'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

I'm amazed by how many people seems to be so confident about what art is. I wonder how many of these people know the history of art. How many of them read about pictorialism and thought that was enough to justify the monstrosity that we see today on Instagram, Flickr, 500px and so on (and then there's Ansel Adams, give me a break).
Easy to call it art, easy to find shelter in the old, over abused, eye of the beholder. Anyone is free to do whatever they please, sure, and I'm not here to judge other people's action. But just be honest and use appropriate names. If these people feel so fine about what they do, why can't they be honest and just call their stuff compositing ?
You just learned a few Photoshop tricks from a tutorial on YouTube. The followers praise your result and you feel good. So miserable.
They want to ignore the history, pretend they figure it out with their logic and limited understanding, what art is, and then they want to be called artists. Very convenient.

Mark Wyatt's picture

"fake" pictures (graphic art) can still be art. I would suggest that if you add elements that were not there or remove significant (some may say any) elements, it could be viewed as graphic arts or illustration rather than "photography", but there are significant grey areas to be sure, and in the digital age, we need to realize that image manipulation can be very significant. I would propose that a "real" picture is one that is close to what was captured WITHIN THE LIMITATIONS of the medium used for the capture, and is not intended to misrepresent. That changes with technology, but we do not have inexpensive or any full 3D holographic imaging devices that also incorporate smell, taste, etc. So monochrome with B&W film is not "fake" because that is the medium you used. Converting RAW to a monochrome JPG (I would say) is not "fake" because it is clear to everyone that only the grey tones are being presented (non one is fooled by the lack of color). 2D is not "fake", because the medium used is naturally 2D. If you "Photoshop" it, and add clouds that were not there, change the color of a car, add a UFO, and remove telephone lines- it may make a better image, but I would say that it may become a work of graphic art. In some cases, it may not be clear to the viewer that those elements were not there originally (nor that the deleted ones were). A real photo presented within the limitations of the media used can be called "honest", while a work of graphic arts may not be. Of course may portrait photographers may not be "honest" ;), but they may be flattering and "in business". I put "honest" in quotes because I state without moral value, rather meaning "straight forward" or "as representative to the capture as captured within the limitations of the medium used". In the end we are talking semantics, but artists do distinguish between "painting" and "sculpture", even between "acrylic" and "oil", so words do convey meaning. "fake" pictures can portray things which are not real, and that can be ok within the world of art, but I would argue that it is worthwhile to have some word or words to describe a capture that is as close to what was captured within the limitations of the medium used, just to remove some doubt (was that shark really behind the surfer? I have never seen those type of clouds in this area. I wonder when that picture was "taken").

This subject is so infuriating. The absolute dismissal of your art with that word, now used as a verb: “Photoshopped”. Its so condescending, as if they discovered that you didn’t really pull that rabbit out of your hat. Its just magic tricks, that “Photoshop”. Buttons pushed, mouse clicked and Voila! a photograph that is beautiful, interesting, unique. “But its not real” they say. What I say is “it’s Art”. It is an expression of what I saw in my mind and heart. There is emotion and depth, both in its creation and in its viewing.
The trouble is that photographs can look so much like reality that we are accustomed to thinking that they are truth. Actually photographs are never reality and its not only photoshop that changes a photograph. Lighting, different lenses and different perspectives are just a few ways to alter the same scene. The thing people don’t realize is that photographs have always been manipulated when developed. In the darkroom, the master photographers used techniques to make the most of their photographs. Why was that accepted and using Photoshop, a version of a darkroom, is so belittled? I work constantly to improve my skills in Photoshop and Lightroom. To me, its like having an art store in my house. All the tools, brushes and paints I could ever need!
I believe that an art photograph is never fake. If I painted a painting, would that be fake? Art should not be dissected- how was it made? If it moves you, captures you and stays with you- who cares how it was done? I think as photographers we can help ourselves to go beyond this shallow thinking and dismissive judgement of our work by using different words to describe ourselves, our work and process. I don’t use the word Photoshop anymore, I “develop the images”. I call myself an artist or digital artist. Its a bit sad because I love being a photographer but everyone thinks they could make beautiful photos today, especially if they just had Photoshop and hit a few buttons. We will never convince them what skill and talent is necessary to take a RAW file and create your vision, your reality, your truth.

Wow. Just wow. Here's another art master who knows everything about art. And what photography is. Well done. This world is hopeless.

Iain Stanley's picture

Well said Mary. Agree with absolutely everything

Timothy Turner's picture

Try walking into a fast food restaurant and upon placing an order, telling the person behind the counter " I want mine to look just like the one in the picture "

The world nowadays seems to be full of artists. What a solid self-esteem!
And yet, only a few of them have some knowledge of what happened before they were born.
For the majority what matters is their "imagination", their feelings. They do art!
Then I wonder with so many artists around how come what we see is always the usual trite, banal sequence of beautiful landscapes, sexy women, perfect skins, crisp eyes, over-saturated colors, over-processed images?
Art was (and I use "was" not by a coincidence) meant to overthrow established ideas, cliches. It was meant to challenge societies. And what we see here? Art understood as a mannerism good only to produce apathetic work that can serve magazines for a hair salon at best.

If people were at least more humble, more modest and they would start using the right words. Maybe it would be more appropriate to say "craftsman" or simply professionals, as that's what it is. And leave art to where it belongs.
And then there's this idea of photography as a mix of all possible techniques. Because ART!
As a photographer, if people really are such, you would have the responsibility to respect that word. To respect the work of others before you have done. Because when we start changing the meaning then everything is upside down and our politics sell us the idea of doing peacekeeping when they're actually annihilating a population.
The author of this article should feel ashamed for perpetrating such trivial, banal cliche' about what photography is.

Re: Ansel Adams and black and white film. I recently found a book of Adam's photographs in color, titled, unsurprisingly, "Ansel Adams in Color", published in 1993. According to the editor of the book, Adams shot over 3,000 color transparencies, mostly Kodachrome, and even had an exhibit of his color photographs in 1950 at the Museum of modern Art.