Is processing cheating?

“The camera cannot lie.”

When photography was in its infancy, this was often said in magazines and elsewhere. But is it true? And what role does processing take in this?

What is purity?

There is this almost purist sort of bent among some photographers, where the general belief is that film is somehow more truthful, and that processing a digital image is somehow more deceitful. Several years ago, in fact, some photographers described images they posted as “SOOC” (straight out of camera), almost as a badge of honor.

But I believe we often forget that many photographers sent their film to a lab, where a technician made decisions about exposure, color and artistry for them.

I believe we also forget that photographing “SOOC” simply means that the camera makes processing decisions for them and bakes them into a JPEG.

And I believe we forget that film photographers often manipulated a negative quite a bit.

“The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.” – Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams would spend as long as eight hours in the darkroom on a single image. Dodging, burning … what he did was rather complicated, and often involved very specific notes and intent.


Then there’s HDR. High Dynamic Range. Most people associate this with a program like Photoshop. And many first attempts were garish, often overdone for a grungy effect. But when was the first HDR?

1857. That is the first known attempt that I know of, long before Photoshop, Windows 10 or USB cables. This was a photograph by pioneering French photographer Gustave Le Gray. He combined two negatives — one exposed for the sky, the other for the sea.


Is eight hours of processing negatives “bad?” Is HDR “bad?”

In night photography, processing surely has become more complicated. A lot of the processing is done in an effort to minimize noise and bring out stars. Is this sort of processing bad?

Purity and realism are moving targets. If spending eight hours in a darkroom, using HDR techniques or reducing noise makes things look or feel more like the actual experience, does this make processing “bad?”

What is realism in photography?

Is spending eight hours in a darkroom to dodge and burn an image any more unrealistic than using a fisheye lens to warp a scene unnaturally?

Is HDR any more unrealistic than “freezing” a waterfall at 1/1000 of a second so we can see the individual droplets of water, something that does not look or feel like the actual experience?

Is reducing noise in a dark photograph any more unrealistic than photographing a street scene for a split second in a grainy black and white image?

Genres like photojournalism or sports photography aside, should the goal of photography even be to make an image look or feel like the actual experience?

What do you think? I’ll leave you with this quote to give you some food for thought.

“A photograph is not necessarily a lie, but it isn’t the truth either. It’s more like a fleeting, subjective impression.” ― John Berger


Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure prints and more.  My books are available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review, thanks!


Night photographers Tim Little, Mike Cooper and I all use Pentax gear. We discuss this, gear, adventures, light painting, lenses, night photography, creativity, and more in this ongoing YouTube podcast. Subscribe and watch to the Nightaxians today!

Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)

Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020


How We Got the Shots: Five Photographers, Five Stories – Night Photo Summit 2022


Ken Lee’s Abandoned Trains Planes and Automobiles with Tim Little of Cape Nights Photography
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols



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