Photographic integrity and the use of Photoshop

Even amongst photographers, I think it is very important to demystify something which has plagued the photography community and the craft in general, especially since the early days of digital capture. I’m talking about Photoshop; yes, that dirty word which has now come to be associated with over-airbrushed models, extra crowds, and general media hoaxes and fakes of all possible descriptions. I think never has a creative tool been so universally reviled and misunderstood by the general population. The word ‘Photoshop’ in itself has almost come to be synonymous with making alterations or changes to something to the point that it is no longer representative of the original object or subject.

Whilst it is, of course, possible to turn a Oprah into Britney Spears and vice versa; to do it well exceeds photography and solidly enters the realm of digital illustration. I am not going to discuss that in this article*; suffice to say that it is a completely different challenge and requires the hand and eye of a painter combined with the logical, structured thinking of a programmer.

*In the interests of full disclosure, I was taught the vast majority of my Photoshop knowledge by one of the best illustrators in the UK. He also happened to be a photography enthusiast, my neighbor in London, and also the reason why I now shoot with a Nikon instead of Canon. I also use Photoshop for illustration, layout and design purposes, but in my experience, that requires an almost completely different set of tools to what a photographer would use – another story for another time.

That is not to say the retouchers couldn’t learn a thing or two from the digital illustrators; too often a much-too heavy-handed approach is applied to any corrections that are performed on an image. It is very important to have an eye for the original subject, a sensitivity to the natural pre-existing lighting in the frame, and the touch of a feather to seamlessly and imperceptibly blend any changes made with the original image. This applies not just to airbrushing and heavy commercial grade retouching, (such as smoothing skin and removing dust or unwanted reflections) but also to normal photographic corrections during postprocessing – I’m thinking specifically of dodging and burning or saturation adjustments.

This is one of the reasons why I’m a huge fan of using an editing tablet and pen; the pressure sensitive and tilt sensitive nature capabilities of the setup allow you to have very fine control over precisely how strong the effect applied is. Both size and density can change depending on the pressure on or angle of the pen; it’s very much like drawing or painting. I suppose if one were to substitute the brush tool for the dodge and burn brush and start a new layer, the resulting image – representing the corrections applied – would almost like a sketch of the original image. (I like to use the Wacom Intuos series because of their high precision and natural feel.)

There are a few worthwhile rules that I think all photographers should keep in mind as they are retouching and postprocessing:

It is possible to overdo it. precisely how much is enough is actually not a very easy thing to determine. However, this is where it is useful to see plenty of other images; look at enough photographs and you will eventually develop a sense of those that work and those that don’t, and more importantly, an eye for just how much processing is required to achieve the desired look.

If you can see where an image was retouched/ edited/ processed, you’ve gone too far. if the corrections also obvious, then the resulting image is no longer photograph but a very poor illustration. This of course is not the intention of photography.

Do things in small, gentle increments. this permits finer control as well as better blending and integration of the changes with the structure of the original image. It is also much easier to undo things and not have to repeat signification amounts of work if you happen to make a mistake.

Any sort of documentary or reportage photography which is intended for editorial news or recording purposes should not have the contents of the image altered at all.

The final point brings me to the second half of my article. In a situation where a photograph is meant to serve as witness to an event, object or place, integrity is paramount. This includes news, reportage, documentary legal documentation, or any sort of archive or historical reference. Although it is perfectly acceptable for the color, contrast and general tone of an image to be altered in such a way as to best present the subject to the viewer; it is definitely not acceptable to change what constitutes the contents of the image. Overenthusiastic use of the clone stamp, healing brush, and most notoriously, mask, copy and paste have cemented Photoshop in the popular consciousness as the tool of choice when deliberate deception or obfuscation is the intention.

