Let's Debate: How Much Photoshop Is Too Much?

We recently filmed a video on the validity of Peter Lik's newest "photograph" of the moon, and it got us thinking: how far is too far when it comes to Photoshop? 

I'm not going to transcribe the entire video as it's a pretty long discussion, but we all agreed that different genres of photography call for different levels of reality. Landscape photography is one of those strange genres where opinions differ greatly. Some photographers believe that slight color, clarity, and dodging and burning are the only things that should be done, while others, like Elia Locardi, have no problem focus-stacking, blending time, and replacing skies. 

Moving into other genres like sports or photojournalism, post-processing becomes far less lenient, and most publications may only allow basic global adjustments and simple dodging and burning. 

Retouching in the beauty and fashion world has always been a hot topic. Some say that photographers have created a false sense of reality about what women actually look like, while at the same time, beauty products and plastic surgery are also pushing the boundaries of what is real and natural. 

Watch our discussions above and then let us know what you think. Do different genres of photography call for different levels of post-processing? Should we believe anything that we see anymore? Should we even call ourselves photographers at this point or are we all digital artists? 

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59 Comments

Kawika Lopez's picture

I think as long as an artist is forthcoming about weather an image was composited or captured in camera, I don’t think there needs to be an official “too much” threshhold. At that point, it becomes a matter of personal taste rather than ethics.

Just my humble opinion.

Andrea Re Depaolini's picture

Now this is interesting, the difference between an image and a photograph, I see that most people consider a photograph that comes out of a camera without retouching to be the exact representation of reality. But I have some trouble there because you can modify parameters on your camera, let's say you're taking a picture of a waterfall and you put an ND filter to slow your shutter. That's not reality anymore. Anyway I think that a composite is more digital art than photography.

Andrea Re Depaolini's picture

Yes because it can become a philosophical debate very quickly.

Pieter Batenburg's picture

Even an jpeg is an interpretation of the camera manufacturer how their pictures should look. In the film days, the choice of the film decided for a large part how the picture looked.

Nacho Sarrais's picture

In pre-digital times, how much lab work was too much lab work.
Ansel Adams was more a photographer than an analogic artist or vice versa?
I think he was a image creator.

Lee Morris's picture

Ohhhh you better watch it! Adams is held up as the purest photographer ever.

Nacho Sarrais's picture

Ansel Adams didn’t just “take” photos— he “made” his photographs, through his extensive darkroom work and he is the purest photographer ever, Of course.

Rex Larsen's picture

Adams, the creator of "the zone system" was always clear about his intentions and methods. While he used filters at times, his groundbreaking technique of combining careful exposure and film developing times allowed him to create the tonal range he visualized for his landscapes. Film and digital sensors don't capture light the way our eyes do.

Tamas Nemeth's picture

I think that is a pretty correct treshold. Dodging/burning is fine as overall exposure adjustments, but replacing parts of the image (fx sky) with something else is not so much.
About stacking images it's hard to tell, as that technique was not possible in the same extent at his age - while currently it is not that simple to attach the sensor on a view camera.

Paul Scharff's picture

My understanding is that Ansel Adams put a lot of time into creating his final output in the darkroom -- even to the point of re-releasing photos that he tweaked completely differently years later to create a different look and feel to the same originally-captured image. I cite him a lot to justify normal and ordinary tweaking to images today to others I occasionally run into who think that we should only take the shots as they appear directly OOC.

stir photos's picture

http://www.free-digital-photography-tips.com/images/mackinawbridgeeextra...

personally, i feel like the above is too much, but i know at least one person that might say it's not enough photoshop because with more photoshop he could've fixed what got broke using photoshop too much.

Deleted Account's picture

I don't think there's any fixing that! ;-)

stir photos's picture

indeed

Lee Morris's picture

Can’t tell if this is a photo or a Sega genisis game.

stir photos's picture

ha! i never played the genesis, and sorry for the lame comment, but let's just say we have some new laws in california. haha....

Stas F's picture

I bet you can be famous on instagram if all your pics look like that. Then Fstoppers will write an article about a photographer with a "unique view" and Lee and Patrick will do a tutorial.

stir photos's picture

one day i was hanging out with my grandfather and complaining about some ish in my 15 year old life... he told me, ..." it doesn't matter if you have a car, or a girlfriend, or not the best at sports, just have a plan- that's all you need. how do you think your friend got that girl, what's her name, the skinny one..." haha

stir photos's picture

the amazing part is there are folks who actually like it, who aren't on lsd, and are fully aware it's not 1966 anymore... haha

Stas F's picture

Oh my gosh, Lee Morris (one of the owners of Fstoppers), how much photoshop is too much on a dollar menu? What a double standards, I can't even...

