Is it Inauthentic to Edit your Photos?

posted in Lifestyle, Thoughts

Last Updated on July 31, 2018

There are always discussions around the “fakeness” of social media and Instagram – how it’s made up of perfectly composed images that crop out the ugly parts, people doing something just “for the gram”, only showing all the best parts of your life, and editing/photoshop.

I totally understand this; obviously I’m not going to post a photo of my sweatpant-outfit or a breakfast I just threw together, and even though my reality is mainly me sitting at a computer, I’m not going to post that either – I’m going to post the interesting places I go. It’s normal to want to share the best parts of our life and have nice photos. We already edit what we post quite a bit just through deciding what to share and taking a bunch of photos to get the perfect one. What I’m unsure about is photoshopping or all these other photo editing tools. When does editing go from improving a photo to making it misleading or fake? Heavy editing generally seems to acceptable and endorsed with artistic/creative photos but where is that line? And the big question for me is, as a content creator focused on ethics and promoting transparency, does editing my photos make them and me inauthentic, and is editing something that should be disclosed?

Consider the following as Instagram photos and how you’d feel about the editing in each case:

  • A beautiful beach photo with the litter edited out.
  • A fashion photo where the person has been edited to appear taller and thinner.
  • A food photo where the colours and textures have been enhanced to make it more appealing.
  • A beauty photo where the model’s skin has been smoothed, and wrinkles and spots have been removed.

Maybe, like me, you feel conflicted. I asked members of the My Green Closet Facebook group what they thought of Photoshop and editing on social media which resulted in a really interesting discussion. The vast majority of people, however, thought that some editing was fine.

Another perspective also came out of the discussion – it matters whether the image is intended to sell something. So for the above examples, would you feel different if the beach photo was promotion for a vacation spot, the outfit sponsored by a fashion brand, the food to promote a restaurant, or the beauty photo to advertise a makeup brand? Also, with companies, we know that they are trying to sell something, but with “influencers” it’s more of a grey area. You could argue that even if a blogger wasn’t paid to advertise something, by posting an image they are still helping sell that product and promote the brand.

Something else I find interesting is how editing is often seen negatively, but skilled photography, styling, or makeup is not. People seem to assess a photo more critically if they know it was edited after it was taken. While you can edit someone to look taller and thinner, you could also light and shoot them in a way to make them appear taller and thinner (those low camera angles make a huge difference!); but Photoshopping to create those same changes is typically seen as wrong. Of course it depends on the extent of the editing – there is only so much you can do with lighting and how it’s shot – but it’s an interesting distinction even though both might have the same result. Another example of this is the use of makeup, which can drastically change a face, but is often viewed differently than editing. For the beach travel ad example, would it be viewed differently if they had instead moved the garbage out of the shot beforehand? Besides “unnatural” editing, there often seems to be two ways to achieve a similar photo, one with more work before the photo itself is taken, and one with more after; and yet these are judged in a different way.

Is there a line where images are manipulated “too much”?

Here is an example using one of my photos; the leftmost shot is the original image. The center image shows how I would typically edit photos: brighten the light, clean up some spots and blemishes, and maybe make some other small corrections. The rightmost image has a lot more editing: the texture of the skin has been smoothed, any lines and uneven skin has been fixed, areas have been brightened and darkened, the hat’s shadow has mostly been removed, and more. You can really see the difference with them all side by side, but if I posted the last image alone you probably wouldn’t think too much of it. I’d likely also get comments about how nice my skin is, which I think also speaks to the issue of misleading images because I don’t look like that in real life. Something else to note is that the final image is tame compared to some editing on Instagram; it could easily be taken much further.

original vs. very edited image

Personally I feel the final image is edited too much and it feels inauthentic, but I also can’t say where exactly the line is.

There’s also an issue of disclosure. In the group discussion people mentioned that editing should be disclosed, but what kind of editing should be disclosed? Technically an Instagram filter edits a photo a lot and almost every photo is edited in some way; is lighting adjustment okay but body/skin changes not?

I unfortunately don’t have answers to these questions. I think it’s an important discussion and we need to be aware of these things regarding social media, but here is how I can at least be transparent about my image-editing:
All my videos and photos are edited in some way. Typically, there are light and colour adjustments or a filter added. My Instagram photos likely have some skin/blemish editing as well. Because of the discussion around disclosure, I also have decided that if I ever post a heavily edited photo, it will be disclosed as such.

So that’s where I’m currently at with this- a lot of questions. I’d love to know what you think about photo editing, authenticity in social media, and transparency. Do you think the creator, brand, or blogger/influencer has a responsibility regarding editing or does it lie with the content consumer to be media-literate and understand that editing is happening?


