Ethics of editing photographs: nature and cities

I decided to make this post the first of my ethics series because it connects to me very personally. The majority of photographers out there edit their photos in some way, and I am no exception. In a way, editing is like makeup: it doesn't mean the original person is ugly; it can enhance features and fix little things. Other times, you just want to have fun with it. In this post, I'll provide a few before and afters of my photos.

Some people argue that editing paints a false picture of reality. Nature already presents us with something beautiful, so we don't need to distort it. Other times, editing can contribute to body image issues when a model's face and figure are edited - I will have a separate post about editing portraits and magazine covers.

Photographers and consumers also have different tolerances for editing - some levels of editing are okay, and some aren't. Where do we draw the line? There isn't a clear line for many, but let's talk about why people edit and see some examples of editing.

I consider this to be minor editing; I didn't change colors too dramatically, and the colors of the sunset and ocean were something in between these photos.

Often, photographers shoot their photos in RAW. That means the photo is uncompressed, and it doesn't look as good as the scene actually was, because it's waiting to be processed (edited) in your computer. Shooting in JPG makes the photo look better, but there is less you can do with it in terms of editing. With RAW photos, photographers can edit more and be more creative.

Even in JPG, a scene probably won't look as great as it did in person, because the camera eye isn't as smart as the human eye. Sometimes photographers edit their photos to make it resemble real life more. Other times they edit for other reasons, whether it's getting rid of dust on the lens or creating something surreal.

Note: these are actually two shots of my cousin (but practically the same); long story short, the original was overwritten. The editing here is more dramatic than the sunset shot.

There are some photos that I touch up on lightly and others which are edited much more. I often like making my images look more dreamy and sometimes futuristic. I like to create photos that are set in a possible reality, yet still infused with my imagination.

Some photographers also create composites (combining at least two images to create one). I'll write a separate piece about this in the future, but I have no problem with it if it's their own photos, or at least credited properly.

The editing on this photo is definitely more dramatic compared to the other ones. The conditions were a bit smoky due to fires, so I added splashes of color. I don't think it's a good edit actually; the top looks very unnatural. Even though I wanted to make it dreamy, the top half could have been lots better. But I don't regret editing it, and in the future I'll revisit it.

The Yosemite photo was surprisingly successful on Reddit, though some were quick to point out the over-editing after seeing the original photo. I was happy to engage in conversation with them as I explained my reasoning for my style of editing, as well as understand their suggestions for fixing the sky.

I feel like there is nothing wrong with editing as long as the photographer is upfront about it when asked. If they want to create a dreamy or more cinematic image, they should be able to. However, it can be controversial if photographers add buildings and pieces of land to travel photos and don't say it. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts on all this! Where do you draw the line?