Image Manipulation and Social Media: Where Is the Line?

Image Manipulation and Social Media: Where Is the Line?

Image manipulation in various forms has been around from nearly the beginning of the medium itself, and the ethics of that process have been debated for nearly as long. Although this topic seems rather Sisyphean in nature, a conversation with an individual on Instagram inspired me to take a look at it from the perspective of social media in particular.

Entire books have been written about the history of image manipulation and the ethics surrounding that. A quick Google search results in hundreds of millions of hits on the topic. Needless to say, much has been said by many individuals over time about what is acceptable and what is not. And yet, this is a topic that keeps popping up again and again, especially as technology advances making it even easier to manipulate images and easier to share those images. 

Most genres generally have their own unwritten (or sometimes written) rules or standards regarding what is acceptable in terms of editing. We understand and accept that fine art photographs can have significant manipulation done (it even seems expected at times), while images for photojournalism should not have any. Product and fashion work are also genres that there is general acceptance for lots of retouching and manipulation. And yet, the debate is ever-evolving and the edges around genres can sometimes be a bit soft, making things even more complicated. Social media also seems to have shifted the conversation and where the line of acceptable editing is, especially within the past few years.

Most frequently, we see the discussion of image manipulation and the media (including social media) in the context of models being edited to look slimmer, have better skin, or look different in other ways to make models conform to socially constructed beauty standards. Within the past few years, we as a culture have come to more or less agree that editing a person to look significantly different than real life has created a negative situation and it is something that should not be done. But what about all the other genres and, in particular, what about when those other genres are posted on social media? Does that change things?

Manipulated Images on Instagram

Image by Drew Mason | and

I follow an account on Instagram, @themittenmutt, who posted about some negative comments he received in response to one of his recent photos (seen above) and his photos in general. Drew Mason, the photographer behind the dog account, received some negative feedback from various individuals about his images, saying that they felt like Drew's images were misinforming, misleading, and contributing to the "toxic fakeness of the Instagram world." Without seeing the image first, you might anticipate some crazy edits. Drew does indeed edit his images significantly. But, those edits involve manipulations of colors, lighting, contrast, and other such basic things. These comments sparked a curiosity for me about where the line may be in terms of social media and image manipulation. In most other contexts, that amount of editing wouldn't be questioned one bit, in my experience. So why is it such a big deal in the context of social media?

I chatted a little with Drew, and he also shared some thoughts on his Instagram stories, where he explained that he uses his editing to recreate the way that his mind interprets and remembers a moment. The way that he remembers a scene may be very different from the way that the camera captures it, however, which is where the editing comes into play. I think most of us have probably been there as well. We try to capture an epic sunset but the camera doesn't do it justice. So what do we usually do? Enhance things in editing to make it feel and look more like the sunset that we remember. Editing to enhance an image and create (or recreate) a feeling in an image is not a new thing, or one that has been seen as unacceptable in the past, and yet it seems to be an issue in the realm of social media.

Art and Truth in Photographs

Image by Drew Mason | and

I think this debate largely comes down to two broad questions that have plagued the medium of photography since the beginning: are photographs art and, maybe more importantly, are photographs truthful, faithful representations of a scene? These topics are intensely fascinating to me and could lead me down a serious rabbit hole. I'll refrain (for this post), but let's at least look at the surface level of those questions as it relates to photography and social media.

The first question, whether photography is art, has been a near-constant debate in the art world. As with anything, context is key. In the right context, photographs are absolutely art, at least in my opinion. If we accept that photographs are indeed an art form (at least in the right context), then that should leave them open to creative changes and manipulations, i.e. editing. The issue with social media is that the context of images can be fluid and ambiguous, as the app itself is used for a wide variety of purposes. Both news agencies and artists and everything in between use Instagram to share material. This conglomeration of different uses within the same space can create confusion in regards to context and can lead to individuals being on different pages of what the correct interpretation may be.

