The Photoshop Editing Question

with 16 Comments

Toothless grooms, tattooed brides and other photographical quandaries

By Jan Walker

A few years ago, I was asked by a friend to “fix” some photos that were taken at a wedding. The bride was lovely, EXCEPT for the big honkin’ tattoo on her upper right arm.  My first (and completely internal) reaction was, “Well, maybe she should have thought of that when she chose that strapless dress!”

But because he was my friend, I just smiled slightly and said, “I’ll see what I can do.” Several editing hours later (the bride was, of course, in almost every shot), the tattoos were gone without a trace. My friend was happy, the bride was happy – and I was exhausted. It was no small feat to maintain the consistent gradation of skin tone on those upper arms in a pile of photos with varying light.

I had all but forgotten about this until last week, when a reader commented on a recent Scrapper’s Guide Tip of the Week about changing the “temperature” of images.

Cindy wrote: “…it never occurred to me to use it to change how the photo makes you feel. I just thought a person had to keep the photo looking as “true” to the original as possible so this tip helped me get past a huge hurdle in my scrapbooking pages. I will feel more likely to change the photos in the future…”

Which begs the question: When it comes to photo editing, how far can – or in fact, should – we go? Without getting into a deep discussion on the ethics of digital image manipulation (we’ll leave that in the realm of photojournalism, where it belongs), are there any rules of thumb on changing things in our own personal photos, and the ones we publish for public viewing, family gifts or other forms of sharing?

First, consider what it is you feel needs to be changed, and ask yourself, “Am I changing the style of the photo? Or am I changing the content?” These are two vastly different things.

Changing the style would include, say, recoloring someone’s T-shirt to match your background paper; adjusting the hue, tone, temperature or color cast; maybe some creative cropping, background blurring or selective coloring, to bring attention to a certain area of the image.

Changing the content of the image might include replacing a dull, gray sky with one that’s sunny and blue with white fluffy clouds, or adding something to an image that wasn’t part of the original, like a bird in the sky, for instance. Or swapping heads to replace someone in a group shot whose eyes were closed.

We get into sticky territory when we change fundamental elements of an image in an obvious and noticeable way. And who among us hasn’t gone a little bit overboard with the healing brush or the clone tool when we’ve set about to remove wrinkles and sags from an aging face – with only the best of intentions, of course! When we try to turn back the clock just a little too far, it results not only in an artificial look, but one that’s unrealistic as well.

Last year, I was the wedding photographer for a young couple whose wedding budget was pretty slim. I really wanted them to have nice memories of their special day, but there were some challenges in photographing them. The groom was missing a tooth, which was noticeable whenever he smiled – and he was grinning widely that day, as you can imagine. The bride, probably from stress, had a minor acne breakout. In editing their images, it was a simple choice to edit out the zits, but when it came to the groom’s tooth, it was a harder decision.

I had tried, during the course of the day, to position him so that I could shoot from the opposite angle, which would not reveal that gap in his teeth. But in some shots, it was simply unavoidable. After much consideration, I decided to “replace” the missing tooth, as discreetly as possible. In years to come, I thought, would they want to look back at their wedding photos and see smooth skin and a great smile, or would they want to see the opposite? So I went with the more positive outcome. I reasoned that it was well within the realm of possibility that he would at some point get that tooth fixed, anyway, so why not?

Did I do the right thing? I don’t know. All I do know is that my intentions were good, and I wanted this sweet young couple to have a lovely set of memories of their wedding day, without small imperfections and distractions.

So what do you think?  Have you ever set out to minimize a few wrinkles and eliminate a bulge or two on a photo, only to end up with an extreme makeover? How much editing is too much? When does changing the content of an image render it unrealistic, or worse, false?

Let’s hear what you have to say on the subject, either here on the blog or in our Digital Scrapper Forum!

