Note: This article also appears on the Photography Roundtable at www.photographyroundtable.com.
At some point or another, most photographers will be asked a certain question that is typically expected to be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” An admirer sees your photo, stares at it in awe, and in disbelief they ask “Is this Photoshopped?”
The answer: Yes. But No. Alright, sort of, but just probably not in the way that they’re wondering. Listen, it’s complicated…
I’ve been asked this question many times in the past few years, most often with regard to night sky photography. While the inquiry is meant to be asked as a “Yes or No” question, I prefer not to give a simple answer. To me, when someone asks me if my image is Photoshopped, what I normally interpret them to mean is “Is this real?” The question may stem from the manipulated images we are all bombarded with on a daily basis, including ones which show models who have had body parts stretched, skewed, enlarged, or shrunken to unrealistic degrees. From my perspective, the question comes across as a skeptical challenge, and I normally feel a need to explain myself beyond a one word answer.
For my photos, the answer to the questions of “Is this Photoshopped?” and “Is this real?” is almost always yes. I don’t add elements that weren’t present when I took the photo. I don’t replace a boring sky with a fiery sunset from a different time and place. There are no elements in my images that weren’t present when my camera captured them in the field. So, yes, they’re real.
The thing that many non-photographers don’t realize is that the way the human eye perceives a scene, and the way a camera sees that same scene, can be significantly different. The human eye collects light on a real-time basis, sending the image it sees directly to the brain so you can process what is in front of you.
A camera, on the other hand, can zoom in or out for a different perspective, or hold a shutter open for an extended period of time to show movement or collect extra light in a dark location. Modern digital cameras can collect far more color in low light situations than the human eye can, so photos of the Aurora Borealis or the center of the Milky Way yield faint hues we often cannot see on our own. This is why an image of the Milky Way yields blue and yellow luminosity that, to our naked eyes, just look like a white, blurry smudge in the sky. However, these same cameras also lack the ability to see a wide dynamic range (a range of bright highlights and dark shadows) like the human eye can. For a camera to recreate a scene with high dynamic range the way we experience it in real time, combining different photos exposed for darker areas of the scene and brighter areas may be necessary in Photoshop.
The main reason I feel a need to respond to a Yes/No question with such an elaborate explanation is because I capture all of my photos as RAW files. Most non-photographers are not accustomed to RAW files, and they instead have their camera produce a JPEG file as the finished product. In these cases, the camera sensor collects light, interprets this information, and produces the final image. With RAW files, however, the camera collects a large amount of information, but produces an image which is far from a finished product. Due to the large amount of information contained in the RAW file, the photographer can take the image into an editing program (Photoshop, for example) and adjust color, contrast, sharpness, and more, instead of letting the camera make those decisions on its own. Via this process of capturing RAW files instead of JPEGs, I give myself a large amount of creative leeway to make a JPEG file on my own. However, I often use Photoshop as part of this workflow.
So, yes, technically all of my images are “Photoshopped,” but they are also real. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.