The Myth of the Unmanipulated Image


Not long ago, I read a complaint about all the "manipulation" of photographs that is being done these days. The man who was complaining expressed a preference for unmanipulated, original photographs. I've heard similar comments on many occasions.

Let's take a look at that unmanipulated, original image. 



Last summer, I took a photograph of a pretty mountain lake. Like many digital photographers, I shoot exclusively in RAW. Here's an approximation of the unmanipulated, original RAW version of that photograph:

Anyone want to frame it? A RAW image consists of digital data. We can't see it at all until some software program translates the data into a visible image. That's why this version of an original RAW image is only an approximation.

The closest thing to a visible original version of my photograph may be the following:

This is a conversion of my RAW image done in Adobe Lightroom, with all settings at zero. Not very appealing, is it? It also isn't original or unmanipulated. This default conversion incorporates many decisions and assumptions made by Adobe's designers concerning how a photograph should look on a default basis. Their recipe for RAW conversions wasn't handed down at Sinai. A conversion made by a different software program that incorporated different assumptions would look different.

Those who shoot JPEGs would see a different—and often somewhat better—default version of the image. That's because the camera processes and compresses JPEG files before they go to the memory card. With a JPEG, the manipulation of the image is done automatically, according to instructions given by the camera's designers. That manipulation is extensive. It's also largely irreversible. I don't want Canon's engineers making irreversible decisions about how my photographs should look. That's one of several reasons why I shoot in RAW.

Since I wasn't thrilled with the default RAW conversion of my photograph, I shamelessly manipulated the digital data in Lightroom. I adjusted the colors, tones and contrast. Sharpening was added. What I got was this:

I didn't add anything to the photograph that wasn't already there. I simply brought out what the camera captured. That includes the red color, which was very noticeable to my eyes but barely visible in the default conversion. Of the three versions of my photograph we've seen, this last one—the most manipulated, although the manipulation was fairly minimal—comes closest to reflecting what I saw when I looked at the scene.

But it really doesn't come very close. This is a two-dimensional facsimile of a three-dimensional scene. It reflects the conventions of our time concerning how such a facsimile should look. Contrast has been used to enhance the illusion of depth, according to convention. You can't see all the shadow detail that my eye could see, in part because I've sacrificed shadow detail in favor of highlight detail, according to convention.  What most of us accept as a "realistic" photograph is one that conforms to current conventions concerning how a photograph should look. Those conventions aren't sacrosanct. In its own way, my photograph is as stylized as a kabuki play. 

We all tend to forget that, though. It's easy to develop a fixed idea of how photographs ought to look, to equate that idea with the "unmanipulated original," and to criticize photographs that depart from our conventions as "manipulated." I suspect that's what prompts most criticisms of image manipulation.  

The dubious notion that we owe some kind of allegiance to the "original" version of a photograph can shackle the creative impulse. I used to think, for example, that it was somehow cheating to expose once for the sky and once for the ground and then combine the images. (Gosh, I hope Mom doesn't see me doing this...) Now I do it often and without compunction. Similarly, I have no qualms about HDRs.

A few kinds of manipulation are obviously problematic, particularly in photojournalism. Lying with a photograph is no different from any other kind of lying. As long as we don't engage in deception, though, we owe allegiance only to our own conception of how an image should look. We should manipulate images freely when it helps to realize that conception. The "unmanipulated original" is a mythical creature that dwells with the unicorns and centaurs.

You can see more of my work at my Smugmug.


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For those people who "like to see what an image looks like straight out the camera", just think for a moment how you are going to see it. 

On a monitor? But that depends on the monitor and its calibration. And even if you used a calibration tool, if you used it on a different monitor (especially a different model), the result won't be exactly the same.

Out of a printer? But it will come differently from different printers. Did you say ICC profiles? But that is not much different from a display calibration (see above).

Remember that even eye of different people will see the same picture differently. More over, your own eye will see the same picture differently, depending on your condition. Because your eye's "ICC" that is loaded in your brain can be fooled very easily by many-many factors (light around, your health, mood, etc.).

No matter what media you use (film, digital, human eye, ...) - you always have a "transfer function" that has at least one calibration (e.g. your eye), - and that calibration can depend on many conditions.

