Photomanipulation : Aesthetics Vs Ethics


Long Road To The LighthouseFrom the very start of photography, (often considered 1839), we have inherited an historical and innate reflex belief that a photograph portrays REALITY, this probably developed from the fact that photography at that time was the art form of technique that was able to represent the human visual  perception in manner in a much more “realistic” manner than other art forms.  And thus evolving, in the human mind,  the  ingrained concept that a photograph is truthful. Manipulation of photographs is almost as old as photography itself, however earlier manipulations were unsophisticated and rudimentary,  and the human eye was immediately jarred by the discordance from reality. Modern tools make allow the common man to manipulate photographs to a level that is practically indiscernible by the human eye. Modern photographic images or image s based on photographic now range from, what can be considered its most truthful representation to an amazing visual fiction.

Ethics and Aesthetics


Whats ThatWe generally define ethics as

the rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad.

Ethics is often related to groups of societies and professions.


In simplicity it can be considered the of principles governing the idea of beauty.

Ethics deals with the rights and wrongs and Aesthetics deals with beauty or otherwise.

When we correct, manipulate or enhance images (with what ever tools we use), the factors of ethics and aesthetics must always be kept in consideration.  In this I  include both digital manipulation and the digital equivalent of classical film darkroom methods. The variations, changes, modifications that can be performed on an image are infinite and are directed towards the aesthetics of the image. In general there are no mala fide intentions on part of the artists while doing so. However one must ask oneself, is the pursuit of aesthetics violating ethics ??

Addressing the Purist

Having come across numerous artists who say .. I never touch the image out of the camera .. It is as is … It is the reality.  But the question is .. Is It reality ?

However the indisputable fact is

The picture we take with our camera is NOT reality. It is an interpretation of reality.

First take the sensor, (the film).  There is no film or sensor that has either the colour range nor the dynamic range (Contrast) of the human eye, thus  it is a simplification or just an interpretation of visual reality.

Another way a photograph deviates from Visual reality is that visual reality is a continuous stream, Videography copies this fact, still photography doesn’t, It “Freezes” a moment or instant of this stream.

Then there are decisions made by the photographer a priory to even the capture of the scene in an image that slant or affect the reality. The choice of lens and aperture, affect the spatial relationship between objects,T hings can appear closer or further than perceived by the human eye. It affects what is in focus and what is not .. the human eye does not exhibit “Depth of Field” like a camera. When to trip the shutter in a stream of motion, can either isolate an image that is incongruous with the general stream of perception. A moving body can appear frozen in levitation or freeze transient facial expressions of a scowl amidst a more benign countenance. It can not be disputed that the judgement of photographers pre and post capture alters the objectivity in capturing reality and is determined by the individual behind the camera.

Underground - II
Where does One Draw The line

In The pursuit of Aesthetics .. where does one draw the line ? Like a good engineer, The answer is … IT DEPENDS !!  It depends on what you want to do, documentary art or fictional art. In my personal opinion if you add or remove something there that wasn’t in the scene you have crossed from documentary to fictional art. If your purpose is to portray a scene as reality then I would say it is not acceptable, But would be acceptable if one was creating fictional art. But when fiction and documentation are not readily discernible, the onus should lie with the artist to tell the viewer.



In some situations it would be unethical not to alter the content of a photograph, such as when a photo definitely records something incorrectly, such as red eye. Another example would be correcting the green cast of an image shot under incorrect white balance settings. In other cases, the only way to present a truer representation of reality is through a composite rather than with a single exposure. When the camera does not have the capability to capture the truth in a single exposure such as perhaps a moon over a city-scape. There can be a myriad of other examples also..

Purposes and intentions

Spagetti Junction Dubai - IBut at the end of the day, most ethical limits are determined by the individual.  But when we do manipulate an image we must ask our-self, the purpose and intent.  Why did we take this picture and what are we going to do with it. If it is for artistic purposes only, then the sky is the limit. If it is for documentary or journalistic reasons then one should adhere to the ethics that have been developed and expected by the viewers.

But the worst and most unethical would be those that misrepresent with the intent to deceive, no matter how small or large the deception maybe.

Going from something like changing the hues of a sunset or sunrise .. without telling the viewer. A composite starry sky image with a milky-way taken from one place and pasted on a horizon.

Unfortunately I have experienced this minor lapse of “informing the viewer” from the fictional artist.

Where as in journalism, the misrepresentation  more likely to arise from the choice of subject matter and its framing.  The photographer may focus on the only person injured in a protest or perhaps the only person uninjured.  And, of course, the photographer can select the most beautiful victim to arouse maximum interest or sympathy.  The propagandist can make crowds appear to be either large or small without photographic manipulation.  The accompanying news story can also create a false impression by selection and omission without having to lie.
Just food for thought … What and how would you define the line ..


Article written by Inayat Ali Shah, a passionate photographer from Pakistan. Read more about him here.

By Laura

I started photography as a hobby in 2005, during college. My passion slowly became a more important part of my life since 2008. Because of using a combination of my photographic knowledge, with those of internet marketing, I like to call myself a "photomarketer".

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