A couple of weekends ago, we were gathered at Matt’s place, enjoying some post-barbecue relaxation and reminiscing about our photography adventures. The evening was mellow, a stark contrast to the nail-biting game against the Jaguars the previous night. As we chatted, it became evident that each of us has our unique “Photoshop Moral Code” or “Photo Editing Code of Ethics.”

While none of us are photojournalists, we each maintain personal guidelines for what we feel comfortable doing to our photos. As the “Photoshop Guy,” you might expect me to wield every tool available. But if you’ve been following my blog, you know I strive to get as much right in-camera as possible and use Photoshop mainly for final touches rather than corrections.

Here’s a peek into my personal “Photo Editing Code of Ethics” for what I will and won’t do with my photos.

  • This might sound strange, but I absolutely detest cropping in Photoshop and go out of my way to avoid it. I aim to compose my shots perfectly in-camera, so needing to crop later feels like a failure to me, and it drives me crazy.
  • I’m totally okay with removing any distracting elements from my photos. Whether it’s a telephone wire, a sign, or a piece of trash, if it’s ruining my beach shot, it’s gone. No questions asked.
  • While I’m comfortable removing objects, I strongly dislike adding anything that wasn’t originally there. Even though I know how to swap out a dull sky for a more vibrant one from another photo, I have to be in dire straits to do so, and I can count the times I’ve done it on one hand. It just feels like cheating, and I can never look at that photo the same way again.
  • Although I’m against adding new elements, I have no problem duplicating something already in the photo. For example, if there’s an empty spot in a pumpkin patch, I’ll clone another pumpkin to fill the gap. My personal code says, “If it’s already in the photo, it’s okay to have more of it.”
  • My goal is to make the final image look as good as it did when I took it, but if it ends up looking even better, I’m fine with that. If the grass wasn’t as green as I remember, it becomes greener. If the sky was gray, it won’t be in my final image.
  • I don’t hesitate to double-process my images (exposing one version for the foreground, one for the sky, and combining them) or to make creative choices with white balance that might turn a dusk shot into a dawn look. I also don’t think twice about creating a “look” using Photoshop, but I avoid using effects filters. I know, I’m quirky that way.
  • When retouching people, my guideline is simple: Make them look as good in print, where every flaw is magnified, as they did in person. I’ll use every Photoshop trick I know to achieve that. If it’s a portrait of me, I might even hire teams working round the clock to make me look like George Clooney. Clearly, they’re still at it.

Here’s a quirky twist: my Photoshop ethics only apply to photos I’ve taken myself. If it’s someone else’s photo and they ask me to edit it, anything goes. I’ll use every tool to make their photo look the way they want, so yes, I have a double standard.

To clarify:

  1. I’m not trying to impose these guidelines on you. It’s a personal decision, and you need to decide what you’re comfortable with. I’m just sharing my approach, not dictating.
  2. I can’t defend or explain all my choices. It’s just how I feel about my photos and editing them.

If you’re not a photojournalist (who must adhere to strict rules that I fully support), you probably have your own “Photo Editing Code of Ethics.”. I’m curious to know where you “draw the line” and what you’re willing to do or not do in Photoshop to create images you’re proud of.