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The ethics of retouching...

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by Uncle Frank, Jul 8, 2005.

  1. A few hours ago I posted about using multiple shots to create material for a composite group photo. I don't have any ethical concerns about that process, since all of the subjects are portrayed as they appeared... just not at the same time. But I did run into a sensitive issue during the shoot. Here's the composite, and the key person in it is the manager, who's in the third position.

    Subscribe to see EXIF info for this image (if available)

    Ana's a lovely girl, inside and out, but she's suffering from a temporary skin condition that's very obvious. I didn't want to create a memory piece that featured the problem, but I didn't feel I should cover up her blemishes without her agreement. It was awkward, but after I took the photos, I spoke with her privately. I explained that I would never suggest removing a mole or a birthmark, because it was a permanent part of a person, but that temporary conditions were fair game... with her approval. She agreed to the treatment, and expressed gratitude for my thoughtfulness.

    So here's the beautiful Ana. This is the way I see her, and hopefully, she'll look like this in the near future without my help. Doesn't she have a great smile?

    View attachment 11634
  2. Chris101


    Feb 2, 2005
    No problem Frank. Ethical treatment of photos only applies if 1) you are representing something you claim to be real, or 2) you have a philosophy that a photograph is sacrosanct.

    As the photographer, only you can answer #2, as for #1, is this a picture that is to represent reality? If so, then you shouldn't even be moving people in and out of the photo. Take it, maybe process it to look it's best, but don't select anything and work on the selection alone. And certainly don't add any elements.

    The bigger question is, does this change the concept and philosophy of photography?

    Yes it does.

    PS, yeah, she does have a great smile, in fact she's gorgeous.
  3. What an honorable gentleman you are.

    Asking her is honest, allowable and the optimum thing to do.

    I have a book around here somewhere, the subtitle of which is "making women look better than their best"
    I had to say no to our employees when, after our office Xmas party, they realized that I could do pretty good Photoshop breast augmentations. That would make me look bad in the event someone conjures up a bogus sexual harassment lawsuit. :x

    Also, I'm reminded of the occasion of the arrest, Time or Newsweek made O.J. Simpson darker and more sinister than he really is...for their cover! Bet they didn't ask him.
  4. I'm not concerned about the ethical treatment of photos, Chris.. just the people featured in them. I came to grips with the any philosophical issues about altering my compositions years ago, and issued a warning in my pbase gallery:

    ... this small collection represents my favorites from over 30,000 shots. All of them have been enhanced (hopefully) with Photoshop editing.

    But I don't take that as license to alter a person's appearance without their agreement.
  5. Cory Cooper

    Cory Cooper

    May 24, 2005
    Salem, NH
    I concur. With permission, no harm no foul. If a photo is representing a record of a criminal act, a point in time where legal action is involved or could be, etc, then leave it as is.

    In today's digital world, it's just must easier to more involved and creative processing. Still, it's similar to "making" a print using cropping, dodge/burn, pushing, diluting chemicals, enlarger focus, etc. I think the line gets uncomfortable for some "purist" phototographers when you overly enhance color, severly crop due to bad composition or skill level, remove objects altogether, convert color to B&W or infrared digitally, etc.

    I personally understand both ways. I do get into purist mode from time-to-time, and shoot some shots in B&W with my D1, or throw some B&W film in my pristine Nikon FG and go with it, in manual mode of course. I also enjoy post-processing my D1 shots to get the final to match the idea that was in my head when I captured the subject.

    Trust me, you don't think the shots in most magazines aren't retouched do you? Those folks just don't look that good in person!

    No offense to any of them, it's just the truth. A little slimming here, mole removal there, virtual nose job/boob job/varicose vein removal/facelift, etc.

    Debatable to death - oh yeah!

    Ethical - varying opinions...really up to the individual photographer.

  6. Larry Gleason

    Larry Gleason

    Jan 26, 2005
    Since this is your specific issue, I don't see a problem with altering a person's appearance where temporary or persistent conditions are involved. Skin conditions, a healing wound, etc. Much like what a person would do by applying makeup. I wouldn't even bother with getting permission.

