What Constitutes Cheating in Photography?

Even though we're firmly in the age of Photoshop and advanced digital manipulation, the issue of honesty of representation and what constitutes cheating in photography has a lot more history and nuance than just the clone stamp. This thoughtful video examines the topic and what it means to cheat in photography.

Coming to you from Jamie Windsor, this great video examines the issue of cheating in photography and what that really means in different genres nowadays. In some circumstances, such as photojournalism, the rules are crystal clear, but even then, there's more nuance than you might think. It turns out that a lot of the time, when you try to assign a clearly defined boundary of what is acceptable and not, you quickly discover that that's nearly impossible to do, and a lot of it depends quite a bit on the context. As Windsor points out, this can even go as far as telling blatant lies to put the audience in a certain frame of mind for what comes next, and in the right situation, we find that sort of behavior acceptable. It's a fascinating topic and one that's well worth taking time to think about in your own photography. Check out the video above for Windsor's full thoughts. 

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17 Comments

Nick Reed's picture

If a photographer tries to pass off an image that has had any content removed or added as original, I feel they are ‘cheating’. For edits like brightness, white balance, etc., I don’t see a problem as that can be necessary to see details in an image.

If the goal of the photograph is to create a scene that never happened (like the playground/airplane photo), then the photographer needs to be upfront and honest about any edits. These can still be excellent photographs but it’s unfair to the viewer if they are led to believe it’s original.

"If the goal of the photograph is to create a scene that never happened (like the playground/airplane photo), then the photographer needs to be upfront and honest about any edits."

Why? There's no rule that says this. Nobody owes you an explanation for their art. Perhaps if you're entering a photo into a competition that has specific rules, that's something else. But competition is a sport, it has little to do with art itself.

Also, there's a difference between posting a picture with no explanation and posting one with a blatantly false explanation. A composited photograph isn't a lie unless the artist actually lies about the work. But its mere existence is not a "lie".

Adrian Lyons's picture

"If a photographer tries to pass off an image that has had any content removed or added as original, I feel they are ‘cheating"

So answer me this. What's the difference if I take two days to plan out a shot with models, props, lighting and special fx. Or, what if I take a landscape shot on a walk but decide after that I didn't like a certain dead tree where it was and remove it. Why is the latter cheating where the former wasn't cheating? What if I choose to dig up the dead tree with a shovel before I took the landscape shot? Is that cheating too? In both cases I took out the dead tree.

Cheating? By definition, photography involves manipulation, so in one respect a photograph is simply a representation of a situation rather than an accurate facsimile of events. Even without direct post processing, a photograph can easily distort the truth by providing selective context.

Studio 403's picture

Thanks FStoppers, noteable post. This post begs for me to be transparent in my part time work, Most of my work is studio and some composite . I have always assumed street photography is somewhat “staged” . To capture that “one shot” organic second would and be their at the right time for that one expression would seem most impossible. I live in a smaller town where it would be difficult to to shoot candid projects without raising suspicion of questionable actions. I was assigned 2 months in a walmart recently. My post was in the main isle. I saw hundreds of face’s, clothing worth a organic capture. Of course to random capture images would not be congruent with Walmart policies.

Jonathon Rusnak's picture

Cheating? I didn't realize we were playing a game.

Really good presentation. I've always appreciated his level-headed and articulate approach on different topics.

My personal opinion is that in order to really have a conversation about this issue, it needs to be broken down into several elements:

1) "Cheating" implies rules. Rules are for sports, not art.

2) A photograph itself doesn't lie; it's incapable of that. However, a photographer can lie ABOUT a photograph, which I see as a different issue entirely.

Art takes on many forms and can be portrayed in an infinite number of ways, some of which are more "realistic" than others. I don't think anybody disagrees with this; I think the argument comes up when a given medium is used for "documentation". While art can document a thing and documentation itself can be artistic, I believe they are two separate ideas that, while often coinciding in the final result, are still independent components that should be evaluated separately.

I think intent plays a part in this. The bit about Steve McCurry is interesting because on the surface those seem like examples of "cheating". The photos themselves don't "look" manipulated, they look photojournalistic; which I think carries with it an expectation of "realism" or "truth". But unless the assignment was to "document who was where and when", an argument can be made that it wasn't cheating if the intent was to create a certain emotion or tell a specific story that may have been envisioned before the composition was even chosen or the shutter was pressed. Did the photo accurately portray who was there? No. Did the photo accurately portray a day in the life of someone who was in the photo? Possibly, if the person who was edited out didn't play an integral role that would have altered events otherwise. Obviously this can be a tough call, but it is not without distinction.

Also, I found this line in particular to be quite poignant:

"...or is it maybe because our expectations of the photographic process don't accurately represent what photography truly is"

Not saying that some discussions on the topic aren't valid, but I think this really sums up the basis for a lot of of them. And not just from casual observers either; I think photographers themselves can be guilty of this too.

Joe Black's picture

fantastic share. Thank you so much!

