Is Photoshop Ruining Your Craft and Confidence?

Is Photoshop Ruining Your Craft and Confidence?

I don't know about the rest of you, but when it comes to comparing my work to others, I'm a sucker for punishment. Try as I might, I can't help but peruse the latest trade magazines when I'm cruising the bookstore, avoiding the editing I should be doing at home. And without fail, something catches my eye that makes my jaw drop. In this day and age when so much of the great work out there is heavily Photoshopped, should we be so quick to compare our own work to it?

Let's be upfront about this: photography has always been about image manipulation. From the beginning, we've been taking a baseline image and attempting to make it better after the fact. Whether it be in the traditional darkroom, creating emulsion lifts, hand-painting prints or negatives, or working with post-processing software, photographers have never been happy with what comes out of the camera. The difference between a lot of these techniques and manipulation through the computer is that this manipulation is fairly removed from the photographic process. You're dealing with data as opposed to something you created that you can touch and feel. As such, it requires a different skillset that some may be lacking in. As the gulf of required knowledge, size of images, and the necessary hardware and software becomes more and more complex, it's easy to fall behind in post-processing skill. So, does that make you a less capable photographer?

Mike, 4x5, TMAX-400

When you can't produce what is becoming industry standard work because of a lack of software knowledge, the temptation is to see yourself as less than. Well I'm here to tell you: Don't do it. Don't beat yourself up. All of the photography work you see out there started in one place: with something to take the image and a mind behind it. There was a recording tool of some sort, a medium to hold that image, and someone calling the shots. The rest is where the craft comes in. Craft encompasses all the skills you need to capture the image in the way you want. Did you see the image in your head beforehand and does it look like you imagined it? If yes, then you succeeded. If not, keep trying.

Mike, 4x5, TMAX-400

I don't want to get into the "Is photography an art?" question here, but one thing that's for sure is that photography is a technical craft. If you do want to compare yourself to others, don't worry as much about your artistic interpretation versus theirs. It's all subjective, and you'll only end up getting down on yourself. Rather, look at the work of others in terms of craft. Is it technically sound? Where does the eye lead you? Does the image say anything? Does the exposure look right? Tons of tricks can make an image seem better than it is (at least to you). Forget about all that. Get down to brass tacks. Does the image work? If you like an image, break it apart and find the light sources. Figure it out. But don't compare their art to yours. You do you. 

L.A., 4x5, Portra 400

Of course, it's easy to say "don't worry about the art of it." But that doesn't really work. So, here's my advice, such that it is: worry about the craft. The art will come. The more techniques you can apply, the bigger your toolbox and the more things you'll try. You'll take more risks, and your work will take on its own character. There's where the art lies. It's in-between craft and your mind. You want to be a better artist? Be a better technician. Learn the craft of photography first. 

Jessica, 4x5, Portra 400

As for Photoshop, too often it's used as an excuse to cover up a lack of skill. There are those that take an image to use purely as a component of a digital illustration. Great! That's not what I'm talking about here. Use Photoshop as that final lacquer on the project and not as a cover-up, unless, of course, the software is integral to your final vision. If you want to be a better photographer, step away from the computer, pick up your camera, and work harder at it. Fail, fail, and fail again. I know I do! Don't just fix it in post. Get it right in the present. If you'd rather rip your eyes out than stare at Photoshop, don't do it. Outsource it. Or find a way to make it less painful for yourself. Keep building that toolbox. I guarantee you'll be a stronger artist on the other side.

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26 Comments

Sean Berry's picture

Photoshop is part of photography now. I don't think its an excuse to cover up lack or skill, but to show another type of skill. Photoshop is part of the craft.

Graham Glover's picture

I just took 200 still shots of my 24/7 model, my mannequin: half at 1/25s at FL 24mm, f/4, and half at 1/100s at FL 105mm, f/4, ISO to give me the light I need, image stabilization off, pre-shoot coffee levels low. It's like a musician playing scales. Yes, I can freeze everything with a flash and/or high shutter speed, but this is all about what I can do to hold the camera steady by myself. Lightroom is great, and so is Photoshop, but I agree that neither should be the patch for bad photography.