    Now altering a person's appearance for moles, birthmarks, etc. that are a noticeable change would give me cause to discuss first with the person. Little permanent blemishes I'd cover going back to the makeup and just do it. I can't think of any portrait studio that doesn't clean the skin.

    Of course passport photos, police mugshots, and such are hand's off, lol!

    I was just checking, I still have a stand alone plugin called Clean Skin FX that is made just for this purpose. Have not used it since I'm not the one who post processes my magazine photos. A further check shows that you can Goggle CleanSkinFX and it pops up with a number of hits. Still a freebie most anywhere-

    "# CleanSkinFX ...powerful automatic retouch for portraits that smooths the skin of the object while preserving all the details and crispness of hair, eyes or background. Works best on large images from digital camera or film scanners with lots of skin details. Another outstanding free software from Mediachance. For Windows 95, 98, NT, 2000, XP."

    I don't worry about giving warnings like you have indicated. The gallery does the post processing for this type work and there are no warnings for "fine art". Either a piece appeals to a person and they want it or they don't. The exception is when using canvas. It is difficult to convince customers that I'm not an artist and that those are photographs direct printed on canvas. I don't want anyone misled on this subject.
  7. I guess I'm more of a purist than most. I do everything I can to get the shot right prior to clicking the shutter. I try to pick people's good sides, find flattering lighting and angles, suggest natural poses, etc. The less work I have to do in post processing, the better. My time in photoshop is spent doing levels and curves, color balance, some D&B depending on the shot, and dust spot cleanup. Occasionally I'll mask for a bracketed shot but it's rare mostly because of the time involved.

    As far as compositionally changing an image by swapping backgrounds or subject or whatnot, yes I do have moral photographic qualms with it. At that point the photography ends and the digital imaging takes over. I'd rather figure out how to get the shot on location rather than thinking to myself I can just photoshop it later. With regards to touchup, I guess you have to ask yourself whether or not you believe it changes what you think a photo should be. I'd avoid retouching, but that's just me.
  8. Hi Frank, good question and one I struggle with as well. I have used Photoshop to remove facial blemishes without asking and have been surprised to have the subject take offense. There is no easy solution but asking ahead of time is always appropriate if you can broach the topic without causing embaresment. Then again I have had subjects ask me up front to remove zits and other temporary skin eruptions. I just kind of play it by ear. One thing I have found to be true is that most ladies like it when you soften the wrinkles just a tad and I have never had anyone complain when I whitened the teeth slightly. The rule I use for this type of photoshop work is to make the change subtle.
  9. Greyflash, you are right...subtle is the core principle here.

    I've found that if you do it right, (ie. subtle), the ladies like the photo a great deal but don't really know why. Perfect outcome.

    I once showed how I could remove the strawberry birthmark from the face of my niece. It upset my sister-in-law that I would even offer to do so....see...be careful.

    I took out the lateral wrinkles from an L&D nurse's eyes late one night while awaiting a delivery. She was intensely thrilled. Her husband wasn't because I cost him the price of botox injections. :?

    I may have crossed the lines of good judgment once while playing with a shot of a friend of my mom's and the woman's daughter. They look like twins separated by 25 years, being 70 and 45 respectively. I I used the healing brush to effectively clone the 45 y/o's eyes onto her 70 y/o mom's face. The mom was thrilled with my shot beyond words. I wasn't about to tell her what I had done. I'll just let her think I'm great! The end justifies the means is a maxim which is true if the end and means are good, not if either are evil, eh?
  10. I'm surprised your sister-in-law didn't inflict bodily harm. That's a great example of the line I've been trying to describe... the one that shouldn't be crossed. But it's a moving line, based on the assignment.

    Let's say I had a model with a small mole on her lip, and I was shooting her for Playboy (in my dreams), I'd try to photoshop her to glassy perfection, and make her every horny teenager's fantasy babe. I'd remove the mole and every pore in her skin as well. But if the shot was for a portrait, there's no way I'd consider removing the mole, or even asking if she'd like it done. That mole isn't like a spot on her dress, to be casually cloned out. It's a part of the permanent landscape of her face... something she's looked at every day of her life. If it troubled her, she'd have opted for cosmetic surgery years ago. And by even commenting that it could be easily cloned out, I'd be sending a signal that I find it disfiguring, and risk offending her. In fact, there's no risk... it's a sure thing.

