Abstract Yellow Flower : When is a photo not really a photo anymore?

web painted flower

This is another in a series of photos I refer to as being “reimagined” images. The questions often comes up, how much can an image be digitally altered before it really cannot be considered a “photo” anymore? (see more text below)

I am more of a purist on this point, so my photo posted above that was reimagined using Photoshop, would definitely not be eligible for instance in a traditional photo contest as far as I am concerned. Of course, who defines traditional these days?

My background is in photojournalism. A tenet of ethical journalism is you do not manipulate a news photo beyond very basic cropping, toning, levels, etc. Is it ever O.K. to digitally alter a news photo? As Taylor Swift would say, “never…. ever!”

Newspapers and wire services such as The Associated Press, where I edited photos for nine years, take this rule very seriously. In that realm, digitally altering a photo is akin to someone in Major Leagues betting on baseball. You get caught doing it, you are gone, like Pete Rose, no Hall of Fame for you.

When I first ventured into non journalism photography, it was hard for me, thanks to my news conditioning, to alter an image, even if I knew it would look better.

For most of my nature work, if the original version stands on its, own, I do not feel the need or want to manipulate it. I rarely if ever add or subtract an element to a nature photo for the same reason I would not do so to a news photo, I feel there needs to be a certain level of integrity so the viewer finds the photo believable.
If I had a photo of a deer and then start adding birds that were not there and replace the cloudless sky with the puffy clouds I copied from a beach photo, I think
that photo could really mislead people.

All art, no matter if it is a film, a novel or a photo, must be believable on some level, or the reader or viewer will have difficulty relating to it.

When I do digitally reimagine a photo, I try to, as I did in this photo, manipulate it to the degree that it clearly looks as its been in Photoshop, or iPhoto, or any other software or app. Sometimes I try to go a step further by mentioning I added effects when writing in this blog. I do not want to confuse anyone.

A couple of other thoughts on manipulating photos.

In a perfect world, the goal should be to to produce photos straight out of the camera that do not need much work or adjustments. That way you can spend much more time actually creating and taking photographs than you do correcting them on your computer or in your darkroom.

That being said, I enjoy reimagining photos with my favorite softwares, but no matter how well they turn out, I would never equivocate that to creating a memorable image using only my Nikon.

A final thought: even the photos that are jazzed up in Photoshop must have a foundation of strong design, lighting and color. Building on a photo that does not have these fundamentals would be like building your house on quicksand, its not going to work, never… ever!

Thanks so much for tuning in and reading along today.

I would love to know your thoughts on when does a photo stop being a photo. Please feel free to drop a note in the comment box below.


  1. Since I could end up with an image similar to the above (without Photoshop), I would consider it still a photo.

    I find with my eyesight and the time of afternoon I go for a walk, that I can often end up with a huge variety of flower photo effects. I crop or sometimes increase the contrast, but do little other editing as I find the eye strain detracts from my enjoyment of my photography hobby.

    Some angles of shooting and overhead sun glare can make an image look most unreal. Other times I get certain flowers crisp & well-focused and the light source adds depth to the petals and my flower image looks more realistic.

    When it comes to photojournalism, I think we all prefer to see the person or scene as close to the real thing as possible. But having said that, I still see photojournalists making more impact with the angle of shot and distance from subject.


    • Vicki, thanks for the comment and you make some tremendous points. I totally agree that in news shots, the angle and perspective a photo is taken from can make a tremendous difference. Also, as you suggest, what you decide to include or not include in a news photo can make a tremendous difference in the story being told in a particular image. What effects are acceptable vary over the years too. Back in the 70s and 1980s, it was common to see what was called “the hand of God” used in a lot of black and white news photos. It basically was a burning and dodging technique where the person printing the photo would burn down, make dark, or in some cases black, all of the photo surrounding main subject. Some people were careful and others were so heavy handed the entire background of photos was removed. In most if not all news rooms today, if someone tried the same effect using software, it most likely would not be deemed acceptable.


  2. Photojournalism needs to be real. But I love playing in PhotoShop (as much as my limited skills let me) and combining images to create something different. I cannot draw or paint and this is my way of creating art to please myself.


    • Lee, I could not agree more. One comment on a photo I posted Wednesday read, what a beautiful painting. I think a lot of photographer (including me) are on some level frustrated painters. Photoshop, iPhoto, etc, allow us to cross that bridge. Maybe the next question should be, when does a photograph become a painting? Anyway you frame it, it is all art. Thanks so much for your comment and for following my blog. Have a great day, Rob


  3. This is a great discussion point and one that I wonder and struggle with. I do very little to my photos, because I consider my images from a more ‘purist’ standpoint like you do… even when shooting RAW digital photography. However, I have a good friend and HIGHLY accomplished photographer who believes very strongly that post-processing (even extreme) is very acceptable. So, I was wondering if you could give some insight into the ‘purist’ ideals in regards to post processing. You have touched on some of the controls you have, but could you give some insight into which controls bring the photo to the ‘not real’ stage? As I look through my Lightroom 4 GUI, here’s what I see :

    1. Temp
    2. Tint
    3. Exposure
    4. Contrast
    5. Highlights/shadows/whites/blacks
    6. Clarity
    7. Vibrance
    8. Saturation

    I feel that I would use any given one of these to improve an image to how it looked, but I never try to go beyond what I saw in my view-finder. Thoughts??



