I've seen some incredible cosplay photos over the years, I've also seen some incredible photo manipulations involving cosplays, there are some truly wonderful and inspiring pieces out there. I'm able to appreciate the art direction both art styles can take, and I've even dabbled in some photo manipulations myself. I do find that they are something of a double-edged sword though.
With the advent of photo manipulation software being very common—whether the behemoth Photoshop or any number of other editing programs—they can easily help you edit your cosplay photos and create entirely new pieces altogether. I want this to article to be useful as a reference for beginners and perhaps as a thought-provoker for those already well-versed in this art.
What I've noticed, and many people have been commenting on for quite some time, is that highly edited photos (commonly referenced as "photoshopped") regularly get criticized for being too heavily edited. This is something I agree with to a certain extent.
There is no real criteria as to when an edited photo suddenly becomes a photo manipulation, It's subjective. I won't hesitate to classify a photo as a "photo manipulation" if I deem it so though. In my opinion, aesthetics aside, it's the addition of elements, rather than removal of unwanted elements that transforms a photo into a manipulation.
I tend to keep my editing fairly civilized. The things I normally touch-up on are colors, exposure (including shadows & highlights), maybe some cropping, color-toning, blemish/trash removal, distortion correction, and vignetting. These are simple, noninvasive, corrective actions to help the photo look better.
It's when you begin editing the shape cosplayer's face or body, altering the background, adding any sort of lights or markings, heavy color-alterations, unrealistic skin-smoothing, or any number of other heavy edits that changes the photo's essence that it becomes a photo manipulation.
Some may argue that any type of editing could be considered photo manipulation. They will argue that things should be left true as the camera captured it. I can agree that it's true to a certain extent. Any given camera can only give so much performance, and even then it's still nowhere near the quality of what the human eye sees. So why shouldn't we help make the images look better and truer to what they actually were?
With the number of photo manipulations on the rise, I feel it necessary to mention this:
Photo manipulations are NOT a replacement for photography skills.
Don't delude yourself in thinking that your skills in Photoshop make you a great photographer. You could be great in both, but being good in one does not make you good in the other. Practice them as separate arts first, give your skills a chance to develop and understand them individually. The two manipulated photos in this article (not including the lead photo) are something I worked on a few years ago, and at the time they were Photoshop practice.
I would never advertise a photo such as my lead photo above as a photograph. It's not. It's a photo manipulation. I want the artists in the community to be honest and sincere, and realize how they advertise their work. I would also never critique a piece such as above as a photograph. If it's a beautiful photo or PM, I will say so. If it's a photograph that needs work, then I will say so. Make your photos stand out without the need for the magic of heavy editing. Editing should be used for patching up the small rough edges, not as a way to blur the line between a mediocre photo and great Photoshop skills.
Decide and stick to what you want to post—a photograph, or a photo manipulation. Either is fine. Don't get the art mediums mixed up though. Good luck.