Friday Foto Talk: Artistic Photography & Photoshop   14 comments

All these are recent images, this from Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Utah. Enjoy!

All these are recent images, this from Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Utah. Enjoy!

I’ve stayed away from this topic up until now, maybe because I don’t like beating a dead horse (or a living one for that matter!).  My recent series on Visualization led naturally to this subject.  So this week I’m going to post a fairly long one.  Feel free to copy it and read it later, but I just couldn’t see my way to divide it into parts.  This is very important to understand, because if you’re serious about photography it’s important to understand the issue and know without any doubt where you stand on it.

I’m talking about the eternal debate between the belief that photography has become diluted, even ruined, by over-manipulation of images and the reaction to that: it’s simple ignorance of photography as art.  This is an argument that seems to have no end, one that mostly centers around post-processing (“that’s been photoshopped!”).  But it also comes in during the capture phase.

A sandstone wall and wonderfully refreshing creek in a canyon called Death Hollow, Utah. Quite the hike to get here!

A sandstone wall and wonderfully refreshing creek in a canyon called Death Hollow, Utah. Quite the hike to get here!

Shades of Gray:  Where I Stand

I believe, as usual, that the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.  In fact at different times on social media I’ve argued both sides.  At least I have when I forget that it’s a bad idea to express opinions on Facebook!  First let’s clarify something.  Photoshop is just a software program.  One can over-edit a photograph or drastically change reality without ever touching Photoshop.

There are, for example, simple plugins that allow you to combine different pictures into one.  And don’t forget that reality can be altered during the capture phase as well; Hollywood has been doing it forever.  But Photoshop is the most powerful software for manipulating images.  It was created for digital artists not photographers.  And besides, the term ‘Photoshopped’ is firmly fixed in the vernacular.

Although my opinions recognize the subjectivity and shades of gray inherent in the question, I tend to come down on one side.  I think anything a photographer does to create an image is okay.  Far be it from me to tell somebody how to express their creativity.  That would be very presumptuous.  I do wish, however, that people would say in their captions when their images are not photographs but digital art, using photographs as raw material.  That’s simple honesty.

I’ll also admit to feeling a bit sad when I think that the original (to me the true) meaning of photography is being lost as it merges with digital art.  I’m disappointed that the two are merging, in fact.  I don’t like any kind of homogenization, a feature of modern culture across the board, it seems.

A thunderstorm is about to rain all over me here along the roaring Colorado River, Colorado.

A thunderstorm is about to rain all over me here along the roaring Colorado River, Colorado.

What is a Photograph?

Most opinions on the issue hinge on a single assumption:  what you think a photograph actually is.  I go with the traditional definition.  A photograph is the capture of a single moment, in a single place.  Or it represents a single time and place.  The latter type can introduce all manner of subjectivity.  It comes in when, for example, you take one picture of the foreground and a second of the sky immediately after.  Then on the computer you combine them for depth of field or exposure purposes (or both).  It’s still the capture of a single moment in time.

But when different times and places are combined to make an image, or when the processing completely obscures the moment, then it’s digital art.  One of the simplest examples is when a photographer takes a beautiful sky, perhaps one that he didn’t even capture himself, and pastes that into a different photo to replace a “boring” sky.  Once you learn how to do that, it’s easy to be tempted to go much further.  You start mixing and matching elements to create the perfect image.  These aren’t photographs, although they are routinely labeled as such.  To repeat, I don’t think they are less worthy; they’re just digital art, different than actual photographs.

The road descending from Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction. Note the bicyclist.

The road descending from Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction. Note the bicyclist.

Photoshop & Reality:  The Push-Pull

When people complain online about Photoshopped images, they often get criticized by self-described photographic experts.  It goes something like this: any image is art, therefore railing against “Photoshopping”, or processing out the reality of the world in favor of fantasy, is simple ignorance of the nature of photography, perhaps even ignorance of art itself.

Since I’m a live-let-live person I agree with this in principle.  After all, since the invention of the camera photographers have been bending reality.  But I think this kind of response to complaints about overuse of Photoshop is at best trite, and in some cases borders on condescending elitism.

It downplays the very understandable reaction that normal everyday people have to the trends in popular photography.  I’m speaking of the reasonable reactions, not those that assume some kind of purity to photography, or those that are critical of somebody just because they edited a photo.  People are indeed mistaken when they think only out-of-camera images (inaccurately believed to be unedited) are real.

I’ve had people tell me that my long exposures of blurred water or other moving subjects are not real photos.  I’ve also heard people say that cloning out pimples and smoothing skin in portraits is cheating.  But the idea that any kind of enhancement to a photo is getting away from real photography is simply wrong.

A very minimally edited image taken mid-day from the top of Angel's Rest, showing a bird's-eye view of Zion Canyon, Utah.

A very minimally edited image taken mid-day from the top of Angel’s Rest, showing a bird’s-eye view of Zion Canyon, Utah.

Why you may be Right to yell “Photoshopped!”

This push-back goes only so far.  For example if you want to use your images to document something (photojournalism), you need to avoid most editing.  The exceptions are true corrections (color, contrast, etc.) that make the image more true to reality.  In this case you can’t clone out a branch or rock just because you think it is distracting.

But even for most of us who aren’t doing photo-journalism, there are important reasons to not dismiss the “too much Photoshop” argument.  Because the sorts of images that get attention online tend to be those that stand out from the crowd in obvious ways (color, dramatic compositions, etc.), there is much more extensive editing, compositing (combining different photos) and other techniques going on than in the past.  Much more.  It’s a change that probably has nothing to do with art and everything to do with the desire to be popular online.

These heavily-manipulated images are all called photographs, which if you go along with the definition above is simply dishonest.  Why would we lie about this?  It’s because we know that viewers want to believe the photographer stood in front of that scene and that the image is (pretty much) a faithful rendition.  On social media at least, photographs are valued over digital art.

And so it’s hardly surprising that most photographers are heavily manipulating and compositing their images and then pretending they’re the same as simple single exposures.  When anyone pipes up online and complains about this trend, they get that trite response mentioned above.  “You simply need to be educated on photography as art; trust me, I’m a pro”

What is Artful Photography?

The reason I don’t like this is not as much about its condescension as it is about a presumptuous extrapolation that goes along with this kind of thinking.  It goes something like this:  Only those images where reality is bent or twisted in some way are artistic.  And so it follows that minimally edited documentary-style images are not art.  Real photography by its nature seeks to alter reality, and that’s the art of it.  This is complete bull.  While it may sound all well and good, it ignores the very foundations of photography.  It discounts the artistic efforts of generations of great photographers.

I mentioned above that photography has always been about giving the viewer a selective, interpretive version of reality.  But this is just one side of the coin.  There is another aspect of it that I believe runs through all genres.  It’s this:  photography isn’t just about bending reality.  It’s also about observation, timing, and the attempt to capture a simple moment that needs little or no enhancement.

The image of the sailor kissing his girl in Time’s Square, for example, is mostly about the reality of that moment and needed no special developing techniques to become an instant classic.  Claiming that heavy editing on most or all of your images is just you being an artist is rationalization for heavily altering images, probably to get more likes online.

By the way, I think this fallacy; that is, that bending reality is the way you put the art into photography, stems from the long-standing inferiority complex that photographers suffer when comparing themselves with “real” artists: painters, sculptors and the like.

But the dual nature of photography I just described means that it can never be directly compared with more traditional forms of art.  In fact, painters and other artists of the realism movement in the 19th century were told similar things:  “You aren’t doing real art, it’s too realistic.”  But that was real art.  And so is realistic photography.

Wading the Fremont River, Utah.

Wading the Fremont River, Utah.

Awareness, Awareness!

So let me put this subject in more concrete terms and relate it to visualization, discussed last Friday.  Whether you are visualizing the specific way the final image will look or deciding that later, during processing; whether you are trying to match the way the scene looked to you in real life or deliberately altering that look, you are practicing real photography, not cheating in some way.

