Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Editing family photos: how much is too much?

Family photos provide us with a visual record of the important things in our life. We take them in order to have a permanent memory of the special people, places and events in our family life.  So is it okay to decide you want to look good in these photos?  Is it okay to edit your personal photos to improve your appearance so you can feel good about looking at them and sharing them with others?  If a friend sent you a photo that had been edited to remove an 'imperfection' on your child would you be grateful, outraged or perplexed?

As a health teacher, I would usually be very quick to argue about the importance of 'keeping it real'. I would talk about the many hours we spend discussing positive body image and self-concept with our students.  I would outline the negative impact of living in the age of photo-shop.  I would point out that digitally altered images are such standard practise in all forms of media you can now safely assume that any image in a magazine or advertisement has been altered in some way.  I mean, most images on this blog have even been 'improved' in some way! And I would passionately argue that because we consciously and subconsciously compare ourselves with these images, it means we will never measure up.

And yet despite all of this education and informed opinion, this happened on the weekend...

Well almost. The photo above has been edited to an extreme level for the purposes of this blog post. The photo below is the actual one I had saved and planned to share on facebook, print out for my husband's wall at work and use in JJ's photo book.

So how did it get to this?  How and why did I feel compelled to photo shop what should be just a simple family snap?

I had taken some family photos on the weekend and I was going through my usual editing process.  I'm not the most skilled photographer and so I generally have to play around with cropping, exposure and colour in PicMonkey. In this case I had to make a few extra edits as I was using my Mum's camera (I dropped mine and it needs to be fixed - not happy!) and I had completely blown the white balance and exposure.

So I started cropping, adding warmth and improving the exposure - all of the regular things I do to try to make an image look more like what I saw at the time I took the photo.  But this time the more I looked at the photos the more I became unhappy with my appearance.  I was looking pretty average in some photos and soon I couldn't see anything but the lopsided, droopy eyelid and the bags and wrinkles under my eyes. All I could think was 'when did I get start looking so tired and old?'

And so I let my eye wander to the 'Touch Up' menu.  I hadn't played with these tools before, but today I let myself hover the mouse to the left to check out the options.  'Blemish fix', 'airbrush', 'wrinkle remover', 'eye whitener'...this was sounding promising! And so I let it begin. I airbrushed, I removed wrinkles, I rubbed out blemishes and to tell you the truth, I felt pretty good about the effect.  I now looked on the outside how I had felt on the inside on that beautiful sunny afternoon with my three favourite people - fresh, happy and wrinkle free!

Don't get me wrong, there was a little voice in the back of my head telling me to stop. It was telling me that this was exactly the kind of thing I  tell my students we don't need to do.  But sadly, I was too impressed with the final result to care.  It was only when I started on JJ that I realised I had gone too far.  I was proudly pointing out to my husband that I was removing his insect bites because he is 'much cuter in real life' when he sighed and said 'just let him be him.'  And fair enough too.  Luckily, the voice of reason had managed to halt me in my vain tracks.

I tried to justify it by explaining that I only wanted him to look perfect. Except he isn't. And I'm definitely not. Of course, no-one is.  But that perspective is easy to lose and the pursuit of beauty and perfection just got all too tempting and was altogether too easy. A few clicks here and there and I was a younger, skinnier and just plain better version of me.  After dabbling around the outside with instagram filters and selective publishing of only the most flattering images I had now fully joined the photo shop party.

In real life I stopped at Edit 3 and finished by adding a filter.  But for the purposes of this post I kept editing to demonstrate the full range of tools available on PicMonkey.

Edit 1: Crop to centre and increase 'temperature' on colour setting
Edit 2:  Bump up highlights, shadow and contrast on Exposure settings
Edit 3: Blemish remover and airbrush
Edit 4: Spray tan and blush boost
Edit 5: Wrinkle remover
Edit 6: Whiten teeth and eye brightener
Edit 7: Weight loss 48% (what the????)
Edit 8: Highlights
Edit 9: Reduce size of nose using 'Reduce' function on 'Niptuck' tool. (Wow, the nose job I've always wanted, for free!)
Edit 10: Add filter, airbrush JJ's skin, clone background to eliminate people and use 'dodge' tool to brighten face

Can you believe their is a 'weight loss' tool? And a 'nip tuck' tool? Pass the chocolate, it doesn't matter what I look like for real, I can make myself look anyway I like to the outside world. Is it a concern that this type of software is so openly accepted as a necessary tool for everyday photographers?

