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'That's Photoshopped!' Yeah, so Does That Mean All Our Photos Are Fake?

If someone indignantly snorts that your image has been Photoshopped, it's a rather unsubtle way of them telling you they think your image is fake. But really, aren't all our images to a certain degree?

Photoshop has become such a common part of our everyday vernacular that it's morphed its way into becoming a verb, much like Google. When you want some quick information, you "Google it," and when someone wants to tell you in no uncertain terms that they doubt the legitimacy of your image, they tell you it's been "Photoshopped." Even my dear old mum, who, at 73, doesn't actually know what Photoshop is, nor what it does, is never afraid of telling me "I like it Iain, but you've Photoshopped it, haven't you?" When I try to tell her that Photoshop (or other similar software) is to modern photography what a grease and oil change is to a mechanic, her eyes glaze over and she starts playing with the dog again. Her dismissal of my futile pleas are along the lines that it's cheating to use Photoshop and doing so is somehow not real, and therefore not worthy of her full attention or admiration. But this got me thinking, and I have to ask the question, has the finished image of a photographer ever been real? Or has it always been fake?

Was Ansel Adams' Work Fake?

Let's go into one of, if not the most famous photographer across the decades, Ansel Adams. His name pops up in every corner of the globe whenever you hear a photographer talking about their influences, or inspirational heroes. Herein lies our first issue with the debate over what's real, and what's not. Now forgive me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that Ansel Adams didn't see the world, literally, in black and white. I mean, I know of people who are colorblind and don't see colors the way most people see them, but I've never heard of a person, much less Ansel Adams, seeing the world through grayscale glasses. But aren't Ansel Adams' most famous works in black and white, like this image below?

This image is "The Tetons and the Snake River," taken in 1942, and I'm going to hazard a guess and say that this isn't how Ansel Adams saw it with his own eyes, at the time he took this shot. Of course, the natural response to that might be that color wasn't available back in his day and he was only able to work with black and white. In fact, color film became available in the 1930s, so it might well have been available to Adams. I can't be sure, but perhaps it was his deliberate choice to develop his images in black and white?

Adams was known for his incredible ability to work with shadows, blacks, whites, and highlights when he was developing an image. He was the darkroom equivalent of a modern day Photoshop wizard, if you will. So the upshot of it all is that Ansel Adams' images were black and white, even though the original scene he saw was in color. And he pushed and pulled the contrasts and lights and darks better than almost anyone else to get his signature look, even though he might well have had access to color film options. Surely, then, under the criteria of "real" used by my mum (and those of many other non-photographers), you'd have to say Ansel Adams' work was fake, wouldn't you, as painful as that is to even utter?

Is Long Exposure Photography Fake?

Modern cameras and equipment help us to do incredible things. One of my favorites is long exposure photography. It's not to everyone's taste, and as you might expect, my dear old mum hates it, but I fell in love with the dreamy, wispy clouds and the ghostly appearance of water the first time I saw it. Since then, whenever I go to waterfalls or see interesting patterns in the sky, the first thing I check in my camera bag is my Lee Filters Big Stopper. There's nothing I find more enjoyable than setting my camera to Bulb mode and then opening up the shutter for minutes and waiting patiently for that ethereal smoothness to find its way onto my screen. This image below gives you an idea about the effect long exposures can have on moving things such as clouds.

But we have to ask the question again: is it real? The clouds didn't look like that when I was at this location. And the scene certainly wasn't black and white. I mean, I was there, and this is just one, single exposure and not a composite or anything, but it's not what I saw with my own eyes at the time. Does that automatically make it fake? Does that mean if I set the shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second and took a quick snapshot, it would be more real than if I used the same camera and the same lens, but simply opened up the shutter to a minute, or longer? Does the introduction of a filter automatically expel me from the real club and banish me into the hellfire of the fakers?

Is Panning Fake, Too?