If you are in the "all manipulation is wrong" camp ask yourself this. Would you object to me removing that big red pimple on the tip of your nose or should I leave it on there for all to see forever? Your pimple may fade tomorrow but the image I have of you won't. You're in luck though. I'm a gentleman and I'll remove it with no further ado and we'll both sleep better for it. I hope you would do the same for me.

Isn't there a difference between bringing out details, and altering the image? In a wet darkroom, you can dodge, stop down and use filters to bring out details in a picture. Then there is adding to the image, spotting out blemishes, deleting wires, and editing the content of the image.

Ever since National Geographic moved the pyramids for a more well-composed shot, this has been done...LONG before digital imaging, let alone digital manipulation. Don't blame the medium for the bad signal.


This is always a contentious subject, and though I post-process my photos for artistic effect, including color enhancement or total color removal in B&W conversions, in fairness, we must make a couple of points about manipulation.

1) Minimizing manipulation is sometimes desirable, as is the case when one is under a deadline and post-processing 1,000+ images isn't practical, or when the subject matter is documentary in nature. In those cases, getting the image "right" in-camera is a must. Yes, the RAW converter "interpreted" the image, but I didn't add any additional "sauce" on top simply because there wasn't time or latitude to do it.

2) Though we can get into the argument about what is or isn't real, and whether we can capture reality with a camera, I think we should admit that we know when we've departed too far from reality. It's one thing to capture my self-portrait, then fix some blemishes on my face with cloning, and quite another to super-impose a super-model's body on mine. Neither is right or wrong, but we know when we've crossed a certain reality threshhold.

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I've been in photography for over 35 years, and all decent images are manipulated. In the days of film, there was dodging, burning, croping, color correction and contrast adjusting filters for enlargers and more. Ansel Adams would spend over an hour in the darkroom adjusting many of his prints with dodging and burning. 

Digital images, in the very least, are flat when they come out of the camera, so some kind of adjusting is needed.

I feel that adjusting an image to look it's best is fine, and that overadjusting an image looks somewhere between amateurish and horrible.

Have Fun,


You know, this is all very interesting, but I think it's also important to point out that this argument really goes back centuries - realistic versus abstract art, for instance.  Painters use paint as their medium to create an effect and evoke some kind of emotion in the viewer, and there will always be those in the audience who will prefer a particular style over another.  Some say abstract painting is "real" art, and if the painting is too "photorealistic," they'll say, "Well, they should have just taken a picture."  Then there was the sentiment that "real art" HAD to be realistic (remember the Impressionists, whose paintings were not accepted for display in the Louvre for a time).  The same holds true for photographers - it's just the medium that has changed, and the artist's individual style is informed by his or her use of the tools at hand.  Just because the viewer appreciates one style over another does not nullify the artistic expression of the artist.

These are the same talking points I usually hit although I tend to rant a little more. 

It's the 21st century folks.  Digital is here to stay, and with it, digital post processing.  Like it or not.  I'm not saying you should neglect the camera side of things.  It is as important as ever to get things right when the photo is taken.  What I am saying is that if the photo out of the camera doesn't fully meet my creative vision and I decide to post process it, what does that matter?  The solution is simple.  If you don't like the look of something, point your head the other way.

Starting in 1966 I attended Ohio University majoring in Photography. The very first day, the very first class in Photography the prof said, "All Photographers are artists first!" This is regardless of what actual field you work in, be it a photo journalist or portrait photgrapher. His point being is, what you see and how you capture your subject is through your eye and lens of your camera and will never be seen the same way by the person standing right next to you. So, in reality, does it matter what the "unmanipulated, original photographs" are? Does anyone need to worry about what a little bounce in red did? If your photograph is to record a crime scene for evidence then it's very important to, as closely as possible, record the scene exactly as you see it, important to not manipulate the subject in any way. Beyond that scenario what I show you is how I see it, what I chose as my subject and how I want you to "view" what I saw in my lens. Old school film and new school digital are vastly different but the end result can and should be the same. You will see what I wanted you to see when I clicked the lens.

This is a straw man argument. You set up those who have a problem with manipulation as believing that an out of camera file is unmanipulated, and then go on to disprove it.