16 Responses

  1. Gaga Cheri
    | Reply

    I once photoshopped my nephew’s ex-girlfriend from a family photo. Luckily she was standing on the end and the background was easy to duplicate. We still have the original photo, but I felt there was no need to have her in the photo book I was creating. And no one was ever the wiser.

  2. Isabella
    | Reply

    I don’t know if someone already brought up this point: Just by picking certain photos of an event while not displaying others, scrapbookers choose how they tell the story. By cropping the pictures, by making one phote bigger on a layout than others etc. we always emphasise certain aspects or people. And then there’s still the kits we’re using – the same photo can be shown in so many different ways and can be given different meanings.

    About photo editing: Since I’m not the best photographer and I only have an ordinary digicam and often even only use my mobile phone camera I’m grateful for the possibilites a programm like photoshop offers to turn a mediocre photo into something worth keeping.
    When it comes to pictures of myself, I might edit a case of really bad skin I had on a certain day, but I don’t usually change anything more “me”.
    I took a photo of a couple I’m friends with a while back, and altered it quite a bit (blurred out the distracting background, got rid of the reflection on his glasses and some skin imperfections). I gave it to them in a frame and they loved it because it was the first photo of them as a couple. They liked the alterations as well.

  3. krafting kelly
    | Reply

    I deal with this issue every year as I make my family’s annual calendar. I have the family submit to me their favorite pictures of themselves, then I select and edit them how I want.

    It drives my husband crazy that I “soften” the wrinkles and remove a few pounds here and there, but I don’t get any complaints from the rest of the family! They love the final result.

    I have stopped removing moles because those are permanent. I did touch up the holes from my brother-in-law’s huge earrings because he was conscientious enough to take them out for his mom, so I just finished carrying out his intent with my photo editing.

    I figure there are enough snapshots of us out there showing every unwanted detail; this annual family calendar is something special and should put us in our best light. I spend a lot of time editing these special portraits, but on my normal scrapbook photos I usually only remove bumps and bruises and fix the lighting issues.

    I know from looking at my older scrapbooks that the bumps and bruises and scratches are all I see, so now that I have the know-how I can remove them and be happy with all the photos.

  4. Jan
    | Reply

    It’s certainly important to keep in mind, too, are you editing for art, or for historical accuracy?

    Most times, I edit to remove distractions. I’ve mentioned before that one of my pet peeves in wedding photos is the inevitable EXIT sign, usually illuminated in red that appears someplace in the church or reception hall. I always get rid of those, simply because they’re a distraction. There’s a beautiful bride and a nice atmosphere, and there in the background is that red exit sign. It’s something that photographers are often too busy to notice as they give full attention to the couple, but they’re there, nonetheless.

    I often edit to enhance, rather than alter. If I have a less than perfect sky, because of weather conditions, the time of day, or bad camera settings, I’ll do what I can in Photoshop to improve what’s there.

    Those are examples of editing for improvement, enhancement or historical accuracy.

    Editing for art is a completely different ball game. Many times, I’ll take what appears to be an ordinary, or even a less than perfect image, and Photoshop it until it becomes something extraordinary. Very rarely are those images of people, by the way. In fact, probably never!

    Digital art is a great passion for me, so I use whatever tools I have at my disposal to create art. Just as a painter would use paints, brushes, palette knives, canvas and other tools to create art… just as a sculptor would use clay or some other medium, or a collage artist would use found objects.

    Texture, color, text, shapes, stamps, brushes and even my camera and scanner are tools that I use to create art.

    There’s a whole spectrum to consider when it comes to editing. I think this is a great discussion, and it’s exciting to see so many opinions on the topic!

