Ethics of Using Photo Enhancement Software

I purchased Luminar software a few days ago.

My first project was to change the sky for probably my favorite photo I’ve ever taken.

It got me wondering about the ethics of using this type of software. Is using software such as Luminar deceiving the customer?

My thought on it is that, I do not need to come right out and state that I’ve changed the sky from the original. However, if someone asked if the photo was manipulated in any way, I would simply be totally honest in telling the customer the photo was “manipulated” from the original, and in what way.

I understand that we make changes to images all the time when we develop them: a bluer sky, more overall saturation, sharpness, etc. However, it seems to me making a change such as inputting an entirely sky may be in different category than simply developing an image.

Can you please share your thoughts on this?

Appreciate it!

Tom, the key word here is “customer”. If the customer sees it and likes how it looks it would be a sale in my book. If he did ask then of course you would disclose things IMO.
So far as posting for critique and reviews I would say a sky change is a major upgrade and I would make full disclosure. But, that does not disqualify it as anything more than a highly manipulated image and nothing beyond that. Just my thoughts on this point.

1 Like

Paul - Appreciate your input! :smiley:

Hey Tom,

Matt has a really good discussion on this topic with Paul Reiffer on his pod cast. It was a good chat!

To me it’s no so much about ethics but the quality of the final product when replacing skies. I can often tell that something is wrong with an image as the light in the sky may not match the light in the foreground. So to me it makes an image look cheap or it just doesn’t feel right. I’m not sure if this applies to non photographers thought. I suppose that with the fast scrolling views on Instagram a replaced sky can attract a lot of ubiquitous likes but I’d be surprised if such images are chosen to hang on their wall for a generation.

I don’t have a problem with people replacing skies allthough I can find it ridiculous. For example there’s an image going around Instagram of a shot in a mountain twon with traffic frozen on a street in the foreground with the camera looking towards the headlights of a car and behind the street is a mountain and behind the mountain is a long exposure Milky Way. I don’t find that unethical but cheap and cheesy.

1 Like

Thanks Nathan! I will check look for the podcast.
Happen to have a direct link?

Hi Team,

Here’s the link -

Matt also has a sub forum on this website to discuss the podcast

Nathan - Thank you - Much appreciated! :smiley:

My take is to state up front the sky was replaced. It isn’t something that should be disclosed only if asked. Why not, nothing wrong with it if you like it and the customer likes it, but why not be clear right up front.

1 Like


Here’s another take on this age-old discussion and debate. I think the debate is more closely related to the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it… .does it make a sound?” :thinking: :roll_eyes: :innocent:

Seriously though, IMHO, sw products, cameras, techniques, etc. can’t be ethical or unethical. People are ethical or unethical. The use of a tool isn’t unethical - at least that is until the person using it makes a conscious decision to deceive. The the sky replacing example. If you replace a sky - or anything really and then go about presenting the final image as if it happened exactly as you presented it. That’s unethical. If, on the other hand, you disclose and explain - you’re not deceiving anyone. @John_Williams post is a perfect example. Multiple exposures for focus stack, exposure in a fleeting light situation. Did he replace/alter the sky? Yup, but he was totally upfront about his approach and processing.

Another way I look at it. If you’re selling wildlife nature prints under the name of “Tom’s Wildlife and Nature Prints” AND you have prints in your portfolio where bugling elk from Yellowstone were composited with a foggy scene in the Redwood forest of California AND you were selling under the guise that it really happened. That’s unethical IMHO. IF, on the other hand, you’re selling your work under the name of “Tom’s Creative Wildlife and Nature Photography” and you have images of a 500mm moon over a 35mm landscape and calling it creative art… I’m good with that too. Your audience get that you are “creating” something that probably didn’t happen for real.

Are there a thousand other scenarios that we all could debate? Yup - cloning a beer can or twig… black & white? B&W - The ultimate alteration of reality - yet, for that, it’s pretty much established, b&w is what it is and everyone knows it.

I think many of us struggle with this in general - especially us old timers that came from shooting for decades with film. You didn’t get it right in the camera, in the field - too bad. Go read @Alister_Benn 's AMA as he touches on this.
I struggle because I’ve taken advantage of the digital age and “manipulate” my images, unlike I ever could with slides. Although honestly, we used to paint toner on slides to reduce hot spots; mask/crop slides with silver tape, etc. etc… so “manipulation” has been going on since the beginning.

