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).

Image credits: Photographs by Timothy Bailey and Todd Mcvey