'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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Previous comments

When photography becomes art, then anything goes.

This is a clever bit of logical fallacy. The central idea is that photo manipulation is a spectrum, so if "real" photos and "fake" photos are on the same spectrum, how can you say that real and fake photos are different?
The magic trick at play is two fold. First is a some all none fallacy. The implication is that if some manipulated photos aren't fake, than no manipulated photos are fake.
The second is a subtle definitional dodge of conflating the concepts of "manipulated" and "fake". This is probably best revealed by analogy. Colors exist on a spectrum. If you adjust the color frequency of a blue light lower by a few degrees, it doesn't become red, it's just not as cold of a blue. Does this mean that shifting the frequency doesn't make light red in a more general sense? Of course not. If you shift it enough it's solidly red. You can argue about exactly when it becomes red, but you can't argue that the concept of red is flawed .
Likewise, at a certain point, manipulating photos becomes deceptive. One can argue exactly what types and degrees of manipulation count as deceptive, but not against the concept of deceptive edits.

Kirk Darling's picture

I thought about the EM spectrum before I got to your second paragraph. We can go a bit further. Microwaves are on the same spectrum as red light rays. Microwaves can kill you; red light won't.

Sorry... But looks like someone is having mommy issues. Photography has always been fake. The first ever photograph had an exposure of over 8 hours.

All photographs are fake. They are simulations of reality. I mean, if you look at the base definition of simulation, you'll see it is defined as "the action of pretending; deception". Can you eat the apple you photographed? No.

If you are taking photographs to please your mum, then stop panning, stop taking long exposures. You've known her your whole life, you should know what she likes/doesn't like.

Your job as a photographer is to provide your client the image they require. If that is a long exposure, the provide them with that. If it is a highly retouched glamour shot, provide them with that.

The problem isn't that some photos are fake and others are not, it is that people care so much for what the Instagram community says about your photos.

To sum up, all photos are fake. Do your job, if it is a job. If it is a hobby, do it for yourself, not you IG followers.

Ira Kundji's picture

This is total click bait...but we all fall for it and we all want to chime in with our 2 cents worth of opinions.

1. Your surfer photo may not be fake, but it's not a photo! It's digital art. But let me explain.

2. We cannot define what is real and what is fake based upon this notion of what we perceive with our eyes. Our eyes are a lie. Our eyes contain imperfect sensors that our brains decipher into an image. The sensors in the middle are called comes and they mainly see colors of the rainbow and rods on the periphery that sees mainly in black and white. Imagine a camera sensor that funky like that! Our brain put this information together is form a picture. The brain will take information out and it will add information to the picture. Kind of like Photoshop. So our vision is like Photoshop! Imagine our lackluster 3 cone sensor compared to that of mantis shrimp who have 12 different color receptors. They can see into Infrareds and ultraviolets. Imagine what we're not seeing with our 3 sensor eyes!

3. Our perception of what is "real" and what is "fake" will change with time. I imagine people who lived in the times of the Renaissance would say those paintings look damn real. And some Instagramers would argue that Ansel was "fake news" because he used dodge and burn techniques in the way he printed his photos. We shouldn't listen to them.

4. In my opinion now in 2020 (and remember it's not worth anything) is that your picture should be defined as digital art because you added the surfer. You can Photoshop a picture to a degree, taking stuff out and adding stuff in, but when the subject was added to a photo, it's no longer a photo, but digital art. I also realize that it's SUPER subjective and I only know that you added the surfer because you told me. Have you ever seen that YouTube video of the model and what they do to her picture before it goes on a billboard? I would call that digital art too. Somewhere in stretching her head, it looses the authenticity of a photo.

4. I've yet to touch upon the subject of bokeh. We all love it and shell out ridiculous amounts of money to get our lenses to do it. But phones do it now automatically in portrait mode. But does our eyes ever see bokeh in real life?

We live in a fake world. I hate when others attempt to edit, adjust, enhance and process images. Yes, many images are fake or overly processed. get back to basics and show us what or how real our world is around us. Stop processing images simply because you want to enhance the images colors or contrast. Start taking pictures using your own talents and leave the image along afterward. According to many of you, this image is fake, when in fact it's a very creative us of mirroring attached to my lens and this is so many of you hate it. So stop being fake by over accentuating your image and start being more creative in how you take the pictures. Note: Although my Still Water Solitary Tree was taken in color.. the lines didn't match up and it took me three hours to get this shot. so Is it prefect?. No and I hope to return during better circumstances for a better attempt.