The second question, if photographs are truthful, is also a frequently debated topic. Some believe that a camera is documenting whatever scene it is pointed to, making photographs inherently truthful. It is seen as an unambiguous act of documentation. However, this is not truly the case. Jörg M. Colburg said it well in an article in Conscientious Photography Magazine:  

 If a camera is a little machine that faithfully records what is in front of it and that displays just that, then obviously it’s the photographer who screws up if there is a problem. Now, a camera is not at all just some little machine that does that. It never faithfully records what was in front of it, and the many steps that lie between the pressing of the shutter’s button and the display of the resulting image (in whatever form) make the connection between reality and picture very, very difficult.

Photographs don’t lie. To say a photograph lies is to believe that there can be such a thing as an objectively truthful photograph. There can never be. All photographs present a truth: their makers’. The issue is not whether or not that truth has any relation to the Truth. The issue is, instead, what photographs tell us about our own truths, about those beliefs that we take for so granted, that we stick to so obsessively, weighing what we see.

Even the act of composing an image requires singling out certain things and excluding others. It is impossible to completely remove ourselves from photographs because of this. As a result, as Colburg says, it is impossible to have an "objectively truthful photograph." In light of that, if we take things to the extreme, even unedited snapshots posted on social media could be considered misleading since they are only representing their maker's truth and nothing more.

As mentioned briefly above, cameras can also fail to document a scene as we see it. Colors could be drastically different than real life if your white balance is off. To me, correcting that is not causing issues with how truthful an image is and could, in fact, be making an image more truthful instead. Focal lengths can also drastically change the way a scene appears in an image. If you use a telephoto instead of a wide angle or normal lens, the perspective and magnification of elements in the scene are going to be vastly different. So, is it misleading to use anything other than a normal lens to take images for the sake of social media then? I doubt that anyone would say this is the case. 

Where Is the Line?

So, with all this other information in mind, let's revisit the question at hand and the image that sparked it all. Drew was not manipulating a person (or dog) to look different than real life, so there is no risk of creating unrealistic beauty expectations. He wasn't editing in landscape features that wouldn't be found in that location, so there is no risk of tricking people to think that epic mountains are found in Michigan or anything along those lines. His edits adjusted colors and lighting, to, as he says, more accurately reflect how he remembers the scene. In fact, in the image in question (with the dog), things were set up with the final image already in mind, so all edits were to enhance the way he staged the scene. 

If we examine the context of his images, they are not intended to be news images or anything such as that. So in my opinion, they can be seen more on the art side of photography, which allows for creative interpretation and manipulation in editing. I do not see where a line was crossed, or how these images would mislead anyone. The photographs are perhaps idealized images of the scene, which you could argue contributes to the "fakeness of the Instagram world," though I hardly think it's enough to make them toxic or anything remotely so negative. Our feeds, in general, are idealized versions of life, for the most part, simply because of what we choose to share. In my view, the photographer isn't even obligated to explain what edits were done. In my opinion, photographs that are personal, or are taken for the sake of creativity or art, are fair game for manipulation, and an explanation of what has been done shouldn't be expected. 

And now, I pose the questions to you all: where is the line for image manipulation in regards to social media? Are only the most basic edits acceptable? Is any editing okay? And, is the photographer obligated to share what edits were done? Let me know in the comments!

Images used with permission of Drew Mason.

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Ed C's picture

First I want to say this is probably the best article I have read on this so thanks for that.

I want believable images. I believe the images that you posted above. No they don't look like the RAW or JPG perhaps but to put that limitation on any photo means Ansel Adams' most iconic images lose much of their shine.

I don't like images where someone has cranked up saturation, vibrancy, clarity, etc. up beyond believable. I don't think either of these photos do that. Without the comparison I would have known that saturation was been cranked up some but it doesn't look like some modern day Velvet Elvis painting. Overall changes in contrast, dodging, burning, selective vignettes, selective desaturation, selective negative clarity, etc. don't bother me.

I don't like fake sun stars, fake flare, sky replacement, etc. Therefore I don't like the composited light trail in the comet photo or the added person. If the artist says up front it is a composite then anything goes. If someone tries to pass off a composite as a photo I don't like it. Those items clearly aren't just a difference of how someone recalls the moment.