That said, I think it is equally important to define what is acceptable in the context of not altering the contents of the image; this list includes exposure, shadow and highlight recovery, curves, levels, dodging and burning, desaturation/ black and white conversion, and minor hue and saturation adjustments. Frankly, the final item – hue and saturation – is also a little bit borderline. This is because a decisive change in the color of a photograph or subject can result in very different interpretations, for example, naturally occuring blue carrots would be an event of note, but postprocessed ones would not. It is therefore the responsibility of the photographer to ensure that color is as accurate and faithful to the original subject as possible. The alternative is to shoot in black and white; this has the effect of removing the psychological aspects of color from the image.

Determining what is naturally occurring and what is the product of Photoshop skill has become more and more difficult since the increasing popularity of shooting in RAW. It is actually nearly impossible to spot well executed retouching; in fact, I actually make it a point to look for flaws in retouching in order to avoid these mistakes in my own commercial work. Even in very good work, there are two giveaways. The first is that everything simply looks too perfect; reality is dirty, rough and full of flaws; an image that is meant to serve as documentary witness should also reflect that. It is possible (but highly unlikely) that a subject will be perfect and flawless at the full resolution level; and this is where such inspection should begin. The second clue is a lot more subtle, hidden in the noise characteristics of the camera. Even by eyeball, if this texture microtexture is not properly replicated in a retouched area of an image it will be fairly obvious. Although it is possible to have images with zero noise even in the shadow zones, or alternatively add it back, it is almost impossible to perfectly replicate the native noise pattern of the sensor, or have zero noise in the shadows. It is also possible to reveal these inconsistencies either through extreme total manipulation – which amplifies the differences between the retouched and surrounding areas – or through the use of forensic statistical analysis software.

There is a big gray area between documentary photography and conceptual or artistic photography. This twilight zone is home to the commercial photographer. Understandably, it is highly desirable to make your product or service or people look as appealing, flawless and perfect as possible; however there is also the question of integrity. This is where too much Photoshop can get you into trouble. Once a photograph no longer reasonably represents the actual product or service you are going to receive; in some countries it is quite reasonable to take legal action on the grounds of misrepresentation. One very good example of this is fast food; in the hundreds of times I’ve at McDonalds, I can’t recall ever having received a burger which actually resembles anything on the menu. Natural lettuce is simply not that green most of the time, nor are the burgers that big! (I also remember an oldish article circulating on the Internet which shows just how much effort and preplanning is used in the preparation of a burger for one of these shoots; there were spare parts for everything and a huge pile of discarded ingredients that would be perfectly edible, but due to a slight blemish were rendered unsuitable for photography. This was obviously in the days of film, before Photoshop retouching.)

I personally deal with this issue on a fairly regular basis. As you know know, I’m a commercial photographer whose work covers subjects that are meant to be desirable – expensive watches, gourmet food and avant-garde buildings. There is therefore some degree of retouching required to ensure that the subjects look as perfect as possible; you can reasonably expect there to be no loose drips of sauce around your entree, or dust and scratches on your new watch. But just where do you stop making the tomatoes redder, and the meat more golden brown? To complicate things, it’s also a tough balance between finding a unique and aesthetically pleasing angle (a commercial photography requirement) against representing a perspective that a normal person might reasonably expect to experience. I honestly don’t have an answer for this question; the personal guidelines I generally work to are that the images I produce must look natural, even if they are conceptual in nature and require compositing multiple images (which frequently happens to manage reflections, deal with large dynamic range while maintaining shadow image quality, or photographing prototypes that might not be representative of final finishing). A dedicated and careful viewer should not be able to tell which part of the images has been retouched or composited, oh where the break points used were.

For my limited documentary work, I do absolutely zero retouching or airbrushing on any portions of the image and seek to deliver as faithful color to the original scene as possible. Adjustments are limited to curves, dodging and burning and sharpening; hue and saturation adjustments are made solely in the quest to deliver more accurate color. Personal or artistic work is basically open season; however, if I want to do illustration, I’ll do illustration; since I’m focusing on the photography, and my style these days is predominantly natural, I try to do as little retouching as possible. (It also helps me to speed up my workflow and throughput.)

