When Are We Cheating?

I’ve been flat out working on several projects over the past few weeks and haven’t managed to do any photography. Instead, I decided to work on some old images from a trip to Bolivia in 2014. This is something I like to do from time to time to see how old RAW files respond to modern software – very well is usually the answer.

Anyway, that’s when I came across this image.


I shot this using an Olympus EM5 with Olympus 12-40 Pro lens at 40mm. It’s a handheld exposure of 1/500” at f/8.0 and ISO200. It was around 8:00am and I had been up since 3:00am making the climb. But my problem with this photo is that it was taken as part of a Panorama and is in fact a crop. The question is, does that make it cheating?

Here’s the full Panorama.

Bolivia Panaorama

This is a four-image stitch, but it is still a crop from the original image that I shot and stitched. At the time, I do remember thinking that I needed to leave space around the edges to allow for the cropping. Does that make it cropping the image cheating?

But there’s another problem with this. I really prefer the image when it’s flipped 180 degrees.

Bolivia Flipped Panorama

Does flipping the image like this make it cheating?

Then how about the processing that I applied because I needed to correct things like the colour and contrast. Is that cheating?

I don’t have any answers to these questions, but my gut tells me that flipping the image through 180 degrees is a step too far. My thinking is that you couldn’t visit this location and see the image as it appears in the flipped version. That seems to be my boundary when it comes to editing.

Do you have any self-imposed “rules” like this?

Finally, did you notice that DxO released the Nik Collection 6 earlier this week? In case you haven’t seen it, I published a release review video looking at what’s new. There’s also a review article on my website.

I hope this post has given you some food for thought and have a great weekend.

12 thoughts on “When Are We Cheating?

  1. The cheating argument can get slippery I suppose. I think if you are upfront and not misrepresenting an image, it is your visual interpretation and not “cheating”. Sometimes I get rid of trash, bugs, sensor dust, etc in an image, I don’t think that is cheating unless it is intentional documentary photography and you are distorting the scene.

    It is kind of like the straight out of the camera “unprocessed” argument. Well, the camera processes your image too, so what does unprocessed mean? Relying on the camera’s built in processing and not your own? Is that better somehow?

    In the end, cameras aren’t human eyes and a photo is different than human perception anyway you look at it.

  2. This article is great food for thought! Unless a “processed” photo is displayed at a photo gallery with a caption explaining how it was exposed & processed, I assume most viewers of photos have no way of knowing how an image was manipulated. Changing (“correcting” or becoming creative with) the color, contrast, cropping, all the rest… are photographs assumed to be documentary captures of the world as we see it? Are there similar debates comparing “realist” paintings versus abstract paintings? My cellphone photo editor has a magic eraser to remove distracting objects, including people!

    I like the author’s self-imposed rule, drawing the line at not flipping the image 180 degrees, because the viewer wouldn’t be able to visit the location and find it. But others would draw the line at not adding contrast to the sky to help the clouds appear more dramatic. Again, great food for thought!

    1. Thank you. It’s true that the viewer often has no way of knowing what was manipulated and how. Another of my personal rules is that it’s fine to clean up and remove objects that movable in real life. For example I’m happy to remove a car but not a telephone pole or a pylon.

  3. I don’ have many rules, but I work in black and white for the most part, which is off-the-bat downright cheating: there is no black and white world. (But saying this, I suppose, might offend many photographers who regard black and white as the true expression of photography. It is easy to piss off other photographers, regardless of what you do.)

    In landscape that corresponds to a recognizable place, I do not flip, precisely for the reason you have outlined. I also do not alter the shapes and heights of mountains, compress or expand the landscape, do not add elements that are not present. I don’t want anyone to get lost because of me 😉 but I must confess that I do get rid of distractions (poles, boxes, manure, some fences etc).

    Some photographers state clearly on their websites which types of modifications they make, and which they don’t make, on their photos. I think it’s a good idea I might adopt eventually, when I get to it. Being upfront about what we do does not hurt anyone and avoids disappointments.

    1. Thanks for sharing. I tend to remove distractions and anything that isn’t permanent in the landscape. I’m glad I didn’t ask how much processing is cheating and only gave the cropping and fliping example. I can see this is an even deeper subject than I thought from the comments people have shared. I hadn’t even considered the B&W example.

  4. Dear Robin, excellent images as usual. I entirely agree that flipping the image is a step too far; all the other operations you mention seems perfectly legitimate and logical. Let’s start with a simpler question: is choooting black and white a form of cheating? Clearly the scene you see is in color. If so, does a person suffering of daltonism cheat? My point is that a landscape picture is always an interpretation of the scene you see, rather than the scene itself. Contrast is subjective and our brain feels free to add or subtract it (unconsciously). The contrast of an out-of-camera jpeg is an interpretation , even though an automatic and impersonal one; neither more nor less valid than your interpretation.

    1. Thanks for adding to the debate. The B&W question is a good one that I hadn’t thought about when I wrote this. I don’t think that it’s cheating personally. What I find interesting though is that once we have removed the colour from a scene we seem to accept completely changing the tones where we are not so accepting when this is done in colour. It’s also interesting that many photographers are happy to remove the saturation from an image but they draw the line at increasing it. When you look at it like that, it doesn’t make much sense.

  5. I feel that calling it “cheating” isn’t the right word. Was it considered “cheating” when I used Kodachrome 64 in the days of film because I liked the colors and contrast that it offered? As for black & white, I don’t feel its considered cheating as its quite obvious to everyone that its in black and white! Furthermore, I don’t feel it matters if it was shot using B&W film, shot in color and then post-processed or if you just chose to put your digital camera in a B&W setting.

    Also, Ansel Adams spent a lot of time in the darkroom printing where he had to both dodge & burn to get the look he wanted, and I never recall anyone consider this cheating.

    For me, this is a hobby and I enjoy taking a digital photo and “tweaking” it to make look the way I want. It’s a great feeling when you take a photo and it looks perfect straight from the camera, but we all know this doesn’t happen as often as we’d like.

    1. Very good thoughts and points. Thank you for sharing. I’m pleased that you mentioned the different film stocks. The “purists” tend to (conveniently) forget that we used to choose a film type to produce a certain look. I used to shoot a lot of Velvia for my landscapes because I liked the colour shift with long exposure. I also found the slide films more technically challenging and liked that a lot.

      I’m now wondering how our perception of post-processing has changed from say 20 years ago when many photographers considered Photoshop a dirty word.

  6. Cropping is fine, after all, every photo is a crop of reality. For non-abstract landscapes, I would regard flipping the image as beyond the pale. Having said that, unless you’re a photojournalist who could get fired for manipulating your images, I guess anything goes these days.

    I would add a tip that I got from a large format film photographer. Inverting or flipping images during post-processing (but not permanently, obviously) can be a good way to assess your composition.

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