What is more Photoshop or real?

There is a lot of discussion these days about the pros and cons of post-processing. It is good and bad. Should we even bother? Authentic? Isn’t the image out of a camera the real thing? Editing isn’t cheating, right?

What is an Unedited Digital Photo?

Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately. There is no such thing as an unedited image.

Here’s why:

When you press the shutter release button on your camera, the shutter moves out of the way and allows light to fall on the sensor. Once the exposure is complete, the shutter falls back into place. The image processor in your camera then takes all the light data from the sensor and puts it into a RAW file. This happens, whether or not you’ve chosen to shoot in RAW or jpg (assuming your camera gives you the choice).

If you’ve chosen to shoot in jpg, the image processor then takes this RAW file and tries to make sense of it, based on the algorithms (and perhaps artificial intelligence) in the camera. The image processor applies some adjustments to contrast, saturation and noise reduction. Finally, it saves the result as an jpg file.

If you choose to shoot RAW it saves only the RAW file. In this case, you will apply contrast, saturation, noise reduction, and so on, as per your intent, later on.

In both cases, the image has been edited. If you shoot in jpg the camera will have made edits. In RAW the human editor has.

There is no such thing as an unedited image.

Some people claim that an unedit image is one that has been converted from a RAW file to jpg without making any changes. It is absurd. A RAW file can’t be used as an image format. If you are unsure, insert the RAW file into your Word document or import it into InDesign. To convert a raw file into an image, you will need special software such as Lightroom or Camera Raw.

If you take a JPEG preview from an unedit RAW file you’ll see it flattened, with washed-out colors and little detail in highlights and shadows. It is not what the scene looked like. RAW files are not images. They contain light information.

Consider below:

The left image is the JPEG export of an unedited RAW file. The color is very flat and there’s not much detail in shadows or highlights. The middle is the JPEG file exported by the camera. Right is the JPEG file exported from the RAW. It was edited by myself. The last image is the closest, of the three, to what the scene looked like.

So there is no such thing as an unedited image. Editing isn’t cheating. It can be overdone, it can be poorly done, it can be distastefully done, but is has to be done. How much is acceptable, is what we’ll talk about now.

How Much Editing Is Too Much? And Does It Matter?

Broadly speaking, I feel it depends on your intent, on the end-use of the photos. We’ll jump in and start asking these questions about photography in different fields.

Personal / Fine Art Photography

If you are shooting for yourself, or are a fine art photographer, then it is entirely up to you. You can edit as strong or as weak as you wish, and your saturation level can be high or low — that’s up to you. It’s up to you how your work should look. Some people like HDR, some like realism or accuracy to the scene as it was, and some like adding effects or layering/compositing. You can do whatever you like with it. You can edit and modify to your hearts content.

Consider the beautiful work of Henry Friedland. The inspiration for these intricate compositions comes from photographs. These intricate compositions are a combination of multiple images that has been intertwined with effects and textures. These images have been so edited, they are no longer photographs but digital works of art.

So, if you’re a fine art photographer, it doesn’t matter at all, how much, or little editing you do.


This is the other extreme. The purpose of photojournalism is to show (or document) the reality of a place/situation/event to people who aren’t/weren’t physically present. Your editing must be accurate to reflect reality. How were the colors and the lighting? You won’t likely be doing much more than simple color, contrast and sharpness adjustments. Cropping is another option.

One of the great photojournalists is Steve McCurry, who’s best known for his Afghan Girl cover on National Geographic. As one of the world’s premier photojournalists, his work comes under more scrutiny than most people’s, and some years back he faced a fair bit of flak because of some manipulations and edits that had been discovered in his work. Many photographers have been fired or lost awards for manipulating their images.

While it is understandable to want to modify images, honesty is the mantra of photojournalism. It is important that you edit accurately and keep the scene exactly as it was.

Product and Commercial Photography

This is where the shades of grey start to appear.
There was an old Michael Douglas movie in which he freaks out at a fast food place, because of the discrepancy between the burger on the menu board and the one served to him.

This is a real-world situation – ever been to Mcdonald’s and compared the cheeseburger on their menu board to the one you get? There is no comparison between them. Funny enough, Mcdonald’s PR clip seemed to respond to my question.

In fact, recently, there has been news recently about Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s being sued for misrepresenting their products.

On the one hand, the purpose of product photography is to show a potential purchaser an accurate representation of what the product looks like. On the other hand, the seller of the product, the person that will be paying you for making the photos, wants the product to look as perfect as possible.

Let’s say the product is a crystal vase. The finish is imperfect. It has jagged corners. This is a premium-priced item, and the client says to clean up the edges in Photoshop. You would be misleading the customer if you didn’t. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be satisfying your client.

What would you do?

Let’s say you want to shoot a villa at the most crowded part of your town. The neighborhood is expensive but congested, there are loops and crisscrossing cables all over the place, and an unkempt garbage dump behind the house, visible from the bedrooms. What are your thoughts on removing the cables? How about the view from the master bedroom?

What if it was a mask for the face? While shooting, you notice the stitches are uneven and in some places, the fabric is ripped, thus compromising the protection that the purchaser would get. Although it’s not an extremely high-quality product, the mask is being sold as something that can save lives. Now what would you do? What should you do?

Depending on the stakes, how you edit commercial and product photography will have a significant impact. It does matter, so it’s better to be authentic.

Portrait Photography

How much editing in portraiture is too much? Every shade of gray is possible here. The client’s intent and how they want it to be used will determine the final outcome.

Some clients may request the full Vogue and Cosmopolitan treatment “Make me skinny with flawless glowing skin! I want to see what I would look like!” They might also say “No editing at all, please! You can be who you are. Portraiture is often aspirational and can require more post-processing. It is best to keep anything temporary, but not anything permanent. Do you have a pimple on your nose? It’s gone. It’s gone. Do you have a birthmark on your neck or a beauty spot? It’s fine.

Do you know Cindy Crawford’s mole? She wouldn’t be Cindy Crawford without it.

It also depends on the intent and the final use of the images. When shooting headshots, ask what the images are for. Models and actresses use headshots as a way to show their portfolios to potential employers. If the client is an actress or a model, make sure the images are authentic. The agent won’t be surprised if the client shows up to a screen-test. In many cases, now, headshots are popular as corporate photos, and as display pictures for social media, in these cases, the client will occasionally request a little more retouching.

Personally, authenticity is a key component of my work. This includes glamour portraits. Every person is beautiful, I believe. Beauty is within. Your photos should reflect the beauty within you if someone captures it at just the right time. A good photographer is not only skilled with the camera and lighting but will be able to find that moment, even create it.

So in portraiture, it may or may not matter how much editing you do, depending on the client’s wishes and the intent and use of the imagery.

There you go. What is the limit of editing? Is it important? It is not clear cut. It all comes down to this, as with so many other things in life: it all depends.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

About the author: Andy Malhan is a portrait and communications photographer based in Hong Kong. You can find more of his work on his website, blog, Twitter, and Instagram. This article was also published here.