So now we come to some other interesting conundrums. I love the effect of panning, where you open the shutter to something like 1/10th of a second and then intentionally move your camera from side to side (or whatever direction you please) so that you get blurry, streaky lines from the scene in front of you. Much like the effect of long exposure photography, I love the soft, smooth, flowing lines that panning can give you. For a better idea of what I'm talking about, check out this image below.

But is it real? I mean the issue here is that if I stood perfectly still and shot the scene in front of me with a shutter speed of, say, 1/200th of a second and then uploaded it to Instagram and used the hashtag #nofilter, then people would most likely accept it as real. But if I stand in the same position, with the same camera, and the same lens, yet just slow down the shutter speed and swivel my hips in a groovy, disco, side to side fashion and get my smooth, streaky panning lines, I have to accept that it's no longer classified as real? And Lord heaven help me here because as you can see, I've actually added a surfer into the scene to really muddy the waters. Panning and blending? Banish me to eternal purgatory now. Watch me double down.

I now have the golden trifecta: panning, blending, and black and white. Of course, I'm not trying to pass this off as "real" but where do you draw the line? Both of these shots (of sea and surfer) were taken seconds apart, with the same camera, the same lens, and with my feet barely changing position. This guy was holding his board like that and he was entering the ocean before him. I just used a bit of camera movement and Photoshop to present a different take. Does different take equal fake, and who sets the criteria?

Summing Up

To me, all art, including photography, is about creativity, imagination, and producing something that your mind's eye sees, or what your client wants. I don't care if someone says something's fake or not, or if they think something's been "Photoshopped" because I have no limits. As long as we are honest if someone asks us about how we created an image, what does it matter? As long as I like my finished images and they represent accurately my feelings and my artistic ambitions, then I am happy. And it seems others feel the same way, judging by some comments on my Instagram feed when I uploaded this black and white image you see above.

However, it seems to some people that any image not accurately representing exactly what we saw with our very own eyes at the precise time we hit that shutter button must be fake. So any black and white image is fake, any retouched image is fake, anything with even the slightest bit of change, no matter how infinitesimal, is fake. Or is it? Is there a line that's acceptable as real, even though it's not actually real?

Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Ansel Adams image used via Wikimedia Commons

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128 Comments

T Van's picture

Not fake until the image is manipulated after the exposure was taken, or if some filter was used during exposure that added something not visible. Like a star filter.

Jeff Walsh's picture

So if I take a photo in color and convert it to bnw in post, that's fake? I mean the image is manipulated after exposure, and the scene in reality wasn't bnw, so I guess that photo is now fake. What if I take a wide-angel and then crop in post? I manipulated the photo after exposure, so based on your response the cropped photo is fake. See how none of those things matter? What matters is the intent of the photo.

Photo journalism is supposed to be a document of reality, but there are wiggle areas, such as bnw that don't change the "reality" of the scene. None of this is clear-cut, definable, unless you want to take things to their most basic and fundamental definitions. But the spirit of this article isn't nitpicking, it's in fact, the opposite.

T Van's picture

Cropping doesn't change the image. It re-frames what is in view. Nothing added, or manipulated. Changing it to black and white is manipulating what was captured. If you'd shot in B&W film, it would be as exposed.
Just answering the basic premise as I understand it, after 50+ years of doing it.

Dylan Bishop's picture

I agree with both of you and now I’m really confused. 😁

Jeff Walsh's picture

Manipulation by definition is altering what is, through control. So, by that, cropping is still manipulating an image. Photo-manipulation isnt just adding something, it's also taking away, or even the most minor alterations. And again, by it's definition, fake is anything other than what it was. So if I take a photo, and remove ANYTHING, add ANYTHING, or alter ANYTHING, by the very definition of the word, I have manipulated the photo.

All I'm saying is that by the clearest definition of the words, most photos are altered, thus faked even if in the most minor ways. All that matters is intent of the photo. If the intent is documenting in anyway, then the photographer must abide by their own judgement of representing the scene, and limit themselves thusly in altering the image.