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Swallow your pride and bend your knees in front of your subject. Works even for cheeseburgers :)

Brandon Adam's picture

The left and right are not examples of too much photoshop. They are examples of food prep by a stylist. A McDonalds worker is not going to take a half hour to make your burger look pretty, the stylist will.

Greg Desiatov's picture

I think it simply comes down to what a photographer is trying to portray in their images.

I personally like to do a bit of processing in my images simply because I prefer a more stylized image. With so many photographers in this world now, it's easy to get lost in the noise unless there is something different about ones image.

More often than not, I see peeps bragging about how their image was shot all in camera but the end result is an uninspired and bland image.

Stas F's picture

goodness, that lambo pic tho.

Greg Desiatov's picture

Thanks William,

I'm a big believer in getting it right in camera in the first place and I don't consider your image bland at all as you have spent time on lighting the strobe with an interesting light on the backdrop as well.

I spend a lot of time on my images setting up lighting and angles to find interesting looks but I personally like to take it up a notch and also spend time in post production.

I have found through my experiences that the peeps that will talk about the image being 'authentic' or 'real' are the ones that are usually too lazy or too scared to learn Photoshop and that's fine. As they say, "each to their own".

I have seen many amazing images with no or very little post production but like I said in my post, more often than not, they use the 'authentic' or 'real photograph' schtick to cover their lack of 'craft' in their photography.

Rembrandt and Jackson Pollock are 2 very different artists but they still both produce paintings.

Rex Larsen's picture

I'm a fan of Fstoppers, and proof of that is I just spent 38 minutes watching the long video discussion on Photoshop-altered photographs. With all due respect I consider Fstoppers primarily a retouching website. The vast majority of all images published are heavily processed or retouched. I'm not a fan of heavy-handed altering of images. I do respect the skill to do it.

While I strongly disagree with Patrick that Ansel Adams "used every trick in the book", he made the most profound comment that he no longer trusts every image he sees. That's saying a lot and It makes me sad.
A new word needs to be created because so many images do not deserve to be called photographs. Every day my heart sinks after I see a strong image and then read the word composite. More times than not images are not identified as "illustrations"
Should the fake picture in the video of the cyclist on the office building and the image of an astronaut planting an American flag on the moon both be called photographs ?

Websites that feature Photoshop failures remind me of bullfighters being gored. Bad intentions backfire. Regarding architecture, I travel so I don't appreciate fake hotel and resort pictures.

Another interesting point was made by Lee who brought up the subject of photographers who mix genuine and faked images in their body of work. Steve McCurry of National Geographic fame transitioned to totally staged and Photoshopped work and got caught.

I prefer real photographs. Let's come up with a new word for creative images that aren't real.
Henri Cartier Bresson will thank us.

Royce Dafive's picture

"all images published are heavily processed or retouched..." I'd go so far as to say they aren't even photographs anymore, but just digital artwork.

Studio 403's picture

Good Post. Like someone said, “it is forbidden to forbidden”. I am not in danger of NYT, major print houses and publishers hiring me, So composite is a lovely tool for my budget and age. I can walk down hill, but up hill,.....I hope that lovely mountain top is not more than 100 tal....I made a decision, what I do is mostly artistic projects and composits, a lot of fun. The rub for me is when a photo is used in war time shot or in a crisis to “stage” the shot or add smoke or fire for “efffects” and proports to be “real” and as shot. Now if I see the staff at Fstoppers let a black mamba bite them.....that would be real or would it?? That would be a “killer shot”.

Lee Morris's picture

Why don’t you show us some of your pictures.

Paul Scharff's picture

For landscapes, I'll often retouch beyond brightness/color/contrast//etc. to match what an oil painter might do, such as remove utility poles and lines, fix a dead tree branch, etc. For commercial work, I remove power cords, dewrinkle tablecloths or sheets, and fix scratched furniture or chipped drywall, etc. For people, I'll soften some shadows, bags and lines.

I'll also use PS to enhance the technical component to my output, such as stacking to reduce noise, selective sharpening and clarity, etc.

I think the upshot is that for all my shots, my objective is to have as clean and appealing a shot as possible without people not realizing it's been tweaked at all.