Kirk Darling's picture

So you just think your particular method of fakery is morally superior to anyone else's method of fakery.

Steven Magner's picture

What’s the difference between your image and someone mirroring the image in photoshop?

Same damn result.

Iain Stanley's picture

Funnily enough, I was looking at the image above wondering if it had been mirrored or not. Hard to see where the tree actually stems from. That's not to say it was mirrored, I have no idea, but as you said, it's pretty much the same result as if it was mirrored. What difference does it make if it has a positive impact on, and reaction from, viewers?

There was only one camera that captured real images, every camera that came after produced fake images, let me explain. Back in the very early days there was an individual named Fred Flintstone (those old enough might remember him) and he had in his possession a very simple yet amazing Camera. The camera didn’t rely on sensors, film or even light to capture an image it was truly remarkable indeed. The device was made out of stone, shaped into a cube and hollowed out. There was a small door located at the front of the device and inside sat a small yet powerful little bird, a very rare Slatepecker. When Fred or his pal Barney ( who sometimes borrowed Freds camera ) pushed a button on the top of the box the door would pop open and the little bird would come outside standing on a magical sliding rail. The bird would then look over the scene and start hammering down on a piece of slate with its extremely strong beak and in the process it would create the scene exactly how it viewed it, no manipulation done at all. Unfortunately it wasn’t long after that that the bird ( the Bedrock Slatepecker ) became extinct and that part of the camera industry shut down. Many cube stone carvers and Slatepecker trainers were put out of work as a result of the birds demise but they banded together and formed the company now known as Kodak firm in their believe that the new company would last forever. The rest as they say is in the history books.

Iain Stanley's picture

how can we trust the bird's eyes were the same as Fred's eyes? BamBam might have gone to town on the bird with his little club behind the scenes....

Yeah, it's fake, altered, manipulated. The thing is, we shouldn't care. The emotion and feeling felt when people see your images cab be the only real you need. We could never convince everyone they're real, so be concerned about being happy with our own results, and what we want to create. Let the real people create real images.

Jeremiah Griffin's picture

The only time one should concern themselves with the "fakeness" of a photograph is in photojournalism. Otherwise, it's art. Enjoy yourself.

Stuart Carver's picture

The only things that annoy me are when people add objects to make up for poor composition or do replacement sky etc.. just keep practising and get better instead of trying to wing it.

Removing stuff I have no issue with, you didn’t ask or want a company sticking that pylon in your nice image so why keep it there.

Iain Stanley's picture

this is an interesting one for me coz I have absolutely no problem with adding elements to a sky. As long as they are modest and subtle and don't overpower the image or make it ridiculously unreal like a milky added during lunchtime then I'm fine with that. You might only have one chance in life at shooting something (like when you're travelling abroad) and on that particular day the sky gave you blank, dull blue. In that case, add a few clouds to give the sky some life and interest - to me that's not even a debate.

Regarding your last sentence, that could come back to composition. Were you able to shoot from a position that didn't have the pylon? So many questions and what if scenarios to consider.....

Stuart Carver's picture

Fair points Iain.

My only issue with the sky thing, there are techniques to shooting scenes in all different kinds of light and weather so id rather see a photographer use his skills to work the conditions, its a personal preference though. I still enjoy looking at the actual end product (even with replacement sky) if its a good picture but i just feel the door is open for too many people to con their audience. Your reference to Milky Way is an interesting one because ive seen a few lately and when i looked on Photopils the shot is literally impossible yet the photographer was claiming it was genuine, which again comes back to the conning an audience.

Iain Stanley's picture

as far as good sky replacements go, to me the key is precisely NOT conning the audience. By that I mean putting in elements that are subtle and add a little bit of interest that are not in any way offensively ridiculous. To me, good blending or composite work is when the audience has absolutely no idea that something's been added. Of course, if they ask, I have no hesitation in telling them everything. It's neither here nor there to me to keep things a secret.

Stuart Carver's picture

Yeah fully on board with that, that style of editing is almost a whole genre within itself and shouldnt be dismissed, but yes it definitely shouldnt be abused either.

