Stop Acting Like 'Photoshop' Is a Verb

Stop Acting Like 'Photoshop' Is a Verb

"Is that Photoshopped?" We've all heard it; we might have even said it at one time. But the reality is that it's a ridiculous question in the first place because "Photoshop" is not a verb. Perhaps those asking the question are simply asking the wrong question, because quite frankly, it shouldn't matter whether Photoshop was used or not.

I know, I know, there are more than plenty conflicting opinions out there concerning whether one should alter their images or not. For starters, consider this: if you, the artist, like what you are looking at, then it really shouldn't matter how you created it, nor should it matter what anyone else thinks of it. Now, if you intend to sell this particular piece of art, whether photograph or digital illustration or anything else, then it very much matters what other people think of it; otherwise, you might not make any money. At this point, it's really up to you to decide what (and how) to communicate to your clients about the artwork itself.

A before/after comparison of an image processed solely in Adobe Lightroom.

This applies to a wide range of digital artwork, but since we focus mainly on photography here, the topic today is centered around producing photographic images and how you go about creating what it is that you publish for display of any kind. Most of you who read this are probably already familiar with how pictures were created before the digital age, but just in case you aren't, here's a very simple overview. Before digital cameras, images were captured on film, a tangible medium, as a negative of what you were seeing. The negative was then developed through a chemical process making it no longer sensitive to light, at which point light was shot through the negative to project the image on light sensitive paper (or other print formats). The print paper was then processed in a series of chemical solutions to make the image permanent and no longer sensitive to light. 

Darkrooms were designed specifically to bring images from film negatives and process them to a viewable display format. There were and are still a myriad of things that the developer can do to an image while processing it in the darkroom. There are techniques for spot removal, filters for contrast, methods for dodging, burning, vignetting, and even ways to splice images for double exposures and sky replacements. Granted, it all takes a lot more time in a wet lab photo shop than it does in the software program Photoshop. But the methods used weren't designed, developed, or used to try to create anything other than the best possible product. Perhaps now it is more clear why using "Photoshop" as a verb really is just silly. You wouldn't look at print of a film negative and ask if it was "darkroomed," because you know that it's a stupid question. Realistically, the same rule really ought to apply to today's digital darkrooms such as Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One, and any other program you chose to take your digital negatives from camera to display.

A before/after comparison of an image processed solely in Adobe Lightroom.

Now, before our purists freak out too much further, we should probably talk about the difference between photography and graphic artistry. A lot of the difference between photography and graphic art is simply the amount of manipulation or compositing that takes place in an image. A photograph is usually processed, either in a digital darkroom or if left alone, then it still has the "image processing" from the camera manufacturer's design that decides how the image looks. But processing an image is different than altering an image in ways to add elements that weren't there or to remove elements that were there. Again, it really shouldn't matter as long as you play to the correct audience. For example, it wouldn't do to alter an image by removing people from it and adding in a new sky and describing it as what you saw in person, because it would be false representation. 

Unless you're trying to document something specific, record the reality of an event, or present your image as true to scene, then image alteration should really be up to your own personal taste. There are more than a few photographers out there who have built some incredibly successful careers by creating and selling images that have elements within them that didn't exist when the shutter was pushed for the original photograph. To most people, it really won't matter whether Photoshop was used or not, unless you claim that the image is unaltered. Of all the photographers, retouchers, and digital artists out there, Peter Stewart is one of my favorites. His work is a solid mix of works that were merely processed, as well as others that were more dramatically enhanced using the refined tools available in Photoshop. In fact, he doesn't even try to hide the fact that he uses Photoshop to embellish some of his pieces; he has an entire gallery of before and after comparisons. In fact, I would recommend taking a look at his before and after gallery simply because it can give you a good idea about how much can be done for a single image by using compositing techniques and other advanced image editing procedures.

A before/after comparison of a three-image HDR blended image processed both in Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop.

Adobe has done some incredible things over the years both with Photoshop and Lightroom to create some incredibly powerful image-handling programs. Even just processing an image in Lightroom, where you don't have the ability for any advanced masking or manipulation, you can still take a digital negative and adjust it in ways to create something truly unique, depending on what you want it to look like. Another reality to consider is simply the fact that there isn't a camera out there that can capture anything quite as well as the human eye sees it in person. Try as you might, your eyes are still going to have more advanced technology than whatever camera you tote around with you.

At the end of the day, really, who cares if you use (or don't use) Photoshop? Or Lightroom? Or any other program out there that handles digital photographs? What should really matter to you is that you take pride in whatever work you produce, and if you can't do that, then maybe it's time to reevaluate how you go about creating whatever it is that you create. The trick, really, is to simply present your work for precisely what it is. If you add new skies or manipulate your photos, then just don't tout them as true to life. Easy, right? There are plenty of amazing artists out there who play both sides of this field and create some incredibly inspiring images. Why let something like a fake verb hold you back?

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Matthew Cohen's picture

I think the last point, about the eye being more powerful than the camera, is the most important. Because by nature, a shot without any form of post processing isnt representing what you saw with your own eyes any more than a processed one is.

And because of that, in reality the processed photo is more true to life in some ways because you can make changes to bring the image closer to what you saw compared to what the image shows.

Bradley Lucas's picture

..and you only need to look at the best photographers from the old days when film was still fairly new and everything was 'processed' and 'manipulated' to eventually make the final photo, dodging and burning was just done by painfully testing strips of exposure and noting down what was right.
Then the creating of card cutouts feathered if needed with some scissors to use literally blindly while exposing your paper to add or hold back exposure over certain elements of a shot...

