Between the Bridges

Between the Bridges – by Rocky Berlier ©2007

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Is Using Photoshop “Cheating?”

Hi all,
Well, I thought I'd jump in with my first post to this blog by launching into a RANT about something which continually crops up among photographers these days. Namely, "is the use of Photoshop in photography cheating?"

I can't tell you how many discussions I've had with photographers of all levels on this topic over the past 7 years. It seems as though it will probably continue for years to come as well. Especially, given how much easier the program (and others like it) are becoming for the end-user as well as how many beginners come on-board "the good ship Photoshop" each day.

For people who are savvy about the techniques and methods of photo-control, this question is moot. "Of course, it's NOT cheating!" most would exclaim! However, on the other side of the debate some feel it diminishes the "purity" or convolutes an otherwise straight-forward process of capturing what the eyes see. One member of my club recently even called it "an unfair advantage" of those who use Photoshop over those who don't! Perhaps this is true, however, one could also say that someone has an "unfair advantage" because they have over thirty-years of photographic experience or because they have a more expensive camera and lenses too. However, how do we separate what we know (of our tools) from who we are as artists?

Said another way, women who wear makeup seem to have an "unfair advantage" over those who don't... and those who know more about cosmetics (such as which colors look best with certain skin tones) have an "unfair advantage" over those women who don't. However, isn't this really all about the level of knowledge that one would have if they simply took the patience and persistence to explore? Certainly, life (in general) isn't fair, so, why would photography be any different?

So, does this imply that people who know more about a subject should refrain from using that knowledge because there are others present who don't? How does one do that? Is there a specific level where certain usage of image enhancement is "acceptable", whereas, another level where it has "crossed a line?" How do we determine where this line IS? Also, is Photoshop the only offending program that would be off-limits? How about other software that can "correct" or "enhance" an image? Most cameras these days come with software that can do rudimentary "enhancements" and some can do down-right aggressive manipulations. Should all the camera settings that affect an image be turned-off as well? Is this really maintaining the "purity" of photography or simply a form of censorship which is limiting the creative range? If we collectively agree to this limitation for the sake of purity, does it really keep the art pure or is it, perhaps, a way of "dumbing-down" the process or lowering the standards for the sake of those less knowledgable of their tools?

This also carries an implication that just because Photoshop was used, somehow good photographic skills were completely absent, abandoned or replaced by its use. Personally, this implication offends me. I DO use Photoshop, but to "enhance" my images not "fix" them! I truly hope that a viewer of my work can see a good shot beyond any post-processing I may have done. I believe that with a well developed eye, one can always see the great shot... even through all the techniques used. Then again, perhaps, this too requires an initiation to a deeper level of photography.

Last year I went through a class project that was a tribute to the surrealist René Magritte where I used only "in-camera" techniques to create illusions similar to ones he painted. This was a great exercise, if for nothing else, to show me that I can achieve "in-camera" results that could otherwise be composited in Photoshop. However, compositing isn't the ONLY reason one might use Photoshop.

Here's a set-up I used for one image based on the painting called "Son of Man" by Magritte. The metal boom is holding the hat by a nylon thread and the wooden boom (ala, duct-taped to a tripod) is holding the apple by a thin black thread.

And the final shot:

If you look closely, you can see the black thread in front of the hat but it's virtually invisible in the shot. This set-up literally took weeks in the planning and DAYS in the making. Some might think this was a complete waste of time considering the final shot. God knows, I could have spent even MORE time getting the highlights not to be blown-out or used PS to "fix" numerous things. However, I learned more through doing this exercise than a hundred classes and lectures. I also did several other shots for this project that took an equal amount of time and effort to create (including, building a small room out of foam-board to recreate the apple in a room image as in -"The Listening Room"- from Magritte).

I did use PS to add my signature and a negative crop (the black edges). This web version was also sharpened and Saved for Web through PS. I'm not saying this is a "great" image, just that I DO take my time and contemplate on doing as much as I can "in-camera" before taking a shot. Even for spontaneous shots. I'm always thinking of the Rule of Thirds and trying to find the most interesting angle and composition I can.

Generally, when it comes to art, I take the golfer's philosophy that "I am only competing with myself." My primary focus is simply to take better shots than my last ones.

Every time I take a shot of something that looks very interesting to my eye but the shot comes out bad, I know that I failed to capture what I really saw. After the shot, there are often very simple things that can be done to get the image closer to what I saw with my eyes. Sometimes it's a simple matter of pushing a slider for a better exposure or white balance to reveal what I saw. Other times, it may take a more aggressive or complex process such as bracketing the shot (taking several exposures of the same shot) to composite the complete range of tone and color that I saw with my naked eye. Is this a lie? OR is it using every bit of knowledge I have in a greater attempt at telling the truth?

At the currently level of photographic technology, it is impossible for us to capture what we see with our eyes. Just try shooting someone against a bright background and see what you get without the use of a flash or post-processing technique. With the naked eye, you can see all the color and detail in both the foreground and background, however, the camera-sensor (or film) cannot. In order to put on paper what you actually saw with your eyes, you HAVE to use some kind of photographic technique to widen the dynamic range of the image. This dynamic range limitation has been a frustration of photographers since the very dawn of it's discovery. Photoshop (and other programs like it) offer MANY ways to address this very issue as well as numerous others.

It is truly my objective that when a viewer sees my work that they aren't thinking about the techniques I may have used or how skilled in Photoshop I may be, but rather, how much they like the image. Then again, I also know that getting "what I see" into a photo takes more than just clicking the shutter.

If you take a shot and it doesn't truly look like what you saw with your naked eye BUT it IS a very interesting and artistic shot, is this a "cheat" as well? Or is it just a photographer being "creative?" How about high-key or low-key shots that are just using f/stop and shutter speed to achieve this look? Isn't this a "lie" compared to what was actually seen with the naked eye?

An interesting editorial appears in September's Popular Photography magazine on this very subject (by John Owens). It's titled "Look Ma! No Photoshop!" and it talks at length about how photography has ALWAYS (since it's inception) been "lying" about what it captures.

To prove his point, Owens goes on to show an example of the current "in-camera" work of photographer, Anssi Ranki who shows a particular penchant for surrealistic Dali-esque bending and twisting of people and objects while never touching them with Photoshop (all of it done "in-camera"). Pretty impressive work and very clever method of making it happen (long exposures using "moving" masks).

The conclusion one might make from this is that Photoshop seems to have tugged at a few loose threads in the fabric of photography's presumed fidelity of capturing reality. However, artists all know that capturing pure reality isn't always the goal! The objectives and goals of a photographic artist are, at the very least, subjective and, at the most, simulations of visual reality.

What photographers like Ranki show us is that not only can we do things "in-camera" that are similar to what can be achieved in Photoshop but that they can literally be indistinguishable from each other as well. So too is the work of famous photographer, Jerry Uelsmann, a very well-known and recognizable surrealist photographer (I'm a major fan of surrealism both in photography and art). He does ALL his work in the darkroom and not a lick of Photoshop work on any of it. When you look at his images, this seems virtually impossible!!! Talk about "the dying art" of darkroom skills! Wow! Ironically, his wife Maggie Taylor uses Photoshop exclusively with her work. What an interesting couple!

~ Warmest regards, Rocky

No comments: