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News & Insight

Before & After Photoshopped Images – An Ethical Dilemma

By Kishore Sawh on July 6th 2014


Typically on the weekends, I’ll share some Photoshop tutorial or another for more reasons than I will explain here. Some of which though happen to be that you, our charming and loyal audience, asks for it, and also I think the world would be a better place should retouching skills be brought up a notch. There are few things in photography quite as cringe worthy as poor Photoshopping, but that statement on its own is a loaded one; who is to say what is good or bad? On what criteria is that based?

As I see it, there are two cornerstones of judgement here: one is on technical execution, no matter what the execution is intended, and the second, based around how far we take it. The two often come together as it’s the idea of many that the technical execution is poor if the photo isn’t taken far enough. Or vice versa, of course. Smack in the middle of this question lies the debate on the purpose of Photoshop retouching, and the ethics of it.


There is no shortage of heated banter on either side, as either has legions of people with strong opinions. The prototypical argument against is often the precedent that very Photoshopped images set for our youth’s body image ideals – apparently we’re in a time where body dysmorphic disorder is rampant, and some would have you believe Photoshop is largely to blame.

Whatever side of the fence you’re on, you likely have strong opinions on the matter, especially if you have children, from what I’ve seen. Photographer Karl Taylor, has created a short video where he takes a model, naturally beautiful and in little need of enhancing, and shoots her in 4 different ways: natural window light no make-up, studio light no make-up, studio light with make-up, and then that image retouched. (Video below).


It’s interesting to see how Karl illustrates it all so simply, and to see the progression, if you can call it that, from natural to retouched. There’s an accompanying blog post to the video which you can find here, and is worth a look to see all the opinions of the commenters.

[REWIND: Photoshop’s New ‘Focus Area’ Tool Makes For Easy Masking & Great Portraits]

I personally think many aspects of Karl’s retouching went too far; I don’t like the reshaped lips (possibly contoured with light), the eyebrows I find are overly filled in, and mostly I feel the lack of shading around the mouth makes it appear as though the lips are just stuck on. I’ve seen Karl’s other work and he’s no stranger to more subtle retouching, and no doubt this was illustrative for argument’s sake also.

I don’t see the trouble in adjusting an image at all, to get rid of the imperfections we wouldn’t normally pick up and then some, especially given modern photo resolution. Just how far depends on the occasion. I also don’t feel it’s the job of marketers to entirely nurture the young and impressionable. That’s a harsh statement, but it’s my opinion. For centuries art has been painted, and sculpted, and photographed to an ‘ideal,’ with nothing poor to say for it, and people were left to use their own judgement.

What are your thoughts on the matter?

There’s a lot more informative, and instructional information to be had from Taylor, and you can find it on his site, and his YouTube Channel.

Source: ISO1200

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Basit Zargar

    Nice one

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  2. Mary Martinez

    In a bit of irony today my sister and me were watching s news report on this issue involving Kiera Knightley. She told me that during a photography session yesterday for her CA state employer she was photo shopped. The photographer took pictures of her and other CHP employees and informed her that he removed what he felt were imperfections from her photo. A fellow female employee said that the photographer modified her to the point where she looked as she did in 2004. My sister has been sensitive about blemishes on her face since she was a teenager. She has self esteem issues and didn’t feel she could have said anything and since others there weren’t speaking up she just let the changes stand. It seems from my perspective that these women were coerced into this photo shopping and its probably due to the county of Solano and CHP not wanting to line their office walls with pictures of imperfect ugly women. I’m incensed and shocked. I have always considered my sister beautiful and have felt for her struggle with body image and to think someone could just come in and start modifying what they deem as imperfect is inexcusable and a sorry reflection of how intolerant society has become of imperfections of any sort. For women dealing with body image issues and other emotional issues a situation like this one could lead a women into a downward spiral. If I had been there I would have asked the photographer to show her the untouched photo and then ASK HER if there was anything SHE didn’t like. Leaving the choice to retouch or not to the women is being respectful. Retouching without asking is projecting your own judgment of what is beautiful on others with no regard to your subjects feelings or values.

    Mary Martinez

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  3. Dick Raymond

    A little retouching of a photo is fine in my humble opinion. But when it comes to totally altering the image due to blemishes or minor imperfections in the skin I draw the line.

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  4. Ian Moss

    Damn my spelling today! I blame incompetence on my part.

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  5. Ian Moss

    I tend to agree with Stan, up to a point. There’s a basic difference between what I’ve called the biographer and the novelist in photographer. The biographer shows (or tries to show) life as it is – the story of the person being photographed. The novelist on the other hand is attempting to create something that all educated observers realise is not actually real. The ‘model’ is not photographed for his/her own sake, but to complete the envisioned photograph.

    Where this goes awry is that some photographers seem not to be able to distinguish this themselves. They are what Duane Michals refereed to as ‘fartsters’, unable to distinguish between fashion and art. This manifests itself in the over-the-top editing of some photographers who reduce their models to two dimensional caricatures, by removing any sense of humanity from them by heavy handed photo editing.

