I'm involved in a number of photography groups, as well as running my own successful photography Facebook group in Milton Keynes. At regular intervals across all of these communities, the question crops up as to whether or not you should 'edit' your images - with the ultimate extreme being to turn then into something that bears little resemblance to what you actually experienced on the day. This led me to thinking more about what is - for me at least - acceptable, when it comes to image editing. So I thought I'd write a few words on it here!
Every image is, or needs to be, edited
The first thing to bear in mind is that all digital images are edited, apart from a RAW file straight out of camera. So when you see phone shots posted on social media with the tag #noedit or similar, that's actually not true. If you use a phone camera, or if you have your camera set to take jpeg files (rather than RAW files), then the software within device you're using is editing your shots for you, and presenting an edited image to you straight away. Which is quite impressive really when you think about it . . .
Editing is not a new thing
The argument often used by those who disagree with editing is that it's only a new thing since digital came on the scene, but of course that's not true either. As someone who started out developing their own black and white, I can tell you that every decision you make from the moment you put the negative into the enlarger, until you take the print out of the fixer, carries an element of 'editing'. How long you choose to expose the photographic paper for, and hence how light or dark your image ends up being, is the photographer's choice when it comes to the finished effect they want. Likewise, the practise of 'dodging' or 'burning' an area of an image to make it darker or lighter also originated in the darkroom, even though those terms are still used today by Photoshop.
So as you can see, it's really not that cut and dried. Coming back to the digital world, the whole concept of editing, or 'processing' as it's also known, is very much part of the art form. And if you don't want your camera's software to do it for you, then the only alternative is to shoot a RAW file, and edit the shot yourself - as a RAW image straight out of camera is by its nature dull and flat. Leaving the photographer to make all of the artistic decisions as to how the finished image should look.
To a large extent, this is where the debate really starts. At one end of the spectrum, you could be just making very minor adjustments for contrast, saturation and sharpness - while at the other, these are those who happily strip in a completely different sky from the one that was there originally, and consider that to be totally acceptable. And in a way, it is - as long as you're honest about it! Which not everyone is . . .
Recreating what you saw on the day
From my perspective, my aim when editing is always to recreate what my eye saw. Which might sound like an odd thing to say - but bear with me. This is where a short lesson in the technology of digital image capture is required! So the sensor, which is the part of the camera that captures the image, is an extremely sophisticated piece of kit - but it is simply not as sophisticated as your eye. It also can't look around a scene, take in multiple exposure levels and then merge them all in its 'brain' to give one complete and perfectly exposed image, in the same way that our own brain can.
What this means is that, when dealing with images that involve high contrast, such as a sunset or any scene with a bright sky and a darker foreground - we as photographers have to decide which part we will expose correctly, and which part with then end up under or over exposed as a result. Generally the right answer is to 'expose for the sky' to ensure that your highlights are not burned out - but that's a whole separate article! In short though, for the purposes of this one, if you expose the sky correctly, then the foreground goes dark - much darker than what your eye saw - and hence you lose all the detail in the shadow areas.
To fix this, the answer is of course to edit the image, brightening the shadow areas and also darkening the highlights if necessary - until the finished result is as close as you can get to what your eye actually saw on the day - or, more specifically, what your brain actually saw, after it stuck together all of the different parts of the image that your eye was able to capture.
Finding your own level
This is just one example of course, but hopefully it illustrates the point that editing is not cheating - not in the case of this type of editing anyway - it's simply a case of addressing the technical limitations of camera technology, vs human eyesight. Likewise, other subtle adjustments for colour saturation, sharpness, clarity, contrast and so on are all part of the process of creating a realistic and believable image, which appeals to the viewer. Yes of course it's possible to 'go overboard' and take some of these settings to extremes - and some photographers have done very well as a result - but those choices are all down to the individual, as an artist, to decide how they want their images to look.
If you decide to edit your own images, it's up to you as a photographer to decide what level of manipulation you're comfortable with, and then work within those boundaries as you establish your own style. But I'll leave you with a thought from Charlie Waite, one of Britain's best-known landscape photographers, who I was lucky enough to interview back in 2015 when I did some marketing work with Light & Land. I'll paraphrase as I can't remember the exact words, but the general gist is this . . .
The aim of the photographer is to form a relationship with the viewer, and to communicate what they saw and felt on at the time of capturing the image. But if the editing process looks unnatural, and causes the viewer to have to question 'how it was done' then the relationship breaks down and the success of the image is lost. Or as he put it another way "Strip in a fake sky? Why, you wouldn't sleep at night!"