To Photoshop or to not Photoshop?

The question of editing images is a hotly debated topic, and for good reason. The very nature of the medium of photography is the capturing of a moment in time, and letting it stand on it’s own merit – be it an ‘untouched’ document, or an artistic ‘interpretation’. The question is really one of where that point is crossed.

Manipulation of an image after it has been captured is nothing new. Although the ability to change more, and with greater speed has come about because of the use of computers, photographers and printers have been ‘photoshopping’ (so to speak) long before the computer was around. Back in the days of the darkroom, tucked in the basements of so many professionals toiling away under the ominous red light, were the early pioneers of what we now take for granted in computer software. One of the most talented of these was Ansel Adams, who would go to great lengths (and amounts of time), tweaking the final prints of his iconic images. Darkening & lightening areas through ‘dodging’ and ‘burning’ was common. Even doing multiple exposures, hand colouring, image splicing – you name it, all by skilled craftspeople with equipment that would be unfamiliar to most of us today.

In the last 5-10 years I’ve noticed a trend towards the more ‘photoshopped’ look in images – ranging from the most basic adjustment right through to images overlayed with layers of textures and patterns that end up looking more like paintings than photographs. Some might argue that this is a natural evolution that coincides with the availability and usability of image editing programs, the most obvious being Adobe Photoshop. It might also be due to the fact that expectations have changed with regards to what the final product looks like, both on behalf of the photographer and the client. Eye swops, head swops, pinch this, tuck that, take him out, put her in, etc – is par for the course these days. It’s gotten to a point where some publications, in the interest of historical accuracy and editorial honesty, will only accept completely unaltered digital captures (and they mean nothing can be touched). The most notible example of this is National Geographic.

There is definitely a place for editing the images after the shoot (sometimes referred to as ‘post-processing’). In my work, I check every single image for colour accuracy, density, exposure, sharpness, and most importantly does it fit with my vision of the image before I pressed the shutter. The adding/removal of elements is on a case-by-case basis, but is usually very minor (lint, hair in the face, glare on eye glasses, blemishes, etc).

Every photographer has a different creative vision, and we definitely don’t always agree with each others. I’m of the belief that a beautiful image (the definition of which is an entirely different discussion), will remain just that – lasting through the test of time regardless of how many years have passed since it was captured. With that in mind, I limit the degree to which each image is manipulated in the post processing. It’s a personal choice, but one that I strongly believe in. I think it’s also imporatant to identify images that are composites (multiple images combined into one final image). I had a piece in a gallery two years ago that was a composite of an amazing speckled sky from the Georgia Straight east of Vancouver Island and a rustic ‘wild west’ building from Southern Alberta. When I shot the building, as much as I wanted there to be a dramatic sky, it just wasn’t there. The combination of the two really achieved what I had envisioned – and I was happy to tell the story of how the image came to be.

There isn’t a ‘right’ answer to the question posted in the headline. As photographers, we each decide how we handle the image once it has been captured. The style of our work will dictate the type of clients we attract, and vice-versa. Will I ever go cold-turkey and eliminate the editing work? No. Would I rather spend more time outside, camera in hand, capturing the images that just seem to be everywhere? Yes.


One thought on “To Photoshop or to not Photoshop?

  1. Hey mark, really interesting views, great read! We just finished a project at the preschool where I teach where each child from ages 2 to 6 had an opprtunity to take photos with the theme In Motion. They were accompanied by a professional photographer. We left the results un-edited, in all their blurry and out of focus glory, and displayed the photos in a gallery. Amazing results and really made you see the ‘art’ in photography. Also saw the progress from a two year old who could barely push the buttons to a six year old pretty much controlling the photo shoot! I agree, the moment captured is the moment captured… Why change it. Enjoyed your blog entry! Cheers

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