Pondering the Question "Is that Photoshopped?"

January 19, 2023

One of the evils of the digital age is that professional nature or landscape photographers have to respond to the question, “Is that Photoshopped?” There are two problems with the question. One problem relates to meaning. What aspect of Photoshop is the person inquiring about? Does he mean to ask, “Is it a composite?” Or, are they asking, “Are colors added to this?” Or, perhaps, are they asking if basic enhancements have been made, such as to exposure, contrast, hue, or saturation?

The second problem with the question is the implication. The question implies negative things about the image. First, it implies disbelief that the image was originally good without manipulation, or that the scene could not have naturally looked as good as that. Secondly, it implies that to make enhancements themselves is improper.

Most of all, the question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how serious photographers – artists – approach their medium. One of the modern sayings is that a photographer can always “fix” an image or “get it right” in Photoshop. I am going to go out on a limb and say two very profound things: Ansel Adams would have approved of digital photography and he would have been a Photoshop user. But Ansel Adams would vehemently disagree with the notion that you can “fix” an image or “get it right” in Photoshop.

Ansel Adams and Digital Photography

I learned photography the “old school” way involving black and white negative film and the wet darkroom. In fact, I learned how to process film long before I really understood how to expose it well. In college, I took a class that focused on the Ansel Adams “Zone System” of exposure. It was there, and through reading his three-book series “The Camera”, “The Negative” and “The Print” and his book “Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs” that I came to understand and seek to emulate his philosophy on controlling an image through the entire creative process.

In his books, I read a few passages that, when I read them again years later, revealed an amazing foresight into where photography was headed:

“I eagerly await new concepts and processes. I believe the electronic image will be the next major advance. Such systems will have their own inherent and inescapable structural characteristics, and the artist and functional practitioner will again strive to comprehend and control them.”— Ansel Adams, The Negative (1981, xiii)

“I am sure the next step will be the electronic image, and I hope I shall live to see it. I trust that the creative eye will continue to function, whatever technological innovations may develop.”— Ansel Adams, Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs (1983, 59)

Unfortunately, Ansel Adams did not live to see the development of true digital photography. While the first digital camera was created in 1975, it was created as an exercise and not for production. The camera weighed 8 pounds (3.6 kg), recorded black and white images to a cassette tape, had a resolution of 0.01 megapixels (10,000 pixels), and took 23 seconds to capture its first image. The first analog electric camera to reach the market was the Canon RC-701, used in the summer Olympics in 1984. But even then, the analogs were expensive (up to $20,000 per model), of poor quality, and there were not printers available in the market. In 1988, Canon released the RC-250 Xapshot and Nikon the QV-1000C, which produced a greyscale image of comparable quality to film and marketed only to media outlets. The first commercially available digital camera was the 1990 Dycam Model 1; it also sold as the Logitech Fotoman. It used a CCD image sensor, stored pictures digitally, and connected directly to a computer for download. But, in the modern age of the digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, the first developed by a major manufacturer was the Nikon D1 in 1999, with a 2.74-megapixel sensor. Ansel Adams died in 1984.

Given the format of film that Ansel Adams was accustomed to using – he captured his images on 8×10 inch negatives – he probably would not have cared for the quality or resolution of the images produced by the first DSLRs, but given his writings, he would have been pleased to see that the new world of the electronic image was finally taking form.

Ansel Adams and Photoshop

My philosophy is, “Get it right in camera. Perfect it in Photoshop.” This summarizes what was Ansel Adam’s philosophy as well.

Given Ansel’s belief that creation of an image continued in the processing of film and in the creation of the print, he would have been a Photoshop user. In traditional film, there were three phases that were involved in creation of the image: exposure of light to film, exposure of that film to chemicals at a certain temperature for a certain period of time (developing the film), and the creation of the print in a darkroom (which involved shining light through a negative onto print paper and then exposing that paper to chemicals). Ansel Adams believed that the artist could and should control the image at each phase. The reason for this is simple: photography according to Ansel Adams was more than just documenting a scene. It was about creating an emotional connection to the image. And plus, cameras are simply incapable of recording light the ways our eyes see it, so a certain level of basic enhancement is required.

