I believe that, in many circumstances (journalism not being one of them), that all’s fair in photography. Composite away. Use convoluted curves. Is there a cigarette butt in the foreground? Clone that sucker out. But don’t let the viewer see what you did.
It’s like the joke about the young man who was interested in politics who approached, say, Bill Clinton (I picked him not out of any particular disrespect, but because of his incredible connection with anyone watching him speak) for some tips.
Clinton answers, “It’s not that complicated. The secret to politics is sincerity.”
“Is that all there is to it, Mr. President?”
“Yes, son. Once you can fake that, everything else will follow.”
My rule is, once I’m done with a picture, even though I know what I did to it, I don’t want to be able to see that in the final image. I figure that, if I can’t see it, others, without the advantage of knowing where to look, won’t see it either.
Common violations of my self-imposed rule:
- Oversharpening, especially with halos.
- Oversmoothing of faces in portraits. I know the photographer is trying to flatter the subject, but making her look like plastic is not flattery.
- Aggressive HDR, whether single shot or multishot.
- Cloning in a moon that’s too big or has the shadow in an astronomically-impossible direction.
- Shaving pounds off fashion models.
- Dialing the Vibrance up to Stun.
I’m sure you can extend this list semi-indefinately.
An example genre where this way of operating applies in spades is architectural photography. I will stipulate that architectural photography often involves many departures from reality, including but not limited to:
- Blending multiple exposures, often with different white balance for each.
- Adding artificial light, with or without gels
- Cloning out lighting equipment, booms, and cords, as well as unappealing parts of the real scene.
- Altering perspective.
Quite a list of manipulations, and I’ve just scratched the surface. However, the purpose of most such photography is to show off the building and/or its furnishings, not to highlight the skills of the photographer. The great trick is to do all the manipulations without letting the viewer see what you did. It’s easier now with digital. My hat’s off to those who did it with film; they’re the maestros.