If something is intended as art, or artistic expression, then again, the photographer is only limited to the boundaries they place on themselves and their art in order to accomplish their desired outcome.

For me, a fake photo is a photo that misrepresents it's intended use.

T Van's picture

I'd agree with that last line. I'd agree that cropping to change what people perceive to be happening in the context where the photo was taken is manipulation. Cropping can also be to fit the image within a size parameter. I'd disagree with you when you say most photos are altered. Where is your supporting evidence for that? It could be true, but I've not seen any data that would indicate that to be true.

Kirk Darling's picture

T Van Well, "most photos" these days are taken with cell phones, and cell phones these days automatically correct dynamic range problems and a host of other issues. So, yes, "most photos" these days are altered.

Jeff Walsh's picture

I said, under the concept that even something as simple as cropping is considered altering if using the base definition of the word alter, then most photos are altered. Whether or not most photos are altered under the umbrella of misrepresenting it's intended use, I wouldn't know.

Dylan Bishop's picture

The camera processes the image internally. By definition that is manipulation. Cameras don’t see what our eyes see so manipulation is necessary. Right?

T Van's picture

Not if you shoot film. No processing at all until you develop it.

Dylan Bishop's picture

Touché again excellent point. 👍🏻

Robin Routh's picture

Evidently you never shot film. Different ISOs, push, pull, filters, etc. Kodachrome, Ektacolor, different lenses, strobes, on and on. What photography is "real"?

T Van's picture

That's all we had for the first 30 years of my career....
You ever take a Journalism course?

T Van's picture

ISO is really irrelevant, so is film stock.
Take a Photojournalism course, or join the National Association of Press Photographers. They'll be happy to tell you what defines a reality in a photograph.

Robin Routh's picture

I shot film for 25 of my first 40 years in photography. I was a member of NPPA and ASMP. No photographic image is "real". Even a simple change in exposure changes a photo. So does the zone system and dodging and burning. What is your point? Eugene Smith is hailed as one of the greatest photojournalists of all time. Ever see what he did to his film?

T Van's picture

My point? The OP started a discussion. So if no photo is real, all photography is a lie and the news media is in deep trouble.

Iain Stanley's picture

I should clarify that I’m not really talking about the genre of news or photojournalism

Robin Routh's picture

Photos are a representation of something, real or otherwise, but they are dependent on what decisions the photographer makes from the instant he/she picks up the camera. Whether those photos are an accurate representation of what we perceive as reality is a totally different question.

Iain Stanley's picture

Perception is a very good point. What Dali, or Picasso perceived as reality may have been represented in their art. To you and I? Pure fantasy and imagination. When I look at the ocean, I look in terms if lines to the horizon and lines above the horizon. I don’t see it in a panning effect sense, but I certainly see it in a horizontal line sense......

Robin Routh's picture

The image of the surfer on your page is a good example of perception. In still photography you could shoot that image to freeze action or you could slow down your shutter speed and blur the water. Which is reality? Or, which is the representation of what you thought reality was at that moment? Is either version wrong?

Iain Stanley's picture

To me? Absolutely fine, both of them. To me the ocean is where I can be swallowed and left alone to drift. That’s my reality and why I have surfed for 35+ years. But is my reality a universally accepted reality? Or does my reality trump universally accepted reality if I’m the one holding the camera?

Edo Photo's picture

That...is reaching....to a ridiculous level.

+ What's the point again?

Robin Routh's picture

ISO affects the grain. Film stock changes the color. Which is real, a landscape shot on Kodachrome, or one shot on Ektacolor? They look different. Almost everything about photography is variable and can change what an image looks like. In fact, every photographic image is manipulated the moment you pick up a camera.

T Van's picture

If they're exposed properly and framed exactly the same, they're similar enough for representing the same thing.
It's not the picking up the camera, it is subconscious biases of the photographer. That doesn't always make a picture inauthetic either.

