Is Photoshop cheating?

1 Feb

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A friend asked: were my images of Burbage Photoshopped? Absolutely. I edit all photos in Lightroom and/or Photoshop. In my days of teaching photography at the University of Sheffield, when students boasted that they never edited images after exposure I’d nod in commiseration and assure them “it shows”. (Another friend fed me this line, though in truth these students’ work, often imaginative,
was as likely to be let down by failure to control light at point of exposure as by failure to edit afterwards.) When challenged on their refusal to master the tools of their chosen craft, they’d tell me they were interested in its artistic but not its technical aspects. Hmm.

But back to Burbage Edge. Azure brilliance to the north east had thrown a high contrast light to play snowdrift and deep blue sky against spiky bracken burnished to a coppery sheen, and against the shadow-blacks of crag and gulley on the rock face.

Cutting its diagonal descent below the cliffs to join Burbage Brook at the valley floor, a moorland clough picked up speed as peat beds gifting its water a beery tan gave way abruptly to twisting drops; miniature ravines of quartz-glinting millstone grit. Here it cascaded, smashed to icy smither­eens that arced across the sunlit chill: diamonds scattered then frozen, at shutter speeds of 1/1000 second and higher, before being claimed once more by gravity and darkly waiting pools.

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Those rills aside – an exposure problem forcing trade-offs of aperture, shutter speed and ISO – an ape with an iPhone would take good pictures in such conditions. But to the south and west, late afternoon, it was a different story. Cloud bank over Stanage Edge and Derwent Valley, pink tinged with the promise of snow, formed a vast softbox to scatter the rays so they hit the ground from every angle,
their shadows cancelling one another out. On a dull day that makes for flatly insipid light but here the low wintry sun, thus diffused, lit up the fells below Higger Tor and Carl Wark to kick vigour into stalky heather, tease unsuspected hues from lichens ordinarily seen in monochrome. Bog moss took on a soft irrid­es­c­­ence, stone moss the emerald sheen of midsummer evenings.

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Now the challenges were revers­ed: the easy shots the close-ups, while zooming out for the grand sweep showed the moorland in light of exquisite softness; a gift to painters but a big headache for the photographer. Without the digital darkroom my land­scapes to the south west could not come close to what my eye and brain were registering. No matter how I juggled the exposure variables, or fiddled 
with polarising and other lens filters, my raw images would render these ethereal wonders as a smudgy collage; impress­ionism without the magic.

To my friend’s implicit question – isn’t it cheating to use post-exposure editing tools?  – there’s a surface and a deep answer. In this post I’ll address only the first. The current state of the art in digital sensors takes in a narrower tonal range, from pure black to pure white, than the human eye. For this reason alone – and there are others – serious photographers seldom release an unedited image. (By ‘serious’ I mean no disrespect to the happy snapper. Not everyone wants to devote the time and energy I’m speaking of here. I’m addressing those who do, or at least those who are curious.) For the best approximation to what s/he saw while making the exposure, a realist or naturalist photog­raph­er has more work to do later. At this stage I won’t problematise the terms seeing, realism or naturalism. I’m simply speaking of images in which the depiction of cats, pretty sunsets or Madonna can be taken as reliable indicators that these elements were present at time of exposure, as opposed to images where we really shouldn’t assume that.

Some tonal tweaking is always called for. In easy situations this is global; an adjustment or two to the entire image, the work of a second or less. In trickier situations there are not only more variables to adjust but the tweaking is selective and localised, different elements within the image needing to be isolated for separate treatment. One of the best known examples is where a foregrounded element, whose details matter as much as its overall shape, is backlit by a sky whose vivid beauty is also part of the story we want to tell. Metering and exposing for the dark foreground will wash out the sky; metering for the sky will silhouette the foreground. That one’s fairly simple – if not always easy – but the challenges facing me when I got home from Burbage were not. My landscapes to the south west called for their constituent elements – sky, heather, rock and greenery – being differentially sharpened, adjusted for contrast and saturation. Not to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes by overstating the beauty of the day, or my shutter skills, but to reduce the gap between what I saw  and what my unadjusted images had captured – a gap imposed by constraints arising from the technology available.

Surface answer recap: serious photographers who are realists or naturalists  (in drama or novel the distinction matters but not here) edit after exposure to offset limits inherent to the technol­ogy. Deep answer? We also edit images so they tell the story  we wish to tell. That statement, calling into question common sense notions of reality and seeing, requires a post of its own. Watch this space.
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4 Replies to “Is Photoshop cheating?

  1. Excellent post, Phil. I don’t do any post production work on my photos. This has nothing to do with wanting to remain true to the image (which is largely tosh) but due to my not having the skills to engage with photoshop.

    • Thanks Brian. I don’t say every photographer should do post image processing. I did take a dim view of university students, on a digital photography module, coming out with the tosh they did, but otherwise my interest is in exploring the issues – not just technical but also epistemological – such questions invite. Roland Barthes’ essay on photography is spot on in describing it as mythology. That mix of denotation and connotation has been fooling and perplexing us for 175 years. The digital age makes photography’s dual nature more overt, better known, but only insofar as we’re more aware nowadays that we can be hoodwinked. It hasn’t, as far as I can tell, led the intelligentia to a deeper questioning of the kind of informational/communicative/ epistemological form photography is. A queer fish, we might say, but I’ll STFU before I start talking tosh of my own. Too late, some might say …

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