As the internet became ubiquitous, it was not long before Adobe’s Photoshop entered the pop culture lexicon. The powerful image-editing product became famous through the photo manipulation of various celebrities. In the eyes of photo professionals, Photoshop had long held a special place for its seemingly unending ability to carefully edit images of all types. Yet, the product was so powerful, that in the eyes of the public, use of Photoshop became a source of disdain.
The very idea of Photoshopping an image was thought to be fake, unreal, or cheating. This was not necessarily a problem for the magazine industry, who have a long history of airbrushing images. But with the digital revolution, and the incredible growth of the photographic industry to hobbyists, a paradox was reached.
Why is Adobe Photoshop such a polarizing tool in photography? Despite the steep learning curve, inaccessability to average users, and considerable time needed to master, even people not into photography know what Photoshop is. That, in and of itself, is the problem. Many outside of the hobby associate the program with faking celebrity photographs.
Many landscape photographers had to confront a very big issue in the eyes of the public. One could not display their images, whether on the internet, or in a frame, without somebody asking if their images were Photoshopped. This was a loaded question, because of course, the person was already casting artistic judgment. Photoshop, to them, was a perjorative term. While digital photography was still in its infancy, it provided a lot of ammunition to those still shooting film, who would say with glee, “No Photoshop is used with my images.”
One thing that people struggle to accept is the role of editing, or post-processing, in the production of an image. Many non-photographers and new users think that the role of the camera is to exactly match the scene you are viewing with the cameras in your eyes. Yet, the features in your camera and your eyes are much, much, different. Your eyes are well-adapted to contrast. Even a large format view camera cannot capture the stops of light you can see. Yet, cameras have other features, including the ability to change the shutter speed giving a sense of time. Our eyes, see an instant moment.
Today, you will hear many Photographers refer to their Photoshop work as post-processing, or the digital darkroom. I have heard many refer to these terms as some type of political correctness to get around using the term, Photoshop. However, I do believe that those who stick to those terms are doing the field an incredibly valuable service.
Many accurately portray post-processing work as similar to the film darkroom techniques used for a century. Many of Ansel Adams’ methods, such as dodging, burning, and edge-burning, were ways that he sought to manipulate his plates to produce the image he wanted on paper. So what is the difference to what we do today? The answer is nothing.
What may discomfort people is how powerful that post-processing is in the digital world. We can achieve incredible dynamic range just by dragging highlights and darks sliders accordingly. You don’t even need to learn a Point Curve if you don’t want to. We can change white balance on a dime after the photograph, something you can’t do on film without filters. We can enhance colors, even change them completely.
Shooting RAW files makes sense, because without it, you as the artist are giving all of the processing power to an engineer that works for one of the Cameera manufacturers. They are very good, as you see from the jpeg captures if you ever choose to output them, but those same engineers are constrained by the need to make a “one size fits all” algorithm that cannot possibly account for every scene and light medium.
It is not the photographer’s job to replicate the scene as he sees it. It is his job to produce art that is viewed aesthetically on a print. The photographer should be able to touch, retouch, edit, process, and color balance any scene to produce an image that is both beautiful, but also appeals with the brain’s sense of recognition.
Despite all of the advances and the incredible growth of photography, the naysayers persist. I find this hypocritical.
What Recorded Music Teaches Us About Photography Image Processing
Just look at the music industry. For decades, musicians have escewed the need to record live songs. Songs have been recorded in studio by laying down individual tracks, usually by recording the percussion first, then laying down individual instruments, and finally vocals. Synthesizers even replicate other instruments, orchestras, and samples. The Beatles’ 1966 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, recorded the entire album on a 4-track machine. They achieved such incredible sound by combining several parts of their arrangements from individual tracks and layered them into a single track. To put it simply, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, Photoshopped the hell out of their music.
Does their music, or any album music for that matter, really sound like it does live? Not even close. Yet, we completely accept the premise that this is the way to make music. I have had good and not so good experiences with recorded and live music. Acts like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, who are known for extensive modern recording techniques including Pro Tools and other computer enhancements, were absolutely incredible live. It helps that Trent is a great musician in his own right, and he feels right at home with a guitar in his hand in front of a huge audience. Thom Yorke isn’t just an incredibly charismatic performer, his entire band can read sheet music!
On the other hand, I have seen other bands not as associated with computerized recording embellishments that I found to not be as good live. I love Metallica, but you just can’t replicate all those guitar overdubs live. I found the same with Smashing Pumpkins, who have made albums with a lot of traditional recording and others with extensive use of drum machines and synthesizers. Another example is Pinback, my favorite local San Diego band. When I heard them at the Belly Up and it seemed the sound was set up to be overly loud and the guitars overpowered the rest of the band. Yet at the Casbah, they sounded great.
Just like some post-processing can be viewed as gaudy and awful, music has shown you can go too far as well. The pushback against Auto-Tune is an example where vocal smoothing has drawn the ire of artists who can really sing or rap, as well as the idea that all vocals must sound pitch-perfect. The CD loudness wars have had a detrimental affect on sound quality. Sounds are pushed so loud while being mixed, they clip many of the nuanced parts of the music. When everything is as loud as it can be, it can also make music sound flat. Just think for a moment how that relates to photography? We all know how the same is done every day to images. I have done it myself. As always, careful editing in an artistic field is necessary.
The art still matters. A powerful image can be taken, but with bad post-processing, or bad printing on cheap paper in a discount frame, it can look mediocre. Careful post-processing, like careful mixing in a music studio, brings out the most pleasing parts of an image and de-emphasizes or removes altogether the parts that are not. Careful printing on quality paper is like having a good gold master laid down for the CD or a good roadie crew setting up the right equipment to make the sound the best for the audience.
Art is often thought as a self-contained product, like the single strum of a guitar or the quick click of the shutter. Yet, it is proven that art is really a holistic process that starts from the very idea of an image all the way to the print displayed on a wall seen by a critic.
It shows that Photoshop (or Lightroom, or Aperture, or any post-processing) is not cheating. It is part of the artistic process. It is our job to educate those who are interested in the field, and perhaps a potential customer of our images. I like to explain it similar to how I read it from Ansel Adams. When I am about to click the shutter to capture an image that will appear in my portfolio, I already know exactly what I am going to do to post-process the image, and I already know exactly how I aim to print and present it. I may have my camera in front of me, but I have my thought on the entire artistic process at all times.
It is a duty for every photographer to evangelize the role of editing and post-processing as a key role in producing an image.
T.M. Schultze is a San Diego-based photographer, traveller, and writer. He writes, photographs, and draws things of the outdoors that have inspired humans for thousands of years. He co-authored the Photographer’s Guide to Joshua Tree Park which can be purchased here.