Does retouching photos mean that you’re cheating?

Sep 5, 2019

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

Does retouching photos mean that you’re cheating?

Sep 5, 2019

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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Some photographers love spending hours in Photoshop, turning their photos into digital art. Others enhance their photos and remove mistakes and distractions. But there are also many of those who believe that editing and changing your photos is cheating. In this video, Serge Ramelli brings up some fantastic arguments to support image editing. If you believe that it’s cheating, this video might just change your mind.

YouTube video

Those who believe image editing is “cheating” often argue that overly edited photos look unreal. So, Serge starts with a few example images that might turn that opinion around. Think about photos taken with large focal lengths and apertures. They have very prominent bokeh – and you’ll agree, it’s impossible for a human eye to see like that. Does this mean it’s cheating?

Then, we have ND filters. When we use them to shoot long exposure photos, we end up with smooth, milky water and smudged surreal clouds. Again, it’s not how we really see water and skies. Is this cheating, too?

Serge makes a point here that we’re all artists, and we want to create an emotional impact with our photos. It doesn’t matter if we achieve what we want with a lens, a filter, or a few hours in Photoshop. All of these tools allow us to create photos that don’t look completely realistic, but they have an emotional impact and a story.

On the other hand, you can cheat in your photos by not retouching them at all. Serge mentions faked photos of fire from last year’s protests in Paris. The fire was there, and the photographers were on the spot, but they used forced perspective to make the small, harmless fire appear much bigger. That doesn’t involve any retouching, but it sure is cheating!

If you feel bad about retouching your images, Serge reminds you that even great masters like Ansel Adams dodged and burned their photos in the darkroom. Retouching has always been around, and if you do it right, it will add to your images and make them even more beautiful.

Serge’s last point is that retouching is an art in itself, and it has been around forever. He advises you to concentrate on your photography and the effect you want to achieve in your photos, and don’t feel bad about editing them.

I generally agree with Serge’s points, but there are exceptions. Perhaps you had the same thought as me: documentary photography and photojournalism. In these genres, heavy retouching isn’t welcomed. Photos can be slightly edited; for example, you can bring up the shadows, add a little bit of contrast and saturation to your photos, or something like that. But heavily editing documentary images can change the story they say, and then they stop being documentary. As a matter of fact, heavily editing these images is considered unethical. In addition, some photography contests also don’t allow heavily edited images and they have strict propositions on what can and what can’t be edited in the photos you submit.

So, is retouching your photos cheating? I’d say no, and I generally agree with Serge’s points. If it adds to your art (or even makes your art), if it adds to the story and makes an emotional impact, then go ahead. But if you are a photojournalist or a documentary photographer, then, if overdone, retouching definitely means cheating.

What do you guys think? Does retouching mean cheating?

[Is Retouching Cheating?? | Serge Ramelli Photography]

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Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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56 responses to “Does retouching photos mean that you’re cheating?”

  1. Adrian J Nyaoi Avatar
    Adrian J Nyaoi

    No, unless that is the intention.

  2. Marko Strandvall Avatar
    Marko Strandvall

    If I alter the old school photo under developing with liquids, is it cheating?
    FFS with these “articles”

  3. Marco Peixoto Avatar
    Marco Peixoto

    As soon you press the button everything captured is not real anymore.

    1. Dunja Djudjic Avatar
      Dunja Djudjic

      Interesting point!

    2. Patrick Mayon Avatar
      Patrick Mayon

      yes photography isn’t reality but just an illusion of reality.

    3. Chris Gonzalez Avatar
      Chris Gonzalez

      Life is just an illusion on that mark. Aka, we are only able to see life through a series electrical pulses. Much like a camera .

  4. Clarence Hemeon Avatar
    Clarence Hemeon


  5. Josh Feres Avatar
    Josh Feres

    I would say yes if the photo is being entered into a contest where the rules state no retouching allowed (I think natl geographic has a contest like this).

    1. Dunja Djudjic Avatar
      Dunja Djudjic

      Yup, I gave it as one of the examples in the article. :)

    2. Adrian J Nyaoi Avatar
      Adrian J Nyaoi

      Josh Feres NatGeo had in the past publish altered photos

    3. Carlos Guerra Avatar
      Carlos Guerra

      Josh , ask NG photographer Steve McCurry , what thinks about it ?