You purposefully dodge the real concern people have. Why make the argument at all?

The real issue is people using software to easily enhance images far beyond what was actually seen or existed, and presenting it as truth rather than abstraction. 

Even my choice of aperture, shutter speed, ISO, exposure, etc. is manipulation. 

For instance, I took this photograph just yesterday:

I used a .25" shutter speed for it, and it certainly doesn't look "real" in a plain, literal way. (I barely PP-ed it at all, just a bit of exposure and levels).

Beyond that, the very act of transferring a 3D reality onto a 2D medium is manipulation.

It all boils down to "how much manipulation am I willing, as the viewer of the art, to accept." And that can be quite contextual as well. The answer to that often involves assessing what the artist is hoping to convey.

Thanks for the nice progression of ideas, starting with the fundamental fact that digital photos are simply 0s and 1s, just like chemical photographs that arise from mixes of enlightened and sleeping grains of silver stuff (forgive my chemistry!)   The point of manipulation is not of the photograph but of the reader.  To which end does the editor of the photo wish to bring someone else's mind to rest?  Can one bring another to a peaceful moment, a moment of reflection or even to an insight?  Can the photgraph change our worldview or our actions?  This is the type of manipulation that is most interesting and it doesn't take place, except technically on a computer but one mind reading another's.

To me "manipulated photography" seems to be different than most.  Take a shot and correcting for color, clarity, lens distortian, etc isn't really manipulating as long as the intent is to replicate what one saw.

Cleaning up minor distractions you failed to handle physically while shooting (e.g. not noticing that scrap of paper on the ground in a wedding shot, etc) that don't change the integraity of the image isn't really manipulation.

Where it turns gray to me is human touchups, removing people and objects from pictures.  But if you look back at the history of photography you'll see people have done it for ages.  Wedding photographers did it when they sent film off to be printed on canvas.  They almost always hired an artist to go in and touch up the skin and other imperfections that may not be noticable in a smaller print, but are eyesores at 13x19 or above.

To me, it all comes down to being responsbile.  If you do it responsiblely then there should be no gripe. Besides, I've ran into too many people who failed to accept some images I took were virtually unmolested other than color correction and clarity.  Which is flattering since I suck at photoshop. =)

 My thoughts on Photoshop are that those who can, do, those who can't, complain about it on internet forums ;)

I am a digital photographer and with digital photography comes digital manipulation. In this day and age there is nothing wrong with doing whatever you can to make your images better. I firmly believe that if we are given tools like Photoshop and Lightroom we should use them to their fullest.


This debate is old a daft. Since the birth of photography photographers have shot/printed muliple exposures using filters/dodging/burning etc etc. Just because we're now in a digital age and it is all done without chemicals or physical intervention doesn't make a difference. This is what photography is and always has been.

If you are against 'any' kind of manipulation then you should take away lighting control, flashes, studios, make-up, aranging, posing, electronics, film, lenses... EVERYTHING!

Just black out your window, make a small hole and watch the wolrd go by upside down on your wall.

true words, don! i just read a similar article in which the autor describes a jpg as "an untouched photo printed from film negative, scanned and its negative destroyed".

i'm stuck to raw since i found out its existence :)

best regards from italy,


This is why I love shooting Polaroids. You get one shot and then it's locked in stone.

I have a slightly different take, as I shoot commercially in architecture, portraiture and products.  I also shoot a lot of landscapes and wildlife and even conduct wildlife photo tours.

In architecture, portraiture and product photography, I have no problem with heavy post processing.  It's almost mandatory.

But in wildlife, I consider myself more of a documentarian than an artist.  I see my job as capturing the image of the animal or bird exactly as I saw it, and address this in the ethics statement on my website.

There are some well known bird photographers who teach workshops on how to "clean up" a wildlife image - removing a troublesome twig or repositioning a catch light.

Those people are not "wrong" and I am not "right".  Each of us approaches wildlife from a different point of view with different goals and needs to make our own decision as to how much manipulation is too much.


As an absolute beginner shooting with a mid level DSLR my thoughts.


Photography is an art form (like it or not). My perception of my photograph is my choice as the artist. I prefer very little manipulation. I do not 'change' my photos, I bring out what I tried to capture with a machine.

