re: photoshop.

November 11, 2009

So maybe photoshopping photos is lying. And it’s definitely gone a bit too far these days. From the fashion magazines making women skinnier and universities (cough, Madison) faking diversity, photos these days just can’t be trusted. There’s a pretty clear line with Photoshop with what’s real and what’s fake. But what about post-processing digital images?

I have had this argument with the boyfriend multiple times. It might be a little unwise on my part since I don’t really understand what the term digital post-processing fully encompasses. Given that I couldn’t find a good definition when googling makes me think I’m not the only one. Really, I just don’t know that much about photography, so I shouldn’t have an opinion at all. Too bad – I was quite disappointed to learn about post-processing and to me, it’s a little bit cheating. Maybe I’m naive, but I always thought the reason professional photography looked better was because of better cameras and technique, that the images came straight off the camera better. That’s just not true.

And I know that when using film, there are various techniques to use when developing to get the look you want. This is not cheating to me. Somehow the development process of film seems like it takes more skill and practice than digital post-processing. And I also know that digital cameras apply some post-processing automatically when it creates a jpeg. If that’s what everyone means by post-processing, I’m cool with that. But when you start adjusting contrast and light and color and flaws – it almost feels like the only real thing left is the composition (and you can photoshop that as necessary, right?). It’s like how space isn’t actually beautifully colored, but if you just looked at pictures, it looks like it’d be a trip.

So is photo editing/post-processing an art in itself? If the photo is taken by one person and significantly post-processed by another, whose art is it? It’s almost like DJs. They take music samples from other musicians and change them up to create something new – sometimes similar to the original, sometimes not. But it’s hard for most people to separate the talent of the DJ from the talent of the musicians they sampled.

On a somewhat related topic, Kottke’s post of cropping images poses some interesting questions too.



  1. Kind of a tangent, but for some reason or another, studies show that humans have a tendency to believe our eyes more than our other senses (including our memory) when judging reality:


    Maybe that’s why photoshopping is so off putting. Because seeing it makes it so much easier to manipulate us to believing it’s true.

    If you think about it, synthesizing our senses is actually pretty prevalent. Artificial flavoring, perfumes and deodorants, adding effects to our instruments, etc. Our lives are all about tricking our senses to make things more enjoyable, and we’re totally okay with most of it. But the minute it comes to modifying our sight suddenly there’s a big red flag.

    From a practical point of view though, there’s really not that big of a difference between digitally enhancing the hue in an image and adding salt to our food.

    • There’s a big reason that “seeing is believing” and “screenshot or it didn’t happen” are prevalent phrases (one only on the internet) w.r.t. whether or not something actually happened.

    • hmm…never really thought about it like that.

      • Yep… I’m all about seeing things in a different light.

        =D =D =D

  2. It’s a false difference to say the analog world and digital world are any different. Any photographer worth his salt in the old days could modify images and so can any photographer nowadays.

    The difference is that it seems like anyone can do it, but that’s just because most people used to take their photos to the drugstore before because it was too expensive to have all the chemicals. Now the “chemicals” (eg photoshop, picassa, etc) are of a trivial cost so everyone can use them.

    A lot of the misunderstanding has to do with how non-photographers see things. This is apparent in your sentence: “But when you start adjusting contrast and light and color and flaws – it almost feels like the only real thing left is the composition”. It shows (and I don’t mean this in a bad way) your ignorance. Basically, most people who aren’t into photography assume we can do infinite adjustments to photos and it simply isn’t the case. When I’m shooting, I can only make a mistake of up to 1 stop of light too bright before the photo is no longer salvageable. I can only lighten a dark image so much before it is plagued with noise. And so on and so forth. You really do have to get it mostly right in the camera.

    Also, as you know (being an engineer), computers are dumb. They cannot know what you meant to do. So it’s up to the photographer to fix this in post-production. The camera is taking in an entire scene and then picking the best average settings for capturing that entire scene and that will rarely be optimized for all the subjects. So if I had a flower against a bright sky, I would definitely need to do some post-processing, but I wouldn’t be cheating. It is IMPOSSIBLE for both the bright sky and the flower to be optimally exposed. But I want the photograph to look like it would look when viewed by the naked eye, so I must fix it.

    Last part relating to that sencence: it seems you’re seeing the last bit of art is the composition because anyone can use photoshop. Sure, anyone can use Photoshop to produce excrement. But it is an art-form to know when to stop increasing the contrast or reducing the saturation. This is part of the artists’ style.

    One final example to close things off. Look at the creation of a good, professional quality black and white photo. In the digital world you can argue the opposite. In the film world they were the “cheaters” – all they had to do was put in black and white film. Now when I create black and white photographs, it is an involved process. Sure, any yahoo can click on “make black and white”, but I’m talking about good, professional quality stuff here. I have to decide how much contrast to have. How black are the blacks going to be? How white are the whites going to be? Am I going to selectively darken a specific colour. How does transforming this photograph into b/w affect its properties and is it better served as a colour photograph. (here’s a good example: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ericsbinaryworld/4097535086/in/set-72157622765175344/ )

    In conclusion, I think you know me well enough (as a commenter) to know this is not written in a hostile tone. It is merely the frustration of an artist in a world similar to if people asked if doctors were now cheating because they have all this technology to assist in a surgery and the old school doctors had only time and their bare hands.

    • No worries. I’d probably be annoyed if I were a photographer, but I’m not. Although, it’s funny you compare this to technology and doctors. Working in the healthcare IT industry, I’ve actually thought many times “Why are doctors asking for X functionality? If we could do that with any amount of accuracy, they wouldn’t have a job!” And when that kind of technology comes out to be used (because I think eventually it will), I do think doctors will lose a little prestige.

      So I still know not everyone can create professional quality photography, but it is much easier to take mediocre photographs and make them into something better. And really, most non-photographers probably don’t even recognize the difference between professional quality photography and something just below.

  3. Two thoughts popped into my mind when I read this.
    1. Would a water-color painting of a scenery be art, or would it be fake art; and
    2. in comparison to DJ-ing, if we enjoyed a particularly good-tasting piece of pork-chop, say, do we need to give some credit to the hog, in addition to the chef? 🙂

    • 1. Not fake art. The painting is the art, like actually snapping the photo.
      2. On some level yes, the pig should get at least a little credit. Or really maybe the farmer, as he’s the one who raised/fed/etc the pig. I think that’s kind of what all the local/organic restaurants are trying to get at.

  4. http://www.scottkelby.com/blog/2010/archives/7617

    is a good read

  5. […] on the web, you’ll see people talking about how Photoshop (and digital photo manipulation) is ruining the purity of photography.  People argue endlessly about this as if they could get everyone on their side.  Guess what?  […]

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