Photo manipulation

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MinnieDriverJan2011 cropped.jpg
MinnieDriverJan2011 (glamourized).jpg
The skin features shown in a portrait of Minnie Driver have been manipulated to create the image on the right.

Photo manipulation involves transforming or altering a photograph using various methods and techniques to achieve desired results. Some photo manipulations are considered skilful artwork while others are frowned upon as unethical practices, especially when used to deceive the public. Other examples include being used for political propaganda, or to make a product or person look better, or simply for entertainment purposes or harmless pranks.


Depending on the application and intent, some photo manipulations are considered an art form because it involves the creation of unique images and in some instances, signature expressions of art by photographic artists. For example, Ansel Adams employed some of the more common manipulations using darkroom exposure techniques, burning (darkening) and dodging (lightening) a photograph. [1] [2] Other examples of photo manipulation include retouching photographs using ink or paint, airbrushing, double exposure, piecing photos or negatives together in the darkroom, scratching instant films, or through the use of software-based manipulation tools applied to digital images. There are a number of software applications available for digital image manipulation, ranging from professional applications to very basic imaging software for casual users.


General Grant at City Point is a composite of three different photographs. Ulysses S. Grant at City Point.jpg
General Grant at City Point is a composite of three different photographs.
Vintage manipulated photo of World War I battle action including details combined from multiple photos. Episode after Battle of Zonnebeke 1918 Hurley.jpg
Vintage manipulated photo of World War I battle action including details combined from multiple photos.
Goebbels family portrait photo in which the visage of the uniformed Harald, who was actually away on military duties, was inserted and retouched. Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1978-086-03, Joseph Goebbels mit Familie.jpg
Goebbels family portrait photo in which the visage of the uniformed Harald, who was actually away on military duties, was inserted and retouched.
Retouching tools from the pre-digital era: gouache paint, kneaded erasers, charcoal sticks, and an airbrush. Retouche-set.jpg
Retouching tools from the pre-digital era: gouache paint, kneaded erasers, charcoal sticks, and an airbrush.

Photo manipulation dates back to some of the earliest photographs captured on glass and tin plates during the 19th century. The practice began not long after the creation of the first photograph (1825) by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce who developed heliography and made the first photographic print from a photoengraved printing plate. [3] [4] Traditional photographic prints can be altered using various methods and techniques that involve manipulation directly to the print, such as retouching with ink, paint, airbrushing, or scratching Polaroids during developing. [5] Negatives can be manipulated while still in the camera using double-exposure techniques, or in the darkroom by piecing photos or negatives together. Some darkroom manipulations involved techniques such as bleaching to artfully lighten or totally wash-out parts of the photograph, or hand coloring for aesthetic purposes or to mimic a fine art painting. [6]

In the early 19th century, photography and the technology that made it possible were rather crude and cumbersome. While the equipment and technology progressed over time, it was not until the late 20th century that photography evolved into the digital realm. At the onset, digital photography was considered by some to be a radical new approach and was initially rejected by photographers because of its substandard quality. [7] The transition from film to digital has been an ongoing process although great strides were made in the early 21st century as a result of advancing technology that has greatly improved digital image quality while reducing the bulk and weight of cameras and equipment. [8]


An early example of tampering was in the early 1860s, when a photo of Abraham Lincoln was altered using the body from a portrait of John C. Calhoun and the head of Lincoln from a famous seated portrait by Mathew Brady – the same portrait which was the basis for the original Lincoln five-dollar bill. [4] Another is exampled in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue wherein it exposes a manipulated American Civil War photograph of General Ulysses S. Grant posing horseback in front of his troops at City Point, Virginia. [9] Close observation of the photograph raises questions and brings to light certain details in the photograph that simply do not add up. For example, Grant's head is set at a strange angle to his body, his uniform is of a different time period, and his favorite horse Cincinnati did not have a left hind sock like the horse in the photograph, although his other horse Egypt did have a sock but on a different foot. With further research, three different photographs were discovered that explained the composite using Grant's head from one photograph, the body of Major General Alexander McDowell McCook atop his horse from another photograph, and for the background, and 1864 photograph of Confederate prisoners captured at the Battle of Fisher's Hill. [9]

In the 20th century, digital retouching became available with Quantel computers running Paintbox in professional environments, [10] which, alongside other contemporary packages, were effectively replaced in the market by Adobe Photoshop and other editing software for graphic imaging.

