Is Using Lightroom Cheating?

Someone told me today that they thought using Lightroom to adjust and alter photos was cheating. I’m not sure that I can agree with that philosophy.

An artist uses all the tools that are available to him or her to create their vision.  Just because the tools have changed doesn’t mean the work is no less artistic. Dodge and burn tools aren’t just Photoshop tools; they were used in the darkroom to enhance a print.

NO-20090126-0363-Edit If you consider editing an image cheating, how do you not cheat? Images adjustments start in the camera, with settings for sharpness, white balance and more. If I shoot an image on a sunny day using Tungsten white balance, it’s not going to look anything like the original scene. Is that cheating?

And if you shoot RAW, you have to choice but to make decisions about processing the image. Lightroom is one of the tools that can help you make your images look their best.

I don’t dispute the idea that news and documentary photographers should not change what they capture in their images. But for everyone else – amateur, artist, portrait photographer or whatever – you should do whatever you can to make your photographs reflect your artistic vision.

The image above was taken on a dull and dreary day in early afternoon. The light sucked, to put it kindly. But I used the tools available to me (Lightroom) and created something I’m proud to post on my website.

These tools don’t give you the excuse to be a lazy photographer, though. If you start with a good image, you’ll end up with a better one. If you start with a bad image, it’s not going to get much better. There is no “un-suck” filter in Photoshop.

Every image I create – without fail – is touched in some way by image editing software. Some may only be to crop or sharpen, but I edit every single image I post or sell. This includes the thousands of theatre images I create each year.

Am I cheating? Or am I creating art?

Conflict and Contrast

Conflict is at the heart of all story. For an image to imply a story, it must include conflict.

20070509185359_pwood-30d-070424-0510The easiest and most obvious way to include conflict is to portray actual, physical conflict. A fight is something no one can ignore, whether we enjoy watching it or not.

20070509185511_pwood-30d-070424-0596Another easy method is emotional conflict.

In this image (to the left), you can see that, even if you aren’t familiar with the story of Cabaret, the distant stare of the woman and the last, lingering glance of the man show some sort of strong emotional conflict going on.

Stage plays, by definition, portray plenty of conflict and drama, and the photographic possibilities are endless.


Not all stories (and images showing a story) are about open conflict, though. More often, we try to imply a sense of story by showing contrasts. The visual contrasts of light versus dark, soft versus hard, color versus monochrome. And the conceptual contrasts such as big versus small, mechanical versus natural, expected versus unexpected. All these can imply a sense of story.


In the image to the right is an example of contrasts of textures. Notice the tones throughout the image are very close, but the very smooth rubber play surface of the water contrasts with the sharp, random branches of the tree.





The image to the left is showing several different types of contrast, both visual and conceptual. Light versus dark. Bright colors versus drab browns.

Life versus death.


This close-up of a Roseate Spoonbill shows several type of contrast as well. Beautiful versus ugly. Color versus monochrome. And expected (the soft, beautiful pinks of a bird) versus unexpected (the wrinkled, vulture-like ugliness of his head).





And the last example, the formal, reverent facade of the Alamo versus the frivolous pink hat and teddy bear of a tourist.





Not all images imply (or should imply) a story. But if they do, it makes them vastly more interesting. Understanding the concepts of story, and how it is achieved in an image through conflict and contrast, can help you make stronger images.