How much photoshop is acceptable? Purpose, Ethics & Aesthetics of a photograph.

Photoshop or no photoshop? This is a highly controversial topic and people have strong opinions regardless of what they know about photoshop. Some photographers proudly claim they haven't retouched the image. What they don't realize is straight out of camera results differ in the choice of camera, lens choices as well. Enhancing starts in the camera itself. The quality of an image from a DSLR and a mobile phone camera will differ ofcourse. Not that a mobile phone will not shoot a good image but the quality, resolution will be better in a DSLR. A prime lens will give better depth of field than a zoom lens so they are widely used for portraits.

Lets look at some basics..

"A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the
deepest sense, about what is being photographed
"      -Ansel Adams

So the forever controversial subject - Photoshop or no-Photoshop? Lets keep this question aside for a while till we really understand what image editing/post processing/photo retouching is.

The dictionary meaning of Image Editing:

"the analysis and manipulation of a digitized image, especially in order to improve its quality."

A little flashback of Image editing

Photo editing has been into existence right from the time photography has been invented. Earlier it was a tedious process working with negatives, now it has become easier and faster with Photoshop and other image editing tools. Photo manipulation has been used till now for political reasons, glamour portraits, creating fantasy stories, increasing tourism, product marketing or just simple enhancing.

Levels of retouching an image

There are various levels to retouching an image. It depends on what really the purpose of the photograph is.

Minimal level of retouching - eg., Photojournalism. You wouldn't want to see altered images of war, floods, tsunamis, political news, etc. You want to see and know the truth about what is really happening around the world. Magazines like National Geographic, Discovery, etc. have pretty strict rules about how much retouching is really allowed on an image. Reality matters here. That being said there has been a lot of tampering here too. Here is a link showing a list of photo tampering history many of which have been in the photojournalism category -

High level of retouching - eg., Fine art photography, matte paintings, conceptual photography, HDRs, etc. These are created with an artistic vision of a photographer. It could be created to tell a story, create an
eye pleasing art, creating film sets that would be expensive to create, creating a completely non-existent fantasy world. Its purpose is completely in contrast with photojournalism. Brooke Shaden being one of my favourite fine art photographers.

Rest all categories come somewhere in between. It is really upto the photographer to choose their level depending on what their purpose for the photograph is.

What a photographer needs to ask him/herself is

  • Purpose: What is your purpose of creating a photograph? Is it for a magazine, advertising products, fashion photography, portraiture, street photography, advertising tourism, celebrities?
  • Aesthetics: in photography concerns with making an image pleasing to the eye. Image is enhanced in different ways to make it look beautiful and attractive. Since judging beauty is subjective, this is where image editing can get controversial . It will be different for everyone according to their personalities, culture, tastes. So how much enhancing is really good?
  • Ethics: Here is where the subject of morality comes in. Digitally altering image to an extent namely - Airbrushing extensively to create a false body image. Distorting and creating a over perfected body, making them overly slim, changing the skintone of a dark-skinned person excessively. This has been done for many years but has been noticed by public in the recent digital years. - Creating false  imagery in photojournalism. - Manipulating public in believing political, war news that do not depict reality.

Is enhancing necessary at all?

Yes in most cases it is. Even if it is a little. Even in case of photojournalism - brightness, contrast, cropping is alright and necessary at times. The purpose should be met. That is what matters.

As Ansel Adams quoted

"The negative is the equivalent of the composer's score and the print, the performance."

Essentially it comes down to this -

Photoshop is an amazing image editing tool. Remember that with great power comes great responsibility. You can either use it or abuse it. How much to use really depends on your vision. What is more important is to have one!

Know your purpose,
Enhance the image for your aesthetics and
Respect the ethics.

My Purpose

My brand is Glamour portraiture for everyday women. My purpose is making them feel beautiful and happy through makeovers. Tranformations always feel amazing. It feels new and refreshing. My clients are simple women who don't get their hair and makeup done everyday. They don't give that much attention to  themselves in their daily busy lives with their jobs, housework, etc. They don't wear clothes like these, they don't stand like this everyday. So every once in a while it definitely feels good to pamper yourself, doll up and look sexy and beautiful. The portraits are for them and them alone. Not for products, not for  magazines, they are just intended to make them feel happy.

How much do i retouch?

I prefer getting it right in the camera itself how much ever i can. I shoot in Raw. I love playing with brightness levels, colors. I love warm and vibrant colors. There are some pictures which look adorable in black and white but i choose to decide during the post-processing. I love the old vintage film look. Since i have never used a film camera, i like getting that look in with grain and vignettes. Extra flab that my client is not super proud of is fixed in posing itself. It does not mean completely cutting it out. It just means making it less prominent. Maximum ladies are conscious about the same things - they don't want the double chins, flabby arms, paunch. Yes it is there but they don't want it to be eye catching, "rubbing it in the face" obvious in their portraits that would be hung on their walls. So i direct the focus to their eyes and their smiles which make them look gorgeous and stunning. Also i can't go too far and they would never buy an image in which they do not look like themselves. This is my style and it fits my standards of aesthetics and ethics.

Here are some of my before and afters of retouched images.

                                                                   I prefer choosing black and white during post processing.