Obviously editorial or forensic or some sales (e.g., used car) photography has to have its retouching limited to matching the real-world-at-the-time brightness, color, etc. For other work I think "cheating" is fine, from removing a person who entered your scene just before you got a chance to snap the shot, to taking out a pencil in a room shot that you missed when doing your staging, to correcting for lens or perspective distortion, replacing a broken light bulb, etc.

Before I did photography I spent 24 years in advertising in New York as a suit. Every product shot was cleaned up so it showed better on TV -- net weight, etc., was all removed. It wasn't cheating because it wasn't material to the message being presented.

Michael Jin's picture

I don't thhink that there is such a thing as "cheating" in photography. There is "cheating" in contests. There is "cheating in journalism". The term "cheating" can only apply when you have set down values against which behavior can be measured. Photography is a process and doesn't carry with it any intrinsic values other than those that we assign to it for a given purpose. Something unethical in photojournalism might be perfectly OK in fine art. Something acceptable in fine art might be terrible in commercial photography.

I don't believe that there are a set of universal core principles to photography which we can use to determine whether something constitutes "cheating" across the board.

imagecolorado's picture

It's only cheating if it breaks rules. What are the rules? Who makes the rules?

user-146450's picture

I agree with michael jin. Unless u r changing something that is supposed to be for foresenic purposes like journalism the creative process should be open to all tools. The painter for instance can put a house in a landscape that is not there is real life or take it out - no one calls that cheating. If it is a good image done well and tells a story then it is art

David Pavlich's picture

I cheat a lot. I take pictures of stuff, sometimes seven exposures then put them in an HDR program, then add contrast, clarity, saturation, etc and then print it on metallic based paper. :-)

Adrian Lyons's picture

"If a photographer tries to pass off an image that has had any content removed or added as original, I feel they are ‘cheating"

So answer me this. What's the difference if I take two days to plan out a shot with models, props, lighting and special fx. Or, what if I take a landscape shot on a walk but decide after that I didn't like a certain dead tree where it was and remove it. Why is the latter cheating where the former wasn't cheating? What if I choose to dig up the dead tree with a shovel before I took the landscape shot? Is that cheating too? In both cases I took out the dead tree.

Leon Kolenda's picture

"If a photographer tries to pass off an image that has had any content removed or added as original, I feel they are ‘cheating"

I think a key part of this statement is "If a photographer tries to pass off an image" What is the definition of Pass-Off? Is this meaning, something that is not original?

Big topic and a good discussion on your video (great editing too).

Perhaps, in addition, is the notion that the person framing the image is the one responsible for the communication via all their political, emotional, and cultural perspectives and leanings. The regime staged images from North Korea as an extreme example. The whole process is probably similar to the notion that we all experience the same thing differently, focusing on certain aspects (cup half empty / cup half full kinda deal). Even the interpretation of the image is prone to the views of the observer. It may have been intended as one thing but interpreted completely differently, altering the "truth" of the image (consider so many memes that take an image out of context and used for both left and right wing political views).

Perhaps it's the starting point AND end goal of the person / people discussing any one image that creates "a truth" of an image? It's what we want to believe it says.

Also, the example of the airplane in the ladder manipulation - it was a photo competition with clear rules (I assume, and I assume it's stated no extensive manipulation). In this case they broke the rules of engagement in creating a great image, which would have been awesome in any other context. So the starting point was the expectations of the competition, and the expectations of those viewing was unadulterated takes on reality. This is where the deception lies. If it had been for a composite art competition it would have been a great entry, no?

Anyway... given that this subject is all about the starting point of the viewer, and we all have different starting points (explicit or implicit) I imagine we all have valid points to share.

I have a four levels for the topic.

1) No adjustment, Out-Of-the-Camera.

2) Image adjustment
- You apply lens profiles and correction
- You use curves, levels, contrast tools for entire image as for parts of the image to get the brightness and contrast to original.
- You set correct white balance from white paper in the frame.
- You use slight sharpening and softening, but not blurring (no fake backgrounds etc)
- You crop the image to capture the final frame as you saw.
- You apply perspective correction to tilting buildings and walls.
- You straighten the horizon to level.
- You use clone stamp to remove dust specks in optics or sensor.

3) Image editing
- You use HSL, curves and levels for color changes, turn from red to green or blue etc.
- You use clone stamp to remove trashes on ground, bird in the sky, a moving temporal element from scene etc.
- You bring shadows dramatically up, showing something you didn't see.
- You alter white balance to bring visual mood that didn't exist.

4) Image manipulation
- You start to clone permanent objects out of the frame, like light poles on the street, behind the person head etc.
- You remove objects from the scene like radio masts, TV antennas, cables etc.
- You add new objects, like people, cars, birds, clouds, sun etc.
- You resize or move objects or change their visual perspective.
- You add shadows or remove shadows etc.
- You do complex compositions, one photo for sky, one for middle ground, and one for foreground etc.