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Photoshop, Good Or Evil?


Al Agnew

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Ever since Photoshop came onto the scene, there's been this big debate about the ethics of it. Some magazines have no problem with Photoshopped images, others insist that all their images be "pure" photography. And yet, with the tools we have for digital photography, what's pure? The image coming out of the camera usually needs some tweaking to fix the exposure, color, even sharpness. Back in the old days, unless you were very good in the darkroom or had a really good printing company, you were at the mercy of your exposure, but now you can control a lot of things with Photoshop and other software even if you are retaining the "integrity" of the image. So at what point does the image become "fake", and even if it is obviously fake, when does that matter?

I'm very good in using Photoshop. The fish images that I do for the Bass Pro Shop covers are nearly all done in Photoshop. I use it as a painting tool...I basically start out with a blank screen, and create the image on the computer just as I would if I was painting it, using only the airbrush tool in Photoshop. Occasionally I'll start out with a fish photo that I've taken, or even a landscape photo for parts of the background, but much of the fish, background, water droplets in the splashes, are all done by "painting" with the airbrush tool, with no photography as a starting point, and I will want the fish or the landscape to look as much as possible as if it was painted as well, so I will "paint" over the parts of the image that started out as photographs until they hopefully look just as much "painted" as the other parts. Indeed, even if I use a photo as the starting point for a bass cover, I have to "redraw" it anyway, because I usually go out and catch a bass out of my pond if I need a bass photo with the fish posed a certain way, and unfortunately Bass Pro always wants a BIG bass (that's the way it's always typed in the email sent to me) and the bass in my pond are a little overpopulated and tend to be skinny, with few of them more than 16 inches or so. A big bass not only needs to look fatter, but the proportions, like fin size and head size in relation to body size, change as a bass gets bigger.

So is there something unethical about me using Photoshop in that manner? I don't think so, because I'm not passing those images off as fine art to sell on their own, or as traditionally painted images at all. They are simply illustrations. And even if WAS passing them off as fine art, I still don't think it would be unethical. I'm using Photoshop as a painting tool, not a tool to fake photos. I'm using my own photos when I use photos at all, and otherwise I'm creating the image out of my own abilities and imagination. The only difference is that it exists as a computer file and as printed paper, not as a painted canvas.

Now, where I think it becomes unethical is when somebody publishes a photograph that is significantly altered from what it looked through the camera lens, and passes it off as a "real" photograph. It's the "passing it off as real" that is the problem. And it's a problem that has existed since well before Photoshop. A LOT of the images we've all seen in outdoor magazines that are closeups of wildlife in very interesting poses, or with magnificent, perfectly composed backgrounds, or predators chasing prey, were obtained by using captive animals. There are several businesses that raise wild animals strictly for photography. As an artist, I've used a couple of these businesses to get reference photos. You "rent" a certain animal or animals for a day, along with their handler, and you all go out to a nearby beautiful landscape, the handler turns an animal "loose" and runs it through its paces, and you happily snap photos of it. I got great lynx photos one time because the handler also brought a live snowshoe rabbit and let the lynx chase it and play with it before finally killing it. So every time I see a great photo in a magazine of something like a lynx chasing a rabbit, I immediately suspect that it was staged. I've even recognized the individual animals that I took photos of in published magazine articles. Is that ethical? A few magazines, like National Geographic, insist that all their photos be "natural" unless it is specifically stated next to the photo that it taken in a controlled situation, but magazines like Outdoor Life and Field and Stream apparently don't care.

But back to Photoshopping. I could, if I wished, take any picture of a fish that I caught and add a couple inches to it in Photoshop, and it would take a real expert to tell it was done. Would that be wrong? Well, if that smallmouth was REALLY an 18 incher, but I took a picture of it on a ruler and either by expanding the fish (not as easy as it sounds but doable) or shrinking the ruler made it into a 20 incher, and bragged about it being a 20 incher, that would be lying, and obviously unethical even though in the whole scheme of things the only thing damaged would be my reputation for honesty if somebody found out I did it. Now if I was entering it into a contest of some sort that gave a prize for the biggest fish, and it was the only "evidence" required for the prize, then it would be not only dishonest but illegal.

But what about if the fish really was a 20 incher, but in the photo it just didn't look very impressive, either because of the vantage point of the photographer or for some other reason. Would it really be unethical to "blow the fish up" a bit in the photo as long as I was not saying it was bigger than it was? How is this any different from the guy who holds out the fish at arms' length toward the photographer to make it look bigger?