The main things i do with my edits are removing birds/litter/signs etc that are distracting then sometimes some telephone cables or the odd pylon if its really in your face.

Ive also been known to leave the pylon in the shot too ;)


Iain Stanley's picture

That’s a great shot. Awesome symmetry

Stuart Carver's picture

Thanks Iain, took me about 10-15 shots before i got the lines in the right place, was more difficult than i thought it would be, handheld in the wind.

Daniel J. Cox's picture

Your 73 year old mom hit the nail on the head. Nobody believes any image they see anymore. That’s because the vast majority of photographers are now illustrationists, not photographers. Most relying on software to make their images rather than hard work, patience and vision in the field. As you said, as long as the photographer is honest what’s the harm. But that should extend to a caption, on the image, stating it’s been created as an illustration rather than a photograph. The current most exciting tool for those who love fakery is Luminar with its collection of fake skies. This is why I now use hashtags on all my social media images of #realphtoto, #nophotoshop and recently added #noluminar. We now live in a world where almost all photographers are willing to take the shortcut. And yes, I’m as much of a curmudgeon as I sound and proud of it.

Iain Stanley's picture

Like most things "technology" the race to dumb things down for the masses is the race the companies are trying most to win.

Kirk Darling's picture

That 73-year-old mom was wrong. Nobody should EVER have believed the images they saw. Photographers were commonly faking photographic images over 100 years ago in an effort to make photography more art-like and less mechanistic.

That's why photographs entered as evidence in court have always required sworn depositions from the photographer...courts never relied on what was shown in the picture alone, but the sworn statement that what was shown by the picture was, indeed, what the photographer saw.

This idea that "a photograph never lies" was simply never, ever the truth. The pity is that anyone ever thought otherwise.

It's not a shame that people are finally realizing it.

Mark Wyatt's picture

How about adding clouds that were not there or as in many cases probably would never be there? That goes for digital or film actually, but much easier in digital.

Iain Stanley's picture

For me? No problem, as long as the clouds match the scene

Mark Wyatt's picture

The question references the title- is it fake? You may not have a problem, but is it fake? And let me add, "Is that ok?". Maybe it is..

Willem Botha's picture

SOOC translates to "I do not know how to use Photoshop". "Change it to what I saw" is probably only true to those with photographic brains, Very few of us fall in that category. Photo journalism is but one genre in photography and cannot be used as a yard stick for all photography. Anybody saying images cannot be believed should stick to news papers and news forums.

Photography as an art form needs and can only be appreciated and judged in it's final form. All the hype about how we get to the final product generally come from people who cannot appreciate photography for what it is: "Art". I read a comment on one of these forums were the author said that photography is not art due to the camera creating the image. That sounds like SOOC to me.

In my dealings with other photographers those with the most years of experience are generally still clinging to the photo journalism outlook. We need to embrace the younger generation who are growing up with digital art, digitally manipulated movies and special effects.

My personal opinion is that there is a place for all types of photography, manipulated and SOOC. We should embrace every photographer's talent.

Moreno Tagliapietra's picture

Hi there, after 55 years of love affair with photography I have come to giving up on most specific definitions. In the early 2000's, I got into the arts and crafts shows business. I had to somewhat define my photography for my visitors and clients (and my business cards). I went for "fine art" because, by generally accepted definition, it has no implied functional goal, included realism, just admiration and enjoyment. I capture whatever subject attracts my attention and develop my captures in Photoshop to make prints that come as close as possible to my perception of the original scene (all of my senses, not just sight). Above and beyond what you want to call realistic (or not) in the entire process of photography, the first thing that is not realistic is human visual perception. After sensation is captured by eyes and optical nerves, the electric signals reach the brain and at that point all bets are off. It is very interesting to explore how the human brain interprets these signals (perception) being influenced by a bunch of staff that has nothing to do with photography. As one example of the "creativity" of the brain, consider the fact that color does not exist, it's a convenient creation of our brain firstly developed to increase primitive Man's chances of survival (visible light is just electromagnetic radiation within a range of frequencies/wavelengths that tickle your photoreceptors). So, as a photographer I do what I want. As a selling photographer, I have no qualm being open and honest about how I get to my final images. Full point. Period. :-)

John Adams's picture

Well by definition anything altered is fake, so yeah photoshopped images are fake by definition and aren't exactly a real photograph.

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