Robin Routh's picture

"it is subconscious biases of the photographer". Exactly. It's not the act of picking up the camera, it's what the photographer does after he picks it up, and how accurate the process can actually be.

Deleted Account's picture

After seeing you appeal to your vast experience and putting down others, implying their lack thereof, I was bitterly disappointed to view the utter mediocrity of your 500px.

T Van's picture

Sorry for putting anyone down.

T Van's picture

Make your self a closet size Camera Obscura. Sit in it and tell me if it is what you're seeing, or not.

Dylan Bishop's picture

Excellent point. A fisheye lens or tilt-shift lens could be used for the same argument. Love that. 👌🏻

Kirk Darling's picture

My avatar was done all on film in 1975 using a Honeywell Repronar and some Ektachrome cross-processing and layer-masking (yep, layer masks with film).

Daniel Medley's picture

So any image that is shot on a digital camera in SOOC .jpg is "fake" by your standards. The only difference between a SOOC .jpg and a raw file that was manipulated is that the camera's algorithm is doing the manipulation.

Iain Stanley's picture

And the employees of each camera brand/maker creating those algorithms

T Van's picture

That does sound a bit like it, but I don' really feel like it's necessarily fake. Aren't most manufacturers doing the processing to compensate for inaccuracies of their equipment? And same with jpeg group's standards?

Lee Christiansen's picture

Manipulation isn't the same as fake.

For goodness sake, we're taking a 3D image and converting it to 2D, then rendering the result with chemicals on a particular paper for a flexible amount of time, or relying on a preset set of algorithms by a camera manufacturer (which we may not like), to create a digital set of dots...

The very act of taking a picture would make everything fake, if manipulation was the factor.

But then some people decide that SOME aspects of manipulation aren't fake - conveniently those aspects that they like doing I suppose. Ever shot with a long shutter to create blur? Ever shot with a fast shutter to make it sharper than our eyes see? Ever shot with a shallow DoF when our eyes don't see that way?

But if post production is the issue, have you ever changed the time paper is exposed in a darkroom? Ever changed the profile choice in LR?

But if pixel manipulation is the issue, have you ever considered that taking a photograph is much more than slavishly replicating what the lens sees? Because what our eyes see and our brains perceive is far cleverer than what my simple camera / lens can reproduce.

And in that case, is slavish reproduction trying to alter the world we perceive?

Why is a particular film stock or camera algorithm considered "true" when they're all so different? Which one is the real thing? Which one do we consider not "fake."

Whilst I'm here, why are so many fearful of pixel manipulation anyway. Why does photography have to be about never applying any creative process, (well apart from those which some deem to be acceptable)? Is photography just a technical exercise. Should we only take technical pictures at eye level (lest we distort the perspective of what we see).

Or, like painters, are we creating art where there are many elements to the creative process - and where the picture is king, not being able to scream on forums that it was all SOOC.

I'll push / pull / light / post produce and clone until the image is what I saw in my head - until the image is what I saw in my mind when I took it.

This is not a forensic exercise - this is supposed to be art.

Maybe the only way of seeing the world is to leave the camera at home. We should just record it with our memories - assuming yours is accurate and unbiased.

Can U's picture

I don't think removing stuff from a photo or fixing blemishes are fake. But adding in things like a completely different skies is. And I think it should be noted as such. There has been such an increase where the lines are being blurred between a photo and someone who is taking multiple different photos (From many different sources) and photo shopping into photo and passing it off a one shot photo.

Keith Meinhold's picture

The irony, is that I shoot in RAW and post process all of my photos in Lightroom - usually to make the image closer to what I saw than what the camera produced.

Every image including straight out of the camera is manipulated (engineers have to formulate what the JPEG will look like). Any photo will rarely be exactly what the human eye sees because of thing like focal length, depth of field, dynamic range and an engineer's default interpolation.

Perhaps in journalism a photo should be left alone as possible, and perhaps in advertising the image should represent the actual product. After all, isn't this an art?

