Was That Photoshopped? It Doesn't Matter!

Was That Photoshopped? It Doesn’t Matter!

Often times when looking at an image, people will ask “Was that Photoshopped?” or “Did that scene REALLY look that way?”  They say this as if the camera, left to its own devices, is going to display an unedited, “truthful” image.  The truth is, that any image coming out of one of today’s digital cameras has been manipulated.  The only question is how.

Boston Skyline shot from Longfellow Bridge. This was a difficult exposure due to the darker foreground and bright sky. Processing in a RAW development application gave me the flexibility to get the image in line with what I was seeing.

I’m not talking about cases where things have been moved, or added to an image after capture.  While that certainly has a place, that becomes more the realm of a graphic designer or illustrator.  The manipulation I’m discussing refers to color, contrast, saturation, and white balance.  Photoshop, and other image editing tools certainly make the adjusting of those things much simpler than in the past, when a darkroom, chemicals, and paper was required, but they don’t change the fact that it all starts in-camera.  Photography starts with the push of the shutter button.  It doesn’t end there, and it never has.

First of all, understand that all digital images are manipulated in some way.  Just because one takes the JPEG files straight from the camera, and never even opens a photo editing program, does not mean that image has been manipulated.  Digital imaging sensors record only the brightness data for each pixel. The color is interpreted either in-camera in the camera’s image processor, or using RAW processing software such as Adobe Camera Raw. A Bayer filter, composed of a repeating pattern of two green light filters, one red

The typical bayer filter lays over the imaging sensor to allow the camera to determine the color of each pixel. The camera then "debayers" the image in its image processor.

light filter, and one blue light filter, overlays the imaging sensor.  Through the image processor, the colors each pixel represents is determined through this filter. Color intensity values not captured by the pixel are guessed, or interpolated, by the image processor using the color values of neighboring pixels.   For JPEG files, this information is baked into the file. RAW files store this color information separate from the brightness data, making it available for manipulation in RAW processing software.

So before you even remove the memory card from the camera, if you’ve shot JPEG files, the camera’s image processor has decided what color each pixel is. In addition, it’s finalized settings for contrast, white balance, saturation, and sharpness for the image, using the camera’s built-in image styles such as Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral or others.  While the user may not have used an image editing program, the image was still edited according to the camera settings.

If you shoot RAW files, you’ve left yourself some room to play, because those settings are able to be adjusted.  The image will display in the software based on the camera’s settings at the time of exposure, but settings such as White Balance, Contrast, Saturation, and Sharpness are all adjustable via the RAW processing software.

The dark foreground and brighter sky again proved difficult, but by manipulating the image in Adobe Camera RAW, I was able to achieve a result that pleased me.

The dark foreground and brighter sky again proved difficult, but by manipulating the image in Adobe Camera RAW, I was able to achieve a result that pleased me.

None of this is really any different than traditional film photography. The major difference is the point at which certain decisions are made. With film, many decisions must be made prior to shooting.  The choice to shoot black and white or color, the choice to shoot with a vivid color film such as Fuji Velvia, or something more natural such as Kodachrome 64, all had to be decided before focusing the lens. Now these choices can come after.  In addition, things such as contrast and saturation could also be manipulated using masks, dodging and burning, and even by choosing different types paper.

Want an example?  One of the best examples is one of the most famous photographs in the world- Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, NM”. The negative was not an easy one to print, and Adams pulled out all the stops in working with it to achieve the finished masterpiece.  His discussion of the process, as well as his finished print, and the contact print, can be found HERE. It’s quite easy to see how much work actually went into the final print when comparing the contact print with the finished version.

By adjusting the white balance in Adobe Camera RAW, I was able to warm up the sun to give it the soft golden glow it had when I was shooting

By adjusting the white balance in Adobe Camera RAW, I was able to warm up the sun to give it the soft golden glow it had when I was shooting

The bottom line is that the creative process in photography does not end when the shutter button is depressed, and a knowledge of the process can only enhance your images.  All images go through some form of processing.  It’s just a question of whether you make the decisions yourself, or you allow the camera to choose for you.  I’m a huge advocate for shooting RAW files and allowing yourself the choices the RAW format requires.  It’s much like working with a negative in the darkroom. The skill needed in Photoshop is no less than the skill required in the darkroom, it’s just different.

So the answer to “Was that Photoshopped?” is up to each individual photographer to choose how to answer.  Mostly, the answer will be “Yes, to some extent” for all images.  Ultimately, let your creativity drive you. Unless you are a photojournalist, where realism is key, the only limits are your creativity, your skill with the camera, and your skill in the digital darkroom.

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

Some Older Comments

  • Dan December 21, 2012 08:45 am

    I had a client tell me my work was photoshopped after he ran it through a tool -imageedited.com. I told him, "I know." Nobody shoots perfect shots. National Geographic edits their photos." Ansel Adams could correct and tweak exposure in the dark room. For digital shots, we use photoshop. As long as the editing isn't to misrepresent, it's just a tool to get a better picture.

