You hear it all the time from photographers across the entire range of experience: “I don’t Photoshop my photos.” That photographer is most likely afraid of Photoshop or afraid to disclose that they Photoshop images, and so instead they wrap themselves in this puritanical line as cover.
Don’t fall for it.
I use the term Photoshop in the sense of any photo editor, whether it’s Capture One, Lightroom, Affinity Photo, or whatever you use. Somewhere along the way, it’s probably prudent to edit just a little bit, even if that’s just toning and cropping. You better believe that’s what all the masters did.
Here’s the issue, though: In the era of "fake news", where we get undisclosed Photoshop coming from both the White House and photojournalists, it’s probably time to get to the heart of the issue: As photographers, we need to be telling the truth about our images.
It’s OK to talk about editing your image. I’m of the mindset that every image can use just a bit of toning after it comes out of the camera (and if you can nail it every time, more power to you). I’m also not afraid to say that I composite an image or swap heads on the occasional family photo. I don’t always list the details of editing on family photos, but usually for anything else I’m mentioning it in a caption or in conversation. As long as I’m not holding it out there as photojournalism, pretty much anything goes.
When National Geographic published an amazing photo of an eclipse over the Grand Tetons, it didn’t initially disclose it was a composite illustration and not an actual photo. It took a lot of pressure from the industry and people calling out the photo for this ostensibly journalistic organization to label the photo as such. It’s a mystery as to why National Geographic wouldn’t have either not used this photo or at the very least put this information in a caption so that readers would know that the image they are looking at was faked.
It’s important that all of us with cameras, as visual storytellers with cameras, get back to a basic fundamental behavior: Telling the truth. It’s something that has become lost as “influencers” and photographers try to one up each other on social media every day.
A good place to start would be the photo at the top of this post. Here’s what it really looked like when I went out there:
I had one night in the Valley of Fire and a cloudy sky, and so a composite is what it became. The star shot that made up the sky was one I did at Mount Laguna near San Diego months earlier. Ironically, I had never really thought or had the desire to change out a sky in a photo before, but while editing the photo on an airplane coming back from Las Vegas, I was seated next to a decades-long photojournalist who leaned over and suggested the edit. I’m glad he did.
How do you feel about photo editing? Should editing be disclosed or kept a secret? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.