Photo Editing: What’s Going Right and What’s Going Wrong

There are a few hot button issues floating around the online blogging community. Among these are cosmetic procedures, buying followers, bots, and also photography. Everyone’s worried about their own quality of content, and also concerned about what everyone else is doing. The latter deserves its own post, but there’s something to it that isn’t bad. We learn by observing, and when you scroll through Instagram long enough, you start to see some shit.

Every so often, the topic of photo editing in particular gets dredged up from what I can only assume is the ninth circle of hell. Usually in the form of a complaint. And it’s still a hot topic in terms of society, which it rightfully should be. But there’s a lot of context to these discussions, which sometimes gets lost. And sometimes, the context doesn’t matter at all. Opinions are often either extreme, or completely neutral. And honestly, that’s pretty interesting. Something as seemingly innocuous as photo editing can cause a bit of a riot.

There’s a lot to photo editing that we need to think about, both as social media folks and as members of society. How it affects our self images, but also our jobs and hobbies, our ability to grow an audience and get attention to our work. Part of the emphasis on photography is on the increasing focus on aesthetics, largely part of the rise in popularity of platforms like Instagram.

The bottom line is that photos that are eye catching get you noticed. Whether the attention is positive or negative, however, varies. Even within the microcosm of a post.

Let’s get one thing straight

Most of us on social media have somehow edited our photos. Unless you only upload raw images, you have edited your photos. Even if it’s just putting a filter, or changing the contrast, you have edited your photos. This is a neutral statement, there is no judgment here. Sometimes, the idea of what actually constitutes photo editing gets warped so I felt it necessary to clarify. Any alteration you make to a photo is technically editing. It just is what it is.

Clarifying this makes it a little easier for me to draw lines on where my opinions fall, because photo editing comprises a wide variety of techniques and tools.

Where It Goes Wrong

Something that has been called out the most in terms of where photo editing has “gone too far” is on editing away perceived imperfections. Blurring out pores, removing blackheads, using reshaping tools. You can probably identify a blurred photo quite easily. In theory, I understand completely why someone would want to do this and why someone would do it. I get breakouts, I have pores. I get it.

However, and this is most prevalent in advertising and product promotion: it sometimes gets deceitful. We’ve all seen pictures on Insta of a makeup artist promoting their work to potential clients, or of companies displaying their products in action. And now, there are many who edit these photos far more than simply restoring quality to the image.

It often gets to the point where the image we see is not representative of real life. And this is problematic when you’re essentially advertising goods or services. It’s one thing to edit simply for your own edification, but when you’re doing so to fabricate an result and make money off it… Well that’s when we get into where it’s going wrong. And this overlaps into issues we face in the societal impact of these tools.

When the image that we are faced with is in no way representative of reality, we are presented with a false expectation when in context of advertising. A miracle foundation is no longer a miracle. A shadow is no longer the same shade as advertised (seriously how often has that happened?). And our idea of what skin naturally looks like is no longer reality. These images are often used to encourage us to shell out money for skincare, for makeup, for products to achieve the effect displayed and yet the effect wasn’t achieved with any of these things. It was achieved with a mouse and software. And even when we know what it actually is we see it so often that we begin to question ourselves.

And that is where photo editing is failing us the worst. Not only is it used to falsely advertise products and demonstrate results you cannot replicate, it’s used to encourage us to spend our money in the hopes of achieving the image shown to us. In this way, it has become misused. It is one thing to remove the odd blemish to simply make your skin clearer. It’s another to use it to sell us ideas that don’t exist.

The Grey Area

However, the discussion starts to get murky when you consider milder forms of editing, particularly for an aesthetic (or as many bloggers know it, a “theme”). In some ways, being able to edit things such as contrast, tint, saturation, etc. are insanely useful tools to ensure that the image comes out true to life. It makes the colors vivid, provides clarity, and more. It also allows us to edit the mood or feel of a photo to create a style that is distinctly “us”.

This can be a wonderful method of self expression, but it can also create a pressure. A pressure to make a theme, to have pictures with just the right exposure and just the right saturation. And when we grow used to seeing images with a certain feel, we often, somehow, grow to expect that. So when we see something that is lacking what we have become accustomed to, I worry sometimes that there will be a perception of lesser quality. When we don’t see the bright exposure or the increased saturation, will we be able to look at photos with an equal perception? Or will we be biased through over exposure to trends?

And this isn’t a complete negative. But I do think it can stress some of us out (I find that this is an issue more centered to bloggers, especially with “themes”) when we worry our photos won’t be quite up to snuff. How many of us have spent hours editing photos until the color balance is just right, when the photo itself was objectively absolutely fine to begin with? How many of us have worried about the perfect background props, or in maintaining a theme?

These are all lovely things to have, of course. But could it sometimes make us worry just a bit too much? And what if your preferred theme isn’t a popular one? This question brings up the discussion of whether or not, and how much we should, care about what will get us a following and then make that following happy. But that’s for another time, and it’s a valid dilemma. These are awesome tools, but sometimes we can feel pressured to use them, and in particular ways that don’t speak to us.

Where It’s Going Right

Here’s the thing though, a lot of people use photo editing to create absolutely beautiful effects. Do you remember the darkly lit photos where the highlight glowed like an aura? Or maybe you saw the picture of lipstick with a snake edited in to appear as though it were coming out of her mouth. Or maybe you’ve seen pictures where people appear underwater or are floating.

Editing has been used for a lot of reasons, but one of the most striking are the scenes people can create through these tools and techniques. I’ve seen images that are mind-bendingly convincing, like the snake one I mentioned, that are only possible through editing. And here’s where these techniques really shine, and are used to create art. Undeniable art. Obviously this is very dependent upon talent, and know how, and many other factors. But photo editing isn’t all bad. Many people use it to enhance photos realistically, or use it to warp reality entirely.

And keep in mind, it is just as valid to enhance your photos as it is to create dreamscapes. I’m not putting either down. It’s a fantastic tool for the everyday person (or blogger), because it enables you to render photos that are either true to life, a little bit whimsical, or a lot a bit wild. And I’m here for all of that.

Some things to keep in mind…

With great power comes great responsibility. When editing photos, what I wish people would consider are a couple things: the intent for editing, the degree and method of editing, and the end result and effect.

Intent is one of the more important components. Some people, regardless of technicality of reason, are editing to deceive. Whether it’s to trick the eye with illusion, or to make you think they have no texture to their skin whatsoever. At times this is for artistic effect, or to shield insecurity, or to project a more desirable image. Or, maybe the weather was shitty and you need to up the exposure. Who knows. But this creates the base for all further editing.

The degree and method varies from person to person. Some people will airbrush an image to the extreme, or will only blur out the odd pore or blemish. Others will lightly alter the lighting of a photo, or they’ll completely edit the environment of an image. The intent can be inferred from the degree and method, and these factors lead to the result or effect.

The end result and its effect are what we react to most. It’s apparent in our initial reaction to a photo, what our eyes tell us is there and what our brain thinks is sitting in front of us. The effect simmers as we take in the details. Overly blurred images elicit extreme reactions, as do stylized and fantastical images. When we see someone’s face that’s been blurred, smoothed, retouched to perfection, we feel it. When we see an image of someone floating in an underwater room, we feel and we react. This is what I mean by result and effect, and it’s important to consider when presented with photo editing and when discussing it and when you’re editing as well.

There are so many extreme opinions on photo editing, when it seems to me that it’s a nuanced issue at times. Some people will say they are vehemently against it, while others say that they don’t care. This is another situation that can be more complex than it seems, and it’s something to consider when going through life as a member of society, or as someone on social media.