Photography and Digital Manipulation: Finding a Middle Ground

One of the most important topics in the photography world revolves around the use of editing, digital artistic manipulation (such as composites) and recently, the widespread practice of “peak stretching.” Just in this past year, I’ve come across extensive blog articles, listened to heated debates and scanned endless online commentary, all centered around these issues. I feel this is an important topic that greatly effects the world of photography and the future of the medium.

Example of photo editing, shot of iceland
I feel like most of my images are somewhere in the middle ground of processing. But always with the goal of representing the original scene. In this case, the main change was moving the small circular cloud a little bit to the left so I wouldn’t have to crop half of it out.

Two Sides and a Middle Ground

On one side of the fence, many feel that a finished photograph should look very close to what came straight out of the camera. Maybe some exposure adjustment, some contrast, etc., but the image should be more or less left alone. On the other side, many modern photographers and artists use the image or images that come from the camera as a starting point. Those files are then worked on in various ways, and a piece of art is created on the computer. Sometimes it can look very similar to a “real” scene and sometimes not. Of course, most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

Figuring out exactly where we stand on this topic and how we feel about the morals and effects on photography can be challenging. Many of my workshop clients have expressed feeling shamed or put down (about the editing choices they have made) by those who believe strongly one way or the other. As a pro photographer that fits somewhere in the middle, that is both pro-Photoshop and pro “real,” I thought I would share my thoughts on finding a middle ground and hopefully help others to make their own choice on how to handle the modern digital world of photography.

Example of little photo editing, image of colorado
Here’s an example of an image I used very little editing on. Just a bit of cropping and basic adjustments in Lightroom. 

Pros for “Real” Photography

Figuring out what “real” photography is is a topic that can be discussed endlessly. After all, taking a 2-dimensional photograph in one direction, at one point in time, is hardly showing the multi-dimensional, 360-degree reality you were standing in while taking the image. Throw in odd focal lengths, both ultra-wide and extremely long; panoramas that distort and warp; and the simple fact that when we find a “perfect” clean, simple photograph, it is probably the exception to the very busy cluttered world that we live in anyway. “Real” and photography are not a perfect match.

That said, for me, while a photograph is certainly not 100% real, photography can give us a very close idea and approximation of a particular scene. It can show us elements that are close enough that our brain can fill in the rest and we can have an excellent idea of what a place might look like or be like in person. That is the real power of a photograph in my opinion, and that is why we love photography so much. The power is in that nearness to reality. The idea that the place you see in front of you is a place you can actually go, a place that you can actually experience in the real world.

Image Editing Waterfall In Senja Norway
An example of an image that has quite a bit of editing, including focal length blending. However, I feel like the scene is looks very close to how it did standing there in person. Anyone visiting this spot would not be disappointed.

I walked into an Indian restaurant a while back and saw a photograph on the wall of huge towering mountains over a stunning valley. It evoked such a strong desire in me to travel and see that place. It was the same feeling I had many years ago seeing an image of Machu Picchu for the first time. A time when I could hardly believe that a place like that existed. It inspired me to travel and to become a photographer. I wanted to inspire others to see and explore as well.

As it turns out, the piece in the Indian restaurant was a painting, not a photograph. While I love paintings, many forms of art, and have great respect for the talent, the second that I realized it was not a photograph, and not a real place, I lost all of the sense of wonder. An amazing piece of art, yes. But a place that I can actually go see… no.

landscape painting versus photography
Albert Bierstadt’s “Among the Sierra Nevada” is a great example of a painting that’s absolutely incredible. However, knowing that it is not a real place, at least for me, changes the emotions I experience while looking at it. And if it did actually exist, I would by dying to go see it. (Ironically, in the 1860’s it fueled the image of America as a promised land.)

This yearning to visit the places photographers capture is also evident on social media — such as Instagram photography hubs, where hundreds and hundreds of comments are filled with excitement about visiting the location of the photo. Often it is hard for non-photographers to discern whether or not a place really exists.

Example Instagram Location

We love photography because someday, we want to visit that incredible place that was shared. We want to see it with our own eyes. Somewhere out there. If we take photography to a point where it is no longer showing the viewer a place they can go, again, much of the power is lost.

But there is much more to the story…

Pros for Digital Manipulation

Photography is art (or at least the type of photography we concern ourselves with here). In my mind, it should not be limited by rules or laws or old school dogmas that say we must do this or that. One of the most frustrating things about photography for me has always been the limitations. Where a painter can create what they want, we photographers live in a world of compromise.

In almost every situation, even though we may have the artistic vision of how we want the image to look, we can’t physically accomplish that goal. You want to move to the left 10 feet to make the composition work, but there is a cliff preventing it. You need to get super low to make the foreground more interesting, but by doing so, you lose part of the background. Having photoshop to make adjustments to different elements of the scene allows us to be much more artistic, and enables more of your creative vision to come through.

Using photoshop is also a great way to bring an image closer to how you saw it. For example, when you shoot a scene with a super wide angle lens, peaks that are huge and dominate the view in front of you, become so small that you can barely see them. By using techniques like focal length blending or perspective blending, you can make the peaks closer to the size you perceived them to be with the naked eye. At the same time, you can keep the foreground close to how it appears. Of course, you can also do simple things like having both the foreground and background exposed perfectly which is much closer to how we see the world.

Focal Length Blend example landscape photography
The images above are a decent example of using photoshop (in this case focal length blending) to actually make an image look closer to real. The first image was taken on a cell phone at roughly 35mm and even it shows the peak quite a bit smaller than it actually looked standing there. You can see the image on the far right taken at 12mm shows the peak much, much smaller than it actually was in real life. By using focal length blending and brining the peak in, the photoshopped image is closer to reality.

