What’s the Line Between Photograph and Photoshop, Reality and Fantasy?


Back in 2009, Popular Photography announced the winning photos of its latest Reader’s Photos Contest. Two of the winners (shown above) had some photographers scratching their heads, due to the fact that they’re “Photoshop jobs” rather than non-manipulated stills.

In response to the controversy surrounding the picks, the magazine’s editor-in-chief Miriam Leuchter published an editorial titled “What Is A Photograph?“:

Nearly 150 years [after the birth of photography], the idea that photographs can portray an “imagined reality” is nothing if not more accepted. Yet the debate rages on.

In the case of the contested pictures in this magazine, the composites were clearly labeled as such and the photographers’ techniques explained. They were shot with traditional cameras and lenses, one in a studio and one on location. One used a model and one captured wildlife. Sure, the “action” was staged, but the lighthouse was genuine (I’ve been there) […]

For the next edition of our annual contest, we’ll consider creating a separate category for composites or invented realities. But does a stitched panorama that looks like the original scene count as a composite? Does a staged scene with costumed models in a studio-built set count as an invented reality? We think no—and that’s the problem with defining what’s a “real” photo and what’s a “fake.”

Shortly afterward, David Pogue of the New York Times brought the debate to a much wider audience by publishing an article titled, “Photoshop and Photography: When Is It Real?“:

[…] composition and timing are two key elements of a photographer’s skill, right? If you don’t have to worry about composition and timing, because you can always combine several photos or move things around later in Photoshop, then, well — what is a photograph?

The thing is, though, this isn’t necessarily an open-and-shut case. Ms. Leuchter’s editorial points out that photography has never been strictly a “capture reality” art form. It’s never been limited to reproducing what the eye sees.

From the very beginning, photographers have set up their shots, posed people and adjusted brightness and contrast in the development process. So although you may think that some line has been crossed, it might not be so easy to specify exactly where that line sits.


The issue popped up again very recently after a photographer had his winning National Geographic Photo Contest image disqualified for removing an unsightly plastic bag from the scene rather than simply cropping it out (the two versions are shown above).

Photoshop and Photography: When Is It Real? [NYTimes via Reddit]

Image credits: Photographs by Timothy Bailey and Todd Mcvey

  • heretogloat

    My view is that anything done before the final instant in which the button is clicked is fine and comprises a photographs Everything done after is gimmickry. That is how I view digital photos.

    If you made a decision to ‘set up’ a scene a certain way, used a filter, applied extra contrast/saturation, choose a weird white balance, changed lens etc, all that is fine if done before the button is clicked. It is strict and rules out innocuous cropping/straightening as well as epic panoramas for digital.
    Obviously this does not apply exactly to film, but I view that as a different medium with a different ‘rule set’

    ps: please ignore the alias used here. Not relevant for this (awesome) web site.

  • rz67

    Everyone has their own idea, view, perception or take on this subject. This fact makes things interesting and produces varied opinions but it’s hard to settle down with one cold, hard reason. Horses for courses.

  • KB

    It’d be nice if photo illustration and photomontage were strictly required to labelled as such; Ain’t gonna happen. “Straight” or “Documentary” photography is devalued as a result.

  • JJ Black

    I’m not going to comment on the line itself : instead I’ll just say that the last few articles you’ve had here with “surreal photographs” have made me cringe. They look like some 12-year old’s imagination come to life on a Trapper-Keeper. Or bad stock art you’d use to sell some product that “made you feel free again” (insert horrible corporate slogan here). The self-portrait ones are particularly trite, self-absorbed, and ultimately facile.

  • ietion

    if we go by interpreting the (greek) word ‘photography’ is means ‘writing with light’.
    (phos = light, photo- = ‘deriving from light’, grapho = ‘i write’, graphia = writing). So it is defined as a writing by light. This leaves out the photoshop brush i think. You can use it, some amazing results can be produced by it, but it is not ‘photography’ any more. Its a combination of arts, it should be called something different.

  • gabrannon

    Photographers have been manipulating the final images since the beginning ever read Ansel Adams book The Print? As technology advances we get better tools and can do more to the final image only limited by our imagination. I’m my opinion if it is art you are free to do whatever you like but if it’s photojournalism your responsibility is to the truth.

  • Bär

    Photography or Photodesign

  • Rhet

    I can answer the title in one word; Intent.

  • Bob

    I feel the decision to disqualify the above image is wrong. The item in question is a plastic bag that is not a permanent part of the scene & does not add to the overall aesthetics. If the item was an unsightly rock or changing the sky for a more dramatic look that the original did not portray, then it should be.
    I work within photography department & I edit hundreds of images per week & the removal of litter or any other unsightly non permanent objects is considered perfectly fine in my profession, even cars.
    I do have a gripe though with people who enter competitions with images that have had significant amounts of photoshop, but try & make you believe it came out of the camera like that!

  • derekdj

    It’s still strange to me why we need to argue this issue over and over again, just because the tools have changed. If you’re “photoshopping” or digitally compositing images you’re a building a collage. Many in the academic work would classify collages as part of the fine art ream. Andy Warhol, Man Ray, Joseph Cornell were all photographers, yet the body of their work which involved collage and photo manipulation are generally regarded as fine art.

  • DamianM

    I agree.

  • Dave

    Fully agree

  • Dave

    But is to you removing a plastic bag from the scene considered not telling the truth? If it is truth you seek in photography, then what is the truth in that award winning photograph? And is that truth taken away if you remove the plastic bag?

  • eraserhead12

    I agree–mixed media/collages are the analog equivalent of photomanipulation. imo, the heat of the argument lies how you distinguish those from actual *photographs*.

    if you’ve submitted art for a photograph contest, you wouldn’t submit a mixed-media cutout collage would you?

  • LDS

    If you’re going to concoct scenes like this you better make sure they work as art as well as photography. As photos they would be amazing – singular moments, captured beautifully, and demonstrating great talent in the breadth of photographic skills. As images from the imagination they are pretty goddamned trite. Medium matters.

  • DC

    Photography is a re-presentation of reality… Had the Nat Geo photo been a traditional C-Type print the photographer might have considered using spotting inks to tone down or eliminate the plastic carrier entirely. Unless it was specified that only crop & exposure values may be changed, this photo should not have been disqualified (imo)

  • Ken Jones

    I”m kind of up in the air with the line between photography and graphic design / photo collage. It really could be defined many different ways.

    One could be the equivalent of shooting *chrome–what comes out of the camera is what you get. No prints for the opportunity for print manipulation, etc.

    Of course, at the other end of the spectrum I’m reminded of the painting techniques of fantasy artist Vallejo and Rowena. Many of the their images used specifically shot scenes of their models as reference. They would then use the reference with a “IRL clone tool” (i.e. real life paint and brush) to put in a fantasy world.

    One end is clearly “photography” and the other clearly “not photography.” Where is the line between the two? Maybe it is simply up to the contest organizers.

    “Photography” does include post manipulation. How many of you routinely adjust your photos to polish them off? How much? Can a professional photographer exist today that doesn’t do post?

    Maybe contests should recognize the differences in “pure photography” and image creations that include photography as an element?

  • Rabi Abonour

    Pogue’s idea about composition is just silly. If Photoshop work doesn’t involve compositional skill, then neither does painting.