Is it Photoshopped? The "ethics" of changing pixels in landscape photography

I came of age (photographically speaking) in the 1970s, before digital photography, when it was impossible to change the content of photos. Most people only did darkroom work in black and white because color was too cumbersome. We could change contrast by choice of paper, chemicals in the bath, time in the bath, and with filters. We could change exposure by various techniques. We could dodge and burn by phycially blocking the light from reaching the photo paper. Ansel Adams was the master extraordinare. His finished photos looked nothing like his negatives. There was never a question of was he doing something “wrong” and we all strove to imitate him. In digital terms, we could create adjustment layers in contrast and brightness, and we could do spot corrections in luminosity. What we couldn’t do was change, remove, or add pixels.

Fast forward to now. In Photoshop, Lightroom and other software we can easily create many many adjustment layers in color and black and white. What is new is that we can change, add, or delete pixels. People constantly ask “Is it OK to…” and you can fill in the blank with a multitude of things. Add a sky, or just add some clouds in a bright area of a cloudy sky, remove things you don’t like by clonlng away or erasing, combine different exposures, add more real estate using Content Aware Fill, etc.

I recently spent ten days in Southern Utah. The trip was wonderful, but the biggest negative was that in many locations during many days the sky was very hazy and therefore looked muddy and dull. Many otherwise nice and maybe even great photos were ruined by the sky. At home while reviewing my photos I also just got around to learning whats new in Photoshop and played around with the “Add Sky” feature. Voilá. Suddenly I could make my “ruined” photos attractive!

I have long felt comfortable getting rid of unwanted small things in my photos. Like in a forest scene, I will clean it up a bit by using the spot healing brush to remove some of the more agregious wayward branches, or a sign post in a otherwise pristine landscape, contrails in the sky, or dust spots on the sensor. I often exposure bracket so that I can combine two photos to get a better balance between light and dark areas (usually sky and land). I have never felt the pull to add a sky to my photos, but after this trip finding myself with so many beautiful scenes with ugly sky, for the first time I was tempted and just for fun tried it on a few photos. Yikes. By paying attention to luminosity and hue, it is possible to add a great sky that doesn’t look fake.

So, I have been wondering about that old question “Is it OK to…”. I am not a photo journalist (I think it is universally agreed they can’t change pixels in their photos), nor do I sell my photos. But I am trapped in the conundrom this question presents. Why isn’t it OK to add a sky to my photos? Or, why is it bad to add a sky? Why is authenticity important? Why are there any rules? I’d be interested in hearing this community’s thoughts and experiences around this question. I’m interested in both what you are willing to do, and what the line in the sand that you won’t cross is, and most importantly “WHY”?
And to keep the discussion from going off the rails, let’s not try to define what art is.

Here is my heirachy of post processing changes from innocent to questionable that my mind has created:

1, Adding adjustment layers (contrast, hue, brightness, exposure, vibrance, color saturation, etc).
2. Using a new blank layer to paint in additional color.
3. Removing unwanted pixels (the wayward branch, the sign post, the contrail, the person in your photo, etc).
4. Adding pixels, small amounts or insignificant things: cloning in a few clouds to balance the sky, using Contrast Aware Fill to create something in a small area of your photo, etc.
5. Changing pixels in a major part of the photo: warping a mountain, scaling an object to make it bigger and using a mask to feather the edges to make it blend in, stretching an object, etc.
6. Adding pixels, large amounts or significant things: adding a totally different sky, or adding a full moon to a photo where one doesn’t exist.

I’m totally comfortable doing 1, 2,3, and 4, somewhat comfortable doing 5, and uncomfortable doing 6. I don’t know why number six makes me uncomfortable. Maybe it is this: I’m a total agnostic when it comes to believing in God or not. Natural beautiy is what is sacred to me. This beauty is almost (almost, not quite) enough to make me believe in God. To quote a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise Him.

I take photos to share this beauty with others. Unlike some other photographers, its not about being creative, or making art. For some unexplicable reason, I want to share the beauty of nature. Its about sharing the sacred. If I create a photo that strays too far from the original scene that I was awed by, I’m not feeding my heart, I’m stroking my ego. I guess it would be easier if it was just about making art…then I think I would feel fine about adding a sky.

What do you think?