First, there is the creation of the image in the camera. If a nature or landscape photographer stopped his or her work there, then they would be nothing more than a documentarian like a crime scene photographer. So many elements have to come together in camera in order for the image to be captured “right” out in the field: composition, weather, luck, and light.

Understanding how cameras see light is one of the most fundamental elements of photography. Light is measured in “stops” in the world of photography. The opening of an aperture during exposure is referred to as an “F-stop” and represented by a number like 2.8, 4.0, 5.6, 8.0, 11, 16, 22 and so on. Each of those numbers represents a “stop” of light – from one to the next is a single “stop.” Some lenses go lower, some go even higher. Ansel Adams was part of a group commonly known as “Group F/64,” meaning, they were extreme landscape photographers who always shot at a very, very narrow aperture – f/64 – which created an incredible depth of field. But cameras cannot see detail in shadows in highlights across a wide dynamic rangeas well as the human eye can. A human eye can see detail in as much of a dynamic range as 24 stops of light, while most DSLRs can only record 10-12 stops of light (the new Nikon Z9 has a dynamic range of 14.4 EV at the lower ISO numbers).

Thus, when you are photographing a scene that has deep shadow and bright highlights, you have to know that in most instances, your camera will not be able to record it in a single image without some help. One way to give it help in camera is with a graduated neutral density filter. This allows the highlights to be darkened to a certain number of stops while leaving the shaded area as it is. Another method that was used in the old darkroom days was to take two images and then combine the best exposures from the two images into one print. (I’ll discuss later how that is done “nowadays” in the digital darkroom.) Another common practice in black and white film photography was to add certain colored filters – red, orange, yellow, green and blue – to enhance the midtones of the image because certain colors look alike when converted to grey scale. Using these filters allowed the contrast that those colors represented to print well in black and white.

But, for Ansel Adams, exposing the film was not the end, but just the beginning. Using his “Zone System” as guidance, he would then manipulate the contrast of the image by how he developed the film – by changing the temperature of the chemicals and the speed with which he agitated the film during development. It was also another way of manipulating the exposure – a slightly underexposed image could be fully exposed by adjusting the development.

Once that was completed, there was still more to do from Ansel Adams’ point of view. Sometimes the darks were still too dark, or the highlights too bright. These were corrected by “dodging” or “burning” the image – that is, blocking the light from reaching the print paper during the full exposure or making one part of the image get a longer exposure than the rest. It was done not only to render detail but to enhance the mood and contrast of the image.

In the digital darkroom – i.e.,Adobe's Lightroom and Photoshop products – the two post-exposure processes have been combined into one. There is no longer the opportunity to enhance an image while printing with a digital printer. The image has to be print-ready when that “Print” button is clicked. But all essential enhancements to an image in Photoshop have their origins in the digital darkroom. The icons used in Photoshop even reflect this past – for example, the icon for “dodging” is a round object with a handle, which resembles what was commonly used for dodging in the wet darkroom. And just as in the “old days,” the primary concerns are exposure, hue, contrast, and saturation.

How each of us arrives at the point of a print-ready image varies. For my basic digital workflow, I use a two-step process that perhaps could resemble the development and printing phase of old. My first step is to import the image into my library using Adobe Lightroom Classic. (Lightroom Classic is for desktop editing, while "Lightroom" is only for cloud editing.) While doing that, I enter useful keywords, name the files and organize the images into my system. Once imported, I do a quick look for sensor dust and then perform basic adjustments to exposure, contrast, and saturation to make the image richer, as opposed to the often flat look that a RAW image can sometimes have. In this process, I am guided both by my memory and interpretation of the scene, and my examination of the histogram for the image – providing more contrast in the mid-range tones and ensuring there is detail in the shadows and highlights.