That being said, I love seeing some good compositing and *some* other creative uses of PS and other retouching tools. However, I *hate* over-the-top work, most particularly that awful HDR look that I thought would have fallen out of favor a year after it was introduced, but seems to persist to this day, particularly in real estate work from people that don't know otherwise how to light a room or mask multiple photos to preserve highlights and window pull. (For some reason, extreme HDR always seems to appear when someone shoots an abandoned property [old mental hospital, mall, Chernobyl, etc.] or town, and I cringe when I see it and wonder how it nicely the shots could have looked.)

Alessandro Molinari's picture

When i use Photoshop "a bit too much" (and with too much i mean exactly the examples shown on this article) I honestly feel I am cheating a bit, this is why i prefer to call my work "images" and not "photos". Maybe we could start from here... actually we shall even stop calling ourselves "artists" as long as we are not recognized as them by the history.
But again it is just a personal thought.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I play in two genres architecture and travel and have different ethics that guide both.

For travel, my own ethical standpoint is that if someone else had to take a photo from the same location under similar conditions, they should be able to closely match mine. In other words, I don’t set false expectations by making a brown ocean blue or making mountains taller than they should be.

Architecture fits more in the commercial world where the images are used for advertising. I will never change the structure of a building, but elements that distract from the design, I remove - for example I’ll clean up a messy lawn. With architecture, you do a lot of editing before taking the photo like moving furniture, cleaning windows or balancing light with external light.

Jonathan Ferland-Valois's picture

Isn't it all fine as long as there's no deception? I mean, we have access to the best tools the world has ever known to process images. I'm more on the side to let everything go, again, so long as there's no deception. Here I include a photo I took from my gym's rooftop. I went up there with the other guys to take a look at the amazing sunset that was happening. I took a photo of it. One single frame. I had to process it heavily to make it pop as much as it did in real life. And I'm not talking about just adjusting the saturation (I actually only boosted it by 20% in raw). I adjusted the white balance, but then I duplicated the shot and corrected the sky's colors in one shot to make the reds more intense. Then I set that correction layer's mode to multiply with an opacity of 50% (in Darktable). The I exported both duplicates and loaded them in GIMP, then manually blended the corrected sky onto the original city, since gradients didn't look good enough to me. It took a long time, masking everything at 800%. But it did make the texture of the clouds pop a lot more, and made the sky more dramatic (probably more than in real life, but not by a long shot at all). It's pretty heavy processing. But I, alongside the other guys who watched the sunset, remember it being very intense, which I think this photo makes it justice.

Jon Dize's picture

Oh for crap sake. Are you artists or not? Unless you are a JOURNALIST, why would anyone care at all about Photoshop? EVERY IMAGE IS MANIPULATED as I stated 10 years ago... http://dizeman.com/photoshopyesno/

davidlovephotog's picture

Okay this topic is right up my alley. If I had the money to build sets, close down streets, hire production crews and stunt people, then I could save myself hours of work and play more video games. But the clients I have come to me because I can help them create what they want without any of that. Like the samples below, didn't have the actual set so created it, she doesn't have two identical sisters and 3, we didn't want her or spider-man to fall to their deaths.

What I always loved about movie posters is that while walking through a theater lobby, the way a poster looks can make you want to know more or see that movie without knowing anything more about it. I either like creating the poster or a scene paused that makes you want to hit play and see what happens next. The picture of the moon behind rocks doesn't tell me a story and because of everything being close to the same focus, I figured it was fake.

Only flaw in your conversation is you already know the story of whether something was shopped or a street was closed off so you judge less on your first view than on the work behind it. And as far as work, compositing can take me 4 - 16 hours per image. And I want people to know I use Photoshop because in my line, it sets me apart and they know they can have their character or model in a scene, or using a lightsaber or magic, etc. Otherwise my images would be of people in a parking lot outside a convention like most of the others.

It always comes down to do you like what you see. Nothing else matters and changing your mind because of how it was done isn't realistic because most people don't care. In the same way that me not liking a singer for using auto-tune in the studio, doesn't matter to their fans.

Liam Doran's picture

Great conversation. For editorial sports, yes it has to be real. No composites. No deleting of any elements of the images except for dust spots. Certainly no added elements would ever be allowed. Many of the editors I work with demand DNG images so they can see every move made in LR. Exposure, contrast, saturation, b+w conversion and cropping is about all thats allowed. I once deleted a tiny twig in a bike photo and when it went to print they put the twig back in.

