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

'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

Previous comments
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

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.

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....

marc gabor'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?

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.

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.

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.”

Leigh Miller'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.

Dylan Bishop's picture

Try explaining that to his mother. 😁

JR Martinez's picture

Lol sure i agree, in many cases its not that deep - I thought about this more though when a while back a friend asked if one of my milky way shots was real, and found myself having to explain that yeah, in order to make it real, i had to do long exposure, stack stars, blend images, and use post-processing - all things associated with 'faking' an image. Because otherwise i would not have been able to create a photograph that shows the very real elements in the sky, whether or not that matters just because the eye can't see them is a different question though, rather than simply adding elements that truly aren't there, this is personally where i draw the fake line.

JR Martinez's picture

I enjoy this philosphical question! The idea of where one draws the fuzzy transition of real vs fake depends on many things, not only artistic vision but purpose. I think there would be little argument that using letters to create works of fiction, poetry, or research are all very different processes to some degree, and yet are all bound to alphabet and language as a common 'tool.'

I see photography as simply an extension of this, and again asking if something is fake or not is really not a very nuanced way of getting to the root of the question, but thats not surprising. Documenting visual reality with as much integrity and fidelity as to how a human sees\experiences things is going to be helpful when doing research, or photojournalism perhaps, etc. At the same time, if we based all our rules on that, we would not be studying and photographing the milky way, stars, and anything in cosmology for that matter, which absolutely uses 'light' to understand our reality, beyond what the human experience of it is.

The more relevant and difficult question sometimes to me is, do you understand why you're manipulating an image, and are you ok with ignoring the integrity and capacity of the human eye to accomplish that? Every photograph and editing process does not of course follow the same answer.

Dylan Bishop's picture

Excellent points made. I remember being very naive back when I started out and shot RAW with zero “manipulation” thinking I was being a purist or “true to reality”. After learning the camera doesn’t see what we see helped me get over that delusion, but it is still a struggle editing without overdoing it. Some like Ken Rockwell don’t even shoot RAW and has a saying something along the lines of “get it right the first time.” Someday I’ll get there hopefully. 🤞🏻

JR Martinez's picture

thanks and Yeah i agree! Im a hobbyist mostly doing astro and landscape, but its something i take serious and have definitely had to develop my own perspective on over time. Even using our eyes as a measurement of fake\real almost doesn't cut it, because we only see certain light, and not all eyes are created equal either...😵

Iain Stanley's picture

“Integrity” is a big word in this context. As childlike as it may seem, I like panning and LE just coz I love that look. There’s no ulterior motive for me, I just love those soft, blurry, dreamy lines :)

Dylan Bishop's picture

Great post, I love these philosophical questions about photography. It’s a complicated one but seems to be about context. If the image of a fox jumping over a fence in a seemingly perfectly timed shot is presented as real when in reality it was staged, it’s fake. It’s fake if it’s presented as a real scene and capture but has elements like clouds or birds added to it IMO. In terms of photojournalism it’s much stricter. Cropping can definitely be considered manipulation in that field. I’ve seen a photo of a wounded civilian in a foreign country with an armed US soldier standing next to him ominously, when in reality the photo was cropped to exclude the other soldiers giving the man water and trying to save his life. I agree with others that removing a blemish here and there isn’t too bad, especially in something like landscape photography. Removing a soda can sitting in your shot in post is forgivable, but still not ashamed to admit that it was edited. Some images are only amazing because of the lack of manipulation. Regardless great topic and great post! I’m sending this to my mom! 😁

Iain Stanley's picture

Ha! My mum’s the first person I go to. Often because photographers look at images through a photographer’s eyes, but regular folk react to an image much more differently. If my mum immediately doesn’t like something then I listen to her. If I can see her point, I think about the next step.

Most often I just chuckle along with her and keep things as they are but non-photographers are great starting points, especially if you’ve made some changes to an image

Dylan Bishop's picture

Hopefully some day we’ll produce images even our own moms are proud of. 😎

I think there are as many opinios as there are photographers. It's not just black and white ( no pun intended), but good and bad - definitely. To me the 'photoshopped' term is bad when used in commercials, in media, in a way to manipulate perceptions and opinions.
It's annoying when it's used by total amateurs shooting on Auto mode to call themselves photographers. Or along that line...
But for the art? That's a whole other argument. Why should it be bad to create an artistic effect that would enhance the feel of the photograph?
Speaking of which, the black and white surfer pic - ok incredible! So much more powerful than the colour option.

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