  • Naz December 7, 2012 04:45 am

    using photoshop doesn't matter- howebver overuse of photoshop does- there is nothign wrogn with manipulating a scene to match what you saw- as photographers, we are artists- we ARE image manipulators- period- We manipulate scenes to look the way we saw them- film photographers did the same- we also add touches (like vignet) to drect the view- as did film photogs-

    Sure, there are some purist SOOC fanatics who claim that anyhtign that is manipulated PP is a 'fake photo' but as the OP points out even SOOC photos have been manipulated- EVEN raw photos as they do NOT contain the colors we saw when we took the photo IF all the raw settings are neutralized or zeroed.

    There is a case to be made for tryign to keep the PP as 'natural looking' as possible- however, there's also the case to be made for artists who acheive a look which others find beautiful and which are highly sought after-Many photographers develop a consistant look that IS NOT 'natural' but which nontheless makes hte photos look absolutely stunning- Ansel Adams was oen of these- And if the purists poo poo Ansel Adams or the myraid of other photogs who have developped unique, artistic styles over htey ears- well then pffff- I don't care- I enjoy the ART these foilks produced and hoep to emulate them to a degree and develp my own style soemday

  • David J December 6, 2012 09:46 am

    I splashed around in a wet darkroom for years and cannot remember a single print off the enlarger which was not manipulated. Choice of film, paper,chemicals,exposure, whether to dodge,burn crop all played a vital role in the finished image. To tone or not to tone, mono or colour, reversal or negative each had it's uses and I was never asked "Did you manipulate it" . Infra red was seen as high art back then so why the fuss about PS it is essentially the same process as the foregoing but comes in for so much criticism from the self appointed purists.

  • seema punia December 6, 2012 04:40 am

    great article!u've cleared my vision regarding photoshop! now i won't hesitate to use it.

  • stephen hill December 4, 2012 01:21 pm

    Great article, I have recently attended a few photowalks and the question gets raised a lot as I like to take some bracketed shots for HDR. Some people say that its not pure, not in the spirit of photography and others seem to love it. Either way, whether your touching up an image, using presets, or totally changing the construct of the image, its you the photographer (Artist) adding your perception and emotions that you want to evoke in the viewer.

    On another note, i have had so many comments that this shot is total photoshopped and its straight out of the camera so you will never please them :P

  • Brian December 4, 2012 04:10 am

    I never Photoshop anything. I have Serif Photoplus x4 - so I Photoplus it.
    Kidding of course. I would not be interested in photography if it weren't for Photoshop (or their competitors).



  • Brad December 4, 2012 02:53 am

    As mostly a consumer, I can confirm that the "photoshopped" question typically refers to composite content images, not composite layers of the same content .... but I have still always thought "Is it a good compelling image... then why do I care?" That being said, easily 9 out of 10 composite content pics are not good, and can be detected as a composite despite what certain composite content photographers think. How? By paying attention to eye-strain. It is very difficult to get every little detail in every little shadow and reflection perfect, and people's eyes (which are experts at viewing and focusing) will notice it. One may not be able to state what the problem is, but their eyes will be more active (rescanning) compared to an image with unmanipulated content. (In motion pictures, the images fly by too fast for the eyes to rescan, so composite content appears more realistic.)

  • MikMik December 4, 2012 01:23 am

    "The truth is, that any image coming out of one of today’s digital cameras has been manipulated. The only question is how."
    So is any image take with film. The dynamic range of film is not that of the human eye. The kind of film, the kind of processing in the lab, all affect the final result. So do the decissions of the photographer when setting up the shot (exposure, filters, etc.).
    So the question is not whether it's been manipulated, but rather whether the processing tries to "deceive" the viewer.

  • Dewan Demmer December 3, 2012 10:46 pm

    This is a current day truth, where in the days of film the change was brought about in the dark room, the new age darkroom is Photoshop, Gimp, NX Capture, Lightroom and so many other bits of software. The purist may feel I am degrading the images, while some may feel otherwise, its all about the image you love and how you came to create it.
    Personally I have realised that sometimes its not only about colour correction, enhancing and fixing aspects of the image can help enhance focus and remove unnessacary distractions, things that canno tbe done in the real world. Ultimately i do not believe we are diminishing an image we simple setting the image to tell the story the way we see it, and so it for the audience to decide whether or not the story is for them.

    Here I have become more free with using the "new age darkroom" tools :

  • steve briant December 3, 2012 08:49 pm

    At last a voice of sanity.

    Post processing is part of the creation of an image. To all those who feel they have to ask if the shot has been manipulated:

    It's not cheating.
    It's not somehow lowering the bar.
    Get over it.