    But I'd still remove any obvious pores in her skin ;-).
  11. Ken-L

    Ken-L Guest

    The following are two items that may have some impact on this subject.
    Obviously, each of us has to make their own decisions. Some may feel that there is a huge difference between covering a blemish and moving peoples heads from one shot to another....

  12. JeffKohn


    Apr 21, 2005
    Houston, TX
    I wouldn't remove a mole or birthmark, but I think other retouching is fine for portraits. Things like whitening teeth/eyes, softening wrinkles, fading bags under the eyes, etc. As others have mentioned the key is to be subtle about it. To me a successful retouching job is one that nobody even notices (not even the subject). Portrait photographers have been using lighting, makeup, and soft-focus filters to achieve some of these effects for decades and nobody seems to have problems with that so I don't see how doing the same thing digitally is any less ethical.
  13. Executive Summary:

    It's the intended purpose that should dictate what you do with an image.

    The Longer Version:

    This is a very interesting concept to me, in that I often find people with such strong feelings one way or the other about it. I must confess, though, that I have a difficult time understanding those that draw a hard line without consideration of the context of what's going on -- what's the intended purpose? To me that's what it's all about.

    I will routinely alter images that I take of natural scenes, because I prefer to capture the scenes in ways that convey what I want to remember of them. This will include cloning out distracting objects or sticks, limbs, etc. when they interfere with the subject. I do this without compunction, because it is my preference to present an image that conveys a message or feeling more than one that technically captures a scene, except in rare cases. The concept of a picture being an exact replica of a scene doesn't hold much water for me in this context, because I don't think there's any way that a two-dimensional, limited dynamic range image (either on a screen or printed on paper) could ever replicate the original anyway, so I might as well try to make it more pleasing.

    If the intended purpose of a shot was for competition, photojournalism, or some other purpose that implied an accurate representation, then I would limit any editing to those changes that would simply "correct" the image for exposure, color balance, noise reduction, etc. But I rarely find myself in a position to take shots like this, so they would be the exception and not the norm.

    Shots of people are an entirely different matter, though. If it's a "snapshot" or a PJ shot, I wouldn't bother to ask because I wouldn't make any changes. If it's a portrait, then I would have some discussion about the level of changes someone wanted. In my more recent experience, I've actually been a bit surprised at how many people (usually women, though not always) seem to expect that some level of editing will be done.

    I've recently been taking badge pictures at work for practice using my gear. Although I would not (and should not) edit these pics for content, you'd be amazed how often I am asked to do just that by the employees. Most of the requests I get fall into the skin wrinkle area. I have on occasion taken some of those shots (only when requested, and definitely not for their badge) and done some selective editing for skin smoothness, mostly, and people seem to be very happy with the results.
  14. JeffKohn


    Apr 21, 2005
    Houston, TX
    So far this thread has mostly focused on portraiture but you raise some interesting points. I agree that for "fine-art" landscape photography a bit of cloning/doding/burning/etc is fine if your trying to convey/communicate a feeling or impression or your personal vision. Some people might disagree with that but to me it's no different than painters who don't paint a landscape exactly as it exists down to every last detail. What I find interesting is that so many of the "purists" who frown on any digital manipulation at all will have no problem shooting a landscape using a super-wide lens with polarizers, warming filters, etc, even though the resulting shot might not bear much resemblance to what a person standing next to the photographer might see with his/her own eyes.
  15. To me it seems that opposite ends of the spectrum are art and photojournalism. The black and white of it may be as simple as the difference between cloning out a seascape beer can vs. photoshopping a gun into someones hand.

    Portraiture is and art that must engage the desires of the subject.
    On a cruise I recently hung out for an hour watching a ship Photoshop pro working furiously to rid all of the day 6 passengers of their digitally captured sun-scoured faces prior to printing on the big 24x36 canvases. She said rarely would anyone object. Likewise free-transforming a portrait of a woman to 97% width for an instant 5 lb. weight loss...think she'll complain...hah!