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    great stuff

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  7. Stan Rogers

    Two things are very often missed in conversations like this:

    1. models ain’t real people, they just play them in photographs; and

    2. a model, when being a model, is never the real subject of a photograph.¹

    Now, before anybody jumps down my throat, I don’t mean to imply that we can treat models as anything other than full members of the human race with all of the rights and privileges that implies. What I mean is that model photography, whether that be for beauty, fashion, fantasy or photographic illustration, is not portraiture or documentary. Indeed, there may be times when you want to make a portrait of someone who happens to be a model in other contexts, but there is a fundamental difference between portraiture — capturing the (sometimes idealized) essence of a particular person — and using a model in your photography. Personally, I would love it if photographers would stop using the word “model” as a generic term for “person in front of a camera”. We have perfectly good words like “subject” and “sitter” — which is specific to portraiture — as well as “model” that will allow us to properly distinguish both the intent of the photography and the role of the person in front of the camera. (I’m not advocating for the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis either; this is more along the lines of realising that while “roadster” and “van” may both qualify as vehicles, they are not quite the same thing. There are contexts in which you can consider them to be equivalent, and others in which you absolutely cannot.) A model is not there to be herself or himself; the model is there to be the person you need them to be in your photograph, and that may or may not resemble the person the model is in real life.

    This is in serious danger of becoming longer than Kishore’s post; longer, even, than Karl’s original, so I should probably leave the issue here for now as a comment and write it up as a full essay/op ed.
    ¹ What, never? Well, hardly ever (to invoke Gilbert and Sullivan). It is possible to both be a model “right now” and be the subject of a photograph at the same time in, say, a journalistic/documentary behind-the-scenes treatment, but that usually implies the person being a model for someone other than the documentary photographer.

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  8. Ian Taylor

    I think Photoshop is a great tool. However, just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done.
    Retouching has it’s place and photographs have always been manipulated by whatever tools are available at the time but it needs to be done well and in context. Some of the retouching is just bizarre (many examples availble online – just search) but sympathetic retouching can alter/enhance a shot nicely.
    It’s all about perspective and quality of application.

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  9. Aleksander Michaud

    Amazing point about painting/art and it’s take on beauty. I think that a lot of photographers create images as pieces of art or representations of beauty, and that some or most times those images should be taken as just that.

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    • Reynardt Badenhorst

      Yeah, totally agree with you. My view is it’s totally up to the model, if she wants to look ‘perfect’ in the post image, then it’s her choice. If she wants to look ‘natural’, then limit your PS to Color and Lighting. Retouching has been around for ages and will always be, if it makes you feel imperfect or intimidated, don’t read magazines or watch TV.

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    • Aleksander Michaud

      Hey Reynardt,

      I think this totally depends on the intention of the image. If a model is paying a photographer for something like head shots/comp cards/test shots, sure, it’s his or her choice.

      That being said however, if the model is being paid for an image for use in a commercial setting and they’ve signed a waiver it’s entirely up to the creative director, the photographer, and the end client as far as retouching/photoshop is concerned.

      Imaging has evolved beyond just taking a photograph. It’s become creating something more. I do believe there are ethics to be considered when it comes to your representation, but at the end of the day people should probably lighten up just a little bit and enjoy a visually appealing image.

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    • Reynardt Badenhorst

      That’s pretty much what I meant, you just said it in different words. Better I might add. ;)

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  10. Isaak Kwok

    I think retouching a photo is fine. What is not fine is altering the photo in Photoshop, i.e. making someone slimmer or changing the eyes to double eyelids, etc.

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  11. Michael Chapman

    Very interesting article, and subject. My thoughts? I’m somewhere in the middle, as I can see both sides. It is interesting to read and research the origins of cosmetics, and how that has morphed into the modern day ideals of what beauty is (the physical emphasis) and so the retouching using software that erases “imperfections” and enhances things that aren’t there – exactly what “makeup” does. Whatever the reasons – our culture is very heavily invested into the physical dimension of beauty. I personally think character, personality, and spirit are the essence of the truest beauty, although only a liar would say that physical beauty is not part of their definition of what beauty is, or isn’t truly compelling. I think one needs to be able to look at all three images of the young woman above and see beauty.

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    • Connor MacKinney

      I like you comment on viewing all three images to determine the woman’s beauty

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    • Connor MacKinney

      I personally think that no one has the right to say what is to much or to little in terms of the amount of retouching that is used. Despite what many may think not every photographer/retoucher’s goal is to create an image that is closest to reality as possible. I bet if someone was painting images of women/men with unrealistic body proportions no one would make a fuss. Photoshop just has gotten this bad stigma placed on it and unfortunately everyone knows about it but but very few actually know how it is used and what it takes to retouch an image. In reference to the three images above I actually see very little difference in the first image and final retouched image. One just looks like an photo of the woman without makeup and other with. I think she looks pretty all three images. I don’t think this image is over photoshopped.

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  12. Matt Walsh

    I fully agree. Nice article Kishore.

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