To photoshop or not to photoshop … that is “not” the question

BY DOMINIQUE JAMES

With the advent of digital imaging technology, interest in photography has been on a steep, unstoppable rise. In fact, right now, it seems that its massively seductive “techno” appeal will not wane anytime soon. With the barrier to digital photography somewhat lower now compared to the film era of yore, many are eager to try it out. From all indications, ranging from sky-high camera sales to the explosion of photography sites and forums on the web, we see that more and more people really, and almost seriously, are going into it. 

It’s a very good thing, for photography. But it’s a bad thing, for those who want to engage in it. I notice that despite the eagerness of many to practice the art and craft of photography, not too many are as eager, and as patient, to learn and understand, and therefore to make the most, out of photography. The demand for learning is on the rise, no doubt, and many people engaging in photography who are actively seeking for nuggets of information that can help them in their individual photographic quests. However, not everyone are willing to delve and dig deep. Many, it would seem, are content to just scratch the surface. I can’t blame them. Photography is hard.

Take for instance, the necessity of learning Photoshop. I hear many people raise a most important question, and one that should be addressed properly: Should I or should I not use Photoshop? This, and similar questions, is indicative of the naivety, lack of appropriate education, and absence of real passion, from among those who appear to want to go into photography. I wonder, sometimes, if their interest will last or if their interest will remain keen, when they find out that having money to buy photographic gears is not enough to respectfully engage in the art and craft of digital photographic imaging.

With the most question of whether one should use or not to use Photoshop, we see a low level of know-how from the roster of newcomers. This is why there is so much misconception involved when it comes to altering, enhancing and editing photographs. New practitioners, awed and dazzled by the seeming “magic” that Photoshop and similar editing software can create, will naturally try it out. Unfortunately, lack of knowledge and background into the idea of what Photoshop is, what it can really do, why it is needed, can easily lead not only to confusion and misunderstanding, but to abuse of this and other similar software.

Allow me to share with you a few ideas about Photoshop, it’s uses, misuses, and abuses. Consider this a quick introductory guide to Photoshop. Perhaps, my sharing, can be a good kick-off point for intelligent, thorough, thoughtful discourse on this matter. And I hope, it will lead those who are serious about photography, to the right path. For sure, there will be much disagreement, and that is to be expected. Differences in viewpoints is useful and interesting, and hopefully, as digital imaging technology evolves in sophistication, will someday give us one correct answer, if ever there will be one.

Let me begin by pointing out the simple photographic process that is adhered to by photographers reared from and in the “revered” film era. When a film is exposed, shooting with a camera, the natural step will be for the photographer or the technician to “develop” that film, meaning, removing the chemical light-sensitive layers in the darkroom, to reveal a negative film that can be used to create photo prints or photographs, also in the darkroom. The method of “cleaning” or “stripping” the film involves different kinds of processes that can yield different results. At the time when the film is being processed, the photographer can therefore already implement his creative decision-making as to how it can or should be developed. This means, it can either be developed normally or typically, or it can be creatively developed with such seemingly esoteric methods as “cross-processing” and other techniques. Very few are aware that even at the early stage of film development, even just by changing the development time, can already affect the quality and characteristic of the negative, which will, in turn, affect or influence the type of final photo prints.

Once the negative is ready, the photographer now goes to the next “involved” and “creative” stage which is print the photo. When printing the photograph, in the darkroom, the photographer can control areas of the negative, such as some over-exposed parts of the image, say, the sky is featureless, in which case, he might want to bring details in the sky. What the photographer or printer can do during this printing stage in the darkroom is probably to “dodge and burn” portions of the image during the printing process, meaning, controlling the exposure of the light on certain portions the paper; and then, he can also decide how long should the wet paper be “developed” in a solution, before fixing the image to it. In other words, during the printing process, he naturally also exerts his “creative influence” and “judgment” that results to how a photograph particularly comes out in final print.

The methods that I described above, activities that photographers or printers may routinely do, are all part of a post-production process. This means, after even the shoot, the photographer is still in the process of “creating” the image on print. And yes, logically, it means the photographer is undeniably exerting his creative influence in the post-production work.

In today’s digital age, all the principles of the development stage of the negative film and the darkroom printing techniques, are still being done. In a “digital way” as computer-oriented post-production work, using software tools like Apple’s Aperture and Adobe’s Photoshop, among others. Today, we collectively call the “creative” decisions, controls and implementation as: editing, manipulation, and enhancement.

I’m sure, by this time, you are all already aware of what is now known as the RAW digital image format. All professional and semi-professional DSLR cameras can be set to capture with its native RAW format, other than JPEG and other format settings.

You might want to know that almost all professional photographers will choose to shoot using RAW format setting most of the time instead of the JPEG setting. The reason for preferring to shoot in RAW is that it is like shooting with a negative film. After the shoot, you can then edit your photos using Photoshop, Aperture, and other such similar software, which is similar to what film photographers do when developing their rolls of negatives and “dodging and burning” in the darkroom when printing the photos.

In other words, and despite the huge difference in approach and technology, both the film and the digital photographers, are essentially still doing the same thing. The paradigm did not shift. Their work is still two-pronged: the art and style and craft and technique of capture, which is shooting, and, the art and style and craft and technique of post-production, which is development and darkroom work for film photographers and digital editing, manipulation and enhancement work for digital shooters. In photography, shooting is half the equation. The other half is post-production work, before printing. To create an image, to bring out the vision of a photographer, is a two-step process. Shoot and post-production. Because of this, it is therefore almost naive to think that we do not need Photoshop.