By no means am I saying these guidelines are a hard and fast set of rules for every photographer to follow, however they are worth keeping in mind depending on the intended usage and purpose of your photographs. In the interests of maintaining the reputation and integrity of both the profession and the individual; working photographers should be open to fully disclose if an image has been edited or retouched, if it is ever called into question. The editing and retouching of images has been around for many years before Photoshop – there were even services for adding color to black and white images – but during the film days, retouching was never perceived as a threat to integrity, perhaps because the tools available were rudimentary, and it was nearly impossible to achieve a perfectly natural looking result. Today, it is very much our responsibility as photographers to do our best to restore public trust in the integrity of documentary images, as well as faith that what you pay for is actually going to be what you receive. MT


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  1. Curtis Mack Polk says:

    Photography’s integrity is forever lost and cannot be recovered. The general population’s perception of Photoshop is correct. With you as a notable exception, every digital photographer I know routinely removes objects from their images, combines unrelated images and has no hesitation in extreme retouching. They know down deep that they are cheating, but they simply lack the discipline to learn how to make strong photographs from fundamentals. Most photographers fundamentally are fascinated by the technology, not making pictures.
    To change this would require a consensus of top photographers forming an organization with standards and handing them down to the masses. But, there are simply too few like you who have the integrity to restrain themselves inside Photoshop or to confine themselves to Lightroom.

    • I’ll do it for commercial work because the products have to be perfect, and dust isn’t really acceptable 😛

      However, I won’t do it for anything even remotely documentary. Part of it is lack of time, part of it is integrity…and knowing that you can’t fix something that isn’t originally there. You can improve the presentation, but that’s about it.

  2. Very timely Ming
    I have just forwarded a link to this to the Photographic Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald after they published a series of obvious digital illustrations as clever photography
    Personally I like the work for what it is but………


  3. If Photoshop is why you shoot with Nikon instead of Canon, can you give particular reasons? Is it simply that Nikon files are more friendly to manipulation or is it something else?

    • I started out with Nikon and never saw a reason to switch, plus I’ve always had too much investment in glass. That and the Canon UI just doesn’t work for me, plus professional support in this country is terrible – not so much because of the program as the people working there.

  4. Great article.
    Thank you.

  5. I’d like to hear what you think of the following scenario.

    Last year, I accompanied a couple of journalists as photographer. I made a couple of portraits of a man and his wife. Being kind of inexperienced, I did not realize that there was a problem until I saw the pictures on a computer screen. From one side, they were lit by cold winter light from a window; from the other side by an incandescent bulb. I shot RAW and believed I could fix any problems in Photoshop. Well, if I adjusted the white balance to make the man’s face look good, the wife’s skin colour became horrible, and vice versa. Later, I’ve learned that one solution to this is to make two layers with slightly different white balance, then merge them. Would that be too much image manipulation for journalistic use?

    • It’s a bit borderline. In this scenario, I’d probably just pull back the blue saturation a bit, or go B&W. I suppose so long as you are not changing the content of the image, it should be okay for journalistic use…

  6. Well put and fascinating. What size Wacom Intuos works well? – Eric

    • Depends much on your screen size – I use the medium 6×9″ for a 15″, though it’d be fine a 24″ too. I think the 27 might be better with the large though.

  7. djoko joedaatmadja says:

    I fully agree with your thought .The story telling in the picture is the beauty of the documentary/photojournalism picture..




  1. […] Even amongst photographers, I think it is very important to demystify something which has plagued the photography community and the craft in general, especially since the early days of digital capture. I’m talking about Photoshop; yes, that dirty word which has now come to be associated with over-airbrushed models, extra crowds, and general media hoaxes and fakes of all possible descriptions. I think never has a creative tool been so universally reviled and misunderstood by the general population. The word ‘Photoshop’ in itself has almost come to be synonymous with making alterations or changes to something to the point that it is no longer representative of the original object or subject.  […]

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