Do you Photoshop your images?

Moon Over Stormclouds, Colorado Springs, CO

‚Äč"Do you Photoshop your images?"

These are questions I get asked in my art festival appearances from time to time. The short answer is yes, although I don't like leaving it there because I often have the feeling the question is coming from a point of view that if an image is "Photoshopped" it isn't real, or it's somehow cheapened.

Needless to say, I don't agree with this philosophy. Photoshop is part of my workflow, just like the darkroom was part of the workflow for photographers in the analog era (myself included). In fact, many of the tools available in Photoshop were based on those available to the photographer working in a darkroom. So, "manipulating" images is really nothing new, just the tools have changed.

Take for example Moon over Stormclouds,  the image I use on the opening page of my website. I use it a lot. It's on my business cards, the background for my sign at art festivals, on my email newsletter, etc. It was taken from a hilltop in Colorado Springs looking out over the plains east and south of town. It was taken with a long focal length lens at a far distance. Atmospheric haze that evening had an effect on the vibrance of the colors and lowered the contrast of the whole image. All of this I worked to restore in both the initial image processing software (I used Aperture on this particular image) and finally in Photoshop. I worked not only to bring out the orange in the clouds lit by the setting sun, but the blue of the sky above and accentuate that contrast. Did I get everything exactly how it was that evening? Surely not. But I think it communicates the beauty of that evening, and how amazing it was to see the sunset behind me lighting up the towering clouds, and then the moon becoming visible as they moved to the south. Plus I love the shape of the cloud and the position of the moon. It's still one of my favorite images.

Peak in Blue, Colorado Springs, CO

This image of Pikes Peak is another good example. I intentionally darkened down the foreground and worked with the contrast to bring out the clouds around the base of the Peak. I had a certain mood that I wanted to convey with this image, and I worked with it to produce that. Is is exactly as it was when I shot it? No. I mean, I could have brought out more detail in the bottom of the foreground, but frankly, I didn't want it. It's the city of Colorado Springs, and I wanted the feeling that this could have been taken in the mountains, not in a public park in the heart of a medium-sized city. I think the bottom line is, I don't look at my photography of a particular subject matter as a record of an event or a place, so much as the subject matter being material for my art. 

Another way that this question gets phrased is “do you manipulate your images?“ To me, this is similar to asking a potter, whether or not they “manipulated“ the clay. Or asking a furniture maker, whether or not they “manipulated“ the wood. Of course they did. That’s the point. That’s the artistry and craftsmanship. Otherwise, the potter would be selling hunks of unformed clay, or the furniture maker would be selling a bunch of tree stumps.

And, by the way, it was not really different in the days of film. Back then, we photographers had our favorite films, based not so much on how realistic they were, but on the final "look" of them. The color rendition and contrast. We used all kinds of different filters to change the look and "enhance"  the image at the time of capture. Then we had our favorite printing methods, all for that final look and appeal.

For me, the final piece is the goal, not an accurate "exactly how it was" representation of a particular scene or place, which I feel is essentially impossible anyway. The world around us is experienced in five senses, with our stereo vision on a swivel. A photograph hanging on a wall or displayed on a monitor is a flat two-dimensional representation of that scene. When I create a final image, I've taken a big broad scene that filled my senses and selected a small slice of it with my camera, made choices such as what lens to use and what f/stop, shutter speed, etc., and created a raw image that I can then mold into a final piece. The great landscape photographer Ansel Adams once said, using a musical analogy to describe his work, that "the negative is the score, and the print is the performance". In other words, the image captured with the camera is the raw material to use for crafting the final piece. I like this philosophy, because I think it allows the photographic artist to infuse their images with a more personal interpretation and style, much the way painters do. In the end, the final piece of art is the main thing.

For a related blog post, please see "Is Photography Art?"