Let's first get out of the way that the question may sound a bit archaic. Since such a massive amount of images are now snapped on phones instead of cameras, "Photoshopping" images is all but gone. Does anybody ask, "Did you Snapseed that?" or "Did you VSCO that?" Probably not. Editing is assumed, filters and presets are omnipresent. Anyhow, let the reader know that here I'm talking about DSLR images and also of landscape images. Later I will do a post on the ethics and artfulness of editing urban street images. For what it's worth, I found the following stat after some looking into the matter, but who knows if it has been Enroned or not? 90% of people have only taken photos on a camera phone versus a camera... Wow!
That number seems a bit extreme, but it's true that non-phone camera sales are on serious decline and selfies are on the rise. Plus, add in the fact that so many image-makers are young people, increasing the chance that it's with a cell phone and not a camera. But back to Photoshop. What's this really about? Mainly it's about the ethics (sort of) and lay perception of image manipulation after capture. To give you a specific example, at my first showing of some printed landscape images, I was repeatedly asked the question in the title of this post. At first the response was something like, "Well, yes, but only to get the picture to look like what the sunset looked like." I felt like it was a beggarly response and this was compounded as the viewer walked away saying, "Oh! Okay, now I see," as if to say they knew all along some illicit magic had been cast over the originally dull image. Or maybe the sentiment was more along the lines that any Joe Schmoe could capture an image and then make it look like my print with enough Photoshop skills. Maybe I was reading too much in to their comments and can actually just be flattered that somebody thought my hard earned, in the cold, early in the morning image was a product of Disney Imagineering. But there is just something to the inflection of their voice, "...now I see!" Eventually I was emboldened, as the evening went on, and started to reply with a more direct and impatient, "Yeah, but everybody does." Oh so inadequate, even if oh so true.
So from here forward are some thoughts along the lines of The Justification of Photoshop. There's a reason image editing has been called the digital darkroom. I've had the great joy of the soulful practice of developing film, selecting images with a loop over a lightbox, and enlarging a print. Those that have done so know it's a magic that overwhelmingly overshadows anything in the digital process. You gotta admit it! Also, those who have worked in the analog darkroom would have to admit that to get just about any print right, dodging and burning are absolute musts. It's such a fun and vivid memory to me! The smell of the chemicals, wiping some of the oil from my nose on the scratched negative, making cardboard cutouts of the shape of a couch in the foreground of the image, moving it in a circular motion so as to feather the exposed light, and then realizing that the image is still a bit flat. So now redo it all with a contrast filter. Then again, and again. Ansel Adams was known to spend hours developing one image to perfection. Was he trying to get the image to look like what the scene did when he took it? Definitely not! Most notably, life is in color.
Let's revisit some of the steps above but in modern parlance. Dodging and burning still remain as you can see in the graphic. Removing scratches would be using the healing brush, stamp tool, or even Content-Aware fill... voilà! Affecting the foreground image alone may be done with a layer mask. The circular motion is akin to feathering the selection or brush. Lastly, the contrast filter would be like the levels or curves adjustment layer. Sure there's other stuff that goes on in the darkrooms, but this only proves my point more. Image manipulation is as old as images themselves.
But what about the elite class of photographers that swear all their images are "in camera"? This too overlooks the nature of imaging. For B&W film users, did you use a color lens filter? What type of film? Was it warmer or more vivid like Velvia? Did you push the exposure when developing it because of intentional underexposure? All this is to say that this is editing too, of a sort. Surely it requires great skill and patience that elicits commendation. But let it be said, the final product is not what the camera "sees". It's the result of your impressions and memory and attempts to convey something to a viewer who, as is often forgotten, has a different set of rods and cones than you.
Digital also has the same "in camera" purists, but with even less reason to be exclusivistic. Did you adjust the contrast, white balance, and saturation on the camera at all? This is basically junior varsity Photoshop, literally, in camera. Perhaps still we have holdouts. Those that make no adjustments in camera at all. Can you anticipate how this misses the mark? These folks are simply relying on the camera manufacturers algorithms, computations, and settings to cook the image sensor's (relatively) raw ingredients. Not so coincidentally, when we shoot RAW, we are telling the camera to cook the image as little as possible because we wanna do (edit/process/Photoshop) it later with a set of tools that is more diverse, capable, and less prone to permanently encrust unwanted artifacts into the art.
I feel like I'm being long-winded and there's lots of related topics that I'd love to get into as the blog moves ahead. If there are any neat ideas out there, throw them my way, and I'd love to start a convo. Thoughts about HDR, focus stacking, luminosity clusters, and a greatly improved Lightroom come to mind. On a more serious note, what about the virtual editing of our life and public (and self) image we do via the fabrication of narrative through pictures on social media? Other thoughts include the topic of art more broadly construed. What is it? Is it the communication of truth? Also for another time is the use of wide-angle lenses, which I'm addicted to for landscape photography. Is this not a manipulation, not of pixels, but of reality? Does anybody really see things at a 15mm focal length? Nah...
So join me, will you? Let's do our best to have a technically sound image as quality landscape photography demands. Stacked reverse graduated neutral density filters for those problematic, but stunning, sunsets. Camera image setting parameters tailored to our design and goal. The best exposure dialed in to show the detail we wish and convey the mood desired. Other necessities that editing can never make up for are a tripod for long exposures and a polarizing filter... gotta have 'em. And when the camera, for all it's technological wonder, can't hold a candle to the splendor of your eye, your remembrance, and the visual language you'd like to communicate in, edit away. "Did you Photoshop that?" You bet I did! And doggone it, people like me!