Michael Kormos's picture

Hans, great post. I've recently had an interesting revelation after watching Adorama's "Top Photographer". It made me realize just how many of the Facebook/Instagram photographers with massive followings would absolutely fail to make it past the first round in that series.

They were expected to deliver the final image straight out of the camera, and I could name a handful of "photographers" who would shudder to the bone at the sound of that.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I hear ya. And it's tough because PS work has become integral to a lot of artist's processes. It's part of their look. That's why I'm careful to say that I'm not anti-photoshop. But it's part of the process and not the whole thing. Different tool for a different job. The icing goes on the outside of the cake. A cake made out of nothing but icing would be...well, gross. But you know what I mean.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I find that Photoshop has a tendency to destroy the first impressions on images out of camera. We shoot for such a transformative change in post that images are becoming less and less exciting, in camera, for a lot of photographers. Myself included. This has both the downside of making the photographer less enthusiastic while shooting but also create a "let down" when the client looks at proofs. They expect to see photos similar to your portfolio and even if you explain to them final images represent hours of post work that first impression is still a "let down".

Dave McDermott's picture

Interesting post. This is something I've been thinking about for a while now. The most popular photos on this site are almost always heavily retouched, a lot of which wouldn't be to my liking. It sometimes seems more like a retouching site than a photography site. In saying that, I feel like I could be doing so much more with Photoshop and its the one area that I probably need to work on the most.

Then again I recently saw the new Pirelli calendar and I can really appreciate that sort of work. Some of my favourite photographers do very little retouching, but generally its the heavily retouched photos that get the most attention.

Sam Foto's picture

Amen to that! It seems we're in the minority here. To add to that, when I look at the most popular photos (especially portraits) they tend to look the same with the "Dani Diamond" stamp on each.

Dave McDermott's picture

Yep, so many are trying to replicate that look and for the most part its overdone. But that would appear to be the standard nowadays. It kind of annoys me when I see a beautiful natural portrait that goes largely unnoticed and then I see another that has been photoshoped into oblivion and it gets so much reaction. I'm not anti retouching by any means but there's a time and place for it.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Why do people say things like "As for Photoshop, too often it's used as an excuse to cover up a lack of skill." It's not. I am very skillful and photoshop is an essential part of my workflow. As it is with every photographer I know except for an old school film and darkroom guy.
Do you also say burning or dodging, pulling or pushing film in a dark room is also a cover up for lack of skill? I think even AA using the Zone System burned and dodged.
If you want to have no excuses then maybe you should shoot trans / slide film. SOOC. Pass or Fail. Use bracketing or snip tests as a crutch... Maybe a polaroid or two. Or shoot film and enlarge it optically...Like the good old days.
Digital captures are like negatives that can be interpreted many different ways, just like the darkroom but a lot easier and more room for creativity. Maybe it's a tweak or a half day of retouching (aka darkroom work)
I have a friend who is very proud that he shoots with no filters and very very little photoshop. Trouble is that his work looks 25% unfinished. Has a 90s look to it and not the cool 90s....

Hans Rosemond's picture

As I addressed in the second paragraph, what you do to the photograph after the picture is taken is absolutely part of the process. However, too often people take shortcuts to get to a result and I think they're doing a disservice to themselves.

I currently do not use Photoshop. Some while ago, the local camera club had a "Show and Tell" theme of panoramas. I was going to leave it to the Photoshop guys to participate.
But I thought "Why not?" I've used Corel Paint Shop Pro for many years and I found a video where I can stitch images together in Paint Shot Pro. Plus, I was going against "the grain", or rather with "the grain" since at that time, my camera was a film camera. To me, it made sense to go full manual, to avoid any shifts in exposure.
This photo was with three frames of Kodak Ektar 100, Canon A-1, FD 28mm f2.8.
https://www.flickr.com/photos/ralphhightower/8436105383/in/album-72157633129780373/

