To Photoshop or Not to Photoshop

“Has this been Photoshopped?” or “Did it really look like that?”  Two of the questions you’ll hear most often as a photographer.    In this age of digital photography it’s hard to avoid questions about digital photo editing and even harder to answer them.

First off, I’d like to point out that there is no such thing as a truly objective photo, nor has there ever been.  Even way back when, in the days of film, photographers already faced an almost bewildering number of choices before they clicked the shutter.  What camera to use, what exposure settings (shutter & aperture), what lens to select and what film to use.  Take film choice as an example.  Here’s a digital simulation of two film alternatives.

Superia 1600 or Velvia 100? One of a film photographer’s many choices.

Aside from all the choices a photographer faced before clicking, there were also a pile of options in the darkroom.  Shocking as it may be, even without computers, photographers could make serious edits to their photos in the both the development and printing stages.  For a real eye opener check out these two images of Ansel Adams’ famous Moonrise, Hernandez:

The difference between a direct print and the result Adams achieved through his darkroom technique is as impressive as anything done in Photoshop today.

So back to the modern world and my own photography…  yes, I edit my photos.  The only reason I don’t sometimes is that I’m too lazy or the photo is too crappy to merit editing.  I don’t have a particular philosophy as to what is or is not a reasonable amount of adjusting and only the end image guides my choices.  More often than not, for a really great capture I try out both.

Take the following photo as an example.  I was finishing a long day of hiking through the Everest region of the Himalayas and stumbled across a lone rhododendron tree that was still in bloom.  The tree itself was quite a sight, but as I walked around it I noticed that although the sky was mostly clouded over, one solitary mountain peak had broken through the clouds.  I did what I could with my cheap little point and shoot camera and captured this image.

The image exactly as it came out of my camera.

Is this what I saw that day?  Of course not.  My little camera struggled with the dim lighting, was overwhelmed by the contrast and confused by the colors.  Not to mention I saw the whole tree and everything was in 3D.  To try and compensate for that I would normally make some basic adjustments and come up with something like this:

The same image with some basic adjustments to exposure, contrast and color saturation.

It’s a whole lot better, but does it really capture what I felt?  Not at all.  It doesn’t begin to capture the drama, the cold air, solitary nature of the tree… you get the point.  Of course capturing a feeling in a photograph is a never ending challenge and the greatness of many great photographers comes from their ability to do just that.  For me, with this particular image, it means abandoning the gentle adjustments and taking it in a completely different direction.  One result was the following:

This comes closest to capturing what I felt that day.

I’m not going to say this is the perfect result.  In fact, I’ve spent hours toying with just this one image and have never been completely satisfied, perhaps the intensity of the original moment is just beyond my ability portray.  In any case I think it makes one thing clear: what interests me in not the technique used to create an image, but rather the image itself and what that expresses to me.

Ok, I’ve rambled long enough.  I’m not claiming I’ve found anything like an answer to questions about photo editing and I’d love to hear all your thoughts so leave a comment below.  Happy Halloween!

“I’m interested in expressing something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.”

– Ansel Adams

Categories: Nepal, Photography | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “To Photoshop or Not to Photoshop

  1. John P. Meyer

    Very intelligent assessment of the decisions we face as photographers, and dare I say photographic artists. There’s simply no such thing as a strictly “organic” image.

  2. This has been the best description of “justifying” photoshop I’ve seen in a while. I feel like I’m constantly “defending” editing my photos. I love photo editing, sometimes more than being behind the camera. It is mainly because I’m trying to achieve what I did see in real life. The camera is not as sophisticated as the eye and gets confused.

    Even though I can take a great SOOC photo, when given enough time and thought, I’m a little ADD at times and forget the settings in lew of the opportunity of the moment. If I ever get to this article I’d like to quote and link to this article in the future. Great article.

  3. Pingback: Editing Photographs: Digital And Digitized |

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