Anyway, to sum it up, again, it’s people that are ethical or unethical. You as a photographer attempt to deceive viewers claiming something is real or happened in one frame, but actually didn’t - you are being deceitful and unethical. JMHO


1 Like

There is nothing unethical about using Luminar, Photoshop, or whatever to do anything to your photos including sky replacement. However, I would opine that lying is unethical.

If you have a photo that you took in mid-day with a blue bird sky and replace the sky with an epic sunset and say “look at this awesome sunset I captured,” or take a photo of the Milky Way in New Zealand and place it over a skyline of New York City and brag how you “captured the Milky Way over NYC,” then that is lying and unethical in my book.

If you are totally upfront that the image you created did not reflect reality, then there is nothing wrong with it. It is art.


Thank you to all for taking the time to chime in - we are all on the same page. I wanted to hear what others thought. To be clear, I would never falsify how I took an image. I basically wanted to get folks’ opinions as to whether it is ok to do at all, when the intent is to sell the photo images. The consensus I see here is, “Yes”, as long as the folks purchasing said images are aware of any manipulation. That’s exactly how I feel.

Thanks again!


My ethic is that I would come right out, but that’s a personal choice. If a client saw my originals, I wouldn’t want them to be surprised or disappointed.

I don’t really sell images, but if I did I would be tempted to provide a handout or brochure that showed the original jpeg images the camera captured, and a rough story of both the capturing and the processing. (I always have the camera record a jpg with the raw; I wouldn’t show the raw because they typically confuse non-photographers). That way clients could be impressed with my processing skills in addition to my capturing skills. (Well maybe not MY processing and capturing skills, but you get my drift. :wink:)

That is really well put Lon.

I’ve said it recently but I’m all for it as long as you don’t lie about it and pass it off as reality. I do a lot with mine because it gives you another chance to be creative and either make the scene look more how I remember it or felt it (although that expression is vague and often a get out clause).

As it’s been mentioned here though, you do see some ridiculous sky replacements with milky ways in places it would never be and too bright. I agree this just looks cheap and naff.

I think if you start bringing ethics into art it becomes a little too much like censorship in my opinion.



Thank you for your input. :smiley:

For me, in my print sales business, being 100% clear about what I do is common sense. In short I make no secret that my photographs are manipulated and that they show my vision of the world and not the reality that everyone can see.

One thing I learned over the years (I started selling prints in 1993 and I have been making a full time living doing this since 1997) is that when people ask ‘is this photograph manipulated’ they already know the answer. What they are asking for is confirmation. Sometimes they just want to start a conversation and they use the question for that reason. So my answer is a simple ‘yes’. To me this question is similar to asking if my car has four wheels. Yes. It is a matter of fact answer because to me it is a matter of fact question. This is what I do: I create manipulated photographs. That’s my style. I expect people to know that but not everyone does so when the question comes up I simply state the obvious.

One last thing: I also have a guarantee which states that I will refund any print purchase if it turns out the photograph is not manipulated. I don’t take any chances since they all are, so this is another way to make clear that my work is manipulated and not ‘real’. You can never make it too clear.

Again, it does not matter because people like my work for what it is, I approach photography as an art and art is manipulation, or to put it more artistic terms: an artist’s vision of the world which by nature is personal, different from everyone else and unlike the reality that the audience can see through their own eyes.



Thank you very much Alain :smiley:

You are welcome Tom. I’ve been thinking about doing an AMA on NPN focused on Marketing Photographs. Let me know (as well as everyone else who reads this post) if this is of interest.



Alain - Yes, I am always interested in learning about marketing my landscape / nature photography. I am currently putting together a multi-pronged plan to market locally (restaurants, doctors’ offices, all sorts of businesses, schools, etc., etc.). I’ve collected a bunch of ideas, will whittle them down, and focus on the most effective first, and work my way down my list. Count me among those interested in what (if) you put together. :smiley:

1 Like

Hi Tom, It looks like there is a lot of interest based on your comments and the likes on my query post. I’ll email David Kingham and we will go from there. I definitely look forward to doing an AMA with a focus on Marketing.

People seem to be hung up on this. Ansel Adams did dodge and burn on his photos. Isn’t that manipulation? If the creator has a different vision of the scene or image and is trying to express that, where is the problem. When push processing slide film or changing proscribed development times of some chemicals inn the darkroom, isn’t that manipulation? It all depends what the photographer wishes to convey to the viewer or to himself or herself.

1 Like