But now, with the professional-grade Photoshop CS3's consumer-priced sibling, Photoshop Elements, often selling for under $100, its popularity is on the rise. Sales for the program have grown about 20 percent over the last year, said Kevin Connor, an Adobe vice president.
Similar software like GIMP (the GNU Image Manipulation Program ) is free on the Internet. Photo kiosks in supermarkets, as well as popular photo programs like iPhoto and Picasa, can also manipulate photographs. In addition, professional retouching services, which can dramatically alter photographs, are burgeoning, often advertising on the Internet. And professional photographers will also alter reality to suit a client's tastes.
After her father died several years ago, Theresa Newman Rolley, an accountant in Williamsport, Pa., hired Wayne Palmer, a photographic retoucher, to create a composite portrait of the two of them because she had no actual one of them together.
That photograph -- of a moment that never happened -- now hangs in her living room. It still brings tears to her eyes, she said.
"It's the only picture of my dad and me together," Ms. Rolley said, adding, "If the only reason I can get one is cropping it in, it still means the same to me."
Such manipulations represent "a new coping mechanism for us," said Heather Downs, a visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has studied the role photographs play in families. Idealized images , she said, can give people "a new script for dealing with problems families have always had: family members who donít get along, divorce."
"If you can't have the perfect family," she added, "at least you can Photoshop it."
Ellen Robinson, a volunteer college trustee in Denver, commissioned Sara Frances, a local photographer, to shoot a formal family portrait to hang prominently in their new house. Working for $150 an hour, Ms. Frances changed expressions of family members and swapped the dog's head between images.
She slenderized bodies, adjusted skin tones and changed the color of several outfits to make for a more unified palette. She even straightened the collar on one son's shirt.
"You're spending a lot of money on these portraits," Ms. Robinson said. "They're supposed to last a lifetime -- generations, really. So why not get a helping hand to do it right?"
Photography has always represented, to some degree, a distortion of reality, said Per Gylfe, the manager of the digital media lab at the International Center of Photography in New York. A photographer can create different impressions of the same scene by including some elements in the frame and omitting others, by changing lenses, or by tweaking the color and tone of the image in the darkroom.
"We've always taken photographs as proofs of events, and we probably never should have," Mr. Gylfe said.
The motivation to craft an idealized image of oneself or one's family is even greater in an era when the family photo album is migrating from the closet to the Internet. In addition, people are growing more accepting of fakery in photography, in part because doctored photographs - and commentary about them - are so pervasive online.
An incident last month in which the Iranian government apparently manipulated an image of a missile test to show off the size of its arsenal became blog fodder around the world.
Exposing photo fakery has become an entertainment genre of its own on the blog Photoshop Disasters, which catalogs the more obvious examples taken from magazines, newspapers, advertisements and other media.