Is It Photoshopped? – Richard Young

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” – Ansel Adams

Photoshopped images have become somewhat of a taboo among the general public. With today’s technology, artists can manipulate reality so convincingly that viewers have learned to assess the integrity of an image by asking “Is it Photoshopped?”. In post-processing, it’s easy to cross the line between just enough and too much, and this is how we lose the sense of realness in an image. But using Photoshop doesn’t automatically mean you’ve crossed that line. Photoshop serves many purposes; the goal is not always to confuse or deceive. We must ask ourselves what our intention is. Are we aiming to capture an exact representation of the scene in front of us? Or to create something different? Do we want to be journalists or artists?

The work of Ansel Adams was “Photoshopped”, though his adjustments took place in a darkroom rather than with modern photo manipulation software. A comparison of his final prints against the negatives reveals the edits Adams made, resulting in images that were not an exact representation of the landscape he photographed. With the use of heavy dodging and burning, he gave more presence to his subjects and reduced distractions. Despite these liberties, Adams’ work still feels “real” and does not face the same stigma that manipulated digital images face today.

No image offers a true representation of reality.

“There is a difference between what feels real and what is real.”

Although viewers tend to mistrust “Photoshopped” images for manipulating reality, it must be acknowledged that no image offers a true window into reality; it can only offer a photographer’s interpretation of reality. As photographers, we can present a photograph as “straight from the camera” or “unprocessed”, but this does not give the image any more value, or make it “real”. All images manipulate reality to some degree, and this is part of the nature of the art.

Some might argue that shooting on film creates an accurate representation of what’s real, but this is not the case either, as I know from experience. I used to shoot on film with a Velvia 50, favoured by many landscape photographers for its saturated colours. It had a limited exposure latitude (dynamic range) of only 5 stops, producing rich contrast even when shooting subtly lit scenes. The wide-angle lens on my Mamiya 7 altered reality as well: under certain conditions, light falloff around the edge of the frame created a beautiful soft vignette. Compared to a RAW file from my Nikon D850 (with its 14 stops of dynamic range) a film transparency capture on my Mamiya 7 would look far different, it would have much more punch with deeper contrast and increased saturation. The digital image would look flat, and it would take a lot of processing to achieve the same “straight from the camera” effect. Additionally, the unprocessed JPEG files on my D850 differ drastically depending on the picture control (shooting profile) and white balance settings I have selected. One can therefore argue that these, too, are forms of editing reality.

To be artists, we must create.

“To create something, we must bring it into existence.”

An image is not a true representation of reality, but it doesn’t need to be. Being a creative photographer requires creation, which is to bring something new into existence, rather than simply to present what exists already. As discussed, even “un-processed” photographs do not present a scene as is – we control so many factors that make the image what it is. If we leave out an electrical pylon, for example, the viewer will never know it was there. The choices we make in the field (using telephoto lenses to compress the distance between objects or using wide-angle lenses to create distortion etc) are acts of artistic deception, just as much as the choices, we make in post-processing.

Processing is a valuable tool we can use to challenge the viewer with our art. In my own work, I want to challenge the viewer while maintaining a sense of “realness”, so my processing boundaries are set by the question “does it feel real?”. Not all photographers work this way, however; you may wish to present your own work with highly saturated colours not found in nature or to highlight detail to an extreme extent using HDR. Choices such as these will not create a feeling of “realness”, but this does not make them wrong. It can take just as much time, technique and vision to create a surreal aesthetic as a realistic one, and neither style lessens a photograph’s artistic value.

How far is too far?

“There is a difference between what looks Photoshopped and what has been Photoshopped.”

Not only do photographers have to consider how real they want their images to feel, but they also have to consider how much is too much in terms of directly altering image content. Is it acceptable to remove something from a photograph during post-processing? Is it acceptable to put something in, or to move something around? This is a question only you can answer for yourself. It depends on what you’ve set out to create, and on the end-use of the photograph.

For me personally, if I find a small twig poking into the corner of my frame, I’ll happily edit it out when producing a fine art print. You could even argue this is more acceptable than snapping off the twig to remove it during capture. I have no hesitation removing small distractions, like rocks that account for 1% of the total image area. But I don’t feel comfortable editing out a permanent part of the landscape – something you’d see no matter when you visited. I also don’t feel comfortable replacing the sky in a photograph, although some feel differently in that regard.

Regardless of where you draw the line, there’s a point at which alterations turn a photograph into more of digital creation, and this is not what I set out to produce in my own work. Heavy alterations are appropriate if your images are presented as digital creations, but if you’re presenting your work as photographic, there is a grey area in terms of how much altering is too much. Also keep in mind that when entering photo competitions, the rules may state “nothing added or removed” – in that case, even the little twig must remain in the frame unless it can be cropped out.

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