  6. John Lehman Avatar
    John Lehman

    We are creating art, it’s part of the creation process to manage the image. I’m appreciative of the opportunities available for creating a vision without a darkroom and chemicals.

    1. Stewart Norton Avatar
      Stewart Norton

      John Lehman My thoughts exactly. Post processing is part of the process of creating your vision. It doesn’t matter how an image is produced only the end result.

  7. Philip Ball Avatar
    Philip Ball

    You cant present a jpg photo without it being processed from RAW. You either let the camera choose the curves or you shoot RAW and do it yourself later. I dont consider curves/exposure adjustment or sharpening “retouching”. Now if youre using spot treatments – dodge and burn, clone stamping etc… or liquify thats retouching.

    1. Stefan Kohler Avatar
      Stefan Kohler

      Philip Ball this!

    2. Henryb65 Avatar

      …and there is nothing wrong in doing that.

  8. Andrej Milas Avatar
    Andrej Milas

    What if your WB is set that way on the camera? This stuff is silly

    1. Jia Chen Lu Avatar
      Jia Chen Lu

      Andrej Milas : then you change the camera settings and you use nd filters and flash lighting.

  9. Scott Stevenson Avatar
    Scott Stevenson

    Depends on what you’re trying to achieve when you “retouch” your photos… If you’re talking about complete compositing and then claiming the shot is in camera, then you’re a liar AND a cheat… But… Really… So long as you’re honest and forthright about what you’ve done, it should rarely be a problem.

  10. Jeff Hayward Avatar
    Jeff Hayward

    i think if it’s manipulating the original image, it’s perfectly fine. if you’re adding new elements or removing things is when it gets a little dicey for me.

  11. Jia Chen Lu Avatar
    Jia Chen Lu

    Editing isn’t cheating. Composting is cheating ??

    1. Andy Dench Avatar
      Andy Dench

      Jia Chen Lu compositing is only cheating if you’re trying to pass it off as a real photo with no compositing. Otherwise it’s just art, same as photography.

  12. Les Cameron Avatar
    Les Cameron

    my first thought is that “retouching photos” is logically the same as editing an article – so no it is “cheating” is is practicing your craft. If you manipulate the image to the point of altering reality – and then try to pass it off as un-altered, that would be unethical as photojournalism. But if it is something shown as “art” all that matter is that it is YOUR work …

  13. Duncan Knifton Avatar
    Duncan Knifton

    Photos have been touched up since the days of the darkroom techniques. No difference in digital days

  14. Michael Dornieden Avatar
    Michael Dornieden


  15. Weinsheimers Welten Avatar
    Weinsheimers Welten

    There has never been a non-retouched photo in the history of photography. It’s that simple.

  16. Sean Michael VanDeusen Avatar
    Sean Michael VanDeusen

    That’s like someone asking if painting on a canvas is cheating. Should we all just hang blank canvases haha. The only way to cheat when it comes to art is stealing someone else’s creation and making it yours or ripping someone’s style completely. I think photography is fun but sensors can’t see what we see. Shadows are often too dark during a sunset. Highlights are often blown out during the day. Some us like to adjust a photo so it looks like what we saw when we took them. Others like to be creative. I think being creative should replace a word such ad cheating in such situations.

  17. Franco Kailsan Avatar
    Franco Kailsan

    I took pictures of a nearby beach last week. I had to retouch every picture because in every frame there were a few plastic bags or drink containers in each frame.

    1. Chris Avatar

      Did you pick any of them up?

  18. Dave Fer Avatar
    Dave Fer

    Only if the photo is used to promote like a resort in order to get you to say wow this looks real nice.

    1. Ali Mckellar Avatar
      Ali Mckellar

      You’d be surprised how often that actually happens. Real estate photos are usually heavily manipulated in the same way.

      1. Henryb65 Avatar

        But as long as they tell the truth it’s ok. Ex estate agent

  19. Jore Puusa Avatar
    Jore Puusa

    I see the word ART within the text. Photography is not art, it is made by a machine.
    An artist starts with a white canvas and uses his/hers sklills with paint and brushes.

    1. Apon47 Avatar

      Painting is only a form of ART.

