The Thin Line

"Is that what it really looked like or did you Photoshop that?"

It's a common question.  Although, I actually think it's less common now than it was a few years ago.  I think today most people just automatically assume that most every image is Photoshopped!  However, before I go any further, let's define Photoshop...

  1. Photoshop (n.)-Adobe's rental software.  Formulated because they made their flagship software too good.  Running out of ideas that would make new, standalone purchases worth it, they decided to slowly bleed photographers and designers dry.
  2. Photoshop (v.)-To manipulate an image away from it's original appearance.
  3. Photoshopped (adj.)-An image that has been manipulated.

With those definitions in mind (thanks a lot Adobe...), I'm about to say something that will probably shut the entire Internet down due to how controversial it is.  That's a risk I'm will to take though.  Braces yourselves, you've been warned.

"Every image ever taken has been Photoshopped."

Whoa!  Are your minds blown?!  I guess the fact that you're still reading this means that the Internet did not actually shut down.  Perhaps my blog is not as influential as I think it is...  Nah, I'm sure that's not the case, but let's get back to the original point.  Every single image that has ever been taken has been edited away from reality.

LONG before computers and PS existed, photographers were still Photoshopping images.  In fact, the first images were the most manipulated!  In the beginning, God created black and white photography.  If a monochrome image of a color subject isn't blatant editing, I don't know what is.  My hero and photography purest St. Ansel Adams was probably the biggest Photoshopper around!  After all, it was he who said something along the lines of, "Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships."  I feel like everything I've ever known is a lie now...  Blasphemous!

Color film isn't much better though.  If you think color film is true to a scene, take an identical composition and throw Velvia and Portra at it.  Which one is real?  Portra with its huge range, but washed out tones?  Or Velvia with its nuclear hot reds and blue tones in white water?  The answer is neither.

What about digital and those #SOOC images that we post?  Even if you shoot JPEG and don't edit them, all you are doing is let the camera edit for you.  Each camera manufacturer programs their cameras to edit the RAW data and spit out an image.  This is what you see on the back on your camera's viewscreen or the actual image file if you shoot JPEGs.  However, even if you don't touch any of your camera's settings (camera profile, saturation, contrast, etc.) it is still not EXACTLY like the scene appears; there is some internal manipulation and interpretation going on.  Don't believe me?  Aim a Canon and a Nikon at the same scene and there will definitely be differences.  So which one is "right"?  Again, the answer is neither.

Now, we can come CLOSE to what is real.  One thing I've started doing is taking an iPhone pic of my compositions immediately after my 4x5 image.  I'll stand in that location and edit my iPhone pic to look as close as possible to the scene in front of me.  When I scan my film (especially color negative film) I'll pull up that iPhone pic and try to get the film image as close as possible.

If you really want to go existential though, you can ask what is even real?  What does something "really" look like?  The human eye is the ultimate autoexposure camera, but it can be fooled.  Last year in the Narrows I had an eye-opening (nailed the pun) experience; I was taking a reflected light image that had about a 5 minute exposure.  The glow started out good, but had a noticeable dimming about halfway through my shot.  I noted the time, closed the shutter, and looked up.  Sure enough, clouds had rolled in and killed the light.  I spent the next few minutes looking upward.  Once the clouds cleared, I looked back down and noticed a HUGE increase in the red/orange saturation of the wall.  The light hadn't changed that much in the span of a few minutes so I knew that the reflected light wall was the same; it was my eye that had changed.  While looking up at the sky, my eye had acclimated to the very bright sky.  When I looked back down to the relative dark of the Narrows, everything was essentially underexposed; my eye's f-stop was closed down.  This underexposure caused an apparent increase in the saturation.  So you can see, even our eyes don't know what something is supposed to really look like!

So in this crazy world where nothing is real, what's a landscape photographer supposed to do?!  You'll get multiple opinions on this, but I fall into the camp that landscape photography should "try" to be as realistic as possible...all the while understanding that realistic can be a relative term.  My goal as a photographer is for a person to look at one of my images and feel that they can just step into the scene. 

Are there manipulations that take place?  Absolutely.  Some are out of necessity to bring the scene back to realism.  I'll spend sometimes hours removing the blue hue that Velvia so lovingly places in white water.  Some editing is to correct for user error...dragging a curves adjustment downward to make up for the occasional overexposure.  And some editing is flat out to make an image look better; there, I said it!  My image entitled "Where Angels Tread" had three thin, annoying twigs hanging down from the branch that framed Angel's Landing.  I saw them as I was composing, but didn't have a wide enough lens to get close enough to where those wouldn't be a factor.  I have zero remorse from cloning those guys out!

