My Eight Simple Rules for Digital Image Alteration

In the era of film photography, the accepted rules of printing had been established by masters long since departed. A photographer was limited in what he could do to enhance his images in the darkroom; he could dodge and burn, adjust the contrast, tone the final print.

Making, and Breaking, the Rules

Every now and then, somebody would come along and break one of the rules and the art would reluctantly advance a few steps forward.

In the ’20s, for instance, the avant-garde photographer Man Ray gave us blurred images and Rayographs (various objects placed on a piece of enlarging paper and exposed to light) that at the time were considered amateurish and dull. But his work influenced other artists and photographers, and today Man Ray is considered one of the greats.

Eventually, photographers began printing with multiple negatives on the same sheet of paper, while others experimented with Polaroid and — heaven forbid — color! The heretics ultimately became the masters.

In the end, what really counted was the final image and that is what prevailed. A good image is simply a good image — rules be damned.

More Tools, More Temptations

Today, in the early stages of the digital era, our tools for enhancing images have greatly expanded. Photoshop has given us the ability to alter and correct our photographs as never before.

And so, just as in past eras, there is debate as to the rules. How far can one go with these tools before our images are dismissed as “gimmicky schlock”?

Here’s my two cents.

Some time ago, I took a photo of a woman clutching her purse straps behind her back. I never gave it a second thought at the time; the RAW file looked boring to me. A few months later, while reviewing my images in Lightroom, I glanced at the picture again and wondered what it would be like with a darker background.

Once I made the change, I liked the photo much better. The distracting background is what had made the image dull.

In a darkroom, burning in the background in this way would have been all but impossible. But Photoshop enables me to burn in details with an accuracy that previously did not exist.

Eight Simple Rules

The question is where to draw the line. To me, it’s a balancing act; I try not to go overboard.

Over the past few years, I have developed a few simple rules to guide me:

  1. I never add anything that was not originally there.
  2. I never change the lighting or background.
  3. I am OK with any modifications that were always done with film (e.g., burning and dodging.)
  4. I am OK with selective alterations such as blurring, contrast, and shadows; if they were possible in the film era, they would have been the standard long ago.
  5. I will remove background objects such as trees, telephone poles, and reflections from time to time — as long as the change is minor and never noticed.
  6. I never retouch people’s faces — ever.
  7. I am OK with cropping, but only subtle, small crops to straighten an image out or get rid of minor distractions.
  8. I avoid HDR like the plague.

Conventional Wisdom Continues to Change

I am certain that a lot of readers will disagree with my rules, and that’s just fine with me. They’re my rules, not yours.

I am beginning to notice a number of photographers who are very free in their use of Photoshop. I find some of their work quite interesting.

It is as it always has been. Conventional wisdom in art is the rule until someone steps up and changes things. Even Monet and Cezanne were considered too outrageous in their early days until their acceptance became universal.

The pattern is a familiar one. There is resistance, then grudging acceptance — and finally praise.

And then there are new conventions waiting to be overturned.

12 Responses to “My Eight Simple Rules for Digital Image Alteration”

  1. Hi Dave,
    Love your perspective. I am an avid novice (shooting DSLR for less than two years). I'm not nearly as knowledge on the history of photgraphy but just by reading and seeing what is going on around me, I was already subscribing to personal principles about what it means to be a great photographer vs. a person really great at manipulating software (no judging! we all strive for greatness). Can you elaborate a bit more on the "no manipulating light" rule. Does this include exposure? Many thanks!

  2. I like the picture you put in the article, David. I'm a little confused, however. You stated that once you changed the background you liked the image a lot more. But in your own simple rules, you mention that you never change the background. I'm guessing you mean completely altering the background, but it was a little confusing anyhow.

    Good article though. My own views on the subject, I'll do whatever I have to do to the image to make it the way I want people to see it. If that's just a simple contrast adjustment, excellent. If it means taking out reflections, fixing a few scars the model may have, taking out small distractions; so be it.


  3. I agree!!!I grew up with film. Learned on film, and still hand roll my own black and white. However, I do like some of the stronger actions that can be done on a photo with todays technology. Granted it's not on a face, etc, but some landscapes I do like to play with!

  4. When you say "I never retouch people’s faces — ever." what kind of retouch do you mean? Also what kind of area in photography do you shoot?

    I do retouch skin, and depending on the final use is how much or how little I retouch skin...

  5. I am primarily a street photographer however I do recognize the need for others (ie. portrait, wedding, studio photographers) to retouch faces. It's just something I don't do.

  6. I can only think of one area of photography where manipulation can get you fired and that is with photojournalists, other than that it's fair game.

  7. I almost follow the same rules except number 2. I like to play with the lighting / exposure.

    Good post! Thanks for sharing...

  8. Good policy, except for #5:
    "I will remove background objects such as trees, telephone poles, and reflections from time to time — as long as the change is minor and never noticed."

    There's simply no reason to do this for any photograph used in the context of news. Either recompose to eliminate such elements, or present the honest representation of the scene, even if it's imperfect.

    "In the context of news" changes the equation, in my opinion. Just because it's possible to do with film and traditional darkroom techniques doesn't justify certain alterations. It's not 1955 anymore. Without getting into a discussion of personal interpretation and points-of-view (which are givens), public expectations and perceptions for news images are different today.

    I'm not sure this clarifies anything, but perhaps a very general rule could be something like "Photoshop, or any other digital photo editing application, should be used for image optimization, not enhancement" Optimization for the intended context and viewing environment/medium.

    Is optimization vs. enhancement a clear concept, or is that another can of worms?

  9. I get up early 0400h, every day. I watch the light change the scenery from a window over the desk in my office. The light changes throughout the day, people come by and go by and I enjoy every moment.
    While there is somewhat of purist attitude in your statement the best part - the one I truly subscribe to, is "It is as it always has been. Conventional wisdom in art is the rule until someone steps up and changes things. Even Monet and Cezanne were considered too outrageous in their early days until their acceptance became universal" Art includes all the tools, be it a paintbrush, a stick to steady your hand, a filter to change the hue and all that exists now and will come in the future. Snapshots should represent without manipulation, art, on the other hand, belongs to the artist. The viewer either appreciates it or is left to critique it - but it is the art and the artist that survive,
    Thanks for all you do for our art-form. The articles are very thought provoking!

  10. @DAWiVA Well said. And I think that just about settles it.

  11. Thank you Lauren - I am pleased that I am not alone with this...........

  12. Except we are not talking about art. We are talking about journalism when photography is the medium.

    I blogged a while back about photojournalism as art:

    It's really about communication. You can demonstrate "artfulness" in your medium, whether you are a photographer, writer, graphic artists, etc.The competency and natural talent of the messenger can help facilitate deeper understanding. But the very best journalists are those who become transparent in the communication process. Instead of standing between you and their subjects, you feel that you are standing in the place of the journalist. You, the reader or viewer, become the eye witness.

    When asked about the artistry of his work during a speech (, James Nachtwey responded:

    "I am not intending to create art but rather to create a profound human communication..."

    And to quote from my blog on the issue:

    "While the artist has few boundaries and the freedom to change or alter what they see if it better expresses their vision, the photojournalist is bound to a code of ethics that include a commitment to fairness and accuracy in all they portray.

    I think what ultimately distinguishes photojournalists from artists is their fundamental role as witnesses to history. While the artist is a voice who reflects and comments on culture through his or her work, the photojournalist gives a voice to others."

    Sorry to quote myself. Guess it was easier to cut and paste.

    Anyway, more food for thought?

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