I take five minutes to get ready in the morning, rarely wear make up and on most days I pull my hair back in a five second pony tail.  I don't think I can be accused of being overly concerned about my appearance in normal day to day life and yet I was clearly over concerned about the way I looked in these photos.  So if an educated 34-year-old with a pretty good level of self confidence feels the pressure to look a certain way in photos, I can't even imagine what it must be like to be an adolescent growing up in an age of selfies, Instagram and filters.

It is a big concern and yet I really have no idea what might be the most effective way to help counter the millions of messages teenagers get every day about the apparent value of beauty, being skinny and having flawless skin.

Education is, of course, part of the answer and this video is one of my favourites to use in the classroom as a means of trying to counter the messages.  I encourage you to watch it and discuss it with your kids.

I also need to set an example of keeping it 'real and authentic' just like I implore my students to do. So I went back and started again.  I only fixed the photo for composition, exposure and colour, but I gotta say it was really hard not to use that airbrush tool!  And in the end I still used a filter.  I'm not sure what that says about me, but I don't think it's good!

So if you ever see a new and 'improved' photo in the top right hand corner of this blog, don't be afraid to slap me through the computer. It appears I still sometimes need a voice of reason to cut through all of the 'be beautiful' noise. Maybe we can only try and be that voice of reason for our kids too.

Do you love a filter?  Do you edit family photos?  What's okay and what's unhealthy when it comes to photo editing?

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Keep smiling


  1. I usually just edit the colours and add fun stamps too.. not that great on photo-editing skills! I wouldn't over edit family photos even if I could though.. how to look back and think of that time through the photos when it was just an "illusion"? And that's the main point why I take so many family photos ;P

    Ai @ Sakura Haruka

    1. It would be a worry to not age as you look back over your family photos! Thanks for visiting.

  2. Those editing tools can be pretty tempting, can't they! I think stopping at edit 3 was the right move. At that point the colours pop and you both look great and the image is still pretty much authentic. As a parent, particularly a dad with girls, I am really conscious of the way media portrays body image. It is important for us to think about our perceptions of reality and what we are telling others when we make choices to edit our photos. I don't have a problem with filters as most people are well aware when they are used, but a "weight loss" and "nip tuck" tool? No way!

    1. And body image is not just an issue for girls, it's an issue for boys too. I think you're right about filters, they are a more obvious edit, but how crazy is a "weight loss" tool - you can choose between 10-48%!!

  3. This is a great discussion point. I recently discovered the editing tools when I had taken a photo of my friend for my blog and she had complained that she didn't want to look like that, so I removed her dark rings and a few blemishes. She was happy with the result, but I haven't dabbled too much since. Far too tempting to disguise the reality. I am for cutting the people out in the background though!

    1. (It's just a shame I haven't figured out how to!)

    2. I do love the clone tool to clean up the background! I think for me it would become a bit of a slippery slope - where do you stop? Thanks for stopping by.

  4. I am a big fan of filter for IG, but I don't think I've ever done them for family photos. I didn't realise there was a nose reduction setting though, so that could be dangerous.
    I agree it can be really hard to know when to stop editing. It starts off so simple and innocent.

  5. It's really easy to get carried away when you first start exploring photo editing software. I've been using it for quite a long time now so I've learnt a few things and I like to think I've gotten good and creating a balance. I try to leave faces as natural as possible with the exception of adding light and shadow where needed, rather than full on airbrushing. The only airbrushing I do on faces is when I've taken extremely tight portrait shots which are unforgiving and show every little pore on the skin, so it's kinda needed in that case to just smooth the skin a little, and even then I have the lowest opacity to do it. It's a fine line between presenting a beautiful image that not only looks good but is true to life as well. Great post!
    (Visiting on behalf of #teamIBOT today x)

  6. I do love a good filter, especially since turning 50, and feeling it some days! I mainly just use the brighten ones for most photos, if they're too dark to see details.
    I love the look on your little man's face....precious! :)