My Photo Editing "Code of Ethics"


A couple of weeks ago, RC, Corey, Matt and I were sitting around talking about photography, as we basked in the afterglow of a triumphant Bucs win (which sadly we did not enjoy yesterday after our one-point loss to the Jaguars). Anyway, we wound up discussing what we feel comfortable doing to our photos, and the more we talked, the more it became clear that each of us has our own personal “Photoshop Moral Code” or our own “Photo Editing Code of Ethics.”

Basically, since none of the four of us are photo journalists, I guess we each keep an internal list of what we will or won’t do to a photo, and still be able to sleep at night. Now, as a “Photoshop Guy” you’d probably think that since I know how to do a lot of things in Photoshop, that I’d want to. But if you’ve been reading this blog for any time now, you know that my goal is to do as much “right” in the camera as possible, and use my time in Adobe Photoshop for finishing my photos, and not “fixing” them. That being said, here’s a short list of my internal guidelines; my own personal “Photo Editing Code of Ethics” for what I will or won’t do to one of my photos.

  • (1) This may sound silly, but I absolutely hate cropping in Photoshop, and go out of my way to avoid it. I want to do my composing in the camera, so if I wind up having to crop later in Photoshop, I feel like I didn’t “Get it right in the camera,” and it drives me nuts.
  • (2) I have no qualms whatsoever with removing any distracting element in my photo. So, if there’s a distracting telephone wire, or a sign, or a piece of trash on my beach photo—it’s gone. No questions asked.
  • (3) Although I don’t think twice about removing an object from a photo, I don’t like to add anything to a photo that wasn’t there when I took the photo. In fact, I hate it. For example, even though I know how to replace a bad sky in my photo, with a sky from a different photo, I have to be really, really, really desperate to do so, and I can count on one hand the times I’ve done it. The reason I hate it is; personally I know “I cheated,” and I’ll never look at that photo the same way again.
  • (4) Although I don’t want to add anything to a photo, I have no problem whatsoever with duplicating something in my photo. For example, if I take a photo of a child standing in a pumpkin patch, and there’s a empty spot to the child’s right, I’ll clone one of the other pumpkins in the photo over that empty spot to fill in the gap. My personal Photoshop moral code says; “If it’s already in the photo, it’s OK to have more of it in the photo.”
  • (5) I feel like I should make the final image look as good as it did when I took it, but if it winds up looking a little better than the original, or a lot better than the original, I’m fine with it. In fact, I’m happy with that. So, if the grass wasn’t as green as I remember it (or I would like it), it suddenly becomes greener. If the sky was kind of gray that day, it won’t be when you see my final image.
  • (6) I think nothing of: double-processing my images (exposing one version for the foreground, one for the sky, and combining them in Photoshop), or making creative choices with White Balance after the fact, that might turn a dusk photo in a dawn look. I also don’t think twice about creating a “look” using Photoshop, but I don’t like to use effects filters. I know, I’m weird that way.
  • (7) When it comes to retouching people, I have a simple guideline: Make them look as good in print—a medium where each and every flaw will be magnified—as they do when I met them in person, and if need be, I’ll use each and every Photoshop retouching trick I know to reach that goal. In fact, if it’s a portrait or headshot of me that needs retouching, I will actually hire teams of people, working in round-the-clock shifts, using large mainframe computers, with the mandate that they continue retouching my portrait until I look at least somewhat like George Clooney. Clearly, these teams are still at work.

Here’s perhaps a weirder thing; my Photoshop code-of-ethics only applies to photos I’ve taken myself. If it’s someone else’s photo, and they ask me to edit it in Photoshop, then all bets are off, and anything goes. I’ll use anything, and everything in my bag of tricks to make their photo look the way they want it to, so I definitely have a double-standard.

Now, there are two things I need to clarify: (1) I am not in any way trying to impose, or convince you that these should be your code of editing ethics. That is totally a personal decision, and you have to decide what you feel you’re comfortable with, so I was just sharingâ”not dictating or instructing on any level. And (2) I can’t defend any of my decisions listed above. In fact, I can’t even give you solid reasons how I came up with my list of what I will and won’t do, and why some things I find totally acceptable while other things absolutely make me cringe. It’s just how I feel about my photos, and about how I feel about editing them, so it’s a totally personal thing.

Now, if you’re not a photo journalist (who is bound by the strict rules of photo journalism, which I fully support), I imagine you probably have your own personal set of rules–your own “Photos Editing Code of Ethics” (even if you haven’t sat down and thought about them in that light), and I’d love to hear some of your own guidelines, so I encourage you to share them by posting a comment here.

I’m interested to know where you “draw the line,” and what you’re willing to do, or not do in Photoshop to create the type of images you feel good about. Thanks for “baring your soul” here, and giving other readers some insight into how you feel about your photography and editing them in Adobe Photoshop.

  1. I have a question for you. I was recently photographed at a public event with two other people. My parents to be exact. I am a large woman. BEAUTIFUL in the face. But my face is round as can be with a double chin to boot. My mother called me, BEAMING with pride, that our picture had been published in their community magazine for the month of july. She said it was the best photograph EVER taken of our family. Naturally, I was excited to see this photo! Imagine my dismay when I pulled it up, on my PHONE none the less, and could IMMEDIATELY tell that a FANTASTIC amount of photoshoping had been done ON MY FACE…to make it look 150 lbs thinner. I kid you not. It was a HORRIBLE job, my eyes, nose, and mouth all looked as if they were sliding off my skinny, little face. I also looked at my mom, who looked as if she was 31 years old, NOT 65, with a neck as long as a giraffes! The most BLATANT photoshopping evidence? My father, in the published photo, was SMILING. This NEVER happens, and is OBVIOUSLY a re-touch of some sort! I am wondering what brush would have been used for that one! :) My question….this photo was used to portray my image in a publication! I am APPALLED that my face, as rotund as it may be, was NOT good enough for them, and someone felt the need to make me look thin. I would have NEVER approved this had I been asked first. Is this allowed??? To alter someones image without consulting them first? Everyone that I know who doesn’t have (even the slightest) eye for photoshopped images believes I have lost a TON of weight!! The next time they see me, to them, it will look as if I have gained everything back! I started a HUGE poll on my FB fan page and they all feel the same as I do, but I was hoping I had some legal ramifications so that I could get the picture removed and the original one put in its place.

    Here is my email if you wouldn’t mind taking the time to respond! (minus the spaces) k n e u b e r g e r

    Thank you SO much! :)

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