  5. Rose-Anne
    | Reply

    The answer as to whether to alter or no lies with the person being “made-over”. I had a friend who removed her nose ring for her wedding photos (obviously the thought of it in her photos bothered her) and lovely as she was, all you could think when looking at her very expensive wedding pics was that it looked like she had a giant black zit on her nose. I think she would have been grateful to the photographer if he’d removed all trace of that nose ring. If someone is happy being altered then so be it! Editing someone without asking that’s another matter…some would find it insulting to be “improved” on if they didn’t ask and/or weren’t consulted.
    As for improving a sky etc…If I take a photo on a dreary day and am printing say my travel pics for a scrapbook (and I am not trying to accomplish some work of art with a particular image) then I want to see the sky as it was when I took it – that is the memory that speaks to my experience on that day at that moment in time. Removing all evidence of grey skies and drizzle takes away from what I experience in looking at my photos and reliving the memories – which is, after all, the point of photography in my opinion…reliving moments in one’s life.

  6. Jan
    | Reply

    Yes, Photoshop can be a great equalizer… or a great advantage!

  7. Linda Sattgast
    | Reply

    Jan—I enjoyed your article. I’m surprised the bride wanted the tattoo removed. It’s a point of pride for most people of her generation. But I digress…!

    I just wanted to say that I find myself fixing something on 98% of the photos I take—mostly because of lighting or contrast that isn’t optimal and secondly because of digital noise. My digital SLR camera is ancient in comparison to today’s standards, and I hate the noise I get, even in fairly decent lighting! Removing the noise does soften the skin a bit, which is a plus most of the time.

    I like to remove distracting elements, whether in the background or on people. I just went through the wonderful anniversary photos of Charlie and me taken by Rachel Hadiashar, and I fixed a few things—there was a bump on a wall that ended up looking like a blemish in several photos, so I removed that, and I cloned out a bright yellow light from a lamp that was just a blur in the background.

    I also changed a gold tooth of mine to a regular tooth because it was distracting. I happened to smile pretty wide in a couple of photos, and the gold tooth way in the back shone like a beacon. I’m not ashamed of my tooth, but why have it distract from the photo?

    I agree that we should stay age appropriate, but one can soften the effects of age by turning a photo into black and white. 🙂

  8. marylc
    | Reply

    Jan –

    I hope you don’t mind that I am going to take my response into a different arena. The discussions posted thus far address today’s digital photography – removal of debris and flaws, alteration of body image, etc. I would like to expand the discussion to include what the group’s thoughts are as they pertain to older/heritage photographs.

    My interest in restoring/retouching photos began about 10 years ago. I had inherited some beautiful vintage photographs that needed some TLC before they could be included in my family genealogy book. I had invested in PS (Version 6) and had convinced myself that I had the skills to make my photos new again. What in the world was I thinking? Admittedly, I was out of my mind! It became abundantly clear that I didn’t have a clue how to repair damaged/aged photographs.

    I joined online groups, and found that there were significant differences as to how the members approached photo restoration. I found that there were 3 approaches that the artists were taking:

    1. Purist, or Traditional approach – The artist makes every effort to have the finished product as close to the original as possible.

    2. Non-Purist Approach – (often described as the “Go For It” attitude) The artist takes artistic license to the maximum and does whatever he/she wants to do with a photograph. No limits!

    3. Combo approach – The Purist and Non-Purist theories are combined. For example, adding subtle color to old photographs, or a background replacement.

    My early attempts at photo repair was to select black and white or sepia images. I chose photos that had a single subject, and I rarely attempted groups of people. It was was during this time period that I began to think like a Purist. In fact, when I learned to colorize photos I would often revert back to the original tones because they simply didn’t feel right.

    I continue to support the Purist/Traditional approach when repairing my vintage photos; however, I whole-heartedly support using artistic license for the images that come out of my digital camera. I love to experiment and try new techniques. As a hobbyist, I see no problem with that philosophy. If I were to use the photos in a public venue, I think it would be reasonable to obtain persmission before using any photo that I have altered.

  9. Bobbie Bluegill
    | Reply

    In answer to Jan’s thoughts: did the bride want the tattoo removed? Did the groom want a new tooth? If yes, it is their special day, they should have their dreams come true if possible.

