Photography studio, gallery and training complex

To Edit Or Not To Edit, That Is The Question

I’ve recently returned to my first photographic love – documentary. After years of working on commercial and art photography, I have become re-acquainted with an old dilemma: How much post-production is permissible in documentary photography? 

It could be argued that every photograph includes a certain amount of editing; we edit what we shoot, with what equipment, what we include/exclude in the crop etc. When using film, I selected certain film for a particular “feel” and printed on  papers chosen for texture and contrast. I would even dodge and burn (selectively lighten and darken) parts of the picture in the darkroom. 

But in digital photography, the range of post-production options is mind-blowingly wide. And so my dilemma is harder than ever. Is it okay to dodge? Burn? Sharpen? Vignette? Blur? Sharpen? Clone? Reduce noise? 

My project involves shooting in low light at high ISO’s in very “busy” environments. Exactly when does enhancement begin to compromise the integrity of the photographic document? And does it matter?

There have been notable examples in recent years where photo-journalists have been caught out when crossing the line between recording the facts and making a picture – often a more saleable picture. 

Shot by Hungarian tourist, Peter Guzli, seemingly showing his demise on 9/11

With every photograph I edit, I have to restrain my Photoshop-happy tendencies – old (or new) habits die hard. And so I’m erring on the side of caution: I’m doing only cropping, exposure and contrast adjustment, grayscaling, and a teeny bit of vignetting when I think it really needs it…


And I haven’t even thought about how much “setting up” is permissable yet!

There’s an interesting New York Times article about this whole issue here…

Even Reuters have been at it, with the most amateurish example of clone-stamping you’ll ever see in a news article (in this case, bomb damage in Beirut) –,7340,L-3286966,00.html


3 responses

  1. Jeff Boston

    I think in simple terms a lot depends on whether a photo is intending to be a true historical record of a significant moment in time or the creating of a work of art as also defined by the intended audience. Some, perhaps minimal, embellishment is permissible in documentary photography providing it does not compromise the ‘true record’.

    My own photo manipulation is minimal in any event due to my limited post production skills, this may, of course, change with time.


    December 20, 2010 at 8:14 pm

  2. XK50

    Like an an aircraft that can be used to deliver relief or destruction, the camera can be used to create a witness or an emotion. The world should learn to accept that. Photography is under enough threat, right now, from terrorism and political correctness, without further sensitising the populace to believe we’re all a load of fraudsters.

    The faker – and the bad artist – will get discovered, so let’s not be afraid to endorse and encourage creativity. “Try it, see if it works” is the route to human progress (not quantitative easing). It is the antidote to those “unwritten traditions that cannot be contested”.

    Now in the above, I’ve used words – not pictures – to create a stance. You might not agree with the stance, but few would argue with the actual technique used, where I have selected certain words, left out others and arranged the order etc. Indeed, some might call any such restriction censorship – and that’s a very deep, dark hole.

    We’re photographers, we should see the bigger picture. So, let’s hear it for the contrast and the vibrancy tools …. all done in the best possible taste, of course!

    December 22, 2010 at 9:48 am

    • Well put. Creativity is indeed to be encouraged – but I think, as Jeff has said, the difference is in the intention, and the percieved intention of the work: Is it intended to portray truth? Or is it art? The borders between art and documentary are getting blurrier by the day – documentary, and even war, images hang in art galleries and sell as expensive editioned prints, while carefully constructed and obviously manipulated art images are ued to make political impact in the media. I plan to discuss this more in future blogs.

      December 22, 2010 at 12:01 pm

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