Once I have completed my edits, I select the image and then select “Edit in” and then “Open as a smart object in Adobe Photoshop.” From there, my Photoshop launches and I am ready to make additional adjustments exposure, contrast, hues, and saturation using layers. My objective here is not to create or add new colors that did not previously exist, but to take the existing qualities of the image and bring out the best. I start with using “Levels” to make sure that the shadows, highlights, and mid-range tones have the quality I desire. Then, I work in the color channels to enhance the appearance of the dominant colors in the landscape and to minimize colors that are a distraction (and often the result of an imperfect white balance). Sometimes it is necessary to increase contrast in order to improve the image, such as to reduce haze in the atmosphere or to minimize the impact of shooting through an aircraft window. And then there are the touchups – doing the really fine-detail sensor dust control and cloning out an errant branch or blade of grass. And with just a few more settings, it is ready to print.

Again, this process, like what Ansel Adams did with his images, merely takes the original capture and enhances its existing quality to create an image that reflects the artist’s interpretation of the scene and expresses that scene in a way the artist wishes to present to others. It also ensures that the image overcomes the limitations of what the sensor (or film) is capable of capturing.

Below is an example of the processing steps of an image of commercial fishing boats in the boat harbor at Dillingham, Alaska. The late evening light was casting warm colors on a canopy of clouds gathering in the sky behind a row of commercial drift boats, and I knew it would be a great image for my Bristol Bay project. I also knew that the camera would have problems rendering detail in the boats since they were strongly back-lit. So, I added a .09 Lee graduated neutral density filter (hard), lined up the filter to darken the sky, and captured the image. That is what you see represented as the “RAW” version. But when I saw the colors and exposure balance in Lightroom, it looked a bit “thin” to use film terminology – it lacked contrast, the boats were still too dark, and the colors were washed compared to what I recall. So, using Lightroom, I darkened the highlights, brought up the shadows, and boosted the contrast and color saturation. This is the “Lightroom” version. Still not fully satisfied with the colors and exposure balance, I opened the file in Photoshop through Lightroom. There, working with layers, I selectively brightened the area of the boats, darkened the sky a little more, and then worked within the existing color channels to render both the boats and the sky as vividly as I recalled them. This is displayed in the final “Photoshop” version.

(Note: You can get the Lightroom and Photoshop subscription in the Photography bundle through Adobe for $19.99 per month. I would recommend that, as the Lightroom Classic for desktop editing is not available in the solo Lightroom [for editing only in the cloud] subscription.)

Taking things a step too far for Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams likely would not have, however, approved of two other ways that Photoshop is often used. He would have likely disapproved of the use of “composite” images – where you take elements from two or more different images and put them together. For example, taking a full moon captured with a 500mm lens and putting it into a nighttime landscape captured using a 20mm lens. A moon shot with a 20mm lens would be a glorified dot, but with a 500mm lens, it is huge. You’ve seen these shots before. Or the caribou silhouetted against the aurora borealis – as if that caribou is going to stand still for you for 8 or 15 seconds while you capture the aurora. He would have disapproved because those images could not be created in-camera, with the exception of a double exposure. For me, I find that they can be useful and acceptable, so long as they are disclosed as being composites. For example, stitched panoramic and HDR images are technically composites, as they combine two or more images to create one.

Ansel also would have disapproved of what is more accurately described as a “photographic illustration” than photography. Sure, it starts with an image, or several images, and then becomes expanded, enhanced, tweaked, and greatly manipulated using a variety of software packages. I could name specific photographers who are particularly egregious in this area, but I will not. Again, it has its uses – especially when it comes to illustrating concepts and for marketing. But it is not meant, nor should it be used, to pass off a print as a representation of something that happened in the natural world. Some HDR images are so over-processed they often have the appearance of a photographic or graphic illustration. Oddly enough, I have several times created both a natural-looking HDR image and a garish-looking HDR image, and so far, it is the garish images that stock clients choose to purchase. But, like composites, an HDR image should be disclosed as such in captioning.

In the end, a photographer must pursue his or her own processes when creating art. I follow the Ansel Adams approach, using modern tools to accomplish what he so masterfully did using his three-stage process. But if you are using digital tools to go beyond that, then the ethical thing to do is to properly identify the manipulation of the image in captioning. I follow the North American Nature Photography Association’s “Truth in Captioning” guidelines.