Is it cheating to edit photographs?

Every time we reach the editing module of A Year With My Camera I have at least 1 in 10 students tell me that they will be skipping this part because they believe in getting the photograph right when they take it, not fixing it afterwards.

And every time this happens I silently curse the forums and camera clubs that have fostered this attitude.

Before you decide either way, will you let me explain why the forums and camera clubs aren't telling you the whole story?


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Your camera edits anyway, you are just handing over control of the process

If you shoot RAW files, you already know why you need to edit and you probably edit every photo you take (see: What is RAW and Why Do You Need It?).

If you don't shoot RAW, or don't know if you shoot RAW, you're almost certainly using your camera's default setting, which is to shoot JPEG files. JPEGs are one kind of digital file, and one that is particularly suited to image files.

With JPEG files the camera slaps a generic edit onto every photo you take, whether or not you want it to. It will boost the contrast, boost the saturation, apply some sharpening and might even have a go at fixing skin tones. So I don't think the argument stands that an auto-edited JPEG is in some way pure and ethically better than one you've edited afterwards as well. The only question to answer is whether you want the camera to do the editing, or if you want to take control.

The first image below is a RAW file straight from camera. The second is a JPEG straight from camera. Which is more realistic?

Of course the second image is more realistic - it is vibrant, with accurate colours. The first image is dull and flat. So is it cheating to let the camera edit the image so it is realistic? Absolutely not. It's an entirely integral part of the digital image creation process.

Control, not cheating

If anyone tells you that editing is cheating, you can now tell them that it's not a question of cheating, but a question of control. If you choose to shoot RAW files and do the editing yourself I would argue you are actually a more skilled photographer. It's similar to shooting on auto or manual mode - you are taking control of the entire process.

But editing does take time, and all RAW files need editing, even if just a quick contrast fix. RAW files are often 3 times the size of JPEGs. And you might be quite happy with the auto edits the camera produces. In which case, don't worry about shooting RAW and editing, but go out and enjoy your photography and leave the never-ending discussion about editing and cheating to those who prefer arguing in online forums to actually taking photos.


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