Now You see them... you don't.  And I lose absolutely no sleep over this at night.

This brings up a tough question though; how much image manipulation is too much?  When does an image cross the thin line between an inspiring shot and a Photoshopped mess?  First of all, there are people that will tell you that it's all art and that it doesn't matter what it ends up looking like.  Ignore these people as they are wrong.  I don't know exactly why they are wrong, but they just are!  In all seriousness, I believe art in the truest sense must begin with a completely blank canvas.  Landscape photography doesn't start with a blank canvas.  Our canvas is already complete; it is just up to us to deliver it to the viewer in a pleasing presentation.  Landscape photography is equal parts art and documentation.  With that distinction being made, here are three things that I believe cross the thin line of image credibility.

First, if I can tell where and what you've done to an image, you've gone too far.  I don't want to spend my time looking at a landscape image and rattling off the Photoshop tricks that have been used on it.  The most egregious sins I see in this area today are in the shadows.  I mean, seriously!  What did shadow areas ever do to deserve such treatment?!  I don't need to see details in every single area of an image.  If a forest scene is being backlit, I shouldn't see every speck of bark on the tree surface facing me!  With that being said, I have no problem with people using Photomatix to create HDR images.  HDR is just a tool, much like Ektar is just a tool in my bag.  What I have a problem with is an image that's been HDR'd.  There's a difference there.

Second, if a photographer is intentionally misleading about their work then I pretty much lose all faith in their images moving forward.  For example, on a forum that I follow, someone presented an image of a typical wildflower mountain composition.  A super wide angle lens was placed almost on top of the flower to give it prominence in the composition.  The sun was just starting to rise, wispy clouds danced above the mountain peaks, and a crescent moon was still in the sky.  The scene was absolute perfection and the editing, full of the light blending that's so "in" right now, was meticulous and also perfect.  Not a single defect in the entire image.  It was presented as a single image (and believe me, the photographer went out of his way to point this out), taken on a Sony English-letter-Arabic-number-Roman-numeral with a 14mm lens.  The entire post received rave reviews.

And yet, there was that moon.  Not overly bright or imposing in the image, but it was definitely there...and MUCH larger than the speck it should have been at 14mm.  It was so blatantly composited that I typed up a post to call him out on it.  I literally sat on that post for 2 days before deleting it and deciding that I didn't want to be "that guy."  The fact remains though, he obviously lied about compositing the moon in there.  Here again, I have absolutely no problem with compositing.  It is just another tool to make up for limitations in our gear.  What I do have a problem with is deliberate misinformation.  If the moon was a fabrication, what else in the image isn't real?  The rest of the sky?  That flower?  The mountain itself?  Once you break the circle of trust, I've got to assume that all of your images cross the line of believability.

Finally, nature just has a "look" to it.  I can't describe it as anything more concrete, but when that look is wrong, you'll know it when you see it.  There is a relationship between, color, tonality, and texture that is just "right."  There is no other way to definitively describe it.  The most common examples in my work are color casts when I'm editing Ektar.  I'll sit on a image for days or weeks tweaking the curves to get rid of color casts.  Often I can't pick out exactly what's wrong with the image, I just know SOMETHING is off.  The line has been crossed!  Another example is with the current en vogue editing style.  Not quite HDR, but it involves multiple techniques to create what ultimately falls under the umbrella of light blending.  Again, you'll know it when you see it.  The images are often undeniably visually striking...absolutely gorgeous to look at! 

And yet, I find them missing something.  It's almost like looking at a video game environment.  It's beautiful, but completely sterile...unaffected by nature.  The degree of expertise to achieve this look is staggering, but somewhere along the line the spirit of the image was lost.  Nature is wild, unpredictable, and full of imperfections.  When this look is lost, I believe it triggers something in us.  Even if we have not visited a location, our experience tells us that there are certain ways things should look.  When this is edited out, the line of reality has been crossed, and the images are completely devoid of any emotion.

So you've spent the last 1853 words reading about something that "you'll know when you see."  That's time in your life that can never be had again;'re welcome!  No image is ever truly 100% realistic, no matter how hard myself or other photographers try to convince you otherwise.  Everything is edited to some degree.  However, I believe our visual and esthetic senses can tolerate manipulations up to a certain point.  Once you reach a certain level though, the line between reality and fiction has been crossed.  While this line is open for debate, I believe landscape photography in its truest form should contain a high degree of credibility.  Anything beyond is just digital fiction.

Also, my images are all CS4 Photoshopped.  No rental software for me!  Yet...