There are many questions I’m asked by clients, friends and strangers. As a photographer, most often the questions revolve around Photoshop. The most popular questions; “How do you remove a person out of a photo”, or “How do I make my photos look retro or stylized”.
My favourite saying when it comes to Photoshop, is that it should be like salt on food. It should support and enhance the dish – BUT it should not be the only thing that you taste. The goal we always have in capturing (and processing) your photographs is to make sure we are creating beautiful images that pass the test of time.
Let me start by saying, of course I edit my images with Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, and a number of other processes, plug-ins, and image editing strategies. I’m certainly not one of those old-school, torch carrying purists who insists that anything touched by digital manipulation is not worthy of the paper it is printed on (or nowadays, high resolution panels it is displayed on). I definitely feel that image editing software, if used tastefully and mindfully, can enhance already great photographs. It however will never salvage technically poor work, or magically turn a bad photograph into a great one. The old saying “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” very much does apply to photography. Years ago, I remember my photography professor saying that exact thing to us while in the dark room. If you did not have excellent quality negatives, you certainly could never create brilliant prints from them. The same rule exists digitally – but mistakes are actually amplified with digital data vs film. If you haven’t created a great shot in camera, you will not be able to salvage it on your computer.
So we’ve established that you can certainly improve an already strong image with digital manipulation, and I’ve referenced Lance Armstrong…where the heck am I going with this you ask? Just a few days ago, while “talking shop” with another professional photographer, I compared “Photoshopping” images to doping in sports. Lance Armstrong was all over the news in years past with the disappointing revelations that he did indeed take steroids while winning his multiple Tour de France titles. Maybe I didn’t drink my morning coffee that day, but after some recollection of the conversation I think there are some strong points to be made that solidify the comparison.
Everyone is doing it.
Any and every athlete in the public spotlight that has been caught doping, taking steroids, or using banned substances to gain an advantage has first vehemently denied it. Once the evidence piles up against them, they often claim that they may have taken the drugs without knowing. Finally, somewhere within the very predictable “mea culpa”, is the disappointing admission that “everyone is doing it”, and most athlete’s claim that they need to cheat just to stay on that level of performance. Photoshop is similar to steroid use in sports in the sense that “everyone is doing it”, and people expect the results that “it” brings. Anyone at a ballpark on a perfect summer’s day wants to see 5 home runs, not a pitcher’s duel. There’s an understanding of what might be contributing to those stats, but we all turn a blind eye to what we know is happening behind the scenes. Like an athlete, as a photographer there is no substitute for talent. With that being said you have to post-process your images. Period. No doubt about it. In this world of Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr and often over-stylized imagery, we demand an analog look to the images that come out of a $10,000 top of the line digital camera. That’s a strange statement since photographers used to pay retouchers very good money to correct these flaws in their images, these same flaws that clients now demand and pay for. An overexposed image that used to be tossed away as a mistake or technical reject is now the basis of the hottest filter on your smartphone.
As a photographer, and content creator, what are you to do? As a client looking for a photographer what should you look for? Sadly, many photographers are ignoring solid photography practices and using these digital tools as a crutch or disguise for sub par image making. If you are creating technically strong, visually captivating images in camera, it should be a relatively easy and quick process to make a few light-handed adjustments in post-processing to polish the images. Resist any demand to “remove someone from an image”, we are photographers, not painters. If you are being compensated to capture and document an event, it is your duty to do that truthfully and honestly. By drastically changing the colour of a dress, removing a person from a photograph, or performing “Photoshop Plastic Surgery” to your subjects you are very much compromising your artistic integrity, and telling visual lies.
As a client, if you enjoy very stylized images, and heavy filtered looking photographs, it is completely in your rights and absolutely fine, however you may be better suited with other photography options in capturing your event. Too many photographers are burying poor quality images under heavy handed much digital manipulation. Look for strong images that you absolutely love and that move you. Make sure the images look “complete” and are not over or under exposed, saturated, or manipulated beyond reason and artistic style. Talk to your photographer about what kind of photography you love and your vision. Look at a large sample of their work and portfolio. There are simply too many amateur photographers trying to “fake it” using Photoshop and hobbyist camera gear. They are making major technical mistakes in-camera while at your event, and they are absolutely plastering these images with digital band-aids to try and hold it together.
There is no “Photoshop button” and adjustments do take time and a properly trained eye to perform, but remember they should appear tasteful and as a compliment to an already excellent image. Much like the pro-athletes that our society idolize, we want to believe in photographs, not be deceived by them.