A recent forum conversation on an art site has got me thinking. The question posed was regarding the digital enhancement (aka ‘photoshopping’) of images.


I can’t believe that in this day and age we are still having this conversation.

But it seems to be one that won’t go away. At a recent fair you could see people’s face change when I told them that a piece of work had been created digitally. Somehow it has less value. One person even suggested that I should take up drawing! When I said that digital was my medium she just scoffed. Yes, really.

A Matter of Education

Personally I think the problem is two-fold. First, we as digital artists and photographers need to start educating our prospective clients in the ‘how’ of what we do. A paint brush and paint is easy enough for most people to wrap their head around. Photoshop….not so much.

Which brings me to the second problem – misinformation. “Photoshopping” has become synonymous with fake.

fake (fāk) adj. Having a false or misleading appearance; fraudulent. n. One that is not authentic or genuine; a sham.

We have the advertising behemoth to thank for that. When people hear the word Photoshop they think of models with airbrushed skin and impossibly perfect bodies that have been digitally nipped and tucked. And in response a whole movement for “reality” in advertising has occurred. Which is great. I’m all for that.

But sadly, the baby sometimes gets thrown out with the bathwater.

The challenge that faces us is that the marketing machine and photographers are sharing the same set of tools – one for the purpose of consumerism and the other for artistic vision.

The truth of it, as all photographers know, is that images have been manipulated since the advent of photography. Previously we used a dark room. Ansel Adams’ iconic images did not just ‘happen’ in the camera. Much of his magic happened in the dark room. And I have no doubt that if he were alive today, he’d be right into Photoshop.

The Digital Darkroom

And that’s what today’s digital editing software is – a digital darkroom. Sure, you can do much, much more with it than you ever could with film processing, but the point is that a RAW camera file is pretty much the same thing as a film negative. It needs some work.

What most non-photographers don’t realise (I think) is that today’s high tech cameras – and even phones – are doing much of the work for them. Professional and serious amateur photographers, who generally shoot in RAW, are choosing to do at least some of that work in post processing rather than letting the camera make decisions for them. As they should. That’s what creative control is about.

The camera also doesn’t ‘see’ a scene the same way a human eye does. And that means adjustments usually need to be made. I sometimes hear photographers talking about how their images are ‘straight from the camera’. That’s fine for some. But others want to ensure the image is the best it can possibly be visually. That’s the thing with being an artist….you get to decide how – and when – to use the tools! They’re there to help you achieve your artistic goals.

As far as I’m concerned, unless you’re a photojournalist, anything is fair game when it comes to manipulating an image. You’re not trying to manipulate people into a promise of something they can never achieve, which is how advertisers are using the tool. You’re creating art. And if you’re shooting weddings or portraits and retouching, you’re making your clients feel good about themselves. There is an enormous difference. And its up to us artists to educate the general population about that difference.

Photo Artistry

Additionally, for those who produce what I think of as photo artistry, we need to start engaging potential customers and talking to them about the process of creation. Its been my experience that some people walk away as soon as they hear the word ‘digital’. For some reason they think this is less of an art and one which requires no skill. As anybody who does this kind of work knows, mastering most digital editing software is something that takes years. And hours and hours of practice. Not to mention consistent learning as software evolves.

I sometimes think when I see a particularly complex and beautiful piece of photo art that the only people who fully appreciate it are likely to be other photographers and digital artists!

Perhaps this is just another offshoot of the age old argument that photography is somehow “not real art”. Don’t get me started on that one!

I’m eternally grateful to be a photographer in the age of digital (although I cut my photographic teeth on film). Today, the only limit is my own imagination. I sincerely hope that we one day reach an age where the art that is created digitally is accepted as readily as any other medium. My only litmus test for buying art is “do I love it?”. It always makes me sad when someone walks by my booth at a fair and is clearly drawn to a piece but quickly puts it down and walks away when I explain how it was created. If something speaks to your heart, does the process actually matter? Most people don’t buy the original painting – they buy a print – so how is buying a digital art print any different?

In the end I would love to see photographers supporting each other in whatever artistic choices they make.

Post processing or no post processing. Artists of all stripes have a tough enough row to hoe without the moral judgement of other artists. Its up to us to support our fellow artists however we can.

Are you a photo artist or photographer who uses digital software for post processing? What has your experience been?



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