    2. Henryb65 Avatar

      “Photography is not art” Photography is the generic word for using any type of camera, pin-hole, smartphone, DSLR and others, but a photographer is an artist. Your “machine” has many possibilities but it has to be controlled. It cannot see what you are looking at. It is the photographer that chooses and frames the image, adjusts the settings to what he wants the image to be like if the recommended settings are not to his liking and tweaks it with post production software. You have obviously not been to a photograph exhibition. If you do go, when you see a great image ask yourself, “Was anyone behind the camera or did the camera just get up and shoot this itself”. MACHINES NEED DRIVERS.

      1. Jore Puusa Avatar
        Jore Puusa

        You have obviously not been to a photograph exhibition.
        I am a teacher of photojournalism and been a photojournalist for 40 years.
        My work is not art. Those are photographs that are taken by a machine. Painting is art.
        But amateurs often try to make photography bigger thing than its is.
        My wife is and artist, a painter. She does art. She uses no machines, only her hands and imagination.

        1. Henryb65 Avatar

          You presume wrongly. All the exhibitions I have been to show the work of the photographer, not the work of a machine, which is rarely mentioned. So does your wife paint without brushes and without paint and without canvases and without an easel? Those are her tools of trade as a camera is yours. I do not know what subjects your wife paints but I bet that any critic would say, “That perspective is great or not great, that paint is not the right colour BUT they would not say “This is how you use a brush, how you mix paint. What do you teach for your subject, photojournalism? How to operate the camera (machine) or how to make your images stand out? How to use your eyes to see what you are photographing? How to look for different angles? Or do you just spend time teaching how a Nikon/Canon/Kodak camera works? I suppose you have heard of the famous photographer Ansel Adams? Someone said in a post “Ansel Adams used the dark room to do what we do with computers today. He compared photography to music – he said that shooting the picture was like writing the score, but printing the photo was the performance.” If it’s good enough for Ansel Adams, it’s good enough for me. I suppose you would also say that a musician is only using a machine. I do not think Mark Knopfler or Jimmy Hendriks would appreciate being told that they were just using a machine. I would imagine that after 40 years in photojournalism you would be able to say whose work is good or whose is not good. If you do and ignore the apparatus (machine being used), you are commenting on the skills of the photographer not his equipment. You are actually insulting photographers by saying that it’s the machine that does the work and they do not. I also suggest you watch this Youtube video by Serge Ramelli.

          1. Jore Puusa Avatar
            Jore Puusa

            If that makes You feel better, then OK. But for me as a professional photography is not art. For You it is. So be it. Most of the pictures today are plagiarized. Art?

          2. Henryb65 Avatar

            Thank you for that. That’s ok too. It is refreshing and unusual to have a debate that doesn’t end with bad words. Again thanks

          3. Chris Avatar

            Yes it is especially after you resorted at length to sarcasm and ad hominem yourself.

          4. Henryb65 Avatar

            What a bad loser you are. Rude too. I’d hate to be in your classroom. By the way here is an example of photographic art. Go tell the photographer that it is cheating, after all she didn’t do it like your wife does and use brushes – she used (in your words) a machine. OOPs not allowed to post an image

  • Chris Avatar


    “Art is in the eye of the beholder, and everyone will have their own interpretation.” ― E.A. Bucchianeri, Brushstrokes of a Gadfly

    I can’t agree with your argument that “photography is not art”. I’d agree that some photography is not intended to be art but as Bucchianeri alludes to, it is the “beholder” who ultimately determines what is art and what is not. Even a piece of photojournalism may be considered art by a viewer notwithstanding that it was not the intention of the photographer.

  • Joao Cardoso Avatar
    Joao Cardoso

    Cheating for me the art is what I get with my camera in manual, what I want to see with my eyes in the picture Im taking no cheating with softwares.

  • Andy Dench Avatar
    Andy Dench

    Such a stupid question, even the old Masters edited their photos in the dark room. Ridiculous.

  • Rickey J. Farmer Sr. Avatar
    Rickey J. Farmer Sr.

    Editing and touch up have been part and parcel to photography. That’s reality and history.