Lukas Petereit's picture

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Jon Dize's picture

Absolute nonsense. Real photographers? I mention a few Real Photographers in my prose. The differentiation is ESOTERICUSSBULLSHITICUS! http://dizeman.com/photoshopyesno/

heikoknoll's picture

thanks for the interesting discussion - I´m actually looking forward to more of this kind of content. As for me, I think a landscape photographer should be advised to use the NatGeo rule: "The only Photoshop adjustments the publication allows are changes that show how the photographer saw the real scene." If you can´t get the image you want in this way, put it in the garbage bin.

Lee Morris's picture

I understand this perspective but if this were true, every famous landscape photographer wouldn't have a job.

Rex Larsen's picture

I'm not so sure about that, Lee. Not that long ago photographers were turning in chromes. Real trumps altered all day long. The viewer may be easily fooled but the shooter always knows if real light and real moments were captured. Profit and quality are two different things.

Julian Ray's picture

Let's Debate: How Much Debate Is Too Much?

Steve Bryant's picture

This had the basis of a being a good debate, but unfortunately got so lost in too many things:
- "How much photoshop is too much photoshop". The simple answer is it doesn't matter, the resulting image is what it is.

The actually issue is about the honesty of the photographer and the image - all photographers IMHO should just be honest right up front and say whether it's a photo they took or they made.
If you like the actual photo, it doesn't matter how it was done.
If you're assessing the photo for something other form of critique (creating the scene, lighting, danger etc) then it's important to know if a composite or not.

The hotel lobby view - it's an honest thing. If used to sell the hotel, it's a lie and should never be used no matter how it's done. If it's just being used as a general hotel lobby view, it's fine.

And I've just actually read the comment from Kawika Lopez below/above, who has summarized this point much more betterer... LOL! :o)

Marko Solic's picture

I've written about this topic extensively. The problem is that most people don't really understand photography, and those who do usually don't understand physical and biological fundamentals of the world they live in. Wrong assumptions lead to wrong conclusions.
https://petapixel.com/2015/03/10/why-complaining-about-photos-being-phot...

Anton Averin's picture

With landscapes in mind, just recently there have been lengthy discussions on Facebook on the topic of post-processing. You can find posts of Daniel Greenwood, Alex Nail, Matt Paine and mine.
The gist of it, from my perspective, art should not be bound by any borders, but art consumers should be able to make an informed decision on which kind of art they want to see. Meaning, there should be a easily seen distinction between digital art and photography. Or, if you put = between these two, we should have another word for photographs that don't have 'too much' Photoshop, that still represent reality, photographs that are painted with light and color given by nature, not software.
I believe it is time to separate photography into different schools, similar to the way it happened with paintings.

Michael B. Stuart's picture

I always find this argument amusing with how polarized it can be. If someone wants to edit the hell out of a photo, good for them. It is, after all, an art form, not simply a surveillance record. I do believe people should be forthcoming and not try to deceive the fact that something is edited. But, at the same time, this is probably in response to the pushback from purists that too much editing makes it no longer a photograph or something.
If you don't want to post process, you don't have to. But don't have a holier than thou attitude about it all.
No such thing as too much. It is all a matter of subjective taste.

Matt Payne's picture

It is a timeless debate but I think it’s worthy of thoughtful discussion and analysis. I wrote a very long article on it here: http://www.mattpaynephotography.com/blog/2018/2/Pretty-Little-Lies

Pieter Batenburg's picture

Hard to say. If you look at commercial photography involving models, most pictures are photoshopped upto the hilt. You can argue whether or not that is good. I have no real answer to this.

darren squires's picture

personally I totally fell out with photoshop as soon as I discovered the various raw editors - not only Lightroom but Camera Raw, Rawtherapee and Darktable. Maybe it's because of what I shoot, but why Photoshop?? It doesn't actually feel like a photographers tool. I've used it for posters and similar graphics projects, but I really don't see it as a photographers' tool these days.

Beth Rodda's picture

In my mind this is pretty simple. You must first determine the purpose of the photograph. There are nuances, but for this discussion, let's keep to three: photojournalism; advertising photography, fine art photography. Photojournalism: Nothing beyond adjusting exposure, removing dust spots and perhaps minor cropping. Even minor cropping is questionable. Advertising Photography: You're selling a product. Make it look as good as possible without warping the reality of the product. Go ahead and smooth out the finish on a car. Adjust the lighting in the hotel, but don't remove pillars. Fine art photography: Anything goes. The photographer sets the parameters—everything done in camera, or partial or all composited or adjusted in Photoshop. Their choice.

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