Each one to his own art form - whether that be RAW (the best way to shoot for artists), JPEG (great for point and shooters who shoot on auto), whatever manipulation you choose.

We change so many settings on our cameras before shooting, is what the camera does really unminipulated? We already manipulate the picture before shooting.

Just my thoughts.

hey you guys, try film, just for the fun of it -- it's amazing what dodge and trace can do to a real live negative, minus photo shop...

Good article.

Shooting JPG's is like taking your film to the drugstore, or sending it to the lab.  Your photos get processed/enhanced to what the machine, the tech, or the kid running the machine thinks they should look like.  

Shooting RAW and using lightroom, photoshop, etc. is like developing your own film.  You have complete control over the development process. 

With RAW it's processing, not manipulation.  You have to process the photo, just like you had to process your film to get a negative.  The sensor cannot reproduce the real colors and edges, so either your camera does it for you (JPG), or you do it (RAW).


Suzanne L. wrote:

...I don't have anything against art, and highly manipulated images fit into that category IMO. Then there's another category: reality. Does Grandma want to see every picture of her grandkids turned into art? Does a parent really need to spend $100s of dollars to have a highly stylized (manipulated) picture of her kids, when a few snapshots with a decent camera will do just fine? I believe that very good pictures can be taken SOOC. What's wrong with that? I know people who make little or no changes to their settings when they take pictures (which often turn out mediocre), and then they snaz them up with pp software. Then they market themselves as photographers. That just seems weird to me.

Define "art"? Does this include "the act of adjusting RAW settings to (1) bring the image more in line with what the photographer remembers seeing, and (2) overcome the dynamic limitations of the camera"? Or does it simply mean "tart it up with obvious photoshop filters to make it look snazzy"? I, and most photographers I know agree that the latter results in an ugly image, and we try our best to limit ourselves to the former.

When you refer to SOOC, does this include JPEG images? If it does, do you know how the camera creates the JPEG file? -- The camera creates it using a very simplistic counterpart to Photoshop which is small enough to fit in the camera's firmware, but just powerful enough to create a mostly-good image for most people most of the time.

Have you ever encountered scenes that your eyes can see just fine, but the camera has a hard time creating? Here's one: On a bright sunny day, stand inside your house and look out your living room window. Notice that even though the sunlight is much brighter than the room light, you can still see details in both places. Now, try to take a photo of that exact scene, and don't be shocked when you find out that the camera cannot do it. You'll have to take at least two photos to get all of that detail -- Either expose for the outside and let the inside go dark, or expose for the room and let the window get overexposed.

I understand that there are limits to the development process, which can result in an unpleasant photo if those limits are crossed. But I don't understand why people still cling to images which are straight out of the camera, when the camera can't ultimately record what we see in the first place.

Thanks for all the interesting comments. 

@Suzanne L


"Photography" is a broad term. In a general sense, a person using a point & shoot to photograph their children's birthday party can be called a photographer. But there's a large and obvious difference between that person, and someone who is, let us say, a fine art photographer. Mr. Peter's post was not addressing the "point & shoot" photographer, but rather - for lack of a better term - the more serious photographer.


No serious photographer would give up control of any aspect of the photographic process. When I shot film, I developed it myself, and I made my own prints. So has virtually every other serious photographer I’ve ever known. A print made by someone else would not, and could not represent my artistic vision.


If you personally choose not to do post-processing, or if you send your film off to a lab, so be it. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as you‘re personally satisfied with the results. But to me, that makes you a photographer in only the broadest of terms - I would consider you to be more of a "snapshooter" than a photographer, because you're allowing someone or something else to determine how your images appear.


Back to your initial comment. You said "You know very well that the manipulation by the camera software is not what people are talking about." Mr. Peter’s point was, all images are manipulation, regardless of whether it is we or the camera who are doing the manipulating. To think of an image direct from the camera as not being manipulated is to display a lack of understanding with regard to how digital images are created. And since you brought up film, all images from a film camera would also be manipulated in some way, either by the developing facility you mentioned, or by the photographer himself who developed the film and created a print. You’re speaking of some “pure” form of photography that simply doesn’t exist.