  • Blake December 3, 2012 02:10 pm

    I like how the same website that effectively told people that aren't 'professionals' to stop playing at cameras let the big boys handle the paid work is now telling people to stop accusing photographers of using editing tools on their photos like it's a bad thing and leave them alone.

  • David Wahlman December 3, 2012 10:51 am

    Thanks for the article. Fun read and excellent points.

  • Rick December 2, 2012 11:17 pm

    It's dissappointing that society will question whether a photo has been manipulated, but have never questioned the production tampering of the music that they listen too....

  • JacksonG December 2, 2012 02:58 pm

    Great article Rick. I've always been one of those people who say you should just take a great picture and not have to photoshop it, you've opened my eyes though. I have my camera set to capture JPEG/RAW so I guess it's just a question of time before I take the leap.

  • John Mee December 2, 2012 09:02 am

    Good article. Like all photographers, I too have been asked that question. I explain it like this.

    If you import a photo of a Ford Fiesta into Photoshop, you cannot edit it into a Ferrari! It will still be a Fiesta at the end! :-)

  • clickstation December 2, 2012 07:09 am

    I'm one of the people who ask those questions, but my purpose is to find out "what should I do/learn to be able to make pictures like that?"

    So don't get upset just because people ask/state if your picture is 'shopped, is what I'm getting at here.

  • Carl Larson December 2, 2012 07:08 am

    This was a great article. I've been having discussions with a friend about this very subject and your article provided great support for my contentions.

  • Major Bokeh December 2, 2012 07:08 am

    Great article. I think that the power of Photoshop and HDR programs in the wrong hands has caused a problem for the rest of us. Nothing worse than someone recklessly dialing up saturation or creating the "clown puke" unrealistic dynamic range images they then try to pass off as "natural."

    These tools are becoming crutches for the people that have gotten digital cameras yet skipped past the fundamentals of photography like subject, light, concept and composition.

  • Alex Smith December 2, 2012 06:37 am

    Great discussion of this topic Rick. People tend to forget how much darkroom work was done with negatives and that the process itself has just become a little different and easier as well. There are many who are critical of "photoshopping" but the reality is as you said that most images need some post-processing. Well done!

  • Don Risi December 2, 2012 05:17 am

    Great article, and right on the money. But let me take it a step further by saying that even when shooting film, the image was manipulated, or at least subject to manipulation. How? 99% of the population sees the world in color. Shoot anything in B&W, and you've manipulated it. Shoot a daylight scene with tungsten-balanced film (or vice-versa) and you're manipulated it. Put a filter on your lens (any filter), and you've manipulated the image.

    Go in the darkroom. Make a print. Crop it? Manipulated. Doge or burn it? Manipulated. boost or reduce the contrast and you've manipulated it. Take the final print, and retouch out a hair in a portrait or a small piece of trash in a landscape, and it's been manipulated.

    I have heard argument after argument against manipulation, but the fact of the matter is we were "Photoshopping" our photos long, long before Photoshop -- or computers, for that matter -- was invented. We either didn't know it, or were not willing to acknowledge it.

  • greg20 December 2, 2012 04:23 am

    Good info and thiught provoking
    .the image should do the talking before snd sfter.
    Creating slwsys guarsntees a dialog.
    With photographer and the viewer

  • Joe Shelby December 2, 2012 04:22 am

    I too use Picasa, and because of that I generally under-expose as well (my light setting on my XTI and XT3 is usually to -1 or -2/3rd). Part of that is because though Picasa has good tools for brightening up dark spots, it isn't very good at darkening down sections that might be over-exposed or borderline to that. I can brighten the whole image or darken the shadows more, but it isn't easy to darken the whole image when it is over-exposed.

    With skies, I can sometimes work by doing a shaded filter across the skyline (but only if the horizon line is flat), and then brighten the whole thing up, and once there I can use the HDR-ish or the regular sharpener filter to sharpen the distinctions. That really helpd me salvage this Grand Canyon shot that otherwise (see the rest of the album) kept having the skyline bleached out every time I tried to bring out the details in the canyon layer.


  • Mridula December 2, 2012 03:51 am

    I used to be pretty indifferent to this question initially but now I sometimes get irritated when someone says was it edited. I use picasa to edit and yes I do adjust the tones. But so do I underexpose deliberately when taking the shot. But I guess over-processed difficult to believe pictures are to be blamed for this?


  • jim December 2, 2012 02:59 am

    I think there's a perception that "Photoshopped" means a composite image or some other digital fakery, rather than color, white balance and contrast adjustments .I regularly blend multiple exposures to make an image more realistic. When viewing a sunset in person,the foreground doesn't look underexposed. Why should a photo?

  • David L. December 2, 2012 02:51 am

    Really good article.. I feel the same when I adjust my pictures on lightroom and later someone said: "you Photoshopped it"....... so? :)