Do you think that image processing is cheating?
Updated: Jun 23, 2021
Post processing of images has always been a topic of much discussion in photography circles, with many people claiming that image processing is cheating while others assert that it is a fundamental part of photography. Personally, I don’t believe that post processing or small amounts of editing our images is cheating, but I am willing to consider the argument.
Firstly, let me say that I do see a difference between deliberate manipulation of a photograph to alter the meaning or story that it tells and simply straightening an image or adjusting colour and contrast, but essentially the former applies to photo journalism and documentary photography where truth is paramount, and there are ethics governing this type of photography. However, processing of images by adjusting white balance, exposure, saturation of colours or contrast, or slight editing by removing an unwanted item from the edge of the frame is, in my opinion, part of the process of ‘making’ a photograph.
A slight colour adjustment on this image enhanced the autumn colours that my eye saw and that the camera didn't reveal, but I resisted the temptation to over-saturate the colours
Those who reject this viewpoint would argue that any enhancement of a photo, anything that changes the image that comes directly out of the camera, is in some way deceiving the viewer. Yet if we think of a painting done by an artist, don’t we accept that the artist might have ‘finished’ the painting yet still go back at a later stage to add another touch. If we see photography as an art form, and the camera as merely the tool by which we capture the original image, then it is natural that we would want that image to look as good as possible. The process might be different to that of the artist’s use of the brush, but since photography is a digital process, and so much processing is already done by the camera software, it is not cheating by the photographer to extend this process with his or her own creative touches. Why would we only allow camera software to process our images, and process them incompletely, when other software is available to allow us to have greater creative flexibility? Ultimately, whether enhancements are done by an artist’s brush or a digital imaging processing program, the real work in enhancing the picture before us is done by the artist, in our case the photographer.
Phone camera images often don't need any, or just minimal, adjustments in post processing. I think it is important to just make necessary adjustments and not to overdo post processing
Another argument that I would make in defense of post processing is that, regardless of how much processing we do, we will not turn a bad photograph into a good one. Post processing will only have a minimal effect on composition and if we don’t get that right in-camera we would be better off learning where we went wrong and trying again. Post processing will not ‘rescue’ our photographs; it will allow us to make some important enhancements that, rather than turning a bad photograph into a good one, may turn an already good photograph into an even better one. In that sense I like to think of post processing not in terms of ‘cheating’ but in terms of ‘honing our craft’.
Post production is nothing new. My first camera was a film camera and I remember posting the completed film off in an envelope to a lab where they would work on my images to produce a set of photographs from my negatives. What we have today is the equivalent of the darkroom, our own digital processing lab, in which we can edit our own images to bring out all the detail that the camera captured.
RAW vs JPEG
As part of my learning about photography, and indeed about post-processing, I had to discover the difference between RAW images and JPEGs, as these terms kept coming up in tutorials. I now understand that the processing of the JPEG images is mainly done for us in-camera while shooting in RAW gives us more raw information with which to work in an image editing program so that we can do our own processing. It therefore also gives us more creative choice. In fact, if you shoot in RAW, as most professional photographers do, then editing is not optional, it is essential, because RAW images straight out of camera are not ready for use. While with RAW images we have more information to work with it is still true that some editing can be done to JPEG images, and this does improve these images. When using my camera, I often shoot in RAW+JPEG to give myself experience in using editing software, however, I also like to do a little touch up to my JPEG images and camera phone shots from time to time.
This is a JPEG image straight out of camera
This is the same image having been given the Lightroom treatment. The images hasn't fundamentally changed but it is closer to the reality of what I saw with my eye
In an image like this, I could bring up detail by slightly processing the image (bottom) or I could leave it with details hidden. In reality I couldn't see the details very well so on this occasion so leaving the image without processing is my preferred option
In the past I was someone who was guilty of dismissing image processing, asserting that a digitally enhanced photograph is not an ‘honest’ image, but thankfully I have been proven wrong by those with superior knowledge on the subject and I now accept that post processing of images is adding the finishing touches to an unfinished image or adding your own creative style. I think there is a strong argument to say that by post processing our image we have actually made an image that is much closer to that which our eye originally saw. Rather than seeing image processing as cheating, I see it as an essential part of the photographer’s toolkit in creating the best possible image using all the detail that the camera captured and which it does not immediately reveal. For this reason, post processing has now become a matter of choice depending on what I want to say with my image.
Before processing. The colours look washed out and not as I saw them
After processing. The colours are closer to reality
You might be interested in some other viewpoints on this topic. Here are two that you might find interesting: