) I was first introduced to these guys, and they changed my life in terms of photography. Dorthea Lange, Walker Evans, Russell Lee…. fantastic stuff. Also “The Americans” by Robert Frank. You will see exactly what I mean. OF COURSE I am still taking pictures all the time, I just don’t blog about it, really. I do instagram, but is that REALLY photography? (@texasgypsysoul)

        • Thank you for your recommendation of “Lightning in a Bottle” — I will be sure to watch it! And thank you also for drawing such a superb distinction between photojournalism and documentary photography. You’ve cleared up a gray area that’s bothered me for years! And I’m very glad to read that you’re still taking pictures all the time. Who cares if you don’t blog about them — or whether Instagram is *really* photography? I still maintain that the best (and really, the only) reason to take photos is for yourself. Especially when you have as photogenic and willing subject as some Highland cattle. 😉

  5. I am no expert but I agree with what Thomas is saying. I think altering an image so much that it doesn’t reflect what you captured in the first place in my opinion is wrong. However enhancing a mood or correcting lighting just to make what you captured even better seems fine to me. *She says, using way too many filters on her images.* 😉 I sometimes do several versions of one image just for fun. I like seeing how the colours can change and effect the mood and it is almost like creating my own art.

    • I hadn’t even *thought* of filters, Rochelle! But you’re right that a little color-balancing and dodging can really alter the mood, which I think expresses beautifully what I’ve struggled with: By altering the mood, aren’t you changing the emotional content of the photo — and therefore, the photo itself? I guess the consensus is coming down pretty heavily on the “don’t worry about it so much” camp. 🙂 Thank you so much for adding your voice to the discussion!

  6. I actually think I preferred both of you original photos. I think there is quite a bit of merit in only publishing untouched photos, especially in the age of filters. I don’t mean to stir controversy, but it comes to photojournalism I feel retouching is the same as exaggerating quotes in written journalism. If you’re taking photos as art though, there should be no limits on editing.

      • “Dear marianowrites, Please stop leaving me comments from your phone.” Haha! *That* will never happen, because I always appreciate your comments. 🙂 Well, congrats for being the first person to say you prefer the original images! What’s interesting is that I actually learned how to tone and color-correct digital photos at a newspaper, where nothing went to the press without a touch-up (because of dot-gain, color shifts, and a whole host of other print-related goodies). So I think maybe my discomfort with the idea is more related to maintaining the original content and intent of the image than anything. Or maybe I’m just tired of the tacky filters everyone is using these days? I don’t know … but thanks for the thought-fodder.

  7. Aarghh, now you’re going to get wound up into a frenzy of photo-fiddling if you’re not careful! (I know, I’ve been there, and it’s not pretty.)

    As far as definitions of ‘truth’ and ‘cheating’ in photography (particularly photojournalism) go, I think Julie above has said it all. Nothing wrong with honing your work, as long as you are not manipulating the essential truths. Of course, playing about with filters and saturation etc. can be fun…but it produces a different version of reality, which arguably has no place in photojournalism. Speaking as a professional photojournalist, you understand. Ahem. 😉

    Oh, since you asked, I like the middle one of the couple, and the cropped one of the trees. Can’t you give you technical reasons, it’s just an instinctive response. (Scuttles back to my point-and-click pocket camera…)

    • “AAARGH” exactly describes how I feel about the prospect of endless photo-fiddling, DB! And yet … it *would* keep me off eBay … 🙂

      You’ve also beautifully summed up my dilemma with digital manipulation: There’s a fine line sometimes between “touching up” and “oh, look at the fluorescent-lime-green grass.” But I suppose my concerns are mainly academic, since these are my HOLIDAY SNAPSHOTS we’re talking about. Geez, I feel sort of silly all of a sudden. [Scuttles back to her holiday snaps and vows to not overthink her hobbies in the future.]

      Seriously, though: Thank you for brightening my day with your thoughtful comment. And thank you for voting! 😀

  8. In the early 70s I spent three and a half years working in a commercial photography studio which specialised in fashion and product (still life) photography. During that time, I spent about a year in the dark. Actually, I spent most of the time in the dark but what I meant was that I spent a year learning the craft (some would say “dark arts”) practiced in the darkroom. And they ARE arts, as deserving of that term as any practiced in the studio or out on location. And what I fervently believe is that all of these arts are combined (as necessary) to create the final product (image).

    Much of what was incorporated into the early versions of Photoshop were translations (into the new digital technology) of techniques that darkroom jockeys had practiced since the early days of photography. But the personal computer let the cat out of the bag by making these arts available to people who had not previously realised they existed. Then this whole furore developed around the notion that the image coming out of the camera is sacrosanct and should not be “tampered with”. I blame Cartier-Bresson for that – or those who deified him and turned his opinions into dogma.

    I am feeling myself getting all worked up again and sending my BP into orbit so I’ll stop here and give you a link to a piece I wrote on my blog when I was younger and less susceptible to hypertension:

    But just so that there is no confusion about where I stand on this issue, my firm belief (setting documentary photography aside for the purposes of this discussion) is that the final image is all that matters, and how the photographer gets there is nobody’s business but his or her own.

    Kind regards,


    • Wow, Keith … your old blog post is nothing short of brilliant. (Oh, how I miss your writing! And your photos too, for that matter.)

      Your early career sounds fascinating! Although mine was not as glamorous, I too spent my share of time in the dark, mixing chemicals and watching the clock. But that seemed more “honest” somehow … maybe because I was doing it with my hands? Or maybe because it required some skill or expertise that Photoshop now affords to the masses.

      In any case, you’ve summed it up brilliantly for me: The final image is what matters. Thank you for that!

  9. A very interesting post. I realize now that fiddling in the darkroom was a very immediate experience as there would be no image until you did. Whereas a large backlog of digital images becomes intimidating.
    I do like the improvements that you made to these two photos; especially the crop on the Palais. It added just a hint more of asymmetricality to the image and made it more lively to me. just keep doing what you do so well!

  10. In both cases I absolutely prefer the original (not retouched and not cropped) versions. This means to me that you have a sharp eye when you are in the real setting, which is not easy. However, I’m not against retouching, I think life itself is retouched all the time, to make us look at things in a certain way 🙂
    I always retouch my drawings, lol! Abrazos y besos mil.

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