Altering the image in post-processing


It’s ok to crop! We crop images to change the aspect ratio, to improve the placement of objects, and/or to correct horizons. Correcting the horizon is really changing the skew, but it does have a cropping effect on the image.

Be careful not to over-crop, over cropping results in small images. The resulting image may be maybe too small for printing at larger sizes.

We can also crop to remove distracting items in a scene.


In this image there is a small inclusion of something green in the right-most mid-ground. The object is a distraction that eventually draws the eye away from the central focus of the image.


A small crop removes the offending distraction.

Sometimes we subtract

Improving a composition in post-processing may include removing unwanted objects in the scene. Obvious things include dust and the dreaded fuzzy blob but we can go further to remove distracting objects using editing tools like “object remover” or “cloning” brushes.

The picture below captures an historical re-enactment on the Yangzi River.


The image could be improved by removing the lighthouse and buildings on the far shore of the river. Left in the scene, they detract from the drama of the boatmen pulling their boat along the shore.


The resulting image places the focus on the re-enactment.

Some famous images have been altered by subtraction of a portion of the scene.

This image, titled Rhine 2, by Andreas Gursky was, at the time the most expensive photograph ever sold fetching $4.2USD at auction in 2011.

The source image for Rhine 2 is dramatically different.


Gursky never hid the fact that the image was improved by subtracting certain elements. When asked, he said “Paradoxically, this view of the Rhine cannot be obtained in situ, a fictitious construction was required to provide an accurate image of a modern river.”


If you can subtract, you can also add to an image. Sometimes a scene needs a really good sky.


This shot of Half Dome from the higher region of Yosemite lacks punch.


A few clouds add more depth and drama to the scene. Be careful to match lighting in both scenes, the earth has only one sun, so shadows in the foreground should match the shadows in the clouds.

Don’t go changing

There is a lot of controversy about altering an image. Many photographers feel that images should not be altered once they come out of the camera. But, in art, many things are fair. Painters change images all the time, the resulting sketch or painting rarely looks exactly like the scene in the wild. Why are photographers held to a higher standard?

There are some caveats, if you are making forensic images or using images for documentary or journalistic purposes, don’t alter the image at all, use jpg right out of the camera and don’t enter an altered image into a contest unless the rules allow such images.

If you alter the image, say so.


Image by David Byrne.

This was Photo of the Year in 2012. The title was stripped for violating contest rules regarding digital manipulation. The problem was not with editing, but with the addition of clouds. In fairness, Mr. Byrne was not trying to deceive anyone, he readily admitted, when asked, that he had altered the image. His misstep was in not reading the rules of the competition.

Some argue that we should not alter what comes out of the camera. But what about what goes into the camera? Here I’m thinking of polarizers and extreme neutral density filters called “big stoppers.” These items change the way light enters the camera.


Nobody has ever seen a waterfall that looks like this one. The image has been altered from what it looked like in the wild.

How far do we go with SOOC?

When people ask me what my pictures look like straight out of the camera (SOOC), is show them this…


In essence, every picture that comes out of a camera is altered or processed in some fashion. If we shoot in jpeg, the camera uses a built-in algorithm to apply colour correction, sharpening, saturation and other tweaks to the original. If we shoot in RAW, we make those changes in an external editing program.

In the days of film, we made many decisions in the processing phase that had an effect on the resulting image.

No image is unaltered.

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