Why You Should Be Honest When Editing Street Photography

Let’s talk about street photography and photo editing. This is a topic that is sure to divide opinion; opinions are definitely something the street photography community has. Some street photographers like to post images straight out of the camera. Others spend hours working on an image with an editing tool. The question I ask is, what is the ethical line that street photographers shouldn’t cross when editing their photos?

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Editing Street photography, Documentary and journalistic photography

Street photography tends to lag with documentary photography and photojournalism. People often debate their differences, with each genre seeming to blend seamlessly into one. All three aim to reflect life as authentically as possible. However, I think street photography has a bit more room in terms of creativity, and photographers aren’t necessarily ethically obligated to tell the truth in the same way that documentary photographers and photojournalists should.

I say this because manipulating street photographs does not have the same consequences as manipulating journalistic images. The purpose of documentary and photojournalism is to share a story that actually happens. These two practices can shape society, our politics and our belief systems. This is why it is unethical for photographers to tell anything other than the truth. Street photography does not share the same expectation.

However, within the street photography community, there are certain boundaries that I think we should adhere to, at least if their practice is to be taken seriously. For this piece, I’m going to ignore those who take editing to extremes with CGI street photography, although you can read my thoughts on that. here.

My Thoughts on Editing Street Photography

I know some purists reading this feel that any kind of editing is too much, and photographers should provide images straight from the camera. I’m not totally against this theory, mainly because I’m a big fan of “straight out of the camera” street photography. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that light editing is unethical or actually less street photography.

On a personal note, I experimented with several approaches to editing street photography, moving from heavy to light processing. Today, I spend little time editing my street photos. I’ll play around with the exposure if needed, add some contrast and sharpness, and increase the vibrancy. If I’m feeling adventurous I’ll do some coloring, but for the most part I want to get out of the digital darkroom as quickly as possible.

What is too much editing?

My personal position is that any photo editing done in Capture One or Lightroom is fair game. As soon as you open up Photoshop to do something that these programs can’t do, I feel like you’ve gone beyond the limits of street photography. So, you have entered the world of digital art. Here are some examples.

Deleting objects and people: I know what it feels like to capture a good scene and only make an ugly signpost causing a distraction in the image. It is a frustration that we have to accept. Removing it from Photoshop and presenting such a precise scene is not the right thing to do, especially if you are selling yourself as a street photographer.

Reframe to tell a different story: Cropping photographs is not just about improving a composition. A different culture can tell a whole different story. I have seen photographers exposed for cropping other people from their images in order to manipulate the story told by the image. It’s common in developing countries where they isolate a crying child to tell a story of pain when in reality they have a regular tantrum because their parents are disciplining them.

Combine multiple photos: I thought a lot about this one. I’m definitely not against multiple exposures and I love blended images in Photoshop. However, I think there is a real knack for doing multiple exposures in-camera instead of creating them in Photoshop. If you’re doing the latter, I think, at the very least, it’s best to be transparent about your process.

final thought

Ethics is always a delicate subject, mainly because it stems from opinions. When multiple photographers manipulate images and achieve great success, I think that’s a problem. When editing, do what you want with your image, but be transparent about it when going beyond the basics. Street photography may not seem as important as documentary and photojournalism. Yet he undoubtedly has the ability to be influential. So we need to be as honest as possible about the images we create.

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