6 Responses

  1. Jailyn Dyer
    | Reply

    It’s an interesting issue and one that doesn’t have a clearcut answer. I edit my photos that I sell online of places I’ve been to, but I sell them as “art” rather than journalism. They’re not meant to be completely realistic, but to capture the feeling of the place. For example, I may saturate the colors to make the sky and water bluer. I may change the photograph to black and white to emphasize the contrast.

    It’s not my intention to misrepresent, but in taking a single image there are a lot of things that people don’t see of an area. For example, I may take a picture of a beautiful building, but intentionally leave out the shanty next door (although I think it’d be more interesting to show the juxtaposition, still you get the idea). On my listings, I put the name of the place and some information about it because I think it’s interesting to know more about the picture. If someone visited, he or she might be disappointed.

  2. Kelly
    | Reply

    Great post–lots of thought-provoking questions. I am personally not a fan of heavy editing, and I would even go so far to say that it is problematic regardless of the intentions of the photographer/editor and regardless of any disclaimer. The problem with looking at editing from an intention-based lens is that, as a whole, the rise of heavily edited photography has resulted in extremely skewed expectations on the part of the media consumer. Even a media-savvy consumer, if inundated with heavily edited photography, can begin to wonder if something is wrong with them after seeing too many images that use “skin blur.” There is no longer any reference point in media for what’s normal–even if you recognize that there has been some editing in a photo, you don’t know what the original photo looked like (not in this case, because you posted it, but others). You don’t know if the model had great skin to begin with or had every single blemish removed. There are some things I think should be left in photos–skin texture, cellulite, hair, the original weight/height–if only to re-normalize them (because they are normal! Everyone’s skin has texture!). Looking at many ads and Instagram photos today, there’s simply no way to achieve the results pictured therein, and it’s doing damage to the mental health of young people. The problem with Photoshop, I think, is that it goes above and beyond the editing that can be done with lighting/angles and enters the territory of being completely unrealistic (and, like Anna said above, prevents emotional response and connection).

    I also think there is a significant difference between beach/food photos and photos of people (particularly influencers). Beach photos where the trash has been edited out might result in some annoyance (or at worst, a bad time) on the part of the vacationer. Pinterest food that has been edited might result in a single bad dish and some wasted money. But photos of people that have been heavily edited–like magazine ads, Instagram stars–result in the diminished self-worth of the general public. (This Time article was really interesting!

    I appreciate that you approach editing with caution and think about the ethics of it, and I’m glad you started this conversation on your blog. I understand that it’s normal to want to share and show the best parts of ourselves–but I also think there is something wonderful and authentic with showing the nitty gritty, with being vulnerable, with posting the photo of the thrown-together-breakfast. (How much you want to be vulnerable on the Internet is up to you, of course. That’s a whole other can of worms!)

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Kelly!
      The thing I really struggle with is in a lots of cases there isn’t really a defined point when something becomes unrealistic/sets skewed expectations (aside from extreme body manipulation). For example I could take some photos at the beach and if I’m in the bright sun you likely won’t see any of my stretch marks or cellulite, whereas if the lighting or my position is different you would. When selecting a photo I’m probably not going to choose the one that shows my cellulite and stretch marks, a lot of ‘editing’ is already done just by choosing which photo to share. I’m sure the majority of people would agree that they want to post flattering images, and I think it’s important to try and view social media in that light. But with that said I also agree that vulnerability has a lot of value in balancing perspectives/expectations, I have mad respect for people who are vulnerable and bare all their flaws online. It takes a lot of courage and the shaming/scrutiny can unfortunately be brutal.

  3. Anna
    | Reply

    I was going to say something about the intention of the photo as well. When I think of the origins of photography, I think of the photos of my relatives I never got to meet. Imagine all those photos if they were poorly compositioned or poorly lit… On the other hand if they photoshopped images back then, we’d never really know what they looked like and fakeness repels emotional response and connection. To me photography is something genuine captured and rendered the best way possible through lens.

  4. Nicole
    | Reply

    It’s all so subjective it feels impossible to put hard and fast rules on it, but this is a good starting point of questions for further discussion. Personally, I think the intent of the photo makes the biggest difference. I don’t mind if a food photo is edited to look perfect for a magazine article about our psychological connections to food, but I would find it deceptive for a restaurant to do a “Pinterest fail” on me and have imagery of fantastic food advertised that didn’t match up at all to a disappointing result on my plate (that I’ve had to pay for…)!

    As an aside: I like the example of the moving rubbish out of the way of the beach shoot. Maybe psychologically it feels like if you were going to physically move the rubbish out of the way beforehand for the shoot, one would hope it is going in a bin instead of just another patch of beach. Whereas if it’s being edited afterwards in Photoshop, there is no hope of that unintended good side effect to trying to get a good photo? hahah I don’t know!

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      Thanks for your response Nicole! I agree that intent really matters, and it unfortunately seems the most deception happens with trying to sell something.

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