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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Is Altering Pictures Cheating?

With the new age of digital cameras and fancy imaging programs it's easier than ever to produce a great photo. And for garden bloggers, pictures of our gardens is often what draws readers to our sites and keeps them coming back over and over again. Lately I'm seeing more and more garden photos on blogs that look suspiciously like they've been altered. Do you consider digitally enhancing flower photos cheating?

The way I see it there are acceptable "enhancements" and there are unacceptable ones.

Acceptable enhancements

Auto Correct

For us gardeners who don't have the top of the line cameras, it can be quite difficult to capture a scene that is anywhere close to the way it looks in person. My camera is a several year old Fuji E510. It's fairly easy to use and it was affordable for a digital camera back in the day when I received it as a gift. But very frequently my photos look too dark or worse, too bright. Sometimes when this happens I'll click the button that says "auto correct" and see if that makes the photo look a little clearer. I don't usually do this for photos where flowers or plants are my subject. Why? Because it feels like cheating to me. If I'm correcting a photo of a colorful flower it feels like I'm deceiving my readers into thinking my flowers are prettier than they really are. I have way less of a problem with altering pictures of buildings and hardscapes where we're beauty is not the focus.

Color Distortion

I feel that color enhancement is only acceptable when the goal is to purposely distort the color, like the blue cosmos above. Come on! There are no Blue Cosmos! For a while I was posting pictures of psychedelic photos but I don't think I led anybody astray with my green tomato sandwich.

Other enhancements I'm not bothered by are "soft focus", cropping, zooming and Black and White because they are obvious changes that do not affect the beauty-o-meter.

Unacceptable Enhancements

Color Enhancements

To manipulate the color of a flower on a digital photograph seems like an attempt to increase the pretty-ness of the flower. The blue cosmos above is actually a Cosmic Orange one. The color is outstanding but if I manipulated the color of the photo from Cosmic Orange to, say Really Really Cosmic Orange, that would seem wrong. Sure, my readers would be all like WOW GINA HAS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL COSMOS ON THE PLANET, but that's not really my cosmos! At that point it seems that the photo is more like an art project than showing what my personal flowers in my personal garden look like. And at that point, why don't I just get some pictures of some whole other person's garden and say they are mine?

I'd love to hear from some people who publish their garden photos in magazines. Is it acceptable to manipulate the photos in the magazine industry?

And what about the rest of the garden bloggers who frequently post photos on their blogs? Do you manipulate your photos? If you don't, are you bothered by those who do?


  1. Great questions! I generally restrict my photo editing to making the photo look as true-to-life as possible, as you mentioned. But I've heard that anything goes in magazines and advertisements. I'm very curious to find out what others say!
    ~Angela :-)

  2. I often look at the pictures, and if the lighting was just wrong, I'll brighten things a little. I don't like fooling around much with the pictures.

    I do crop, so that I can highlight what it is that I'm talking about or to remove something (or someone) who didn't want to be on the web.

  3. I once sat on a plane next to a professional photog and I asked her about why pictures always look so good.


    I agree. The only changes I make to my pictures involve light (highlights, shadows, fill light), cropping, or changing to black and white.

    I think you've hit on something really big here.

  4. I started to post a comment, but the comment became a post as I went on and on about this subject! It's an excellent, thought-provoking, question with many possible responses. As for me I consider photography an art and prefer not to pass judgement on the art of others.

  5. I have once or twice cropped a photo where it was too hard to see the object of the photo but otherwise I try to leave things as they really are...but then I'm not a photographer so I'm not into all the manipulating that could be done or even knowledgeable about it.

  6. I occasionally crop, but I am doing good if I manage to get the photo on my blog, I don't have time to spend messing with them. I guess if I think about it, it does kind of bother me if people change their photo's without stating that they have. It is kind of like telling a little white lie. Good question!

  7. I change the brightness of my photos all the time because I don't always get it right when I snap the shot. Also, I try to underexpose certain flowers in an attempt to capture the true color. My camera is not an SLR, so I am constantly fighting its limitations. Some flowers it simply can't capture the color of. I try to make my photos appear as close to life as possible. As for cropping - I try to frame a shot the best way possible when taking the photo, but sometimes cropping makes the photo have more impact.
    I agree that I would not feel comfortable juicing up the color of something to make it look better than it really is.