Photoshop has made that so that a single image doesnt take you all day to work out! Hats off to both methods in my head... nice work everyone whatever your method

Bradley Lucas's picture

The perfect example from pablo here on fstoppers

Processed whatever way you look at it, whether darkroom, lightroom or photoshop.

Jen Photographs's picture

Semantics. Google isn't - wasn't, really - a verb either, but it is generally accepted in verb form now. "I googled that for you." Photoshop is a little easier and simpler to say than "digitally manipulated." An average person isn't asking about the specific software, Photoshop, when they ask if you photoshopped it. They're asking if you /edited/ it.

user-156929's picture

I was equally amused and aggravated! :-)

Aaron Bratkovics's picture

I'm going to get a milkshake now.


Joseph Ellis's picture

That's funny and the first thing I thought when I started reading... obviously the point is still well made.

Simon Patterson's picture

It's a pity that the "attention grabbing" bit of the article and headline was so obviously wrong, as you have demonstrated. It means that his very worthwhile point is largely lost : that what matters is what we present our work as, not how we create it.

stir photos's picture

just seems like vernacular to me... i spoke to a woman the other day who must've said the word 'like' 25 times in our brief conversation at starbucks. haha! but yeah, i guess i feel the author on his point, i just don't get too wrapped up in the 'controversy' of it all. but it does seem funny back in the day, 'ah man, his work is dark-roomed'

Jon Kellett's picture

Due to the sheer number of immensely talented digital artists, I always feel like a deer caught in the headlights when asked if an image is photoshopped. You never know what exactly they're asking.

Are they suggesting that digital art is subordinate to "real photography", or are they asking if the image is an accurate representation of the scene at the time of the photo (assuming that is even desirable)?

There's nothing wrong with massive editing of an image in some circumstances. What _is_ wrong is that the general public seems to think of editing as both easy and a cop out.

stir photos's picture

yeah, i get it dude, i see ur point, and that's cool, but...

to me 99 degrees outside (99℉= 37.22222℃) is just hot, not too much more thought goes into it than that... i mean, i might wear a hat; or, maybe even apply some sun block, but too much more than that, i don't bother with it. i mean we could reflect that in the tiny way of things put in perspective, and the idea that humans can only live in a fairly small range of temperatures. how in the bigger picture, we [as a species] need to immediately adapt to environments that are out of our range of abilities to survive au natural. we could go on and consider and then compare and contrast us [as a species] to other species in various temperature environments. blah, blah, blah.... yawn, boring... ?

at the end of the day, they're just pictures. do what you want with them (not you personally, that's just vernacular in the part of the world i inhabit), they're yours, congratulations. if your pictures are photos of tacos, and if god's inside us all, like some people say, then i hope he likes tacos, cos tacos are what he's getting.

michaeljin's picture

Language is ever evolving and ultimately, it's words mean whatever we decide they mean—both individually and collectively.

Jason Lorette's picture

I usually respond to "Is that photoshopped?" with a "Of course it is...but not how you mean" and watch their brain try and process that. :P

Simon Patterson's picture

People used to ask if the subjects in pictures were "airbrushed", which came from the same motivation as people nowadays who ask if photos are "photoshopped".

The question is about how close the image resembles the reality that is presented or claimed by the photo's publisher.

Nobody except the photographer really cares what method was used to process the image, be it physical airbrushing using paint, a cloning tool in Adobe Photoshop, in-camera jpeg rendering firmware, a dark room or anything else.

People simply want to know if the publisher's stated or implied claims about the image are true.

Ken Flanagan's picture

Ever used a bandaid?

Ansel Spear's picture

Whilst hoovering.

Simon Patterson's picture

I bubble wrap my bandaids only after being breathalyzed whilst I'm rollerblading with a taser velcroed to my onesie.

(Yes I googled it 😉 )

David Pavlich's picture

You're right! Bandaid is a brand (J&J) of bandage.

Jen Photographs's picture

Xerox and Kleenex, too.

Is this from 2003?

"Smurf" is a noun and a verb. And it's great. "Photoshop" is the same. QED. Period.

Ryan Davis's picture

I'ma sit down and drink me one of them grape cokes whilst readin' this here article.

Pedro Quintela's picture

I´m a proud Photoshop user! :) It took me effort, countless hours of study till I start becoming happy with my images.

Many that criticize the use of this editing tools and talk about purity don´t have a clue about the history of photography, or what a creational process is all about. In the same way they must also hate to go to art museums, that´s also not reality...

Maximilian Sulzer's picture

While I agree with the essence of your article, I think you missed the point.

As stated by others here, language evolves and "photoshopped" became a word just like "googled". I personally use photoshopped for heavily altered images. For normal processing as you described i used "edited" or "developed".

But the catch here really is, how other people, especially non-photographers use these words and understand them. In their minds every change to a photo is fake. When i tell my non-photo friends i'm editing some photos i get the response "oh editing is so fake, it looks so much better without it". Then i ask them what they think their phone on which they take all their awesome sunset photos is doing to get them that over saturated, auto-HDR image.

As you said, every single photo you see is "edited/developed". Either by hand or by some engine. Unless you're some sort of Cyborg you cannot even see an un-developed picture.

So by this definition of "photoshopped" people see everything as fake, every nice looking image has to be photoshopped, because they cannot take an image like that on their phone.

But you can also see how this trend of heavy editing is influencing the photo world. Just check the "critique the community" videos. They suspect a composite or similar in every single photo they see, just because they know it can be done and that made them suspicious.

You cannot trust a photo anymore. But yeah as you said, as long as it looks visually pleasing and not 100% fake i don't mind that much, you just need to be aware of that.

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