Either kind of image can be art, or it can fall short.  It’s not what you do to the image during processing that makes it art; it’s how consciously you create it, how closely your process follows your own vision.  And that includes what you actually observe in the field, not just your imaginative flights of fancy when sitting in front of the computer afterwards.

The Watchman overlooks the Virgin River: Zion National Park, Utah.

The Watchman overlooks the Virgin River: Zion National Park, Utah.

Navigating your way around the Argument:  A Balance

Many years ago I had a job prepping samples in a lab, waiting for an opportunity to go into the field in Alaska.  My boss was out of the ordinary, in a good way.  He would occasionally write a motivational phrase on the sample bags, underneath the number identifying the sample.  He knew we’d see it because we had to record the numbers.  I was soon sent into the field (what else do you do with a young guy full of piss and vinegar!).

For some reason we got a batch of sample bags that came from the lab.  A few of them had his writing on them, and while swatting mosquitos in the tundra they would show up.  A small batch had the following written on them:  “Awareness, Awareness!”  I knew it had nothing to do with safety (which he trusted us with).  It was part of his belief system, to be aware of everything around us, and to recognize it for being completely awesome and amazing.

The prickly pear cactus bloom comes in two colors, a vibrant fuschia and this more subtle yellow one: Zion National Park, Utah.

The prickly pear cactus bloom comes in two colors, a vibrant fuschia and this more subtle yellow one: Zion National Park, Utah.

So are we somehow cheating when we bend and twist reality?  Are we misleading viewers when our images do not match what the scene really looked like?  The answer is an emphatic no.  At least not when you do it consciously and with ‘awareness, awareness!’  It’s simply your artistic side at work.

Just do yourself a favor.  Don’t make the mistake many photographers make.  Don’t go around bending reality because it’s “more artistic”.  After all, creating images which differ from the way things actually looked is not any more artistic than consciously noticing everything about the way the scene appears to you, in order to match that during capture and post-processing.

My advice is this:  Do your own thing and don’t worry too much about what I or anyone else says.  But if your goal is doing artful photography, avoid following trends and use that powerful editing software with some care.  Make sure to focus on the capture phase just as much or more than the post-processing phase.  Start with careful observation of what’s going on around you, and throughout the process never stop observing.

Be conscious about what you’re doing and visualize a final image that is true to you and true to your subject.  Most of all, don’t worry about the opinions of people who don’t know as much about photography as they think they do.  Think about your subject, its surroundings and the overall feeling or mood, rather than what kind of image will get a lot of attention online.  The rest will fall into place naturally, trust me.  This is the most important thing I’ve said regarding photography in this blog.  Happy Shooting!

The setting sun highlights the walls of Capitol Reef, Utah, with the Fremont River flowing through it.

The setting sun highlights the walls of Capitol Reef, Utah, with the Fremont River flowing through it.

14 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Artistic Photography & Photoshop

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  1. Michael thanks for this well-thought out post!
    I totally agree with everything you said. While most of the time, I strive to get my images as close to the way I saw it when I was there, I do make slight adjustments in exposure, contrast, highlights and shadows. I will also do some curves because this can make dramatic improvements in white and black points, enhancing contrast. There are times when I will do more “artsy” or vision things like changing overall tone in the image.
    Most of all, I pay attention to where I am and how I am feeling about the scene (which is usually awe!) and try to portray that in my images. Many times viewers of my images say it makes them want to be there, or “it looks like a painting.”
    I agree with you when you said to just do what is right for YOU.
    Thanks again for this great post. You hit the nail right on the head with this one!

    • Thanks for reading Kelly! It’s been percolating for awhile. I get the same kinds of comments, and putting the viewer there is often a goal. It doesn’t have to be the only one though. Keep up the good work!

  2. Michael, your thoughts on this incredibly difficult topic are a joy to read through. I’ll definitely be reading this post a few times. I have a million thoughts on this subject but don’t feel it is appropriate to comment with them. I’ll just point out that the most famous landscape photographer we know of created images that didn’t look like the scenes in front of him at the time. You know who:) Thanks for sharing your thoughts in such a great post!! EE

  3. Great post, Michael. Your overview of the differing arguments within the photographic community is well thought out– in fact, I will go back and look again. I like your definition of a photograph capturing a moment in time and do think thereafter, is an interpretation of that moment in post-processing- just like in the darkroom. I do not put major image manipulation in the same category which has its place but is a creative distortion of reality. Love your images, as always. Thanks for putting this together.

