Photo Manipulation and Ethics

Where is the border between enhancing a photograph, which is allowed, and manipulation that aims to distort the truth? Until today, there is no clear answer to this.

Different image processing practices are used in different fields of photography, even in different sections of the same paper.

The ethics of photojournalism influence the guidelines: how realistic or truthful is the image of reality that will be presented.

The strictest authenticity requirements of all photograph types apply to news photographs. In practice, only technical improvement of the photograph is permitted: nothing may be added nor removed from the picture.

The documentary character of photographs must be supervised. One has to pay attention that photographs and images are truthful, and that they are not used in a misleading way.

The Swedish Guidelines of ethical photography


Primarily, the use of photographs is regulated by journalists’ guidelines, in addition to which media houses might have their own norms. However, in many guidelines there is only a small mention about image processing, if even that.

As examples of the Nordic guidelines, the Finnish ones state that “in addition imagery or sounds must not be used in a misleading fashion”, and the Swedish ones that “the documentary character of photographs must be supervised. One has to pay attention that photographs and images are truthful, and that they are not used in a misleading way” and that “Combination photographs or other digital image processing must not be used in a way that can mislead the reader. In the case of a combination photograph or an image that has otherwise been retouched, there needs to be a mention of image
processing”. The Norwegian guidelines are quite similar to the Swedish ones. Icelandic and Danish instructions do not discuss image processing at all, however.

Reuters tightens up it’s rules after a scandal

Adnan Haij, a freelance photographer working for Reuters, caused uproar in 2006 when he was caught having added a smoke cloud on to his photographs which handled the bombings of Lebanon. Reuters fired the photographer as a result of the controversy, and compiled in 2007, roughly six months after the incident, a wholesome guideline package on image processing for their photographers.

The Reuters instructions are crystallized before everything else in the thought that only slight framing, resizing and basic adjustments are allowed. It is not allowed to add anything or remove anything from photographs. Harsh color adjustments, exposure adjustment and blurring are forbidden.

Reuters prohibits, for example:

  • The adding and removal of elements
  • The use of a cloning or healing tool on anything else than removing small imperfections
  • The use of an airbrush and a paintbrush
  • Sharpening only a part of the image
  • Excessive lightening or darkening
  • Excessive modification of color tones
  • Using the auto levels tool on Photoshop
  • Blurring
  • Use of the eraser tool
  • Quick masks for selections, such as depth of field
  • Automatic camera settings, in-camera saturation styles

In magazines the rules are generally less tight

In magazines image processing is more relaxed. In processing for a magazine the mindset is often that things that do not permanently belong to a person, such as skin problems, can be removed.

Sometimes portraits are improved significantly. A person may be made to appear more slim, wrinkles, skin problems, cellulite, varicose veins and other “imperfections” may be removed radically.

As one extremity in image processing are advertising photographs, which do not in practice adhere to the conventions of journalism. Every now and then heated discussion arises on the unrealistic imagery created by advertising photographs, and the beauty norms arising from them.

Keep Reading:

Photo Manipulation – A Root of all Evil?; Manipulating Reality without Manipulating the Photo.The rights and responsibilities of a photographer
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