You also said “I like to see what an image looks like straight out the camera - to see what the camera can do (and what the photographer can do with it). Images that have been manipulated with external software are nice for the artistic value, but the changes are often so extreme that they do *not* reflect reality.” As I mentioned, I’m not interested in what the camera can do - I’m interested in what I can do with the camera. A camera has technical limitations. For instance, it cannot capture the same dynamic range that the human I can see. When I look at a high contrast scene, my eyes can see detail in both the shadow and highlight regions of that scene. The camera cannot. Therefore I must make decisions - compromises - when capturing an image, and also when processing it, in order to reach the point where it represents my vision. What I am not doing however is capturing reality. We’re trying to capture three-dimensional subjects in a two-dimensional medium. That in and of itself precludes us from capturing reality. There is no such thing as reality where photographs are concerned. They are merely our interpretations of reality.


You’re correct about one thing - the ability to use Photoshop is not the mark of a good photographer. But there is a misconception amongst those opposed to “photoshopping” that you can somehow take a bad photograph, and turn it into a good one using Photoshop. That simply isn’t true. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say. I also dislike images that appear to be heavily manipulated, because that manipulation is frequently just an attempt to cover up technical and artistic inadequacies contained within the image.


The photoshopping I do is confined to simply trying to recreate what I saw and felt when I looked through the viewfinder - and I want the post-processing work I do to be essentially invisible to the viewer. If you can see it, then in my mind, I’ve done a poor job. No, being skilled with post-processing software does not make you a good photographer, but it is a tool one must master if they want to reach their full potential as a serious photographer.



"Knowing how to use post-processing software is now part of photography, whether people like it or not. It's as much a part of photography as knowing how to create images in a darkroom was and is."

And how many people do you suppose took pictures with their film cameras and then delivered that film to a developing facility? And how many of those developing facilities then altered every little detail before printing? Last I knew, most of them were throwing the film into a machine and letting it spit out automatic replications of the negatives. Are you saying that you can't be a photographer if you didn't develop your own film?

This is interesting actually...because if you are saying that both parts make a photographer, then not only are people like me (who do little/no pp) not photographers, but the people who quickly take P&S photos and then do a bunch of processing are the digital equivalent of developing employees.

Suzanne, Ansel Adams isn't really the point, though it is a nice illustration of part of it.  Just the act of taking an photo is a major manipulation.  They are never reality, never pure.  Once someone really understands that, they can take much greater control of what they do, even if they never do more than output an image as a camera generated jpg.

Going back to Ansel Adams, compare his images of Manzanar with those of Dorothea Lange.  Two different points of view no matter what the post processing was or even what the cameras were.  Which set of images are manipulated?  They both are.

Excellent post. I couldn't agree more, as I've been preaching the very same thing for years. It's unfortunate that some people seem unable to grasp the concepts you put forth - even in some of the comments here, people are still talking about photos straight from the camera, as if there's something pure about an image a camera produces.

To me, manipulation means using software to create something that wasn't there to begin with. For instance, adding clouds to a landscape, or adding bird silhouettes to a sunset, or changing a red barn into a green barn. I should mention that I have no problem with this sort of manipulation, as long as the photographer is upfront about it. Just don't call it photography.

Adjustments to exposure, contrast, sauration, etc., are not manipulation. Whether one is trying to create an exact representation of a scene(which is essentially impossible, but that's another discussion), or an artistic interpretation, some adjustments are almost always necessary when shooting RAW. If you're shooting JPEGS, then you're giving up a fair amount of control that you have shooting RAW to bend the image to your creative vision. No camera can capture what the eye sees - and after all, isn't that what we're trying to do? I'm not interested in what the camera sees, because the camera doesn't see as the human eye does. I'm interested in producing an image that represents what I saw through the viewfinder... my vision of a given subject or scene. For technical reasons, the camera is simply unable to capture this on it's own. This requires that I shoot RAW, and make the kinds of adjustments that I mentioned.

Knowing how to use post-processing software is now part of photography, whether people like it or not. It's as much a part of photography as knowing how to create images in a darkroom was and is. A RAW file is little more than a digital negative. Like it's analog counterpart, it needs developing... it needs to be brought into a digital darkroom and worked on until it represents the artist's final vision. It's a technical necessity, and part of the artistic process.

