Editing images in Photoshop is the photographers’ tool of constructing and deconstructing our photographs until it reaches our idea of perfection. However, image editing seems to be getting a bad rap recently, and it almost seems like ‘manipulation’ has become a dirty word.
I noticed this recently during the controversy at the World Press Photo contest this February. Over 20% of the images were rejected because photographers broke their image-editing rules of the contest. You can read my interview with Lars Boering, the Managing Director of the World Press Photo Awards here for more in-depth information.
Boering explained to me that the images were disqualified because elements were removed or added to the final images. This was determined by technicians who compared the RAW file to the finished image. He said that it was glaringly obvious that something had been changed.
This got me thinking about the popular misconceptions about image editing and Photoshop. I started reading forums for the opinion of beginners, and I noticed that a lot perceived Photoshop as ruiner of photography. That word — manipulation — comes up over and over again, like it’s a bad thing. The definition of manipulation has two different meanings: the first is to handle and control in a skillful manner, and the second is what I think perceive image editing to be; control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously.
Image editing has always been a major issue in photojournalism because the practice of heavy manipulation is considered unethical and disingenuous. The idea that images can be completely changed, i.e., an image that appears to be shot at night was shot during the day, elements added or removed, or shots that seem to be have set up, goes against the universally applied ethics within this sub-genre of photography.
But what about every other form of photography? Does Photoshop destroy the purity of an image? Does it take out the soul of what we’re seeing? Are we being deceived by photographers who are fabricating reality?
The answer is no. Photoshop does not ruin photography, it enhances it exponentially. Ansel Adams was well known for taking hours upon hours to dodge and burn his photos in the darkroom. Photoshop is the digital darkroom.
“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.” — Ansel Adams
The Photoshop Canvas
Art is subjective, and photographs fall into the broad category of art, which by association makes them a subjective medium. The images that come out of a camera, if you look at them, are certainly not ready to print or sell to Time magazine.
The reality of photography is that an image from the camera is only one of the elements in creating the final image. We put layers upon layers of adjustments and use post-processing techniques to make our photographs look good. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it has always been done in the darkroom and now it’s done in Photoshop.
By looking at an image right out of the camera, the best thing a viewer can expect to see is a proper exposure, sharp focus, good use of light, interesting composition, and something that shows a decisive or unique moments of the subject.
Reality Vs. Photoshop
I have heard people say photography is nothing more than an exact representation of a moment in time expressing an event faithfully. Actually, there’s nothing that could be further from the truth (unless we’re talking about photojournalism).
Check out this article from Mic.com that shows you the reality of famous landscapes titled “15 Famous Landmarks Zoomed Out Tell a Bigger Story.”
No image sensor, at least not one made today, can accurately capture every light spectrum that our eyes can see, nor can it represent an exact replica of two-dimensional space, i.e., lenses can distort images with something like the keystone effect, which essentially looks like a building bloating out from the middle when you shoot from a close perspective.
Photographers use Photoshop as a tool to correct these sort of issues to make their photographs into something publishable, or deliverable to their clients. So Photoshop, in this essence, actually makes images closer to reality.
Photoshop: the Canvas We Paint
When I put the viewfinder up to my eye and I see the frame I want to capture, I’m fairly certain I’m getting exactly that. But what often happens is when you look at your LCD afterwards, the area of coverage isn’t exactly accurate. The point being that sometimes what you think you captured may not be level or exact, so Photoshop helps provide you with a better opportunity to make corrections.
Every photographer has a different vision and perception of what they would like to capture. Photoshop, and even the dark room, affords us a set of tools to create our vision, not the reality of time and place.
If you put me in front of the same subject as Sebastião Salgado and Jay Maisel, I wouldn’t be able to capture anything half as good as theirs. Salgado will capture something different, Maisel will too, and I will create something that’s not even worthy to be compared to their work.
Photoshop allows images to be off the wall, creative, and manipulated into amazing ways, all of which are not unethical in the least. But when you are talking about photojournalism that line is much thinner. Photojournalism in critical of changing hues, saturation, heavy manipulation, posing subjects because the craft is preoccupied with showing and telling a truth, just like an ethical journalist is supposed to.
In the World Press Photo contest earlier this year, the sports category led to the most disqualifications because elements were added and changed. When you’re claiming a photo to be a fact, people find an inherent problem when things are added or taken away because of their expectation of seeing real-world issues, instead of finding a fabricated event.
Photoshop is not the culprit for denigrating photography, and hopefully it will never be. Just like dark room techniques weren’t culpable as ill-gotten trickery, the subjective beauty of certain photographs that show a style of a photographer is an amazing experience that provokes emotion. And that’s what art is. Art is charade pretending to be reality, when it’s just an imitation of life that mirrors our culture.
And that’s what photography is: Art.