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I’m spending quite a bit of time lately on putting together the curriculum for my new iPhone photography class, and the same question comes up in the class that comes up in almost all of my classes. Is Photoshopping images acceptable?

The wording of this question is very interesting. What do most people mean when they ask about “Photoshopping?” Typically this word is used to describe some alteration of an image, but very few people actually know, precisely, what they mean when they use the word. If an image is slightly brightened, for example, is that considered altered? If the contrast is increased on an image, would or should that be considered an altered image?

Let me throw an idea out there that might surprise you. There isn’t a single image, in the history of all photography (and I do mean back to the 1830s) that hasn’t been altered in some way. Not a single one. Let’s first look at images that were created with film. The process of developing and printing film images has many steps to it.

To create a negative, film is put into three different chemical liquids in this order: a developer, a stop bath and a fixer. Once you have a negative, you then “print” the negative by using what is called an enlarger. It is during the printing process that quite a lot of manipulation can happen.

Send your images to be printed at Walmart and then send those same images in to be printed at Walgreens and you’ll notice a difference in how they look. It might be a small difference, but you’ll notice a difference. Why? Because each store approaches the developing and printing process in their own unique way.

0d71544e171cbebe8817ae69502e6fa6Source: Jordan Weiland Blog

Now let’s look at digital cameras. If two photographers are standing next to each other shooting the same scene and one photographer has a Canon and one has a Nikon, you’ll see a difference in how those two images look. Again, it might be a small difference but there will be a difference.

Why? Because each camera company has its own way of creating JPG images inside their cameras. Choices are made about sharpening, contrast, saturation and others. We associate black and white landscape photography by heralded artists such as Ansel Adams to be neutral and faithful, but even Ansel Adams manipulated his images in a big way. In the printing process, he manipulated the light so that parts of his images came out brighter and some parts came out darker. He was a master of “Photoshopping” his images long before Photoshop even existed.

So the question of whether you should manipulate an image is not actually the question. The question is: How much are you OK with an image being manipulated? For professional photographers, the answer to this question is most often dictated by the genre the photographer works with.

If a war photographer takes a picture of the Syrian conflict that is published in the New York Times newspaper, the viewer assumes that there will be absolutely minimal image manipulation. When a young movie star appears on the cover of Vogue Magazine, the viewer is typically savvy enough to know that at least a fair amount of image manipulation has taken place.

8523938284_53defac113_hPriyanka Chopra: Vogue Magazine Photoshoot

One way to approach this question for yourself is to ask what kind of photography project you’re working on. What genre does it fall into? Let that determine how far you’ll go with Photoshop (or whatever image-editing program you’re working with). Even among the genres, each photographer has their own preferences, so you’ll need to decide, for yourself, how far you’re comfortable going.

What, to you, crosses the line of artistic integrity? And, if you’re still not reaching a conclusion on how much image manipulation to do, there’s one thing to consider: How much do you enjoy sitting in front of and working on your computer? I actually think this should be the most important factor. If it ain’t fun, keep the Photoshopping to a minimum.

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