My line is admittedly fuzzy in a lot of ways and very subjective.

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

Well goodness, thank you so much for that!

I tend to be in the same camp as you. Mostly realistic images, even if edited significantly, are totally fine in my book. I don't mind composites as long as they are in the right context and acknowledged as such, but I am also not a fan of the sky replacement or fake lens flare business!

The comet photo actually did not add the light trail or a person (in fact, he removed the person), so really that one has the same type of editing as the dog photo, other than the removal of some elements!

jim hughes's picture

I guess it's no different than the text of a post. Words can be sincere, or manipulative. "Manipulative" means someone is trying to get you to feel something that isn't justified by whatever really happened or was actually seen. You can do that with words, or with imagery. We don't normally think of our words as being edited or enhanced, but they almost always are. Whether you think, in retrospect, that what I said seemed dishonest or over-the-top depends on a lot of things - including what you know about me, and what culture we share. Same with a photo.

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

This is a really interesting and excellent way of thinking of this debate! Well put!

Paul Laubach's picture

Nowadays it seems that if you don't over-manipulate your images then no one gives them the time of day. I guess that's the only way to be noticed on social media. I don't have a problem with imaginative processing, but I'm tired of seeing only those images being successful.

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

That does seem very common, but I also see the flip side of that, which is what inspired this post. Maybe it's just in certain specific realms of Instragram, but there has been a general sense of frowning on manipulated images, at least unless you specify what you did.

Tim Truby's picture

I come at this one from the landscape photo as art camp. I think of my images as art. I sell them on my eCommerce site as art. I explain a bit about that philosophy in my About the Artist section.

My approach is to do what I want in post to share my subjective experience of that location. The camera flattens the image, I create a more 3 dimensional experience. The cameras dynamic range is a limitation, I shoot Raw and pull whatever I can out of the highlights and shadows like my eyes do. All that is far more truthful than the shot Canon or my phone gives me.

My guiding idea is to provide an immersive experience of the location. That means I avoid pushing the manipulation into the realm of too much Saturation or Clarity. That's not because I worry about faking something but because bad post work stands out like a sore thumb. I sometimes do a sky replace as well. If I'm using my camera to create an art work, why shouldn't I have the same freedom as Monet? But even there, I only do a new sky if it feels truthful to my core audience. If that looks over the top, there's no suspension of disbelief and the art work has failed.

Generally I don't mention the details of what I do when I post except to mention that I do post work and maybe to explain if I use a long shutter speed. Because I believe my buyer wants an art work that captures the imagination and if I listed all the work I did on a shot, the viewer won't look at the art work with fresh eyes. In fact they'd be bored. But I have no problem with explaining how I work if someone wants to get into how the sausage is made. For me the point is to use the full set of tools of this art form -- just as folks who create a song, painting or film do.

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

I definitely am in that camp as well, at least given the right context. We have so many tools at our disposal, so why not use them? Of course, it can be taken overboard, but the same can be true of paintings or music or any other medium. I also don't think sharing the details of how a work is made are at all necessary and can actually take away some of the mystery and intrigue that draws us to the work to begin with!

Jerome Brill's picture

There is no line. You just have to be transparent about your photos. We keep asking if photography is art. Yes when it is and no when it is not. It's both. A journalist could take a photo of a scene with little to no photo editing. Is this photo art? It's contextual really. Does this photographer always photograph certain subjects? Are they forming something unique that we recognize in their photos? That may be art. Or is it just a one off photo? There is the art of photography and then there is the technique itself.

Part of the problem is that a lot of people don't know that all photos are edited. Either by the jpeg processing in the camera, raw files or dodging and burning in the dark room. People are in control of the technology that captures light and turns it into an image. It's either automatic, manual or both. All created by a human.

A think journalists should do their best to keep photos as close to the scene as they were photographed. Nothing should be edited out but some liberties may be taken on exposure. Any other photographer should be able to do whatever they want, as long as they are transparent about it. If you're making crazy composites, show your work flow. The less information you give invites criticism you don't want. When that happens the conversation never ends on what is art.

Kirk Darling's picture

"Part of the problem is that a lot of people don't know that all photos are edited."