Political and ethical issues

Photo manipulation has been used to deceive or persuade viewers or improve storytelling and self-expression. [11] Often even subtle and discreet changes can have a profound impact on how we interpret or judge a photograph, making it all the more important to know when or if manipulation has occurred. As early as the American Civil War, photographs were published as engravings based on more than one negative. [12]

Joseph Stalin made use of photo retouching for propaganda purposes. [13] On May 5, 1920 his predecessor Vladimir Lenin held a speech for Soviet troops that Leon Trotsky attended. Stalin had Trotsky retouched out of a photograph showing Trotsky in attendance. [14] In a well known case of damnatio memoriae image manipulation, NKVD leader Nikolai Yezhov (the "Vanishing Commissar"), after his execution in 1940, was removed from an official press photo where he was pictured with Stalin. [15] (For more information, see Censorship of images in the Soviet Union.) The pioneer among journalists distorting photographic images for news value was Bernarr Macfadden: in the mid-1920s, his "composograph" process involved reenacting real news events with costumed body doubles and then photographing the dramatized scenes—then pasting faces of the real news-personalities (gathered from unrelated photos) onto his staged images. In the 1930s, artist John Heartfield used a type of photo manipulation known as the photomontage to critique Nazi propaganda.

Some ethical theories have been applied to image manipulation. During a panel on the topic of ethics in image manipulation [16] Aude Oliva theorized that categorical shifts are necessary in order for an edited image to be viewed as a manipulation. In Image Act Theory, [17] Carson Reynolds extended speech act theory by applying it to photo editing and image manipulations. In "How to Do Things with Pictures", [18] William J. Mitchell details the long history of photo manipulation and discusses it critically.

Use in journalism

A notable incident of controversial photo manipulation occurred over a photograph that was altered to fit the vertical orientation of a 1982 National Geographic magazine cover. The altered image made two Egyptian pyramids appear closer together than they actually were in the original photograph. [19] The incident triggered a debate about the appropriateness of falsifying an image, [20] and raised questions regarding the magazine's credibility. Shortly after the incident, Tom Kennedy, director of photography for National Geographic stated, "We no longer use that technology to manipulate elements in a photo simply to achieve a more compelling graphic effect. We regarded that afterwards as a mistake, and we wouldn’t repeat that mistake today." [20]

There are other incidents of questionable photo manipulation in journalism. One such incident arose in early 2005 after Martha Stewart was released from prison. Newsweek used a photograph of Stewart's face on the body of a much slimmer woman for their cover, suggesting that Stewart had lost weight while in prison. [21] Speaking about the incident in an interview, Lynn Staley, assistant managing editor at Newsweek said, "The piece that we commissioned was intended to show Martha as she would be, not necessarily as she is." Staley also explained that Newsweek disclosed on page 3 that the cover image of Martha Stewart was a composite. [21]

Image manipulation software has affected the level of trust many viewers once had in the aphorism, the camera never lies. [22] Images may be manipulated for fun, aesthetic reasons, or to improve the appearance of a subject [23] but not all image manipulation is innocuous as evidenced by the Kerry Fonda 2004 election photo controversy. The image in question was a fraudulent composite image of John Kerry taken on June 13, 1971 and Jane Fonda taken in August, 1972 sharing the same platform at a 1971 antiwar rally; the latter of which carried a fake Associated Press credit with the intent to change the public's perspective of reality. [22]

There is a growing body of writings devoted to the ethical use of digital editing in photojournalism. In the United States, for example, the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) established a Code of Ethics which promotes the accuracy of published images, advising that photographers "do not manipulate images [...] that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects." [24] Infringements of the Code are taken very seriously, especially regarding digital alteration of published photographs, as evidenced by a case in which Pulitzer prize-nominated photographer Allan Detrich resigned his post following the revelation that a number of his photographs had been manipulated. [25]

In 2010, a Ukrainian photographer Stepan Rudik, winner of the 3rd prize story in Sports Features, has been disqualified due to violation of the rules of the World Press Photo contest. "After requesting RAW-files of the series from him, it became clear that an element had been removed from one of the original photographs." [26] As of 2015, up to 20% [27] of World Press Photo entries that made it to the penultimate round of the contest were disqualified after they were found to have been manipulated or post-processed with rules violations. [28]

Use in fashion

The photo manipulation industry has often been accused of promoting or inciting a distorted and unrealistic image of self; most specifically in younger people. The world of glamour photography is one specific industry which has been heavily involved with the use of photo manipulation (what many consider to be a concerning element as many people look up to celebrities in search of embodying the 'ideal figure'). [29] Manipulation of a photo to alter a model's appearance can be used to change features such as skin complexion, hair color, body shape, and other features. Many of the alterations to skin involve removing blemishes through the use of the healing tool in Photoshop. Photo editors may also alter the color of hair to remove roots or add shine. Additionally, the model's teeth and eyes may be made to look whiter than they are in reality. Make up and piercings can even be edited into pictures to look as though the model was wearing them when the photo was taken. Through photo editing, the appearance of a model may be drastically changed to mask imperfections. [30]