  4. Well said! Knowing that the camera is not able to replicate everything that our eyes do, there is a place for post-processing even if the purpose is just to have the image match what we (in our minds) saw.

    I also agree that, it is only honest for us to acknowledge that when we make major changes from the original, that the final product is a work of art and not a photographic image of the original event.

    For me, photograhy is about making images that I like. Unless I am trying to represent a “created image” to be a factual event which did not happen, I don’t see how that harms anyone or is in any way “cheating”. You don’t have to like it but, there are many people we recognize as famous ARTISTS today who were regarded as not serious or crazy because the didn’t do things the way that was previously accepted.

    Everyone has different opinions on what the like so, to each their own.

  5. To me, art is simply a successful exercise in subliminal communication.

    Thus a traditional image can be artistic of it achieves this; images that strive too hard to be “artistic” can fall flat, as can a traditional images lacking subtlety and “spark”.

    To the extent that “reality” is the aim, it’s not what comes out of the camera and since our memories differ from the nature of that actual encapsulated reality, the reality we see in our photographs is as much a product of our imaginations as anything else.

    Art is also not measured by the amount of effort one puts in, especially if it’s demonstrable in the image. It can take considerable efforts in post-processing to achieve a subtle echo of reality.

    • Totally agree Murray, and that subtlety in post-processing is something I’m working on. My problem is I don’t have as much interest in editing a photo as I do capturing it, but when I actually hit on what I wanted to communicate, I’m very satisfied and it motivates me to try some more on the editing end of things. On your comment about the nature of remembered reality, I sort of glossed over that. There’s not much we can do about the vagaries and imperfections of the eye-mind and memory-imagination dualities. But to me that doesn’t argue at all for giving up on the value of choosing to match this imperfectly remembered reality vs. using that image to go somewhere else entirely. There’s no sense in discounting observation as being subjective and letting that dictate too much how your images turn out. Observation is too important to treat that way.

  6. Thoughtful post. I think many people who are interested in photography become frustrated because they can’t reproduce what they are told is great photography, not knowing how much manipulation does go on. I took an online class where the instructor said he kept a file of skies he liked so he could switch a bad one out when he wanted. I belong to an online photo site called Viewbug and I have to say many of the shots that win their competitions are over processed, with super saturated colors and lots of contrast, and are repetitive in subject matter. It seems the judges never met a shot of a pier they didn’t like (no matter what the theme), or junked vehicles, slow moving water (sorry), timepieces, rocky beaches and jagged mountains. Recent winners in a contest with the theme of “hometown” had almost no shots of towns but lots of piers, beaches and mountains with not a hint of anything even resembling a town atmosphere. 🙂 To me, this says that the arbiters of what is good photography often set the agenda for other photographers. 🙂 Sorry for the rant.

    • Thanks Marie! No offense taken on the water thing believe me. I so rarely see water I want to freeze, it takes a special sort of powerful display. I totally agree on Viewbug and most other online ways to use our images to attract eyeballs to somebody’s website. Earthshots is sort of an exception. It’s the only one I occasionally submit an image to. I don’t think of these folks as arbiters of anything at all, they’re just trying to make money on the internet. I keep a file of skies as well by the way, but have only swapped sky with 4 or 5 images total. I’m a quasi-purist.

  7. This was wonderful. I’ve met a number of photographers who says they prefer to get it right in the camera in the first place. But it seems to me that a few adjustments make many photos a whole lot better…perhaps what is visualized in the first place. Thank you.

    • Thanks very much for reading Annette! I had to finally weigh in on this. Getting it right in camera really is about being efficient with your time. I have an otherwise great image that is pretty much ruined because I didn’t ask the fellow to tuck in his shirt. It’s too late now, he lives in Nicaragua and the moment is past anyway.

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