And after more than 100 years of "creative" photography...why is that? "Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see" is a saying that's far older than photography. So why do people continue to place any faith in a photograph--something they all actually know is manipulatable and has been from the beginning--when they also know they can't believe everything they see with their own eyes?

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

This is a super interesting question. I don't have an answer for it, but it is confusing that this is still an issue!

jim hughes's picture

Lately I've noticed that more people are in fact getting skeptical about photos. If the image is spectacular or shows something over-the-top, our first reaction today is often "wait a minute... is that real?" And unfortunately that reduces the impact of genuine photos for which the photographers actually made great efforts.

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

I agree with you on all points except for needing to share what was done to an image. Photojournalism aside, I don't see the need for that. It's a burden that other mediums don't have. Showing the entire workflow especially seems a bit much to me, as knowing the nitty-gritty of how an artwork is made takes some of the interest away, not to mention that where you are sharing your images may not work for also showing your workflow. Does it open you up for criticism? Maybe. But just putting your images out there, in general, does that.

Benoit .'s picture

I think it’s okay for anyone to have an experimental period and ignore criticism. What’s not okay is to not grow from it and refuse others criticism.
To me Drew’s dog picture lost it when he brightened the pet and the guy’s face. It is selective and that’s what clashes. Despite mentioning his memory as a guide, to me it appears that he only memorized the contrast he saw coming from the foreground region. Had he really used tools to change the image globally, the water would have been affected the same way. Dodging and burning with film and enlargements never was very easy to do successfully and certainly not anywhere close to what black and white would allow. Same here, it looks extreme and forced. There apparently was no blue or color in the sky, so adding blue in the amount Drew did totally killed his vision of reality. I shoot a lot of cars, and I make a lot of effort memorizing the color of the cars but it seem that a lot of people tend to memorize contrast when color accuracy is often the most important thing for a clean start.

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

So one thing I didn't mention in the article is that they planned ahead and staged the shot to essentially be a template for the final image. They used various light sources to do some of what they were wanting from the final image, but then enhanced that lighting in post. That may (or may not) change your stance on some of these things.

I think it's also a slippery slope to critique his memory or vision of reality. We all see things differently, and definitely remember things differently, so who is to say that he "killed his vision of reality?" We also see things differently than how our camera may show a scene. The white balance of his camera may have been much warmer than what the scene actually looked like, so it could have absolutely been bluer overall. Color accuracy may be most important for you and many others, but for some, it is the contrast and overall feel of an image, as opposed to exact colors that matter.

Benoit .'s picture

By deduction, the slider shows a canned profile as a before image or as some in the jpeg world like to say "as shot", but you seem to say there could have been some warmer tones in at the proper temperature setting. I wasn't there and I am presented with an image that I am assuming is at least color balanced otherwise it has zero value here. I feel you have taken side rather than looking at the process.

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

I won't deny that I wrote this article with bias, as I already had somewhat of an opinion formed. I don't necessarily consider it a matter of taking sides, however. My point is simply that saying that his vision of reality is wrong is an issue, in my eyes at least. Also, I am not sure I understand why the before image would have zero value here if it isn't color balanced. Is that not part of the editing process (at least usually)?

Benoit .'s picture

From the same negative or plate, would Ansel Adams present a flat print next to his finished work to justify his decisions? I don’t see the reason for the image on the left in the context of this article.

Kirk Darling's picture

My first question is: Why is anyone expecting truth in social media in the first place? That's rather like going to a cocktail party or a night club expecting people to be telling the truth. The social context inherently obviates the expectation of truth.

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

Ha! That is a very valid question!

Jim Arco's picture

To me the question about image manipulations depends on the use of the image.

You asked about "the line for image manipulation in regards to social media." Folks consuming social media should have a much lower expectation of the "reality" of a photo or video than, say someone on a news site.

Much of of what we see on social media is about "Hey look at me. I am cool/smart/powerful/victimized/overworked/whatever" and therefore tends to be all about exaggeration. Whereas, when I look at a news media site, I have an at least some expectation of accuracy. We can still manipulate news images (to correct exposure, draw attention, eliminate noise, crop extraneous, etc) as long as the photo/video still tells the same truth that occurred at the time the photo was taken.

