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OPINION: Why Photoshop is Ruining Landscape Photography

This opinion piece was contributed by Declan O’Neill from www.newzealandlandscape.com.

The winner of one of Britain’s most prestigious photographic competitions was stripped of his title recently because of excessive use of Photoshop. David Byrne was the winner of the Landscape Photographer of The Year award and a £10,000 ($16000) prize but has now had his title and prize money taken away in a surprise move by the organisers of the competition which is supported by Epson, The Sunday Times Magazine and The National Theatre.

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The dramatic reversal came about after other photographers pointed out that the image had been photoshoped to include clouds not in the original image. Other photographers pointed to the impossibility of the sun casting shadows in different directions.

Mr. Byrne defended his manipulation of the image by pointing out that altering images is hardly new. He was quoted by The Daily Mail as saying, ‘The purists out there were not happy. Messing about with pictures has been done for over 100 years. I treat my photography as art and I try to make the best looking picture.’

Those three sentences neatly define the battle lines which have been drawn over the digital manipulation of photographs.

First of all he seems to suggest that anyone who objects to manipulating images is a ‘purist’. It seems clear that ‘purist’ is not a compliment in this context. What this veiled insult fails to acknowledge is that many photographers do not object to using Photoshop to enhance photographs but they do object to its use in altering photographs.

The problem comes in defining when enhancement crosses a boundary into alteration. Removing power lines from a landscape is one thing. Changing the colour of the sky from grey to orange quite another. It isn’t as if there is any shortage of sunsets around to photograph and the joy of landscape photography is capturing the elusive, not manufacturing it with software. It’s no crime to create a sunset sky, it’s just rather sad that someone would need to do it when there is so much natural colour to photograph. How many times have you looked at a super saturated landscape photograph and known instinctively that it’s false? Yet we see these photographs constantly win awards in club and national competitions. Anyone who has studied the way sunlight paints the landscape from different angles knows how to capture the best colour without needing Photoshop. That’s what being out in the field teaches you. You learn how to use the light to maximum effect.

The second defence that Mr. Byrne advances is that photographers have been ‘messing about’ with photographs for a long time. His choice of words is both unfortunate and revealing. Photographers should respect their subject matter. You do not have to go very far to capture truly beautiful natural photographs and the idea that it’s ok to mess about with the captured image is a depressing comment on the craft of photography. This attitude tells us that the photographer has no qualms about creating a vision of what they wish they had captured, but failed.

Finally Mr. Byrne tells us that he treats his photography as ‘art’ and tries to make ‘the best looking picture’. Here is the real problem with the software tools that allow us to create our own photographs. Photography has always been a craft. Ansel Adams had no need to add clouds or alter tree shapes because his images were honest and beautiful. There is nothing wrong with painting new images with Photoshop, just don’t call it photography. It is something entirely different when a photographer wants to be an artist. An artist creates images from their imagination and that is a wonderful thing. Just leave photography to record what the camera sees not what the photographer wishes it had seen.

What is extraordinary is that Mr. Byrne should have won such a prestigious title as Landscape Photographer of the Year. Luckily, his alterations were brought to the attention of the judges who had been unable to detect them for themselves. But for the ‘purists’ his accolade would have reinforced the idea that we can alter images in the name of ‘art’ and still claim they are photographs. If something good can come out of this sorry debacle it is the lesson that landscape does not need our interference. The true joy of landscape photography lies in capturing its pristine beauty. Painting it in the crude lipstick of Photoshop is both unnecessary and an admission that we cannot leave it to speak for itself through our lenses.

Declan O’Neill is a photographer who lives in Nelson New Zealand. He specialises in landscape photography and runs photographic tours of the South Island. His website can be found at www.newzealandscape.com.

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