Chief noted that Ron Kruger Photoshops a lot of the images he has for sale on his website. Most are combinations of two photos, one for the background and one for the subject. Chief said that if he was paying for a photographic image, he wouldn't want it to be Photoshopped. But is Ron passing off those images as "real" photos? I don't think so. They are photographic images, not single recordings of single real moments in time. They are no different from prints of paintings, or those Bass Pro catalog covers I do, AS LONG AS he is not passing them off as recordings of single moments in time. In other words, they are "art", not pure photography. If Chief can tell that they are not single moments in time, and he wants "pure" photography, then he doesn't want those images. But if somebody really likes the image and doesn't care that it isn't that single real moment in time, then they'll have no problem paying for it to hang on their wall.

So I think there are many gradations of Photoshopped images, from the simple color and sharpness adjustments to a photo, to "enhanced" photos of models, to obviously combined images and added elements. The whole key, it seems to me, is whether or not the "seller" is passing the image off as that one recorded single moment in time when it is not. As long as it's being marketed as just an image, not as a recording of a specific subject or event, there's nothing wrong with altering it in any way you feel like.

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Al, I use it for many diffrent things, Only part of it is of pictures and at that if i do teek the picture it is to make it more crisp or clean! I do not like the faked pictures however as they detract IMO from that moment in time or in some cases Hoaxing people. Used for artistic renderings is fine. hoaxes are not.

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I think you pretty much covered my thoughts on it. Art is art, pictures are pictures. As long as neither is falsely represented to be the other, I'm ok with it.

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Advances in photo technologies will soon make post production more important than what is in your view finder when you snap the picture. I don't think there is any debate to argue. Craft can take many forms and how you choose to practice that craft is entirely up you.

His father touches the Claw in spite of Kevin's warnings and breaks two legs just as a thunderstorm tears the house apart. Kevin runs away with the Claw. He becomes captain of the Greasy Bastard, a small ship carrying rubber goods between England and Burma. Michael Palin, Terry Jones, 1974

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Ansel Adams "photoshopped" all his pictures...not like we do it now of course, but manipulating photos has been ongoing since the invention of photography...that being said, I'd say a vast majority of, as they now call them, "images", are manipulated to some degree. I will admit, I too, use photoshop, but mostly to crop...In most cases, it isn't that hard to figure out which have "had work done"...I see people just taking pictures by the bucket full and just take care of them later...I'm somewhat old school on this and I never delete a picture I have taken, unless it is blurry or badly exposed. You never know when that picture you took may have relevance in your life...

A strike indicator is just a bobber...

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I didn't answer the question of good or evil...I think the answer is honesty. I haven't looked at any images you may be referring to, but I would think an * or footnote should be applied if any manipulation was involved...

A strike indicator is just a bobber...

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With the low and mid rang digital camera the photo shop I use is to ether darken, remove noise, de_dust, crop, lighten or darken them. I have only the basic knowledge of the program I add no effects or to the photos. If the photo needs to be lighter because of the conditions of the light when and whee the photo was taken I will one stop fix it with the program, and if the white turns out yellow in the photo I will try to make it white. I do not pretend to be an artist with a camera nor do I sell prints. So the program is what it is and in today's digital age it's just part of the deal.

Take a Child Fishing they are the future of the sport.

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photography as an art form has always seemed a stretch to me...I could never paint like Monet, but with enough pictures taken, I can equal many of the so called great photographers...like they say about those infinite amount of monkeys...It can be done...

A strike indicator is just a bobber...

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Art is created.

Al, I feel that you have hit all of the details and the answer lies within expectations. Whether it is "Fine Art" or not so fine, done with water colors, pencils, photos, clay ect, it is created by controling the variables. What should be allowed and what should not, will be decided by the one creating the 'art'. As viewers, we can decide whether we like or dislike the art, but we cannot change what has been done, unless we become the 'artist'.

Photoshop is a tool as has been mentioned and so is a camera. If we declare Photoshop evil, then anything that is not exactly natural to the reproduction created should also be declared evil. What I mean is, Al, if you were to use a canvas and paint while painting a fish, everything you put on that canvas would have to come from the fish and exact surroundings as you seen at the moment you are painting. If you put in a log that was not behind the fish at the exact moment you seen the fish you are altering the painting.

Or as was mentioned a fish can be altered by the camera by holding it at arms length and holding the camera at an angle. Should all photos be taken from a tripod with a 110 camera?

Also how about lenses used on cameras to change the image that comes out. Fish eye lenses, or tinted lenses to change the colors or certain items (all of you photographers know what I'm trying to get at), are these things out of bounds? I don't believe they should be. I enjoy seeing what can be produced by altering some things. I have tried my hand but I don't have the skills.

If I buy a picture that has been altered (most for sale have been one way or another), and I can not tell that it has been, so be it. I do not buy "art" for investment, so I pay what it is worth to me.

Money is just ink and paper, worthless until it switches hands, and worthless again until the next transaction. (me)

I am the master of my unspoken words, and the slave to those that should have remained unsaid. (unknown)

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