Hilton Public Boat Ramp Panorama
Robert Raymer's picture

I think similar feelings lead me back to film a few years ago and lead me to shoot just as much, if not more film that digital currently. While shooting exclusively digital, and especially as I improved not only in photography but ironically also in my technical skill and understanding I felt like what I was doing was less and less photography in the true sense and more digital image creation/manipulation. There is nothing wrong with this by any means, and even I still strive to get better and better at it every day so that I can continue to compete. That said, I feel that there are few photographers, even (or perhaps especially) among those who have large social media followings and who many people think of immediately when asked about a good photographer, who have the technical skills to be able to create the same level of work with film. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, but for me the return to film has brought me back not only to my roots so to speak, but has restored a love for shooting the image itself that I was starting to lose, while at the same time forcing me to improve, which has been having a positive effect on my digital work as well.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

I am the opposite of you Robert, if I had to shoot film and do everything the film way from color correction and filters at the time of exposure, waiting days for processing if I sent it out to using an enlarger and chemicals to keep true to the "analog" side I wouldn;t do it. I ahve always hated darkroom work....Today my work is 1000% better (in most cases) because of my ability in photoshop, but I may be just covering up my lack of darkroom skillz.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I agree here. I'm a hybrid shooter. I love the experiemce of shooting film, but will scan and post process in PS to get the look I want.

Also, let's all be real about film... it requires just as much post as digital with more inconvenience to boot. If you want to shoot film, it has to be for the love of the medium because the post is definitely a painnunless youre sending it to a lab. Then it's just a pain for someone else.

Scott Hays's picture

".............if I had to shoot film and do everything the film way from color correction and filters at the time of exposure, waiting days for processing if I sent it out to using an enlarger and chemicals to keep true to the "analog" side I wouldn't do it. I have always hated darkroom work....Today my work is 1000% better (in most cases) because of my ability in Photoshop, "

Just to make a comment on this one sentence. And I'm not saying anything to you personally, it's just an observation. I'm one of those that still prefers photography. Not that it is just one of those things that is a novelty or something like that, but I truly believe there is a definite quality difference. Film being superior. But that's a different article all together.

But here is what I wanted to say. While as a professional photographer with film, I could have counted the number of professional photographers in a city of 150,000 people on both hands. Once the camera's like the Canon Rebel and that level of camera got to even $1000.00 and everyone in the country started to get them for Christmas, their Birthdays, etc... and the first Photoshop programs started to come out; everyone started to become a photographer. Professional at that. Suddenly you saw Uncle Fred, my sister, your best friend becoming "professional photographers" and selling an 8x10 for $5.00. Within a year of that time all you heard about was My........ is a professional photographer. I kept shooting film for an incredible amount of time for the simple fact my clientele were asking for it.

Now, if we were good, we kept our prices were we were for the simple fact the other guys were picking up people that really weren't our customers. However, jump ahead another 5 years, and suddenly the public started to loose their vision of what "quality" was. And I don't care what anyone says, it was in part due to the fact that the digital movement that made photography so much more simple, and people didn't have to send off anywhere, it was immediate, they could see what they were shooting, and quite honestly they didn't even go into Photoshop for the most part. And since people really weren't paying much and getting a disk with 200 images on it they were never going to print anyway; they just didn't care about the quality. Another couple of years later, people even stopped using those photographers. Why? The quality had gotten so bad, now everyone had a digital camera, DSLR or point and shoot. They could do the same thing everyone else was doing. They didn't need to pay anyone. Guess what happened next? Phones... So, no one was really shooting professionally. Just hobby or for travel. Digital? Slowly but surely everyone became a professional because they didn't have to send it off, pay for it, they could just give away crap. Well, they had put their film cameras away if they had them. They have a great digital camera. Then phones came in. Digital cameras went on the shelves... here is their phone. Some people buy a new phone every year. The believe in the higher the pixel. the better the camera theory. There are people out there having gallery shows from their phones now.

