Post-processing an image doesn’t mean it’s no longer a photograph

There’s a lot of criticism in the world of photography. Not just the personal opinion of someone who likes or dislikes your photo, but also more general criticism on the subject of such things as originality and inspiration, equipment, or what makes a “photograph” as opposed to an creative image.

The biggest argument used to come from photographers who were reticent to accept the arrival of digital photography: mis-informed, they often thought that digital cameras did all the work for the photographer; ensuring perfect focus, exposure and creativity. I can well remember heated discussions in my time as a member of a local camera club, with two decisive “camps” of those who saw digital photography as the beginning of the end, and those who sought to experiment and learn with the new medium. This was in the second half of the 1990s.

Even now, the argument of post-processing images – editing them after they come out of the camera – is one which can give rise to heated discussion. Serious news channels don’t allow images to be manipulated in any way other than to correct brightness, in order to maintain authenticity in their reporting. Creative groups often see images presented which are barely recognizable; where the image has been so heavily edited that it’s no longer recognizable as a photograph.

Most of us move in the area between these two extremes: converting the image to black and white, adjusting brightness and contrast, or making parts of the picture lighter or darker to create a specific effect. When the public sees an image which has been noticeably edited, the cry goes up, “Photoshop!”. This is, in my opinion, a senseless criticism, as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture are merely the newest iterations of a process which has been around for over a century.

Photographers taking their pictures on negative film always processed them in a darkroom, through a manual chemical process during which the photographer decided how long to develop the film for, how long to expose the printing paper, and whether to add colour tones and effects to black and white images. They “dodged” parts of the image to make them appear lighter and “burned” other parts to make them appear darker. The modern process of using a piece of computer software is just the same; much of the work done is merely the latest version of a process which has been used to enable the photographer to present an image in the way which it was intended.

The cry of the purist is that the image should remain un-retouched: whilst this is an option, consider works of art like the Mona Lisa, where both the background and foreground of the image are perfectly sharp. The human eye cannot see this depth of focus in real life, so was da Vinci an early “photoshopper”? Henri Cartier-Bresson’s street photographs are largely un-retouched, but the tonal range and precise contrast of his final images could not have been achieved straight from the camera: a degree of fine-tuning was necessary in order to present the view he saw accurately in a two-dimensional image. Consider the first image on this page, from Marseilles in 1932 closely: you’ll notice that it’s been “photoshopped” – albeit using traditional darkroom techniques instead of a computer – to darken the area surrounding the solitary figure.

The reason I write this post is because I am infuriated by laymen who criticize the work of a photographer or artist without even fully understanding – or bothering to consider the reality – of an image. This landscape view of the Matterhorn was criticized as it has been “photoshopped”. Critics cite the “inexplicably dark” sky and question, when it’s supposed to be a night-time shot, where all the light is coming from.

Although I cannot be certain – not having spoken with the photographer – I can be almost certain that the image is not a creative combination of multiple images. (Although if it were, this is a perfectly valid approach to making a creative image: even though that approach may make it invalid for entry to a purist photographic competition.) The sky is dark because it is a night-time photograph; the sky is additionally dark because it has been “burned-in” (artificially darkened) during the post-photographic editing process. “All the light” – meaning the brightness of the snow in the middle-ground – is thanks to a full moon, which creates this effect at least once every lunar cycle during winter in the Alps. By viewing a wider range of images¬†of the same subject and in the same style on photographer Nenad Saljic’s website, it’s clear that this is the case.

Knee-jerk criticism is easy: anyone can say that they don’t like a picture, or question whether the image is eligible for entry to a competition based on a set of rules relating to how the image is created. But attempting to damn an image simply by saying “Photoshop!” is only a sign of the ignorance of the critic.