    PJ's shoot 'em like they are. Portraiture...engage your subject when in doubt.
  16. Actually, I don't think PJ's necessarily "shoot'em like they are" -- at least not the ones I'd admire. :D  Even a PJ can play w/ things like perspective distortion, general composition, shutter speed related effects, DoF, dodge-and-burn, etc. to convey different feelings, etc. One never really sees "reality like it is" through the eyes of another. That's just an illusion. When you look at *any* photograph, you get to see what the photographer (and/or PP guy and/or editor) wants you to see.

    I used to think like many people that photography is about capturing reality (in the purist sense), but now I know better. :mrgreen: If you really think about it (and perhaps also consider the science and tech involved), "capturing reality" in the purist sense really has little to do w/ photography. Of course, that's not to say that all sorts of manipulations are good, tasteful and/or appropriate. :mrgreen: As such, I definitely agree that context is very important (as usual).

    And yes, I also agree that asking her first and going for something subtle would be best. But yeah, I can also see the difficulty of asking first depending on the exact case...

  17. No way I can disagree.
    I don't know for a fact, but I suspect (I hope really) that college level photojournalism classes spend a lot of time on what political pundits know very well as "spin", seen in a photo-documentation context.

    We could embellish this forever. Interesting stuff public information manipulation is, indeed.

    Myself...I believe perhaps half of my own experiences and embrace as truth very little of what I'm told is fact. :mrgreen:
  18. gho


    Feb 7, 2005
    Well, my 0.02 - I generally don't do digital retouching for clients unless:

    1) They specifically request it. I also charge them extra for it on each shot. I don't offer cuz I'm just too lazy to do any extra work other than standard corrections.

    2) It's for my use - i.e., portrait sample, gallery, etc. (there's a clause in the contract/model release that allows me to do this, which my clients sign).

    So, I don't specifically ask permission. However, if the client has any hesitations about the work done, i'd simply remove it from the gallery.

    As for photojournalism - I think that's just one aspect of photography. Even then, you have to ask yourself - does the photographer have absolutely no interpretive input in composing the shot prior to pressing the shutter? Of course, he does. Every photographer violates the "No cropping to alter mood" rule when he frames his shot.

    The primary reason a PJ would take a wide shot vs. a close-up is to alter the mood of the photo.

    IMHO, PJ without artistic interpretation would simply be a collection of snapshots taken by joes off the street with disposible cameras.

    I hope one day photography will eventually evolve like the cinemas. Everyone simply takes for granted that in the movies, it's all an artistic interpretation. Even so called "documentaries" judiciously use their "artistic" licenses to make a story more interesting.

    Isn't photography the same? Don't we want to create "interesting" photos?
  19. Chris101


    Feb 2, 2005
    Great topic Frank.

    I'm neither a cosmetologist nor a plastic surgeon, so I wouldn't try to alter a person's appearance either. ;)  But as far as a photo of a person goes, you are not capturing the person anyway. Reality (and people) are 3D and have no frame. Photographs, on the other hand, are 2D, and have boundries.

    Magritte's famous painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe showed that a representation in paint was not the thing represented. Maybe it's a bit more difficult in photography, because of the optical mapping of the object onto the image, but the answer is the same. An image of a person is not the person.

    Of course one should treat people ethically (all of them, not just the ones who pay for photographs.) I cannot imagine a circumstance where someone would want cystic acne to be shown in a commemorative photo when the skills and technology exist to remove it from the image. I would feel foolish - well, embarassed anyway - asking.

    I'm curious as to how far your 'permission ethics' extend. Yellow teeth, eye bags, pore bluring or a cat scratch? Are there some gimme's in the retouching bag? Unless they contribute to the image, I would feel comfortable fixing any of those without consulting the subject.
  20. I brighten teeth, soften wrinkles, and remove minor temporary blemishes without consulting the client. If I do it subtley, they attribute it to me being a good photographer, not the result of manipulation. But when the blemishes are very obvious, to the point where removing them would be noticed, I feel compelled to ask the client's wishes. It's awkward as heck, but it's something I feel I have to do.
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