In an article entitled, Confessions of a Retoucher: how the modeling industry is harming women, a professional retoucher who has worked for mega-fashion brands shares the industry's secrets. [31] Along with fixing imperfections like skin wrinkles and smoothing features, the size of the model is manipulated by either adding or subtracting visible weight. Reverse retouching is just as common as making models skinnier, “distorting the bodies of very thin models to make them appear more robust in a process called reverse retouching. It is almost worse than making someone slimmer because the image claims you can be at an unhealthy weight but still look healthy. In reality, you can't, you have to Photoshop it". [31] Reverse retouching includes eliminating shadows from protruding bones, adding flesh over body parts, color correcting, and removing hair generated for warmth from extreme weight loss. Professionals are saying that if an image is not labeled "not retouched," then the public can assume that photograph has been modified. [32] As the fashion industry continues to use photos that have been manipulated to idealize body types, there is a need for education about how unreal and unhealthy these images are and the negative implications they are promoting.

In social media

Not only are photos being manipulated by professionals for the media, but also with the rise of social media everyone has easy access to edit photos they post online. Countless apps have been created to allow smartphone user tools to modify personal images. [33] These apps allow people to edit virtually every aspect in the photo focusing on the face and body represented. With social media users and the younger generation being exposed to an extreme amount of imagery that has been manipulated the consequences have a negative impact as body ideals are unachievable. Social media has the opportunity to be used as a platform for promoting healthy body image and unedited photos; the need for approval over social media has to be altered in the near future.[ citation needed ]

Celebrity opposition

Photo manipulation has triggered negative responses from both viewers and celebrities. This has led to celebrities refusing to have their photos retouched in support of the American Medical Association that has decided that "[we] must stop exposing impressionable children and teenagers to advertisements portraying models with body types only attainable with the help of photo editing software" [34] These include Keira Knightley, Brad Pitt, Andy Roddick, Jessica Simpson, Lady Gaga and Zendaya.

Brad Pitt had a photographer, Chuck Close, take photos of him that emphasized all of his flaws. Chuck Close is known for his photos that emphasize all skin flaws of an individual. Pitt did so in an effort to speak out against media using photoshop and manipulating celebrities’ photos in an attempt to hide their flaws. Kate Winslet spoke out against photo manipulation in media after GQ magazine altered her body, making it look unnaturally thin. [35] And 42-year-old Cate Blanchett appeared on the cover of Intelligent Life's 2012 March/April issue, makeup-free and without digital retouching for the first time. [36]

In April 2010, Britney Spears agreed to release "un-airbrushed images of herself next to the digitally altered ones". [29] The fundamental motive behind her move was to "highlight the pressure exerted on women to look perfect". [29] In 2014, Hungarian pop vocalist and songwriter Boggie produced two music videos that achieved global attention for its stance on whitewashing in the beauty industry: the #1 MAHASZ chart hit "Parfüm" (Hungarian version) and "Nouveau Parfum" (French version) from her self-titled album Boggie, which reached two Billboard charts (#3 Jazz Album, #17 World Music Album). [37] [38] [ circular reference ] [39] In the videos, the artist is shown singing as she is extensively retouched in real-time, ending with a side-by-side comparison of her natural and manipulated images as the song fades out.

Corporate opposition

Multiple companies have begun taking the initiative to speak out against the use of photo manipulation when advertising their products. Two companies that have done so include Dove and Aerie. Dove created the Dove Self-Esteem Fund and also the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty as a way to try to help build confidence in young women. They want to emphasize what is known as real beauty, or untouched photographs, in the media now. [40] Also, Aerie has started their campaign #AerieREAL. They have a line of undergarments now that goes by that name with the intention of them being for everyone. [41] Also, their advertisements state that the model has not been retouched in any way. They also add in their advertisements that "The real you is sexy." [42]

Also, the American Medical Association has taken a stand against the use of photo manipulation. Dr. McAneny made a statement that altering models to such extremes creates unrealistic expectations in children and teenagers regarding body image. He also said that we should stop altering the models so they are not exposed to body types that can be attained only through the use of editing the photos. The American Medical Associations as a whole adopted a policy to work with advertisers to work on setting up guidelines for advertisements to try to limit how much photoshop is used. The goal of this policy is to limit the amount of unrealistic expectations for body image in advertisement. [43]

