Most photographers agree that 'global edits' -- i.e., edits that are applied to your entire photograph at once, such as white-balance corrections; saturation adjustments; black-and-white conversions, and sharpening -- are here to stay. Spot-editing, however -- i.e., edits that are applied to only a small portion of your photo -- tends to be a whole other ball game, with photographers arguing out the ethics day-and-night. There are three general views which you should learn about:
Never spot-edit your photographs. If you know what you're doing as a photographer, you really shouldn't need to. If you're having to remove a sweetie wrapper from the ground in one of your photographs, it means you made a mistake earlier on in the process: you should have picked it up before you took the photo.
Similarly, if you're removing a sign from a wall, or a blemish from someone's skin, your photos are no longer photographs: they don't show the world as it is, but rather what you, the photographer, have turned it into. It's a slippery slope: as soon as I remove anything from a photo, it makes me a liar, and I don't want to be one; so no spot-editing for me. Ever.
Keeping it Real: No editing beyond a crop and a bit of a color tweak.
My goal as a photographer is to achieve what could have been, not the way it necessarily was on the particular day you took your photos. We're looking for the spirit of a particular scene, rather than the particulars.
Picking up sweet-wrappers is lovely and all, but since it isn't a permanent feature of the scene, why bother, when I can fix it in post-processing? If I had taken the photo a day before or a day later, the wrapper wouldn't be there. Perhaps editing it out would be a white lie, but so be it, it's a plausible lie.
The same applies to editing photos of people: I might have taken a portrait photo of somebody, but on the day I did the shoot, my model had a small scratch on her cheek after a minor disagreement with a kitten. The cut will heal over time, so editing out the scratch in post-production would be similar to magic-ing away the candy-wrapper: it isn't a permanent feature of the person's face, so I'm happy to remove it.
If that very same model had moles, scars, birth-marks, freckles, wrinkles or other permanent features, I'd leave them. Removing them would be akin to removing a fence-post from a landscape photo: it's not a wrapper that would have blown away by itself over time.
Going Moderate: Editing only non-permanent features of the model's face
Not editing your photos? Have you lost your marbles? If Rolling Stone magazine can do it, so can I!
Look, my goal as a photographer is really simple: I want to create the most beautiful photographs I can, with all the tools you have available in my arsenal.
'Truth' be damned: landscapes and people look better when they have been retouched to look perfect, and the photos you're taking aren't the final result. Quite the opposite: photos are the raw-materials, much like the way a painter would see paints. The digital files coming out of a camera are merely the starting points for further editing. If you have a photo with a beautiful sky, another with a beautiful foreground, and a third where your model's arm looks a little bit better than in your original foreground, then so be it, far-well accuracy, hello franken-photo.
Ultimately, the only thing that matters is the print that goes on the wall. You're an artist, dammit, not an archivist.
What do you think? Is it ethical to edit your photos? If so, to what degree?
The full-resolution, un-edited version of the photo is available here -- why not show us how far you'd go with your edits, and link to your version in the comments?
Photo Credit: Haje Jan Kamps
Haje Jan Kamps is a prolific photography blogger who has written a small stack of books about photography. He also developed the recently-launched Triggertrap camera trigger and has been known to travel the world a bit. If you're of the tweeting kind, try him on @Photocritic!