So, anyone can get a digital camera of any level right now, including a phone and become a professional photographer. I've seen articles on this forum about using your phone for............. So yes, Digital is much easier. But what has it really done for the professional life of so many photographers. (oh, I did get a digital eventually. Still stayed primarily film, but did start using digital. Still shoot both, but love my film)

My opinion is that Photography is in the end communication, and as in any other types of communication it has its own language. The same way our spoken language has evolved and changed with time so has Photography. Today we use the best Raw processors and we apply the best techniques we can to make our images communicate with the language that people today appreciate and understand.
No doubt that at the very core of the message is the concept, the idea, what you have or had in mind what counts. The same is valid if you write a wonderful novel or you take a wonderful photograph.
I believe anyone would agree though that in the old film days no one having an art portfolio would have it made of "1 hour photo" labs prints. Same thing applies today, it's a cool thought to say "I don't need Photoshop because I can do it perfect in camera" but it simply doesn't apply everywhere.
It may be true for journalism and documentary where you want a 1-1 representation of the reality, but if you want to deliver a message, if you are aiming at representing an idea, then you'll use post editing tools, whatever you prefer, Photoshop is just the best available.
Finally at the bottom of it there will always be few incredible artists around and a whole lot of crappy crafters, as anywhere else, as always.

Joseph Drago's picture

I've recently seen some out of camera / final image comparisons from some of my favorite portrait photographers only to realize that all of them rely less on getting it right in camera and instead are just really amazingly talented photo editors (or in some cases outsource to really amazing photo editors). Nothing wrong with that of course. They are still amazing images. I love using photoshop myself but I've found that shooting is more enjoyable when you learn how to manipulate light at point of capture and that's what I'll keep striving for as a photographer. Photoshop just makes it much easier to get high quality images from what would be considered mediocre exposures. When I started really learning photoshop a few years ago I was constantly in disbelief and at odds with myself about spending thousands of dollars on bodies and lenses to capture every pimple, pore, hair, wrinkle and imperfection only to erase, cover up, change and otherwise alter it in photoshop.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Very very few people who are serious photographers are SOOC ...http://petapixel.com/2013/09/12/marked-photographs-show-iconic-prints-ed...

Joseph Drago's picture

Acknowledged and agreed.

Antonio Carrasco's picture

Great Post... I want to get to the point to where I can hire a retoucher that can focus on that so I can focus on photography. The hardest part is admitting that you're not the best at everything and it can still be YOUR work, even if it's not just you working on it.

Matthias Dengler's picture

I actually have a totally different perception of Photoshop or let's say post-production.
You said "Rather, look at the work of others in terms of craft. Is it technically sound? Where does the eye lead you? Does the image say anything? Does the exposure look right?"
Browsing through Instagram leads my to the factual answers:
- Is it technically sound? - NO
- Where does the eye lead you?- NOWHERE
- Does the exposure look right? - NOT AT ALL

Most of the people and photographers use some weird filters and VSCO app stuff, instead of learning the craft properly. Everyone likes that stuff. No one appreciates proper edits anymore. I'm sitting there in Photoshop for hours each day to get out the most detail of my pictures. The successful ones just apply a filter, blow out the highlights and shadows and everyone likes that sh**. It doesn't seem to be essential to learn anything anymore. Just by a 5D Mark III shoot in Auto, apply VSCO and upload. So for what did I spend my time to learn Photoshop? (Okay, I'm a full time retoucher, maybe that's why) But the thing is, applying presets seems to be more legitimate than Photoshop. I get asked every week "You're pictures are super nice, but you "photoshopped" them?" When I start talking about VSCO or Instagram filters then, no one sees an issue with that.

So I feel like actually falling behind, but NOT because of a lack of knowledge of Photoshop, but because I'm learning my craft properly. I don't want to blow out highlights and shadows, I don't want blurry and grainy pictures, but when it coms to it, everyone loves that stuff. Nowadays every fool can earn money with photography.

PS: All those VSCO users have 100k followers and more. When they are interviewed they talk about individualism, but in fact they do all the same stuff. Photography is becoming more an more hypocrite.

PSS: Sorry for all the frustration I expressed, but it felt good.
maybe someone can help me to get a better perception.

Matthias, I sympathize deeply with your post.

