Photography and Photoshop: An Ethical Quagmire

04.12.2012 18:22:44

Is it cheating when professional photographers use Photoshop?

It’s quite a heated debate; the kind that can polarise a room. You see, some people contend that Photoshop can only enhance what is already good; it can’t make a bad photograph good. Which is all good and well, but … but, it’s still representing something as real when it’s not and that … well, that is cheating, isn’t it?

When is cheating not cheating?

It’s not a philosophical question, like those about trees and clapping hands. All it requires is a bit of common sense. If you’ve paid a professional photographer to capture your joy and beauty on your wedding day then you’re probably not going to complain if she makes the pimple on your chin disappear, wipes away your mother-in-law’s furrowed brow, and ensures that no one, absolutely no one has those freaky red eyes. You’re not going to mind a little visual poetic licence that brings out the blue in your eyes, the red in the roses and the green of the grass.

On the other hand, if a photographer is in line for an award of some kind (one that isn’t called “Most Creative Use of Photoshop”) then a few touch ups here and there and cleaning some lines is not exactly fair play.

Skill is skill

In case you’ve been living under a rock, the net is full of articles with titles like, “10 Photoshop Mistakes You Won’t Believe” and, “15 Most Shocking Photoshop Mistakes”. The lesson here is that if you don’t have a very specific Photoshop (or any photo editing) skill set then you’ll end up producing pictures that are much worse than the originals could ever be.

Professional photographer Andre Gunther says that using Photoshop correctly is so difficult that he would rather travel phenomenal distances – twice – to get the right photograph rather than try to fix one that is a little less than perfect. Gunther says that using Photoshop is just as challenging as using a camera. It takes skill, dedication and practice to become a Photoshop artist, which is, essentially, what Photoshop maestros are.

Manipulation is as old as time

Craig Schmidt ( makes a very valid point; photographers have been manipulating their pictures since the first little flash bulb went off. Remember that movie about the ‘authentic’ pictures of fairies in a garden; the pictures that were so convincing that even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was fooled?

Schmidt says that some of the greatest photographers of all time have “pushed the photographic medium to the limit”. Techniques included varying exposure, steel wool and graphic shavings. It wasn’t considered cheating; it was considered revolutionary.

So, why should we judge photographers who use Photoshop harshly?

Maybe it’s because Photoshop is so widely available. Maybe it’s because everyone and his uncle has Photoshop and is using it to prettify family holiday snaps or to make the photos look funnier or sillier. Old-school manipulation techniques were great secrets, they were magic, and they held the world in wonder.

Now there is no magic, there is no wonder and we don’t really believe that we should celebrate people for doing something that we think we could, perhaps, do better.

Written by Sandy Cosser on behalf of Now Learning, an Australian education portal that promotes a range of online and classroom based degrees and courses, including Photoshop and photography.

Image credit: Photoshop mistakes
Ryan Smith Photography, CC BY-ND 2.0, via Flickr

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