    I love FarmWife’s comment: “Most of the time I’m not a photojournalist, I’m an artist. When historical accuracy is necessary, I leave the picture alone. When it’s art, I can do whatever I want to with it.”

  10. FarmWife
    | Reply

    This is a great topic, Jan! I think there are, as you mentioned, different standards for different circumstances. Way back before Photoshop, I considered pictures sacrosanct, untouchable, unchangeable. I was putting together an album of our family trip to Disney World and commented to my husband that I wish I’d zoomed in closer to the kids in this one shot. He said, “So cut out the part you don’t want.” I was stunned! You can’t imagine the freedom I felt, the audacity of it al, to literally cut into and crop a photograph!! And that was only the beginning…

    Some people think pictures should never be manipulated, but consider Ansel Adams. He wasn’t taking pictures of moving children, he took stationary objects; he wasn’t on location for only one day regardless of the weather, he took hundreds of pictures of the same scene, day after day. He retook and reprinted his negatives hundreds of times, emphasizing one feature of the landscape, cropping out another, creating different moods. If I have two days in Venice and it’s overcast and you have three months of beautiful weather and dramatic lighting, whose pictures will be “better”? But if I can, for my own benefit, change the sky to how it looked the day I was leaving, why wouldn’t I?

    I have 5 sisters of varying sizes. Here my policy is that I retouch myself only to the extent that I’m willing to retouch them 🙂 but I don’t usually retouch distinguishing characteristics. Here’s my rationale: I love looking at pix of previous generations, seeing how this nephew looks like his grandpa, this sister resembles that aunt. If we retouch our own features that we don’t personally like, how will our children or grandchildren ever know if they looked like us? Whether it’s a pointy chin, a unibrow (not speaking of myself, you understand), or gray hair in your 20s—it’s who we are as a family that connects the generations. I’ll reduce or remove some blemishes but not always all of them. Certainly as a teenager you want perfect skin but it’s also reassuring to look back at pix of older family members and realize that this too shall pass.

    On the other hand: A friend and I recently took pictures of a family where the mom has one very crooked tooth. She’s so embarrassed by it that she won’t smile, even though she has a lovely smile. So we retouched a snapshot to show her how we could fix her tooth. She smiled beautifully in every shot.

    Photography is a way to bring beauty into our lives, to bring joy to people. A friend’s wedding pictures were just snapshots taken by an uncle. For her 25th anniversary, she wanted a beautiful picture of her and her husband. I combined about 8 photos into one, corrected the color, removed the depressing background, and gave her exactly what she wanted—a beautiful representation of her wedding day, just as she remembered it. How cool is that!

    Now when we’re talking artsy stuff, that’s a different thing altogether. Flowers, skies, animals, phone wires are all fair game. Most of the time I’m not a photojournalist, I’m an artist. When historical accuracy is necessary, I leave the picture alone. When it’s art, I can do whatever I want to with it. Naturally I try to take the best photo I can but I’m not actually creating a flower, I’m just revealing its “natural” beauty.

    So, to make a long story short (which I’m apparently incapable of doing) sometimes I retouch a lot, sometimes not so much. It depends on the subject and its intended use.

    Chris (FarmWife)

    • Andrea Graves
      | Reply

      I have to say that I completely agree with Chris (FarmWife) and her ideas on what to retouch and what to not retouch. Especially with the family and wanting people to be able to see what past and future generations of family members look like and who they resemble. I’m all for removing a big blemish or something, but I never adjust my weight (however, I’m not above some creative cropping at times, lol). I have photoshopped messy babies or little kids faces if it was necessary, although, we def have pics with messy faces, too. I don’t ever take scrapes or bruises off of kids, I feel like that is what stage they were in at the time.

      I’m all for tweaking photos that are for art and enhancing them, I don’t always, since time is an issue for me. I agree with not messing with backgrounds if they are for historical purposes. I have to laugh when I see some ugly furniture we had when we were first married in the background of photos, it brings back good memories and I’m glad that they were not photoshopped out. It’s fun to see the house you were living in when you grew up, or how your own house changes over the years if you replace your flooring or furniture.