What you're describing is what I believe is the paradox of good craftsmanship. There is a point when a photographer gets good enough at the craft that it actually starts to make his work less popular with the crowd. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important is something from Gestalt psychology called an "abstraction." When an image lacks detail (blown highlights, poor focus, motion blur) and when there are color shifts beyond neutral 5500k then the viewer adds information from his own memory to compensate for the missing detail and inaccurate color/tonality in the image.

All of this occurs so quickly and unintentionally that the viewer is completely unaware that it's even happening. In the end, it means that the viewer actually becomes a part of the creation of the image rather than just a passive viewer. This act of creation on the viewer's behalf is the destruction of the individuality of the artist's viewpoint. The crowd will always be drawn to the photographers that give them the most abstractions because this helps them to get emotionally involved with the images. If you'll notice, almost all of the easily applied filters in digital imaging create abstractions and that is why they are so instantly popular with the crowd.

So how do good craftsmen overcome this paradox? They don't overcome it, but instead understand it and use it to their advantage. They start to avoid the opinions of the crowd and instead seek out connoissuers. Consequently, their audience becomes smaller and more elite. Or, they carefully learn to employ small elements of abstraction into their own work purposely in order to entice the crowd and strike a balance between elite and popular taste.

Don't be discouraged, Matthias. The very fact that you were able to discover this paradox intuitively and on your own is an indication of talent. Real artists always figure this out eventually without ever needing to be told by others.

Just some thoughts....hope it helps

Matthias Dengler's picture

Wow, thank you so much! Your explanation sounded really reasonable. And I can understand it. I also usually say, it's not about the amount of followers. I want to attract big clients. Then you cannot do such a poor editing. So I have to stick to my guns and persist. Thanks for your explanation.

At the same time your post was really encouraging and inspiring, especially the part of implementing abstract elements into my pictures. Thanks for your help and all the time invested to write this article. You made my day!

Thanks very much for the kind words. I really appreciate the post.

Best of luck to you!

Great post, so true!

Scott Hays's picture

Photographers or Photoshop-ographers? So here is what I do remember way back in those old days.. when we had to suffer through loading film. More times than not, we were photographers, then there were the guys at the lab who were printers, then at the lab there were the guys who specialized in retouching the negatives. A lot of us did do our own black and white work in our own dark rooms, but the number of people who actually touched up their own negatives were few and far in-between when you looked at the number of people who had someone else do it. You had the option of being a photographer or driving yourself nuts in trying to retouch a negative. Try it some time. Aaaargh. Ok, the point:

Today you can go out and shoot with digital until your heart is content plus some. Unfortunately to many photographers do that without ever really paying attention to what they are getting when they shoot. The is a mind set, if they realize they are doing it or not of "I can just delete it". With that, they really don't frame, they don't pay as close of attention to their metering, and the list can go on. So after deleting about 90% of the images they took, they now take a mediocre image (not all photographers, I want to point that out) and do the best they can at trying to correct the exposure and crop it to where it should be. They are relying on Photoshop to do the work.

If you have never shot film, imagine yourself (medium format just for kicks); having maybe 15 images on one roll of film. Your film cost and developing cost are going to run you a about $1.50 per image. Keeping that in mind, you don't just start shooting with the idea of "I'll just throw out the ones I don't like". You suddenly start cropping in the view finder. Your metering is right on cue. You maybe shoot 2 images of one scene. However, you trust your abilities. You know what you are going to get back. So the idea that you are going to be touching up every negative or doing something off the wall is not running through your mind.

I challenge students to cover the back of their dslr, and they can't shoot any more than 15 images at a time. They don't have a problem with the challenge until they realize they can't look at the back of their camera and they have to trust their metering. Drives them crazy.

Bottom line... yes, in the dark room we would dodge and burn. Someone else would more than likely do our negative retouching, but we already knew what we were getting. I think someone that has shot film did understand working with light and shadows much better for the simple fact we had to.

So consider the fact of are so many of today's photographers "photographers", or are so many of them more "Photoshop-ographers"?