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I’ll start the ball rolling by comments that I’ve read by photographers I respect.

It’s the deception that bothers people. The fact that you imply this but it’s actually that. It’s the intent rather than the product. Basically nobody likes to be lied to. Most people believe pictures are real.

I don’t necessarily agree with this but it is an answer.


Tony, my standards pretty much match yours exactly. I will use content aware fill to eliminate a patch of sky in a gap in a wall, but I won’t take it further than that. I would never substitute a different sky or add a moon, etc. It is funny in that it is just a matter of degrees difference, but it is a line I am not comfortable crossing. I am into capturing for me (rather than any audience) the moment and the feeling and experience I felt out in the field and substituting a sky doesn’t accomplish that at all. It is not about creating “art” but satisfying myself. Maybe that is why the ICM thing doesn’t do anything for me? It doesn’t really capture the essence of what I felt out in nature. Who knows?

Interesting topic.

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Tony - I grew up in photography at about the same time as you. I worked my way through college working in a portrait studio. We of course did portraits, commercial shoots, weddings, events, etc. We also did all the high school portraits. Did we remove or add pixels from our medium format film captures. Absolutely. We had a professional retoucher who removed tens of thousands of pimples and other imperfections from the negatives of our high school portraits and then did print retouching to finalize any other issues. Yep, painful, expensive and the results were not as good as we can now do in a digital workflow, but the fact of the matter was, we removed things all the time from faces. Wrinkles, unwanted moles, etc.

I’m only sharing this to point out that while painful, the process has been around for decades before digital.

The topic is a challenging one and each person is going to have a different answer. I agree with Igor, that the most important thing is the deception that happens. That really bothers me.

@Tony_Siciliano , I have similar boundaries as yours. No. 6 is something that I wouldn’t do. But to add on to @Keith_Bauer’s points:

A lot of people are fine lying if it makes them/us look better in our photos. But when it comes to nature photos


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I touched on this a bit in the Black and White article I wrote. Early on I was influenced by the many sports photographers I interacted with, so I try to adhere to “journalistic ethics.” I usually avoid removing/adding elements in my images, as I prefer to present scenes as they unfolded before me.

However, I make two occasional exceptions. When I convert to monochrome, I’ve already gone away from our color world (the way nearly all of us perceive it), so I’m more open to trying heavier editing. Though I still limit my dodging and burning, I have done some, and I’ve also presented images with added grain, high key/high contrast tones, and on very rare occasions, I’ve added vignettes. Black and white is my excuse to get more “artistic” with my processing.

The other instance is when a client/customer requests a change. I have absolutely “cleaned up” or turned a photo into what is essentially a digital illustration based on their request… Though if I list the image anywhere for public consumption, I always mention the changes that have been made. In such cases, it’s art, and I don’t mind being more flexible for a client. But if an editor asked me to doctor an image for a news magazine, I’d feel differently than just creating something for my print store. I think the bottom line is that many of these changes may depend on your intended audience/customer.

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Tony, my interest in photography developed the same time as yours and my personal boundaries are identical. For others, if it feels “wrong” / unsatisfying, don’t do it! Otherwise, if you are happy with the end product, knock yourself out, but don’t lie about what you have done. I’ve always loved the surrealistic work of Jerry Uelsmann, but of course, nobody would mistake it as a representation of reality. What upsets me are photographers who sell their work to gullible customers at premium prices, and vehemently claim it is “straight out of camera”, only achievable by a photographer with great skill and suffering great hardship!

As a professional portrait photographer for 30 years, my lines in the sand somewhat different in this than in my nature and contemplative work but I strive to maintain or reveal the character of the subject. In portraiture that would mean removing temporary things such as blemishes or braces, swapping a face in a family portrait. In my nature and contemplative work I also work to keep the character of the subject and create the image in the camera first. I will then do only minor retouching and enhancement but I want to keep the character of what I saw that drew me to record that subject or view with my camera. Probably a leftover from film days. I want to look at my images and not question whether it was real or created. That being said, sometimes it is fun to just play and maybe create something for the sake of creating.

