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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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


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! ;-)

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.

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