As we celebrate the twentieth birthday of Photoshop we should take a few minutes to think about how the subject of image manipulation is regarded both inside and outside of our profession. In truth there is a sizeable majority of the population who think that every image that they see has been heavily retouched or altered.

World Press Photo winner Stepan Rudik was disqualified from the competition in 2010 when the judges found he had removed a distracting detail from one of his images. WPP rules state the content of an image must not be altered.

Documentary, news and reportage photographers have a real battle to convince a sceptical world that their images tell the truth.

You might find it helps you to form your own thoughts on image manipulation by looking at these five categories of altering pictures and deciding for yourself which are appropriate for the kind of work that you do, and then using them to educate clients, friends and colleagues about how we as an industry view this very important subject.

1. Normal darkroom practices – correction of colour, tone, contrast and saturation to reflect the way the image should look. Light dodging and burning.

2. Darkroom interpretation – changes limited to colour, heavier dodging and burning, unnatural saturation and contrast that make the image an interpretation of reality.

3. Minor alterations – adding or removing elements to or from the image, other than by cropping, that do not change the essential message of the image.

4. Major alterations – adding or removing elements to or from the image that heighten or change the essential message of the image.

5. Image montage – using elements of more than one image to make a photograph that is no longer a genuine representation of the scene.

For the purposes of news I would say that 1 is OK, and that 2 might be.

By the time you get to 3 then I would say that was unacceptable for news – unless there is a label attached or there are good public interest reasons for the manipulation (such as preserving the anonymity of vulnerable people).

The real danger here is that much of the public assume everything we do is altered. It does us no favours for this assumption to go unchallenged. The real sadness is that so many photographers supplying news images ignore the ethical implications – largely because they know no better.

Image manipulation is a serious subject and one that should be addressed by every photographer every time they sit at their screen and every time they see their work in print.

Text © Neil Turner, March 2010

Neil Turner is a freelance photographer who shoots executive portraits and editorial commissions for magazines and newspapers. He is also an experienced teacher in photography and an EPUK moderator. Neil’s web site dg28 has long been an essential source of information concerning photographic technique.