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

I definitely agree with you! I think it all comes down to context, as with most things in life.

David Pavlich's picture

Take social media with that proverbial grain of salt. It's a cesspool with some good stuff intertwined. Unless you actually know the person or are familiar with his/her work, you have to look at this stuff through skeptical eyes.

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

Very true!

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

If not intended as news coverage, edit the way you want. As in the case of the dog photo, I don't see anything wrong with it.

Russell Underhill's picture

Of course artistic freedom is the norm. However, please don’t manipulate images that are held as factual, documents, science etc.
it would be nice if people would indicate the extent of the manipulation so it can be appreciated in that light. Meaning, categorize your AI manipulation don’t put in the same category as someone’s dedicated purest photography. That’s just wrong.

Kirk Darling's picture

No, it's not wrong. What would be wrong is trying to define one method of manipulating the truth as being fundamentally different from any other method of manipulating the truth, which is what you're suggesting.

For instance, carefully editing a series of photographs of a politician to display the one shot of him in mid-blink looking moronic is not any more truthful than Photoshopping his eyelids half closed.

If truth is the point, and truth has been manipulated, the method is irrelevant.

Now, if you create a specific forum in which the established reason for its existence is to display "photographs free of manipulation," then go ahead...but don't be fooled that those photographs will necessarily display "truth."

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

I also disagree that it is inherently wrong to put it in the same category. Granted, if you are talking about galleries, forums, contests, etc. then sure, don't submit images that have been edited heavily to specific manipulation-free situations. But having to disclose fully everything you've done to an image every time just so people aren't theoretically fooled into thinking it is a "pure" image is unnecessary in my mind.

Kirk Darling hit the nail on the head for what I was trying to get at. Although this post was more specifically about manipulation in terms of editing, I included the quote from Conscientious Photography Magazine because really manipulation of some level happens the moment we take a photograph.

Terry Waggoner's picture

As I have aged, I've come to realize that no matter what you do, say or think..........somebody is gonna, why worry about it?

David Pavlich's picture

Ayup! More today than ever.

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

So true!

chris bryant's picture

That 'line' has a 30px gaussian blur applied to it.

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

Ha! A perfect way of putting it!

Anette Mossbacher's picture

Thanks so much for this article. Where to draw the line is never easy. As you mentioned, some manipulations are bad, like with models, some are just light...etc. In my corner from nature photography, especially wildlife photography, manipulations can cause a false image of how the animals are out in the wild. The viewers get often a wrong "picture" of the situation and may bring themselves into danger. There comes in the "slim models" which caused so much damage with young women out there!!!
I have to agree with some comments, many do it just to be "popular" on social media! IF it is not real, I think this should be added. That can avoid some damage here and there!

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

It definitely can be dangerous in wildlife photography as well! That is something I forgot about while working on this, so thank you for pointing that out. Maybe I'm just a grumpy photographer these days, but I just don't see the necessity of pointing out edits on social media. Plus, I think that line is also really blurry. In the dog example, he didn't add anything or take anything away, so would he need to specify that he adjusted lighting and colors? Isn't that true of most photographs anyway?

Leo D's picture

First post, sorry for my English. It's difficult to define where the line is because it is a certain feeling.
Personally i find sky replacement absolutely not done especially if you didn't shoot that sky yourself. Thats crazy. It's not there, not that moment and not even yours! Stealing someone else's idea is a sin imo too btw, but that's another subject.
Same for adding other details that weren't there like snow, rain are light rays.
And yes, of course we do change things. For me retouche or taking away ugly elements (how inconsistent this may sound after the adding comment) are okay. Playing with color and contrast too, Changing a day moment to night (like the photo of the dog guy) is on or over the edge. For me that is too much faking cause you create something totally different. Should have taken it an hour later with proper light then.

Am i the only one who feels it's a sport to create something nice with the circumstances. Treasure the given light and moment you got there? Those are unique.

