Why Retouching Photos Is Not Cheating

By Jonathan Timar

There’s a peculiar breed of photographer out there that doesn’t like retouching. For some reason they consider it “cheating”.

I have no idea why.

Every photo ever taken is a compromise

It’s the result of a set of choices you have to make on the spot. Exposure time, aperture, and ISO are the obvious ones, but there are others. Choices must be made about composition, which includes camera angle, distance from the subject, zoom and so on. All of these choices affect the resulting photo in some way. Sometimes these decision are carefully considered, sometimes there isn’t time to think, but regardless the choices get made.

And the end result, however realistic or “accurate” it maybe is rarely an adequate representation of “reality”.

Sticky In Seattle Original
Sticky In Seattle Original

Consider the photo above. It is “accurate” in so much as it shows the scene as it was. But here’s the problem: we don’t actually see things the way they are. Our eyes lie to us almost constantly. The reason I think is because the information from out eyes is processed by our brain, which you may know is also responsible for processing our emotions, and it doesn’t do a very good job of separating the two. Consequently what we see is always and without exception coloured by how we feel.

Retouched photos are akin to books and movies that are “based on a true story”

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    It’s not so with cameras. Cameras don’t feel, they process information. And they do it blindly and without context. Have you ever watched a movie that was “based on a true story”? Did you ever decide to research that story afterwards and end up disappointed that the real story wasn’t quite as interesting? Even so did you then wish that the creators of the film had taken less artistic license and made the movie more “accurate”?

    Probably not, unless you’re a real stickler that is. Most of us watch movies for entertainment, and entertainment is intrinsically linked to emotion. If a movie doesn’t make us feel a certain emotion, then it has failed as a film.

    It is no different with photography. Retouched photos are akin to books and movies that are “based on a true story”.

    Sticky In Seattle
    Sticky In Seattle

    Retouching is the process of adding, or uncovering the emotional component of a photo that is often lost or simply missed by the camera. If you consider the two photos above, the first is more “accurate” but the second is much closer to “reality”. Reality in this case being the combination of what my eyes saw and the emotion I was feeling, automatically merged and processed in my brain.

    So here’s what I say to you: unless you are photographing crime scenes for evidence, don’t be afraid to retouch your photos. It’s not cheating, in fact it is totally necessary most of the time. Yes, sometimes you’ll get lucky and the photo will look great right out of the camera, but even great photos have room for improvement.