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Participating in this discussion is dancing on thin ice :wink:
I think that the consensus is, that manipulation is of all times. Ansel Adams was mentioned in relation to nature photography, and in Soviet times people were erased from photos after they fell out of favor. No need for Photoshop. Velvia slide film didn’t produce natural results.
The ultimate manipulation is offered by Luminar now, I think. This is no editing, but creating new images that have nothing to do with the situation that was captured.
I strongly agree with @Tony_Siciliano that the beauty of nature is the reason to capture a scene. That’s why I stroll around and sometimes capture an image. And I think that nature doesn’t need enhancement. But our gear doesn’t produce an exact copy of a scene, so here is a first reason to edit. Sharing the beauty with other people can be a reason to do some more editing, to emphasize what you want to show. But I think that it is important to stay sincere. And the line that you draw is a very personal decision.
I never add a new sky (and I am even reluctant to remove an ugly branch). But what is the difference with increasing the saturation, if you happened to be in that great place on a dull day? Maybe, if you went a week earlier, the sky was great and you had the best light possible. I don’t think that you corrupt the scene when you add a new sky (maybe you lie to yourself). The end result should be credible and do justice to the scene.
When I look around at a place like, I see many images that make me feel uncomfortable. I will never produce anything that makes me feel uncomfortable. That’s my “WHY”. But the number of likes shows, that people think different. Tony asks: Why are there any rules? I think: there are no rules, other than those we impose on ourselves. And we are affected by our peers, like this community.

I agree with @Igor_Doncov that it’s the deception that bothers people. A pretty long time ago I visited Utah and Arizona. I bought a book about the National Parks in the region. The images in the book were nice, but had nothing to do with what I had seen: rocks so red and skies so blue, I didn’t know they existed. The book was nice as a souvenir, but also very deceptive. It was a lie. Deception has nothing to do with the digital era, digital manipulation just makes it easier.

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Good thoughts here. I became so bothered by this thing I wrote a massive essay about it in 2018… and in 2021 I created a competition that restricted your editing practices. I care probably too much but I’m super passionate about it and want to see the dial move the other way.

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Interesting. There are many types of photographers: the purists - SOOC’ers who are just fooling themselves that what comes from a RAW file is what the photographer shot for, and the “this is what I saw, though it may not be what you saw,” manipulators, followed closely by the, “it is just another artist’s tool,” therefore I can use it in any artistic way I want.
I’ve done every possible manipulation possible in photography, both in film and in digital and the idea that you can’t manipulate film the way you can digital is simple bunk. It takes longer, requires super registration, etc., but even focus stacking can be done. Shooting Zone is manipulation, dodging, burning, vignetting, using different developers or papers to change the contrast range and on and on and on, are all artificial manipulations.
Back in the late 60’s, early 70’s I worked with a photographer who did dye transfer work. Super tedious manipulation for accurate clothing catalogues. We also used this technique to match Technicolor film for movie marquees.

The bottom line is that we all use the tools we have at hand to reimagine what we saw or wanted to see. Shooting Zone gave me the opportunity to place my highlights or shadows where I wanted them, not necessarily where they were, and further more, by using developers such as Pyro, I could drastically change the contrast. I could do the same processing with Pt/Pd (which I still do as well as the old processes such as Salt, Van D**e, Albumen, etc.). Manipulation of an image starts the moment you shoot digitally, as a RAW file seldom resembles what you thought you shot. The information is there to make the proper adjustments in a RAW editor, but it has to be acted on and that’s the first step across the line.
I agree with Matt Payne’s treatise as per adding things to photographs such as people, planets or other objects which to me is the last step across the line, unless you are honest about it. I do a lot of composites and when I post them to different forums, I’m always up front that they are composites, which should be obvious, but to the uninitiated, sometimes not so much. As to adding a sky (I’ve only done one and I manipulated the heck out of it to fit the scene, not just add a sky) or correcting a lens aberration such as super wide angles, maybe not so much a purist. I am a fine artist. I have degrees in Studio Art, Cinematography, and Journalism. I’ve done massive amounts of research in artistic endeavor, I’ve been a potter, painter, illustrator and always a photographer. I did a two summer apprenticeship with Al Weber and David Vestal. Al was at one time Ansel Adams’ printer and a Master in his own right. David Vestal was one of the original creator’s of Popular Photographer magazine. What the two of them didn’t know about photography hadn’t yet been invented. The point of this is that if there is an artistic medium, whether it be paint, clay or celluloid, it’s going to be manipulated, thus there is no such thing as pure; there is only what we make of the medium as per our own mind’s eye. Most of the painters in the late 1800’s saw photography as an insult to artistic endeavor; it was cheating…then there was Vermeer, a bit earlier who definitely used the camera obscura… rings and things on wrong fingers…ooops! Did he cheat? Well, yeah to the purist but who’s paintings endure to this day? And then there are the angels in Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel in the mid 1400’s; did angels appear on earth with wings? Me thinks not. Was it the artist’s interpretation of God’s intention? Me thinks so, but speak of manipulation!