Of course, it’s ok NOT to do Photoshop. You can shoot in JPEG mode with your high-end DSLR, which, almost all digital point-and-shoot does, and then print them straight or post the photo to your website “as is.” That is a perfectly fine practice. It’s all well and good. What most people do not know is that all cameras, without exception, including all point-and-shoot cameras, shoot in RAW format the way your high-powered DSLRs do. The only thing is, the point-and-shoot cameras automatically process the images into JPEG and creates a post-processed JPEG final output in-camera. The camera’s technology has already, in effect, automatically and almost instantaneously “photoshopped” your image before you even transfer it to your computer. It has already been enhanced without even you realizing it. And that is why, when you print it, it already looks good–crisp, bright and clean, with rasor-sharp edges as well as brilliant and saturated colors. This process is similar to bringing your film to a Kodak center, where they develop and print it for you, without you doing anything. Kodak uses a standard “photoshopping” setting for all.

Now, unsuspecting people, thinking that they want to improve their point-and-shoot JPEG shots, will ignorantly try to apply Photoshop editing to an already JPEG “in-camera, photoshopped” image. And as they do, they see that the image begins to disintegrate right under their mouse controls. This is because JPEG images already processed has dramatically less pixels to work with compared to the unprocessed huge RAW image files. Notice the astounding difference in file size. So when editing an already “in-camera” edited image, the photos begin to get pixelized, and colors become flaky. Photoshop is destructively throwing away more pixels. That is why, cameras, including top of the line DSLRs, when using the JPEG mode, has the same capability as point-and-shoot cameras. The photographer is not making the most out of the features of his camera. He is using it as a point-and-shoot camera. The only way to get the best possible image from a high-end DSLR is to shoot in the highest setting which is the RAW format. I’m surprised that so many people with high-end DSLRs still shoot in JPEG. They are not making the most out of the capabilities of their cameras. They should shoot in RAW. There is almost no logical excuse not to do so.

Of course, there are situations when even the world’s best and most knowledgeable photographers must (not will) shoot in JPEG mode. One example is a news photographer or a photojournalist who may be in the middle of a battlefield documenting war. He knowingly does simply because he doesn’t have time to “edit” or “post-process” his images. He relies on the high JPEG quality of his high-end DSLR to make the “in-camera editing” decisions for him because he does not have the luxury of time to do the editing himself because he is constrained by time and he needs to send the files perhaps through a limited-access online bandwidth where it will land page one of his newspaper, printed in about 150 dpi quality, the following day. In other words, you should use JPEG only when you don’t have time to edit your photos.

But when you have all the time to edit your photos, you should shoot in RAW, manage in Aperture, and post-process it in Photoshop. And like film photography, you can have one source, RAW image, and from it you can create many, wildly different versions. This is something that noted film photographer Ansel Adams does–he creates (or prints) different versions from one negative. He enjoys post-production work in his darkroom as much as he enjoys shooting. To today’s digital shooter, this means, one RAW file, different editing and different eventual versions.

So, if you do not use Photoshop, it is almost certain that you are not making the most out of the awesome capabilities of your high-end DSLR and the high-quality RAW images it can produce. If you shoot only in JPEG and print as is, you are letting the camera decide for you on how the final image is edited and will come out simply because it is doing all these things “in-camera.”

The question therefore, is not whether we should use Photoshop or not. This is a question of whether you are making the most out of your photography, and making the most out of your equipment. And perhaps, in a larger, over-arching context, this is a question of whether the photographer’s technical know-how and aesthetic sense will come in to play when and where he is “pushing” a image to its “photoshopped” limits. In other words, it is possible, and we see this time and again, where some photographers tend to “abuse and misuse” Photoshop.

In news photography or photojournalism, there are strict ethical standards that professional photographers follow. In general, they cannot alter the accurate and actual depiction of image beyond what is acceptable as truth. In other words, there are limits to what can be done to “photoshop” their images. As an accurate visual proof and historical record, the news photograph should constitute cardinal truth. These are what is known as ”found“ images. This means, you cannot “art direct” an image when shooting it for news, and in post-production, you cannot remove something or put something that was not originally there. But, you can sharpen it. You can brighten it. You can adjust its levels and curves, and you can even saturate it a bit.

But photography outside of the sanctified realm of photojournalism are generally acknowledged to be free from these decidedly limiting restrictions. As a matter of fact, photoshopping is an expected norm. Many will be surprised if you don’t use it. Photoshop is part and parcel of the new art and craft of digital photography. So, a celebrity can be edited to death. And you’d be amazed because the viewers expect it now. They’d rather see fantasy instead of reality. Photos like these can be art-directed. These are photographs that are not “found” images. These are “created” images. The challenge is, no matter how much editing, manipulation and enhancement a photographer do, the image is not being judged because it has been worked over, but because of how beautiful, immaculate, and well-done or well-executed it has been edited, manipulated and enhanced.

When issues like this is raised, whether a photographed should be ”photoshopped“ or not, it is not an issue that offends sensibilities, but an issue that shows how little many people who call themselves a photographer or those who can afford to buy  expensive gear knows. And the scary thing is, most of them don’t bother to respectfully learn photography the proper way. They invest in their gear but they do not invest time and effort and energy to properly study and learn all the aspects, art and craft, of digital photographic imaging. They keep shooting and yet they continue to churn awful pictures, only because, they don’t know any better. You know what they say: GIGO – garbage in, garbage out. Professional photographers, who have spent time and money studying and learning, and practicing, can easily spot them. The untrained photographers who may think they know what they are doing will most likely do not even know how to properly hold a camera up to their eye! They are nothing but “charlatans.” My advise therefore is, if you are serious about photography, and if you want to be competitive and to be respected, you have to pay your dues. You have to spend time, effort and energy to learn photography the right way. You have to learn how to do Photoshop.

And, you have to have talent. Otherwise, you really are nothing but a charlatan. Photoshop or not.

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