Iain Stanley's picture

And then you have the issue of SOOC looking different across the brands....

marcgabor's picture

I think the most important thing is that the viewer doesn't feel "tricked". When you see motion blur from a pan or a b&w image you know what you're looking at. But if you can't tell that a dramatic cloud has been added to the sky and you find out later then you might feel like you don't know what's real and the image looses impact because it's not grounded in reality. But if you are looking at an image that has a lot of unnatural elements in it like costumes, makeup, props, dramatic color grading etc... then finding out that some digital manipulations were made might just feel like part of the process used to actuate the artist's vision.

Some artists like Andreas Gursky are very upfront about their use of post processing to manipulate the image and make it part of their artist statements. I think that's a great approach to take if you don't want your viewers to feel "tricked". It really matter what point the photographer is trying to get across. If you present your work as landscape or documentary and thus you are trying to show the world how you see the world then you should probably avoid heavy manipulations. If your work is about creating your own worlds and fantasies then do whatever you want.

It might be helpful to look at the process of editing someone else's writing. Making subtle changes to punctuation, grammar and diction are all acceptable. Even removing words or sentences to get the authors point across more clearly is fine. But if you as the editor, were to write a whole new paragraph because you thought it would make the writing better then that would obviously be unacceptable. I don't mean to pass judgement on what may or may not be "acceptable" in photography but if we want to talk about some kind of integrity to the shot or to what the photographer saw then I think this might be a useful analogy.

Timothy Turner's picture

Ok so lets all shoot jpeg, no wait, if the white balance is off, then wer'e right back where we started, are some people over thinking this issue?

T Van's picture

Let's shoot film. Nothing to over think there. Just make sure you get daylight for outdoor and tungsten for indoor.

Timothy Turner's picture

I once saw a photo of a gorilla on top of the empire state building, yea that was real, and it was black and white.

T Van's picture

If it was a photo of one of the models used in the filming of the original King Kong, then it may very well have been a real representation of what was visible. Old school SFX were much more real than modern SFX as they used real models, not virtual ones. It's still fictional and not meant to be interpreted as real. Wasn't presented as real.

Dylan Bishop's picture

Yeah I guess context is the determining factor. If it’s photo journalism it is more about presenting the image as truthfully as possible. White balance could change the mood so even that could be considered manipulation in that field I would think.

Iain Stanley's picture

Not me. As I said, anything goes for me, as long as we’re honest if questioned. Is art even supposed to be “real”? That’s another topic entirely....

Timothy Turner's picture

When I look out onto a landscape, everything is in focus, from near to far, but when I focus my camera on one point only that portion is focused, and I know it depends on lens choice and aperture. But then lets all relax, it's just photography so lets have fun and embrace each others diversity

Dylan Bishop's picture

One of the toughest critics I have is my own mother. I’ll show her a processed image and she’ll suspiciously ask “is that color real?” I should have just said “yeah!” Would have saved me 5 minutes of trying to explain it to her and her still not appreciating the photo, haha.

Edit: posted this comment before reading the article.. too funny! Glad I’m not alone!

Edit 2: attached, photo with fake color my mom questioned. Sky would have been brown otherwise.. not so good.

Troy Straub's picture

What about the use of a wide angle or tele lens and some forced perspective. People have been using those tricks from the beginning.

T Van's picture

Even if it is technically not reality, AKA fake, it doesn't always matter. In many cases it's better. Just depends on what the photo is supposed to represent.

Dylan Bishop's picture

Like Ansel Adams said, “you don’t take a photograph you make it.”

LA M's picture

Sheesh...the hyperbole in this article.

I think when someone says an image is fake they are referring to an obvious feat of editing to selectively enhance/change or composite. The final result could not possibly be achieved any other way.

For instance, I was on an assignment abroad recently and met a guy photographing from the same location/time of day. I later saw his image (per his IG) which was vastly different from what I saw that day from the same spot.

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