  8. angela - thanks for stopping by! if you havnt already go on over to garden girl's blog and read her post and comments. I think i'm the minority here.

    nancy - I've cropped before in order to remove an address or something that has no business on the internet. sounds like we all have our own lists of what's OK, huh?

    katie - i feel like i've unintentionally pissed people off. shame on me!

    garden girl - i read your post and all your commenters. it was quite interesting and I gotta tell you that I'm glad to know that this is way more acceptable that I ever thought. Expect my garden to look much better in the future!

    leslie - me too!

    vonlafin - i think we are both wrong! it sounds like everybody commonly does these enhancements.

    MMD - i dont even know how to "under expose" my flower shots! maybe i need a photography class?

  9. Heather's GardenMay 2, 2008 at 7:32 PM

    The only thing I've ever done is crop on a few photos of butterflies and I always announce that I've done it. I removed the names from our Christmas stockings in a photo because I don't use my husband's or the kids publicly. I think it's very common to enhance photos digitally, but I've always thought of it as cheating. I frame my photos the way I want them to appear. I even hate using the flash because it never looks quite right to me. I would (and should) invest in a tripod, but since I'm using a 3 year-old point and shoot digital, that seems excessive to me.

  10. I sometimes crop pictures if there is something on there which doesn't really look nice or I don't want it on the blog. I also use the auto correct if needed. For the blog I also play around with putting frames on the picture. I never change the colors though, because I feel that's cheating. If I do change more than the size, I usually announce it.

  11. I think it's all in the intent. I don't have any sort of image-altering software on my home computer (that horrible standard "Paint" program doesn't count) but I do sometimes downsize photos on my work computer before posting them on my blog.

    When I do, I have been known to up the contrast or correct a color a little bit... but only if what I'm seeing on the screen simply does not match what I see with my eye in the garden. If I'm trying to accurately convey my garden as I see it, then whatever I have to do manipulation-wise is pretty much fair game.

    Same goes with cropping. Be honest: you often don't notice weeds in the garden, or smudges on the floor in your house, unless you're about to have visitors or post up pictures of them on your blog, right? We're all good at looking past the faults and seeing the beauty in our gardens and houses... so if pulling a weed in front of an iris before you take its picture more accurately conveys what you see when you look at your garden... what's the harm?

  12. I'm an art director and an avid and knowledgeable Photoshop user. I use it every day. Cropping a photo is a given, it's the best way to highlight the subject of a photo. Enhancing the color that's already there is a given too, not all cameras are color balanced correctly, then there's the lighting of the original shot that can negatively influence the color - that has to be corrected. Changing colors outright? I would not do that on a blog photo, but I do it all the time for clients.

    Most Photoshopping has to do with cleaning up a photo. The main photo I use of my house (you can see it at was used in a coffee table book.

    I retouched out the hose that was in the driveway, cleaned up cracks in the sidewalk, added blue to the sky (it was gray), and copy and pasted the boxes of red annuals hanging on the porch railing (there was only one, now there's two). You can't see it on the cropped version, but I also added, in Photoshop, my lightening rod, which was not on the house at the time it was photographed.

    Lies? Manipulation? Deceit? Wickedness? Poor moral compass? Bad childhood? Maybe.

    I think Photoshopping for editorial pieces is wrong. For commercial pieces, I have no problem with. 'Course, that's what I get paid to do.

  13. I used to crop and play with brightness and intensity, but that was before I discovered Flickr and blogging. Now the photos go straight from the camera to disk to Flickr without any manipulation at all (outside of choosing settings on my camera before the shot). So if you think my photos look crappy, there's a reason....

  14. I don't mind photo editing on other people's blogs. In fact, there have been times when I've wished someone had lightened their photo because it was too dark but was otherwise a good shot.

    I always edit something on my pictures. I crop, adjust lighting if I need to, and I sharpen the focus if it needs it. I have the free Noiseware download and will occasionally remove the noise from the picture. I never use a tripod so between the wind here and the handshaking, some tweaking is usually necessary. I don't see that as cheating though.

    I doubt you'll find too many professional photographers who do not tweak their pictures. Just check Mpix forums sometime and see the advanced programs they use. Now editing is just a part of photography.