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

I agree that defining where the line should be is difficult, if not impossible! I prefer to capture conditions as is, as opposed to adding in rain, snow, etc., so we are in the same boat there as well. I think that can be half the challenge (and therefore fun) of photography; putting yourself in the right place as the right time is super important!

For the dog photo, it was taken at dusk, he just enhanced that a bit more in editing. I don't find that it is faking the situation, as I know that at dusk especially, our eyes see things very differently than the camera.

Leo D's picture

I agree on the dusk. Same for very early just before dawn. Out of camera it may look like daytime and i do edit those extra dark and blue. This seems very extreme though (more like making it a night shot). Technically very well done though, so maybe i'm just a bit jealous here on this one :)
Well, i'm actually more just curious if he selected the man's back to selective adjust for and background or if it's "just" adjusting tones and contrast.

Gian Franco Prozzillo's picture

I don't see a clear line between original and manipulation. It already starts with the pose, because often you think that a person is standing in that place by chance. Yet several poses and photos were necessary beforehand. The same applies to image adjustments or even corrections of objects and weather conditions. The main purpose of social media is to manipulate readers (through influencers) - you market products that you never use, you visit places that you don't necessarily like and you edit photos to get more likes. When it comes to money, ethics don't matter. Therefore, in my view, there is no clear line on social media.

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

I definitely agree that manipulation really happens the second you press the shutter (maybe even before)!

Kirk Darling's picture

Matthew Brady rearranged dead bodies for his Civil War photographs.

H Mark Macha's picture

Is it art or is it photojournalism? Is the goal something beautiful to behold and enjoy or is it an accurate rendition of the observed? Is it to convey beauty or to convey data/information? Often those two diverge. When I seek something to hang on my wall, I chose the former. Were I to convey to others conditions of a camping trip and hike, I would chose the latter. Look at the other visual arts. Are they accurate? What about the impressionists? Were even the great Dutch painters precise with reality? Christian churches display images of Jesus Christ. Guess what. There are all from the mind of the artist. There is no known event of Jesus sitting for a portrait. Even as "beauty lies in the eye of the beholder", so to "reality". Courts bear witness to different renditions of reality of the same event. For me, after decades of photography, I realized I had chosen beauty and my interpretation. How ugly my wall would be had I not altered reality. My two bits worth...

Benoit .'s picture

The difference with most photographs vs paintings or even digital art from scratch is that there is a capture in photography when a Picasso starts with a blank and typically white canvas. You can't photograph an apple if you do not have one to shoot but virtually anyone can draw an apple and call it an apple no matter what it looks like.

Kirk Darling's picture

That's a difference that makes no difference.

Pertinent to this discussion is that we do have an image of an apple...the discussion is about whether there should be a "manipulation line" drawn against our manipulation of the image of the apple.

Whether as a painter I add my impression of reality to a blank canvas or as a photographer I chip away "reality" until it conforms to my impression of it...a difference that makes no difference.

Now that I think of it, perhaps we should compare a photographer to a sculptor rather than to a painter. A sculptor takes reality--a block of marble--and chips away pieces of that reality until it looks like the image in the sculptor's mind. Is his manipulation of realty wrong? Perhaps he should just exhibit the block of marble and declare, "Voila!"

Benoit .'s picture

If the sculptor created the block then possibly but in reality he just use an existing block to create his vision. I mean yes, shoot a pure white image of nothing or leave the cover of your lens on, click and call it a photograph, because technically it is, but not many people will find any interest in it. As a matter of fact you don't even need a camera or lens, just use photoshop and voila.
Regarding the "manipulation line" to me people should do anything they want, but also accept criticism and I think that's where the problem is.

Kirk Darling's picture

No, you didn't understand my analogy. The sculptor did not create the reality of the block, nor did the photographer create the reality before the lens (if the photographer did create the reality before the lens, then we're talking about an even greater magnitude of manipulation of reality). They both have taken reality and shaped it to their vision.

Regarding the "manipulation line," one can argue that if people can do anything they want, no criticism is valid.

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." -- Theodore Roosevelt

Leo D's picture

The art od stealing sky photo's?