    • Hi Ian, thanks for joining the conversation. I heard the great photographer Jay Maisel speak a few years ago (http://www.jaymaisel.com/recent-work/) He says, if he cannot get an image straight out of his camera the way he wants it to look, he will not use it. His work is incredible and it also has a very natural, real look. The list of Lightroom tools you asked about are all acceptable as long as they are used in moderation. I think three of the tools that people tend to overuse are Saturation- making skies or sunsets look a color they never have been, Clarity- sharpening photos to the point they are pixelated and Highlight Shadows Etc, which if not used judiciously, can make a good photo look like a bad HDR. Oh, one other adjustment that was not on your list that I started to really abused after Lightroom came out was the tool that vignettes images. Vignetting in my opinion should rarely if ever be employed. I would only use it to create a slight border on a photo with very bright edges. Other wise, vignetting can turn in to what I call the “hand of God” effect discussed in another comment on this post. Thanks again for following the blog, Rob


      • Yes, I will mildly vignette an image to draw focus, but only about a level ‘5’ in LR4. Thanks for your reply. I visited Jay’s website, some great stuff there. I was trying to find if he is shooting primarily digital or film? Couldn’t find it on the website, was just seeing if you knew.


  4. I agree totally with what Heather’s comment “it depends on the purpose of the photo, how, why and where a person is presenting it.” If it’s photojournalism, then never…ever! If it’s art, then anything goes. Also I think if you sell it or not, that can be a factor.
    It is a discussion that seems to be ongoing and many people seem to be struggling with this topic.
    Excellent post Rob.


    • Thanks Beth for adding to the conversation. Brining in the selling aspect is a good point. What about this, if you take a photo, and make it look like a painting and have it printed on canvas, can it be considered a painting at that point, instead of just a photo?


      • Good question. I think that a painting is something that is produced using paint and that no matter what you do to a photo it cannot be turned into a painting. Making a photo look like a painting is simply processing the photo in a different way and having it printed on canvas, does not change the fact that it is still a photo. It can however be considered to be art and maybe what you describe is a form of mixed media photo art. Just a thought…


  5. As a rule, I do not like seriously manipulated photographs. I agree with M.R. I hate the cotton-wool water too. I don’t understand the time lapse thing at all. Creating semi-abstract images from photos is okay since no pretense of reality is implied in the results. Photojournalists should not alter their photos in any way to create different moods, etc. I think anything goes these days, however. đŸ™‚


    • Thanks for the comment George. Yeah, I know what you mean on the time-lapse. I think time lapse like multiple exposure, is one of those effects that can be used at times, but sometimes people use it once and then they overuse it. I will tell you another effect that is overused is tilting horizons. Once I was reviewing a wedding shoot where every single image was tilted. It became hard to look at it. So we contact the photographer
      to ask him to dial back the effect and he looks at the wedding, and say, Oh gee, I did not realize I was doing it that much. I know I have been there, When I first started using wider lenses I thought it was fun and then found I was over using the lens. Its easy to do.


  6. The dilemma is that the camera itself is manipulating the image as well, each mfg applying its own sharpening algorithm the the jpeg unless you are only using the RAW files straight out of the camera, god those would be ugly! Anyway I am a big believer in post just like the original master of post processing Ansel Adams. Editing photos in post is nothing new, most of the great fine art photographers did a lot of post work , here is a good post on that – http://petapixel.com/2013/09/12/marked-photographs-show-iconic-prints-edited-darkroom/
    I know journalists need to maintain a certain integrity to the photo, but they would need to make a special camera for that now as the cat is out of the bag for in camera processing !
    On a side note I try to use the word image out of respect for photography purist instead of photograph for heavily reworked files. I believe pure photography is the benchmark, a purist is a craftsman in his own right, same as a digital artist is.


    • Hi Greg, what a tremendous point, I don’t think the average person realizes what is changed when creating a jpeg. For that matter, I wonder if most people realize the difference between shooting on Automatic WB vs
      shooting on the shady setting, or sunlight setting and so on. Thanks so much for the petapixel link. Its funny you mention Adams, in that I miss printing black and white photos in darkrooms, as for me, it was easier
      to get the full range of tones from a black and white image in a dark room that it is to accomplish on a computer. It took a long time, but I would end up with the look I wanted. I wonder sometimes if there are aspects of film that will never be replicated in digital files. Thanks again for adding to the conversation Greg, Rob


  7. Thank you so much for sharing the information! It’s great to hear from an expert talking about these issues. I agree the photo has to have a foundation. I don’t know much about editing, but do use a few basic features of iPhoto…


  8. interesting and thought provoking question??? Photography is art…art comes in many forms…I suppose it depends on the purpose of the photo, how, why and where a person is presenting it. I’m new at photography and processing, I don’t have Photoshop but I do have something called Photoscape…when I process my photos I try to do as little as possible to the photo…if I have to do too much for it to look like it should then I generally delete it…but I do crop photos, on occasion remove something that is not part of the photo, such as a post, garbage can, etc., brighten, darken, that kind of thing…I’ve never added anything to my photos. Having said all that, I don’t make my living taking photos, it is something I do because I enjoy it…so the end results must please me and that is all!


  9. My pet hate re PhotoShop is the use of it with water. So many photogs do it, and I wish they wouldn’t: it looks like cotton-wool. What puzzles me is that even the best of them will present a shot of cotton-wool water without turning a hair – and I just don’t understand it.


    • you are right, I think the best rule to follow when using special effects is, either with your camera on with software, – everything should be done in moderation. In moderation, Photoshop or iPhoto can make a good photo better. Without moderation, it can ruin even the best photo. Thanks so much for your comment


Please feel free to leave a reply. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughtful feedback, Rob

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