Finding the Balance

In my mind, a balance is needed. I believe photos should be based upon a real place and your personal experience of being there. This way, the power of the photograph can survive. Someone can see, get inspired, and then visit. However, at the same time, a large amount of editing should not be looked down upon. It can even be a great help in showing the place and your experience of it. Of course, at this point, everyone always asks: “but where do you draw the line.” How much is too much? For me, that line is not all that hard to find.

If someone can look at the photo, then visit the place it was taken and without a doubt see that it is, in fact, the same place, without significant differences in geometry, then in my opinion – nothing else really matters. If the mountains aren’t twice as big and more jagged in the photo than they are in real life. If there is actually a waterfall in the scene (as opposed finding out the waterfall in the photo is in a completely different area), etc. If the photo closely represents what you saw in person, I don’t feel like anything is off limits when it comes to Photoshop. If, however, someone shows up to an area and expects extremely tall jagged peaks and three waterfalls and then discovers that the area barely resembles the artwork they saw, the power of photography is gone.

example of peak stretching landscape photography
Here is an example of image stretching, basically using something like the warp tool to drag mountain peaks up – completely distorting them and leaving reality behind. I personally don’t mind a small amount of warping, and even think it can be necessary for panos or when shooting with a wide angle lens, because elements like mountains are often flattened and a bit of warping can bring them back to normal. I also don’t mind a very small amount of warping for artistic reasons. But this comes back to if the overall image is altered to the point where it is no longer realistic to the original scene. Some of the stretching you see all over Instagram now is extreme.

Adding a Sky?

Of course, that leads to another big question. If you add a new sky (or milky-way) in from a different day or location and the scene is still recognizable… Is that still okay? After all, the scene still looks similar to real life – and often a similar sky “could” have looked like that.

In my mind, it is all about your experience. If you saw and experienced certain conditions making small photoshop changes that still represent what you saw, (as in possibly adding a few more clouds to a small empty area, where the overall look of the image doesn’t change much, but the balance is a little better), I believe that is ok. I also feel that anything captured over the course of time that you were actually standing at a location is entirely acceptable to blend into a single image (as you did experience it). Meaning, if over an hour or two you witnessed and captured different types of light, then blend them, you are showing the scene in the way you experienced it. In some ways, this is a more accurate representation of what you experienced then a single moment would show.

Again, it’s a middle ground between being creative and still being true to what you saw and experienced. If you add in a sky from a different place or time and it had nothing to do with the experience that you had, the authenticity of the photo is no longer there at all. Of course, finding the line, in this case, is more challenging, but still, I think there is a point that we know, “this” looks very close to what I saw, and “this” looks completely different.

example of editing a sky landscape photography
An example of doing a little photoshop that made the image stronger artistically, where I don’t feel the experience of what I saw was changed. The small pink cloud in the red circle was blended in. Before adding it, there was a distracting open space above the peak.

What About Pushing Further?

In my mind, there is nothing wrong with entering the realm of digital manipulation. The only difference, in my opinion, is that if an image no longer represents a real place — it should be mentioned openly in one way or another. Why does this matter? Because as mentioned above, if people learn to assume that most photos are largely fabricated, photography as a whole will depreciate and eventually hold no more power than a painting.

Being transparent about the type of work you are creating is no different than disclosing whether a story is Fiction or Non-Fiction. We can easily understand the importance and reasoning behind identifying these categories of literature. Each can tell an incredible story from a particular perspective — and calling a book fiction lets the reader know what to expect and how it relates to the material world. Writers use the same sense of judgment when telling a story as we do when creating a photo.

“Fiction is fabricated and based on the author’s imagination. While parts of the story such as plot and setting are sometimes based on real-life events or people, they are used as jumping off points for a story. Non-fiction often uses many of the techniques of fiction to make it more appealing such as rich detailing of events, however too many fabrications in a nonfiction work can force that story to lose credibility.” -Bookriot, “The Difference Between Fiction and Non-Fiction

Instagram Example
Here is an example of “Instagram hubs” using an artist’s image in a completely misleading way. They tagged the image as California and described the shot a real place in the caption. People eagerly asked for the location and some denounced it as fake. I’m not sure if the artist ever got a chance to explain that it was a composite. But I think this is a great example of why it is important to do so. (And to beware of who you let share your images).

Final Thoughts

Of course, the other thing to keep in mind is that we are talking about photography here. While many of us take it very seriously, and it can have serious impacts on our environment and lives – for many, it is a hobby and a passion. We need to keep it fun and make sure those who want to enjoy it still can. While I strongly encourage everyone to think about these topics, and even mention the ideas to others, please be respectful to anyone that doesn’t share your opinion.

Perhaps the most important takeaway is that the issue is not so much about using Photoshop, but in how we choose to use Photoshop. For me, there shouldn’t be a list of things that are considered off limits or that shouldn’t be done, we need to either keep true to the reality of a scene or be upfront if you’ve created a dreamscape.

Author Details
Dan Ballard is a pro landscape photographer, avid traveler and educator. He has been to over 60 countries across the globe in search of a great image or a memorable experience. Influenced by his early years growing up in a small town in Colorado, Dan’s love for photography comes from a strong desire to share a sense of wonder for the world with others. Dan has been invited to speak around the world at photo events and festivals, and he has sold images to major publications and clients globally, including The National Geographic Society and The Travel Channel. He teaches photo workshops year round.
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