Photoshop is cheating!


“I only use a camera like I use a toothbrush. It does the job.”

– Don McCullin

All of the photographs on this website and my flickr stream are Photoshopped. I adjust the contrast, fine tune the white balance, and tweak the sharpness. I clone stamp out dust blots and power lines. I apply graded layer masks to create dramatic skies that did not really exist. I am quite happy to share this fact. Some people, for reasons best known to themselves, would think this a shameful admission.

I can not explain those people who consider the use of Photoshop to be a form of “cheating”, except to speculate that they must be cretins. Perhaps they think that once a photograph has been through Photoshop adjustments, it is not a true representation of the scene that was shot. It is not what theysaw. They must think that cameras themselves are objective instruments. Well, since when has any photograph looked like what you saw? You have a camera that takes photographs that match your eye for depth of field, sharpness, colour perception, focal length, field of view, distortion, and tonal range? A fascinating machine that must be, but what a boring range of images it must take.

Cameras are not objective. Their construction determines dozens of deviations from the world as we see it, and photographers take advantage of these to picture the world as the human eye could never see it. The human eye has no telephoto, no macro, no panorama. Cameras can do noir , with monochrome and grain, or vivid sunlit landscapes in colours that we do not see. Add a tripod and they can do long exposures of dark details and flowing water, or ultra-fast exposures of bullets frozen in the air. Add filters and they can see polarised light or the infrared spectrum. Add lensing and they can see particles in an accelerator, or galaxies thirteen billion years in the past. No Photoshop needed.

Perhaps it’s not that cameras are objective, it’s just that photographers should not need to use Photoshop. They should be able to get the right image using their skill in handling the camera. A good photographer should be able to create the right image by intelligent use of aperture and shutter speed, filters and lighting. Using Photoshop is an admission that one failed to use the camera properly. Like Ansel Adams didn’t fiddle with his pictures in the darkroom. Like photographers haven’t been dodging and burning, cropping and airbrushing for more than a century. Photoshopping isn’t new. It’s just easier and better than it was.

In the right hands, a cheap Russian film camera can take some nice photos (nice photos that look nothing like the world as we see it,incidentally). A great musician can make a cheap acoustic guitar produce beautiful music. But what a boring world it would be if every photo was made with a Lomo, and every piece of music played on an Argos guitar. Where would rock and roll be if quality amplifiers were considered “cheating”? Imagine if film and television techniques were considered to be cheating, and that a talented director should be able to produce a good drama just by putting a stationary camera in the perspective of an audience member at the theatre. Imagine if Watson and Crick’s model was a cheat, because good scientists should be able to figure out structures just by pondering on x-ray crystallography pictures?*

Why would anybody who wished to produce something of quality refuse to use the tools available to them?

* oh, wait, some people think this, too.

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