When most people think of photo editing, they immediately think of “photoshopping.” Photoshopping is an ambiguous term overflowing with negative connotations of body alterations and unrealistic beauty standards, but is that what really happens when a photographer or designer edits a photo? No, not usually.
In order to go more in depth, we need to establish some common language. What people think of as “photoshopping” usually is what photographers and designers call photo manipulation, which is the act of changing the components of the photo, by either adding, morphing or subtracting visual elements from the photo. This is different from photo editing.
Photo editing can mean two different things in photography language. It can mean adjusting the color, light, and other varieties of settings to achieve the right look and feel of a photo. It can also mean the selection of a photo from a larger set, which is what a photo editor does for a publication for example.
Photo retouching is another term you might come across, and it is used interchangeably with photo manipulation usually, but it can also be used to refer to a lighter version of manipulation like getting rid of small aspects of a photo. A good example of this is removing skin blemishes on a portrait.
Obviously every photographer has different preferences and methods for their own photo style, but generally, when you hire a photographer they won’t manipulate the photos unless it is in the project brief. In the early to late 2000s, it was more common to manipulate and retouch images without needing to, but as awareness of what effects this can have on people, photographers outside of the beauty industry now use photo manipulation less and less. That being said, there are still common photo edits and retouches that will be done to most photos.
Color correction: Most photographers won’t release their pre-color corrected photos unless it was specifically agreed upon prior to the shoot. Color correcting and light adjustment are essentially exactly as they sound, adjusting the white balance and color of the photo to match the desired aesthetic. Cameras take fairly flat looking photos and without correction often look unfinished.
Distortion correction: Every camera lens has a different amount of distortion. Most often this occurs on the edges of the photo. Think of taking a panoramic photo on an iPhone, parts of the photo are warped looking near the edges and bottom center. Lots of photographers have settings that allow them to fix some, if not all of the distortion caused by the lens.
Skin: In portrait photography, often a photographer will remove acne or obvious blemishes on the skin. It is usually fairly subtle and small changes that someone wouldn’t even notice. Another common edit is to lighten under eye bags to make someone look less tired.
Buildings: A photographer will usually manipulate building photos, which often is needed in windows and the sky. It can be difficult to expose for both interiors/exteriors and still get color in the sky unless the weather cooperates, and the photographers has the correct skills and equipment. Often editors will add blue sky back in after the fact!
These are the changes you can usually expect when hiring a photographer. However, it is always best to have a conversation with the photographer beforehand so everyone is on the same page!