:laughing: That’s funny. If he was a Christian then they were there and he painted reality. If the viewer is a believer then he believes they were there as all Christians do. Falsehood would be their absence.

I guess the point is that van Eyck was not intentionally deceiving anyone.

I think van Eyck might have been smoking some fine ganja…lol but given that the world he lived in was all pretty much Catholic, it was a false reality both he and his viewers accepted, even though they knew such representations were exactly that: representative.

What is a false reality? It’s either reality or it’s false. You can’t have both. Reality is truth.

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Then change that to it was a falsehood they both accepted…"

I gave this some thought. Reality is temporal. It changes with time. The only reality that is valid is what is accepted at a period in time. The most real thing we ever had were Newton’s Principles of Physics. But in the 20th century we found a new reality. Newton’s Laws were only true for objects on the planet earth and broke down when we left it. So the point is not a picture of reality but a representation of reality at that point in time. That’s what Eyck did. Eyck did not deceive. What is reality now may change in the future and we will be accused of being false as you now say about the angels.

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Hi Tony,

A wonderful probing question and one that we have all probably have had to wrangle with at some time in our photographic journey. You actually touched on a couple of important ideas, one of course being that of where do we draw the line on manipulating a photograph, and I think the second important idea is why take the photograph in the first place.

With regards to the first idea on manipulating a photograph, I think it comes down to having integrity in what one produces. If a gross manipulation, such as adding a sky, is made, the integrity move is to disclose that it is a composite, then at least for the photographer, “feeling bad” about doing that might not present itself since no deception was intended or perpetrated. I still primarily photograph the landscape with my 4x5 camera so gross changes to the photo are not as easy or as desirable. But when asked about my photos at art shows I disclose what I typically do such as contrast, color balance, and some dodging and burning. Some times I also indicate when a heavy crop was made, to make a panoramic for example.

I also wanted to comment about why make the photograph in the first place. Sharing the beauty of nature as we as photographers see it I think is the underlying reason why we make the photos, and if not to share it, to at least capture it as memory for ourselves to allow ourselves to relive that moment. I think there is something deeply spiritual when we witness the moments we capture with our cameras, whether they are incredible or mundane and they are for sure fleeting and will most likely never repeat again. Whether one believes in a Creator or not, I think most thinking individuals will agree that nature is important if not sacred at best, and needs to be preserved or at least conserved. Personally I do believe in a Creator and when I photograph I am trying to convey that the scene that was before me was an expression of the creative power of the Creator. I try to convey that notion in the work I present, through how the photo moved me spiritually as I think if we are observant, each moment we experience is a spiritual experience.

Thank you Tony for posting this discussion and for allowing us to express our thoughts about it.

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Provided as a photographer you are honest to the viewers about your intentions, I’d say “Bring back the angels”. We have barely scraped the surface of what can be done with manipulation. What I would be saying by including angels in my photo is that there is a world beyond the visible, and that by manipulation I can also portray this invisible reality (spiritual? psychedelic? religious?). But I should never want to persuade others to accept this reality, only to acknowledge that it exists for me.

@Han_Schutten mentioned how in Soviet times those expunged from life also had to be expunged from photos. This is often more difficult now, simply because uploading and copying the original is so much easier. But in the field of forensics - and especially in Forensic Architecture where investigations into war crimes depend considerably on photos - manipulation can be easily abused to deceive.

I also think that deception by manipulation is sometimes used to conceal destruction to the environment. Why, I’ve even done this myself by cloning out electricity lines. While I share the belief that we should convey nature’s beauty, I also like sometimes to portray what we are doing to deface this beauty. The trouble is, it can not be done easily while creating a gripping photo. The challenge for me is to keep in those electricity lines and still make a good image.