I don't own any work by Ansel Adams. It doesn't really appeal to me. I don't have anything against art, and highly manipulated images fit into that category IMO. Then there's another category: reality. Does Grandma want to see every picture of her grandkids turned into art? Does a parent really need to spend $100s of dollars to have a highly stylized (manipulated) picture of her kids, when a few snapshots with a decent camera will do just fine? I believe that very good pictures can be taken SOOC. What's wrong with that? I know people who make little or no changes to their settings when they take pictures (which often turn out mediocre), and then they snaz them up with pp software. Then they market themselves as photographers. That just seems weird to me.

I enjoyed this article and will shoot in RAW to try it out.  It took me several years to use digital.  I had it in my mind that if you used a digital instead of film, you were not a "photographer", so to speak.  I treated myself to a digital point and shoot for my birthday one year and ended up loving it.  Now that is all I shoot with.  I keep the point and shoot in my purse, but I have upgraded to a more professional camera for all my other work.  I really like the idea of seeing  your pictures right after taking them. 

When people tell me they think a photo is faked, I always say they all are.  They are 2 dimensional simulaions, dots on a page, of a 3+ dimensional reality.  More simply, the lens used is a manipulation, the film or sensor, the format, etc.. Everything about a photograph is due to manipulation.

Understanding that all images are manipulations of reality is freeing.  You let go of the idea of photography as perfect and magic and take control, knowing you can do whatever you want without compromising the image's integrity.  It never had any to begin with.

That doesn't mean I don't see many images as being over or badly processed.  I see tons of HDR images that look like illustrations and the tones are all wrong (at least what I consider wrong).




Thank you Don,

 I also read a lot of purists comments regarding processing techniques. Film had to be processed as well, it is just easier to do digitally. Ansel Adams was amazing at photo manipulation and his prints are incredible & inspirational works of art as a result of his dark room capabilities. It also helps when you are shooting El Capitan at f/94 :)

 I always try to capture the image as best as I can but I also agree that a camera cant capture a scene the way our eyes see it. HDR, dodging-burning & other editing tools we have today were also done with film and Adobe took those "dark room" techniques and created Photoshop which made it easier for us to process them ourselves. Correcting things like White balance make a huge difference in post processing and I am grateful for it.

Its still art and I bounce between using minimal ACR processing to more heavily processed manipulations using Layers, HDR (PhotoMatix) & plugin filters to achive what I want to say with my image (art). I often go overboard with some techniques when I am learning how to use them and then back off until I find my own preference and then I have a better touch for future edits.

 With my Canon 5D Mk II (with L lenses) - the raw images come out of the camera looking better than any camera I have ever used before (1DS, 20D & 40D). I am just happy I have a choice.

Love in Light,



I read an article many years ago by photographer Bill Atkinson that changed my thoughts on this subject.  He uses digital techniques in order to capture on paper what his eye can see. Despite many advances, a camera cannot do this yet.  He combines multiple images that vary focal points and exposures to approximate what the eye captures at the location.  How can making something look real be called manipulation?

You know very well that the manipulation by the camera software is not what people are talking about. I like to see what an image looks like straight out the camera - to see what the camera can do (and what the photographer can do with it). Images that have been manipulated with external software are nice for the artistic value, but the changes are often so extreme that they do *not* reflect reality. Plus I don't like to spend a lot of extra time playing with images. How do I explain this...I don't believe that the ability to use Photoshop is the mark of a good photographer. So when someone presents a picture they've taken, and everyone says how great it is (when it's obviously been heavily photoshopped), I find that highly annoying. Would their pictures really look so great if they couldn't do the post processing?



I am that guy you mentioned in that first paragraph (not literally, but I am of the same mindset).

My buddy constantly touches up his photo's...everything from cleaning up acne, to messing with contrasts/colors/etc, and my response is always "why not just shoot the picture as you see it?" to avoid all this post processing.

While it's true that lightroom is not adding anything that didn't exist, but it's certainly possible that it is embellishing a bit.

Anyhow, good article.

btw, i have a love/hate thing with HDR.