      I, personally don’t mess with wrinkles. I have tried it before and it made the person not look like what they really look like, it felt off and not accurate to me. I have looked at albums where everything is too perfect, and I want my albums to show what we really looked like (even if I am 7 lbs over my goal weight) it’s where we are right now in our little lives. kwim? I want us portrayed as we really are, and we’re completely not perfect. We have fun and have good relationships and that is what I want portrayed.

      I don’t judge those who do take out wrinkles or scale down their weight, lol. It’s just not something I do, no matter how tempting, lol. 😉

      It’s definitely a very individual thing for each person and situation. Just my 2 cents…

  11. Mary Newman
    | Reply

    This is a very thought provoking subject. I tend to remove photo imperfections and distracting backgrounds. We don’t want to fix the photo too much and not reflect the true beauty of the person.

    Andrea wedding story brought this memory back to my mind. I photographed a wedding once for a couple who couldn’t afford a photographer. This was long before digital. The groom had a missing ring finger on his right hand due to a run in with a table saw. I was able to place the brides hand over his in such a way that you couldn’t tell he was missing a finger. Even with today’s digital capabilities, it would have been a job recreating his finger.

    Mary Newman
    SG Office Manager
    Creative Team Captain

  12. Amber
    | Reply

    I just mean the extreme. If you find yourself only touching up yourself in every picture then it is too much.

  13. zita B
    | Reply

    At one point in time my self-esteem was pretty low, so I did a lot of manipulation on my own pictures – bearing in mind that I generally do not take a good picture in any case. When I look at the manipulated pics I see what for me represents my ‘inner beauty’. Now I have a tendency to smooth the skin a bit, and go for more uniform skin tone. Not above removing a little thigh or that stomach I forgot to hold in. But really have ‘we’ not been doing that for centuries? Even when portraits were painted the end result had to meet with the subject’s approval..

    When dealing with pictures of others, I also will even skin tone or smooth the skin a bit. If I have a bad angle, I might even remove a pound or 2 – if I believe the subject is sensitive and might be embarrassed by the snapshot. And I agree with ‘Groobers’ what the camera captures is often not what we see ‘face to face’ with family and friends.

    Ok, that was my 2 cents worth… Thanks Jan for starting the conversation…

  14. Amber
    | Reply

    I use Photoshop for everything. Even taking photos to far if that is what I need. for instance I created a fake perfume add by adding a picture that I manipulated to the point you would never tell the original image from the end product. It is what you need it for. Now if it is to document a day ok there is such a thing as too far. I will touch up blemishes and color correct for skin tone. But unless its a joke (and obviously a joke like way overdone or journaled as such) I will not airbrush muscles or lose the last 10 pounds. Those are things I will just have to live with as that is the way I was at the time. Blemishes and cuts or bruises especially on kids come and go in days, body type is something we should be content with or change in real not just pictures.

    So what is too far, nothing but then again I would agree you have to ask yourself why you are changing it. If it is because of wrinkles or a little flab I say no. Those are characteristic of your physical self. Now if a shadow caught badly and it is REALLY dark lighten it but don’t get rid of it. Be proud of you.
    Just my 2 cents. I spent too many years hiding myself because of weight and now regret no pictures.

  15. Susan Hodgson
    | Reply

    Hi Jan,

    I blame the cameras!

    With all the fantasic camera equipment available today it’s no wonder that every blemish and wrinkle is brought to life, it’s like being under a giant microscope!

    When we meet someone in person we are not zooming in to see their imperfections, so I like to think of Photoshop as an equalizer and remove any wrinkles and blemishes, so we get a finished photograph of how we remember the person looking not the zoomed in look of our unforgiving cameras. 🙂

    Mind you, I also love it’s ability to help us loose those last 10 pounds. 😉


    Sue (aka Groobers)

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