Government opposition

Governments are exerting pressure on advertisers, and are starting to ban photos that are too airbrushed and edited. In the United Kingdom the Advertising Standards Authority has banned an advertisement by Lancôme featuring Julia Roberts for being misleading, stating that the flawless skin seen in the photo was too good to be true. [44] The US is also moving in the direction of banning excessive photo manipulation where a CoverGirl model's ad was banned because it had exaggerated effects, leading to a misleading representation of the product. [45]


Some editors of magazine companies do not view manipulating their cover models as an issue. In an interview with the editor of the French magazine Marie Claire , she stated that their readers are not idiots and that they can tell when a model has been retouched. Also, some who support photo manipulation in the media state that the altered photographs are not the issue, but that it is the expectations that viewers have that they fail to meet, such as wanting to have the same body as a celebrity on the cover of their favorite magazine. [46]

Opinion polling

Surveys have been done to see how photo manipulation affects society and to see what society thinks of it. One survey was done by a fashion store in the United Kingdom, New Look, and it showed that 90% of the individuals surveyed would prefer seeing a wider variety of body shapes in media. This would involve them wanting to see cover models that are not all thin, but some with more curves than others. The survey also talked about how readers view the use of photo manipulation. One statistic stated that 15% of the readers believed that the cover images are accurate depictions of the model in reality. Also, they found that 33% of women who were surveyed are aiming for a body that is impossible for them to attain. [47]

Dove also did a survey to see how photo manipulation affects the self-esteem of females. In doing this, they found that 80% of the women surveyed felt insecure when seeing photos of celebrities in the media. Of the women surveyed who had lower self-esteem, 71% of them do not believe that their appearance is pretty or stylish enough in comparison to cover models. [48]

Social and cultural implications

The growing popularity of image manipulation has raised concern as to whether it allows for unrealistic images to be portrayed to the public. In her article "On Photography" (1977), Susan Sontag discusses the objectivity, or lack thereof, in photography, concluding that "photographs, which fiddle with the scale of the world, themselves get reduced, blown up, cropped, retouched, doctored and tricked out". [49] A practice widely used in the magazine industry, the use of photo manipulation on an already subjective photograph, creates a constructed reality for the individual and it can become difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. With the potential to alter body image, debate continues as to whether manipulated images, particularly those in magazines, contribute to self-esteem issues in both men and women.

In today's world, photo manipulation has a positive impact by developing the creativity of one's mind or maybe a negative one by removing the art and beauty of capturing something so magnificent and natural or the way it should be. According to The Huffington Post , "Photoshopping and airbrushing, many believe, are now an inherent part of the beauty industry, as are makeup, lighting and styling". In a way, these image alterations are "selling" actual people to the masses to affect responses, reactions, and emotions toward these cultural icons. [50]

Digital fakes

A digital fake refers to a digital video, photo, or audio file that has been altered or manipulated by digital application software. Deepfake videos fall within the category of a digital fake media, [51] but video may be digitally altered without being considered a deepfake. The alterations can be done for entertainment purposes, or more nefarious purposes such as spreading disinformation. [52] The information can be used to conduct malicious attacks, political gains, financial crime, or fraud.

"Photoshop" as a verb

As a result of the popularity of Adobe Photoshop as image editing software, use of the neologism "photoshopped" grew ubiquitously. The term commonly refers to any and all digital editing of photographs regardless of what software is used. [53] [54] [55] Trademark owners Adobe Systems Incorporated, while flattered over the software's popularity, objected to what they referred to as misuse of their trademarked software, and considered it an infringement on their trademark to use terms such as "photoshopped" or "photoshopping" as a noun or verb, in possessive form or as a slang term. [56] However, Adobe's attempts to prevent "genericization" [57] or "genericide" of the company's trademark [58] was to no avail. Separately, the Free Software Foundation advises against using "photoshop" as a verb because Adobe Photoshop is proprietary software. [59] The terms "photoshop", "photoshopped" and "photoshopping" are ubiquitous and widely used colloquially and academically when referencing image editing software as it relates to digital manipulation and alteration of photographs. [60] [61]

In popular culture, the term photoshopping is sometimes associated with montages in the form of visual jokes, such as those published on Fark and in Mad magazine. Images may be propagated memetically via e-mail as humor or passed as actual news in a form of hoax. [62] [63] An example of the latter category is "Helicopter Shark", which was widely circulated as a so-called "National Geographic Photo of the Year" and was later revealed to be a hoax. [64]

See also

Related Research Articles

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