Photoshop – How Much is Too Much?

In a couple of earlier posts (here and here) I’ve ruminated on the importance of developing you own style of photography and also experimented with various styles myself (the above picture of which is an example).

Having recently entered a photographic competition where photographers were asked to submit up to 10 images on a particular topic (in which I came nowhere by the way) I was slightly dismayed, when looking through the images that people had entered, at the amount of pictures that seemed to have had some quite heavy, high dynamic range (HDR) processing applied. To the extent that it detracted, in my opinion, too much from the subject and meaning of the image. Happily this did not seem to apply to the winning images so I guess the judges had not been taken in by this overuse of HDR. This observation has made me think however about how much style is now being driven more by the relatively cheap access to Photoshop (and its ilk) rather than photographers developing a unique approach to their image making by how they photograph rather than what they do with the image afterwards in Photoshop*.

The standard argument used when defending the use of Photoshop is that photographers have always manipulated images in some way. This is either by deliberately including or excluding things in the frame to drive home a particular point or when processing images in the darkroom by dodging, burning or creating multiple exposures to overlay elements that were not in the original image. Whilst this is certainly true it’s also true to say that  these techniques requires a not inconsiderable amount of time and skill to do and were certainly not available to the majority of photographers who did not have access to a darkroom and the knowledge of how to create images in this way.

Different types of film also gave dramatically different looks to an image, whether it be the grainy black and white look of films like Ilfords HP5 and Kodak’s Tri-X or the vivid colours of Fuji Velvia. Many well known photographers took these films and made them their own by working with them exclusively, really pushing and exploring them to their limit and developing their own style when doing so. Look at the work of Steve McCurry who used Kodachrome for example.

So what’s the problem with trying to create a style in Photoshop? Aside from the very real concern of how images manipulated with programs like Photoshop and Portrait Professional can make people (often young women) feel inadequate with their bodies this is not my main issue. To me the issue is more one of intent. I strongly believe that the intent of an image, by which I mean what it was that the photographer intended to convey when she pressed the shutter release, is something that should be decided at that time and not manipulated in as an ‘afterthought’ during post-processing. Any post processing should be something that enhances or reinforces that intent, not completely changes it.

Make no mistake, Photoshop and the like, are amazingly advanced pieces of software. As I’ve found myself, learning them can take a lot of time and it’s a continuous process of learning as well. New programs and new features seem to be released weekly and the temptation can be to jump onto what’s new, learning the latest fads rather than concentrating on creating good images in the first place. I’m beginning to realise that learning photography should be more about understanding what drives creativity and practicing actually taking pictures rather than spending time at your computers keyboard learning the latest Photoshop technique.

Coincidentally whilst writing this I got a notification in my WordPress reader of this post by Grant Scott. He’s specifically talking about portraiture but this is something equally applicable to any genre of photography: “the desire to honestly document a person is intrinsic to the true photographers practice and it is that desire that never dates”.

Photography should be about capturing images and telling stories that are both honest and true and and using the likes of Photoshop to enhance the message contained therein, not change it completely.

* In this post I’m using ‘Photoshop’ in the generic sense rather than just talking about the product from Adobe. This includes all post-processing packages such as ‘Portrait Professional’, ‘Perfect Photo Suite’, the ‘Nik Collection’ and ‘Instagram’.

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