Editing Your Photos: How Far Should You Go?

how much should you edit a photo

The digital age of photography brought with it powerful editing software. The program Adobe Photoshop has inadvertently become a slang verb of its own, with photos being referred to as “Photoshopped”. But this term now brings with it a negative undertone, implying manipulation and deceit during the editing process of a photo. So what is seen as acceptable? How far should you go when editing your photos?

how much should you edit a photo
It took many attempts to finally get this photo right, with minimal editing required.

More and more people claim their photos are “unedited and straight out the camera,” flaunting this almost as a badge of honour. But this just isn’t true. I’d bet a lot of money that the majority of people saying this are shooting in JPEG format. When you take a photo in JPEG, your camera applies ‘Picture Styles’ that are determined in its menu. This is your camera’s take on processing your photo for you, doing everything from colour adjustments to vignetting removal and sharpening. This is why photographers tend to shoot in raw format, as it leaves the file completely untouched. Raw files purposely appear flat and dull when you open them, waiting for your alterations. So it is your job to make the necessary adjustments, eventually saving the file as a JPEG yourself so it can be viewed and enjoyed by others. If you shoot digital then editing your photos is unavoidable, and that leaves us with one big question: how much editing should you do to your photos?

It’s a question debated endlessly by photographers, and of course it is up to the individual what they do to their photo. Having said that, there is a standard within the nature photography community that is maintained by most when it comes to processing images. It is a standard adopted by major competitions, such as the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, and to adhere to it yourself keeps you in the good books with others.

The following adjustments are accepted by WPOTY, and are seen as ‘normal’ amongst the professional photography community:

  • Lens profile adjustments
  • Colour temperature alterations (white balance)
  • Removal of dust spots
  • Saturation / vibrance adjustments
  • Changes to exposure / shadows / highlights / whites / blacks
  • Changes to contrast / clarity
  • Sharpening & noise reduction
  • Cropping

If you’re making any further adjustments than these, then you should probably start asking yourself if they are legitimate. You should think of editing photos with one mission: to reflect the scene as you saw it. Chopping and changing parts of an image, cloning objects out (or adding things in) is regarded as photo manipulation, which is a whole art form of its own.

Process your photos to reflect the scene as you saw it, nothing more. Click to Tweet

You can go one step further. National Geographic allows its photographers to make no major edits ‘beyond the lens’. Even a spot of mud on the lens’ glass cannot be removed from the photo during editing.

puffin atlantic farne islands
Position yourself so unappealing objects don’t interfere with your background, rather than removing them during editing.

But what if I want to make big manipulations to my photo?

I’m sure the majority of people won’t have a problem with this, as long as you do one thing: openly declare it. If you post photos online and have drastically changed the scene, but don’t admit to it in the description, then you’re effectively passing this off as a normal photo. Photographers do get caught out and their name is instantaneously shamed within the industry – not something you want to happen.

Manipulating your photos is a slippery slope. Perhaps you’ve almost got that shot you were looking for, but there’s a branch in the wrong place. Removing it digitally is altering the scene, and you should instead strive to take the photo again without it. It can be a tough thing to adjust to if you’re used to editing without limits, but once you stop you’ll be turning over a new leaf with your photography and the quality of images you’re producing will begin to improve. If you correct big mistakes during editing then you have no real motivation to improve behind the lens.

When it comes to photography, honesty is the best policy. Edit a photo to reflect the scene as you saw it, and treat your editing software as a digital darkroom.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.


Will Nicholls is the founder of Nature TTL and a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from England. Having been photographing since the age of 12, Will’s images have won a string of awards, including the title of “Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year” in 2009 from the British Wildlife Photography Awards. Will is also the author of the book On the Trail of Red Squirrels.

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  • I think the standard adjustments are a pretty good general guideline for wildlife photography. I’d even accept some MINOR cloning out of distracting objects. Of course, there are other forms of photography that almost require additional processing – astrophotography for example. In that field, finding the balance between “enough” and “too much” can be far more difficult than with wildlife, I think.

    • I think astrophotography is a great example of this, for sure. Lots of photos online where skies look almost alien!

  • Michael Leonard

    I agree with the article, save for one thing. I have cloned out sticks and footprints out of my photos before and I think that if it is something that doesn’t impact the image it should be fine. for instance, if you photograph a pristine beach and there is a footprint, stick, rock or other distracting element in it, the process of removing the item from the scene may do more harm than good. So I would just clone it out. As long as the scene itself isn’t altered (adding an animal to a scene where it wasn’t there previously or adding solar flares on a cloudy day are no-nos). I just feel that if the scene can benefit from the removal of small distractions, it shouldn’t be an issue.

  • DavidandChristine Sewell

    Personally, I see nothing wrong with the major manipulation of images as long as the photographer declares it. It is certainly not the “easy option”. I am currently working on a series of images of bateleurs, and am putting them against backgrounds that reflect the habitat they live in. I have spent two days on this so far, and can still not get the finished article the way I want it. The major difference to Will’s article is that I am not trying to get a picture “as I saw it”, I am trying to get something that reflects both the animal and it’s habitat. To me that is simply an exercise in artistic interpretation, one that I would carry out using a paintbrush and oil paints if I had the talent.

    By the way, major manipulation of wildlife photographs is nothing new. The Kearton brothers, and many of the other early pioneers, were carrying it out a hundred years ago, long before the age of digital.

    • For sure – as long as it is declared, I have no problem with it either. 🙂
      That sounds really interesting – I’d like to see the results of your project.
      Oh and sure, but manipulation is definitely more accessible and quicker nowadays I think.

    • davgar51

      Actually the Crossley ID guide is good example of what this approach can bring

  • Brian

    If you cannot tell it has been edited then what is the problem? If you are saying there are far too many badly edited photos out there I would agree with you but would point out that many of those may well have been edited by the camera – e.g. taken in jpeg. But there are probably far more that are just bad photos originally. For me all photos are edited (developed and printed in film terms). If they aren’t then they are still in camera lol so I have declared I have edited them by showing them to you. Have you declared your shot was from a hide? or a set-up? or that you were taken to the creature by a local wildlife expert? By time we declare all that is important our audience will have fallen asleep. We are here to see a finished photo and admire it when that is worth admiration.