top of page

To Photoshop or not to Photoshop

Updated: May 2, 2022

Ethics in Photography

Several years ago, Lynda and I cruised the coastline of New England and Canada, stopping for shore excursions along the Maine coast and into Nova Scotia. We started the trip sightseeing in New York City and another day in Boston. It was a wonderful cruise, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

In Cape Elizabeth, Maine we discovered “the most photographed lighthouse in the world” (or so the local marketing gurus would want you to believe). It really is an iconic lighthouse. I took pictures of Lynda and she took pictures of me. Then a nice passerby took a photo of us both.

After the trip, weeks later, I reviewed all my images. I even built a coffee-table photo book, which is where my ethical dilemma began.

The original photos were gorgeous but that sky; it just looked so plain. What to do?

Never one to shy away from “improving” my images, I photoshopped a few clouds into the background. Hmmmm, well, not just any clouds, but the most awe inspiring, fluffy, statement-making clouds on the planet (or at least ones available for download). Now, that is what I call a vacation picture!

My “improvements” do raise a bit of an ethical question though. I am not selling these photos; they are for personal use. But what if I was selling them; all I did was add a few clouds. Right?

In my previous life, I owned a portrait studio. We photographed children, seniors, cars, business professionals, animals, newlywed couples, lovers seeking retouched portraits for their “eHarmony” sites; in fact, our studio would photograph about anything or anybody. When it came to humans though, there was one common request — “Make me look thinner, younger and more attractive.”

Roger that! Consider it done.

With Photoshop, that ubiquitous, all things are possible, photo-altering software app, your slightest desire is your photographer’s command. Do you need a digital chin-lift or tummy-tuck? Not a problem. How about that pimple on your nose? No dermatologist can work as swiftly and completely to clear a bad case of acne.

So, what is the ethical difference? I enhanced my vacation photos with a few strategically placed clouds. Right?

One former client, I’ll call her Brittany, was a rather curvaceous high school senior. For Brittany’s senior pictures we photographed her in what must have been 20 outfits, each one covering less and less. Mom watched from the sidelines and seemed oblivious, really into the session and she encouraged Brittany to pose provocatively. I thought Mom was living vicariously through her daughter until we started proofing the images in the studio. In the end, not only did Brittany get her pimples fixed, we also photoshopped her exposed cleavage with more clothes. Mom was understandably upset that her daughter looked too sexy. All in a day’s work.

I used to routinely photograph physician headshots for a local hospital. The hospital marketing director would escort her staff doctors into my studio. Most of these highly skilled, incredibly intelligent doctors looked like they had just stepped out of a clothes dryer.

After each session, the marketing director would give me a multi-page list of “fixes” that often included a haircut, teeth straightened and whitened, add a stethoscope because Dr. Doolittle forgot to bring his for the session, remove lab coat wrinkles and even change tie colors.

The list could go on. In the world of business portraits and commercial photography, these types of “improvements” are common.

Which begs the question, are they ethical? I would argue that for marketing purposes, the answer is yes. But, how about all those beautiful, fluffy clouds I added to my vacation photos?

I have a perspective on all of this that I will share. If the retouched photo does not mislead for commercial gain, or is illegal, all is fair in love and war.

I had to chuckle at my eHarmony clients though. I always wondered what the person on the other end of that first eHarmony date thought when a 20-year, older version, of the website photo walked in the door.

And sometimes, quite the opposite happens. In another memorable session, I was asked to photograph the very window that Lee Harvey Oswald leaned out of, in the Dallas School Book Depository, when he shot President John F. Kennedy. My client requested only non-retouched documentation type photos of this historic window. The photos were for the purpose of establishing the window’s authenticity. Any Photoshop work would have been unethical.

So, what about my lighthouse? I vote “yes,” the clouds are ethical, and I love them!

My good friend Mark Twain used to say, “Life is short, break the rules. Forgive quickly. Kiss slowly. Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably and never regret anything that makes you smile.

The clouds make me smile.

7 views0 comments


bottom of page