When is photo manipulation too much?

I’ll start by apologizing that this subject is so dry, it makes a very dry thing look wetter than a very wet thing. I never was much good at similes. Which brings me not very smoothly to the follow up article on post production (see here) with a few words on photo manipulation.

The question is, when it comes to images shot for your business, when does post production become photo manipulation? At what point does it become unacceptable?

To make better sense of this, I had better define the terms “photo manipulation” and “post production”.

Post production is generally accepted as the process of making an image taken straight from the camera suitable for reproduction in whatever medium it is destined for, as outlined in that previous article.

Carried out within acceptable boundaries, post production won’t change the meaning or intention of the original photo. It’s much the same as the good old days when you had a photo negative printed at the local lab. They would make sure your negative was clean, and they would also make adjustments for exposure, colour cast etc.

It goes without saying, though I’ll say it anyway, that image manipulation in any news, sport or feature photo is unacceptable. For businesses issuing press releases, the simple rule is don’t manipulate. You can damage your reputation and attract negative press and blog comment (remember this?), which will never go away and will take a long time to repair.

photo of Mells Iron Works at night

Made up of 8 image layers, this was a personal project not destined for commercial or press use.

Photo manipulation would cover things like adding to, or removing elements from an image, distorting people to make them look slimmer, taking an ugly sign or street furniture out of a background, adding a logo which wasn’t in the original.

A clear example of over-manipulation would be if I changed a self portrait to make it look as though I had humanoid ears. That would just be ridiculous, and those who know me would never stop laughing.

As wonderful as digital is, and for all Photoshop can do, it’s still extremely important to get the shot right in the camera. Not take any old snap, and hope for a technical fix later.

I do think the rules can shift a little when it comes to a corporate photo for a web site, but I still advise caution. For example, I will happily remove pimples or other non-permanent blemishes, but permanent ones stay. The person in the photo needs to be recognisable.

Dropping people or objects into a commercial image, or removing them from a scene, could cause problems of misrepresentation. If done sensitively and with appropriate captioning, it may not cause a major problem, though it’s important to take context into account, and that’s too much to cover here.

Maybe the best way to avoid disasters is to ask yourself the question: Is this a dishonest representation? What would my mother think? That last question alone should put you on the straight and narrow.

Article and photo © Tim Gander. All rights reserved. The articles in this blog may only be reproduced for non-commercial purposes.

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