  • Sergi Yavorski Avatar
    Sergi Yavorski


  • Ahmet Avatar

    One thing we admire in “art” is the difficulty of repeating it. To catch the moment that is so perfect is a rare opportunity. When the lights the clouds, the composition comes together, that is miracle. To change the colors, clouds, remove something to adjust the composition is not cheating, it is just a cheap replica of the real effort.
    Yes, the old masters did it in the darkroom. But that was unrepeatable too. It needed skill and and lots of practice. There was no undo button.
    It is live concert and the one with playback. Nobody argues which one is the “real” thing although both are performed by the same person so why do you make a difference. More so: can you imagine Pavarotti in the Scala from playback?
    See, it is not cheating, it is just safe playing.

  • Clement RENAUT Avatar
    Clement RENAUT


  • Sara Amelia Avatar
    Sara Amelia

    Depends on the context. If your manipulating a natural landscape for a contest to make it look better than reality or nothing like reality then yes.. As are staged photos for contests, the worst… If its a fashion shoot or crating an artistic piece of work, then no….

  • Henryb65 Avatar

    This is a question mostly asked by those who haven’t, can’t or won’t use any post production software, Photoshop, Luminar, etc. I would reply with one question to them. Why does an artist re-paint parts of a painting that he/she is working on? The answer: ” ‘cos it’s not good and looks better now”. I am a member of a FB group,”The most beautiful images of (an island in the Caribbean)”. I mentioned one day to the administrator, who had changed the group’s profile image, that the sea’s horizon in the new image was not at all straight. It looked like the boats were heading for shore at a breakneck speed! My comment was not liked at all and some of the group posted,”I’ll never retouch an image,” or similar comments. If I ever publish an image or enter one in a competition I WILL RETOUCH IT to correct errors or adjust lighting, colours, blemishes etc. etc. In that respect there is little difference between a painting and a photo. Both are creations by you and you want them to look good. You may even wish to change the image completely and produce a piece of art from a dull image. So what? If it pleases the eye, you have won.

  • Nick Dunlap Avatar
    Nick Dunlap

    No. As long as you don’t portray or promote your photos as untouched you’re doing nothing wrong.

  • Osamba Lekouya Avatar
    Osamba Lekouya

    Photos are personal. Retouching (or not) is part of the artistic approach…

  • Jason Jackson Avatar
    Jason Jackson

    Cheating is classically defined as ignoring the rules of a competition when participating.

    Therefore unless you are submitting images in competitions, do whatever the f**k makes you happy as long as your Morales are in check. ?

  • Ron Williams Avatar
    Ron Williams

    It depends upon the genre, it’s definitely not a black and white issue — hehe. Retouching a portrait is expected to make the subject look younger, yet changing eye color, might be frowned upon. A drab landscape with clouds masked into the background I consider cheating but do it all the time. Using an ND filter for a moving water shot that gives a smooth ethereal look is done in the camera, is that considered retouching? Photography is an art form and at the same time, it documents a slice of time when we need the truth.

  • CanonMinolta Avatar

    If you mean: is editing cheating?
    The answer is no
    Because the camera settings you choose is a form of editing, so everyone edits (cheats?)

  • Chris Avatar

    When you use tools to create an effect with what is really there that’s photography. When you use software to manufacture an image with what was never there that’s not photography it’s graphic design.

    There’s nothing wrong with graphic design, it has its uses and purposes obviously but its not photography.

    So if you create effects with real elements that’s photography. If you manufacture elements that were never there that is no longer photography it’s something else. The photography becomes an element of the graphic.

    When the distinction is obvious to the viewer it’s fine but when you portray a graphic as photography that is fake.

    Examples of graphic design used to “cheat” an effect in photography:
    – Adding rain
    – Adding snow
    – Adding clouds
    – Sky replacement

    These are illustration graphic elements added to an image for effect.

    Whether it is right or wrong to do sometimes is a matter of opinion and changes depending on the purpose and reason of the final product. But let’s know which is which. The problem comes when we conflate the two artistic genres and when we present illustration elements as photography. That is obviously “cheating”.

    Want an example? I recently purchased a piece of vacant land without physically visiting the property. I relied on photographs. I put a clause in the contract that the seller guaranteed the photographs accurately portrayed the property. Later when I visited the property it was exactly as I expected so no problem. But say if someone purchases a real estate property online relying on the images and then it turns out there was a lawn replacement and the photographs portrayed therefore a property element that was fake and the real lawn was more of a mud patch. What then? In contract law that is called “misrepresentation” and it is deliberate. A lawyer will jump all over that.

    So it’s a good idea to know where the line is, when it is crossed and why it might matter.