Ethical or unethical?

To Photoshop, or not to Photoshop, that is the question. Both the question and the answer aren’t as simple they may seem at face value. In essence, the question asks whether it’s acceptable to manipulate a photo in any way. I think every answer is a matter of personal opinion based upon individual ethical standards. More about that at the end of this post. For now, let’s look a specific case.

A recent blog post entitled Unusual viewpoints featured two photos of a female Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) spotted in a field located near Dogue Creek at Huntley Meadows Park. Before I published the post, I considered using Photoshop to remove some distracting elements in one of the photos; I decided to publish the photo “as is.”


The cluster of grasses in the lower-right corner of the photograph reminds me of exploding fireworks. Go figure! Point being, I think the grass cluster detracts from the photograph more than it contributes. The more I looked at the photo, the more I knew the distracting elements had to go.

A Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) spotted near Dogue Creek, Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a female with a mild infestation of black water mites.

Aspect Ratio: Original Aspect Ratio (4 x 3)


So I did what needed to be done: the distracting elements were removed; the image was reformatted to a 2 x 3 aspect ratio, a better fit for the Photoshopped version of the photo.

A Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) spotted near Dogue Creek, Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a female with a mild infestation of black water mites.

Aspect Ratio: 2 x 3 (4 x 6)

I know which version I like better. Which one do you prefer, Before or After? Before choosing a favorite, I recommend viewing the full-size version of each photo.

Ethical Considerations

Back to the ethical question posed at the beginning of this post. Here’s how I rationalize removing the distracting elements. When shooting photos in the field, who among us hasn’t either moved or removed a blade of grass, etc. for better composition? If I had three arms and thought I could have moved the grass cluster without spooking the dragonfly, then I would have done it. Essentially that’s all I did, only I did it during post-processing. And more importantly, I did nothing to alter the dragonfly itself.

Is it OK to straighten and crop a photo? Is it OK to adjust white balance, exposure, color, contrast, etc.? Is it OK to reduce noise and sharpen images? Most photographers would answer “Yes, yes, yes!” In my opinion, Photoshop is just another tool in a photographer’s toolbox, albeit one used best with some restraint.

In the interest of full disclosure, whenever “Photoshop” is listed among the categories for one of my photoblog posts, then the reader knows Photoshop is one of the tools used during the creative process.

Related Resource: Odonart© Portfolio.

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

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8 Responses to “Ethical or unethical?”

  1. Mike Powell Says:

    I prefer the altered version–I think it has greater graphic impact. I am not sure I could characterize this as an ethical issue. If you were trying to pass off the work of someone else as your own, that would be an ethical concern. If you deliberately misrepresented a zoo shot as having been shot in the wild, that would be an ethical problem. Photography always requires a series of creative choices that affect the “reality” that is being shot, whether it is through framing or through camera settings. I shoot almost exclusively in RAW, so every single one of my photos has to be adjusted. The standard for journalists may be different, but I think that most of the rest of us are content to present the world with our vision of the world through our images, which may well include removing distracting elements.

  2. Victor Rakmil Says:

    It is all personal taste. I have asked the same questions and will be interested in the replies here.

  3. rose Says:

    For documentation purposes, as long as you’re not altering the subject itself to make it appear to be something that it isn’t or to look more like what you want it to be rather than what you saw in the field, I don’t see any concerns. Prior to the advent of digital photography and editing software, contrast, lighting, sharpness, etc. were made with in camera adjustments and the aid of flash, tripods, choice of film etc. Removing the grass cluster is simply an artistic choice and in no way changes the identity of the dragonfly.

  4. ACS Says:

    Removing the grass, without altering the subject, is probably akin to removing dust spots. However, I do appreciate knowing whether a photo of was altered in any substantive way….otherwise, I continue believing I’m the only one who can’t capture the perfect image with just the click of the shutter. 🙂

  5. Chris Traynor Says:

    I see nothing wrong with how you altered the photo. I’m sure most people have done something similar at some point. I must say though that I don’t have a preference regarding the photo. They both look fine. One might be cleaner but the natural world is not so tidy so it matters not to me.

  6. Charlie@Seattle Trekker Says:

    I was very interested to read the responses from your fellow photographers to the question you posed. There are so few real yes-no answers in this world.

  7. Gillian Says:

    I don’t think there’s anything unethical about using Photoshop to alter an image unless you are entering a contest or submitting a photo to an organization and they have specified that the image should not be altered. Otherwise, the photo is yours to do with what you wish. As ACS says, I like knowing if there are substantive changes, because as a rule, I do not alter my own photos. My own photography goal is to document what I see on an outing and hopefully come home with some good enough images for my blog in order to remember that outing. I’m more thrilled by getting the bird or bug in the photo than I am worried about the natural clutter that usually accompanies it.

  8. Peopoll’s Choice Awards – Top 10 Photos of 2015 | walter sanford's photoblog Says:

    […] 10 JUL 2015 | HMP | Halloween Pennant (female) […]

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