Photoshopping photographs: Is it “honest”?

In answer to some questions about the photo editing that she does on Photoshop, Robin generously took the time to post about her process. She provided a couple of before-and-after examples of her photos to illustrate how Photoshop can sharpen the focus and brighten the colors of a digital photograph.

It does make quite a difference, especially in her first example. My first thought was, If I’d been doing that, I could have salvaged so many garden photos that I discarded as no good. My second thought was, What’s kept me from doing it so far?

After all, I’ve heard of Photoshop and know it is used to alter and enhance photos. But my knee-jerk response has always been that it’s not honest to tinker with photos that way except for artistic purposes. For example, when looking for travel photos to post recently, I noticed that some of them were marred by dusty spots on the lens. My husband suggested that I Photoshop them, and I replied, “No way. That wouldn’t be honest.”

But now that I really think about it, I realize my attitude was based on the false assumption that photographs are, by their very nature, factual representations. However, aren’t all photos artistic representations, not literal ones? The camera is not as sensitive and accomodating to light and shadow as the human eye. To compensate, experienced photographers avoid harsh, noon light and shoot at sunrise and sunset, when the light is soft and shadows are long, or on cloudy days. On the computer, they crop their photos in order to “zoom in” on what they want people to see. Doesn’t this introduce an artistic element into their photographs? Acknowledging that gives us room to tinker further, doesn’t it?

Garden-blogging is partly a photographic exercise, and readers are often drawn to great photos. Therefore, I suspect that most garden-bloggers and readers will have an opinion on this question. I’ll be interested to know what you think about Photoshopping photographs. Is it honest? Is it artistic? And what about the professional garden photographers out there? Tom Spencer, David Perry? What’s your opinion?

See this site for one photographer’s opinion on this topic.

Many thanks to Robin for her openness about her editing process. Her photography is wonderful, and she has a great eye. Her post has given me a reason to examine my assumptions about photography, plus information about how to improve my own photographs.

22 Responses

  1. Any photographer who develops their own film makes design choices during the development process just as they do in the shooting process. That’s why serious film buffs have darkrooms–shooting your film is only part of the process.

    Are wide angle and telescopic and macro lenses not “honest” because of the way they distort? Are using UV filters on a 35mm camera to bring out the blue in the sky and cut down on glare not honest? How about cropping, or changing the shutter speed, or f-stop to effect the field of vision. Is flash photography dishonest? Using white reflecting shades to softly lighten a subject? Do people who use cell phone cameras figure that anyone with a 10 megapixel camera is cheating when they are able to produce a more detailed shot of the same scene?

    In the darkroom the developer makes all sorts of corrections–some of which, like burning and dodging, Photoshop merely emulates.

    Tools are tools. Good tools don’t make automatically make a great artist but anyone who is serious about whatever their craft is going to use the best tools available.

    Good points, MSS. You are right that shooting the image is only part of the process. This is where inexperienced photographers often stop, but there’s more to good photography. Thanks for weighing in. —Pam

  2. Pam, I’m glad that you did this post. I would never want to do anything that was perceived as dishonest by anyone. I’ve spent quite a bit of time on a popular photography site and all of the professional photographers who posted there used photo editing as an extention of their photography. I just assumed that all serious photographers used this tool now days. It will be very interesting to follow this post and see what others have to say about it.

    Robin, my intention with this post was not to paint Photoshopping as inherently dishonest but rather to examine my own perception of it. In the process of thinking through my assumptions, I realized that my aversion to using Photoshop was illogical and based on false notions about the nature of photography. So I was interested to hear what others think about it too. Thanks for inspiring and participating in the conversation. —Pam

  3. Carol says:

    I also have Photoshop and mostly use the “quick edit” feature. Beyond that, I haven’t had time to explore the other features. I think it is like MSS said, “tools are tools” and Photoshop is a recognized photographer’s tool these days.

    I can’t help but think of the old saying… “a fool with a tool is still a fool”. Photoshop isn’t going to make a bad picture good, it might make an acceptable picture just a little better, but in the hands of a professional who has good equipment and knows photography and how to use the software, it can take a really good picture and make it exceptional.

    Pam, I am surprised that you don’t use photo editing software. That just makes your pictures that much more impressive.

    Carol at May Dreams Gardens

  4. Ellis Hollow says:

    It gets dishonest when the intent of the PhotoShopping is to deceive. I occasionally teach a quick PhotoShop basics course. One of my PowerPoint slides shows samples of deception I’ve collected: A 2004 Bush campaign ad where the military crowd wasn’t big enough, so they added scores of heads but they were all the same three or four people. There’s one career ending news photo of a city burning during the Lebanon conflict that wasn’t smokey enough so the photographer used the clone tool (rather crudely) to make it look worse. Then there’s the press photo that took 20 pounds off of Katie Couric.

    I try to be careful. But I realize that my end product sometimes doesn’t identically match nature. I don’t have a great color eye. But I know that if I push certain buttons too far, my image is going to be too far from reality to be believable.

  5. How interesting! Pam, this may be another area, like YouTube, where amateurs are getting to play with something that only professionals used to have. I use photoshop elements which is very bare-bones, but it lets me and my inexpensive, no-frills digital camera produce something approaching the image I see in person, and lets me share it. Like MSS, I think of photoshop as a tool. For recent digital garden pictures I pretty much leave the color alone, but for the old scanned prints from the albums, I’ll try anything that will help make them look the way they originally did. My photos are neither art nor evidence – to me they’re more like illustrations used to tell my stories.

    I first used photoshopping for genealogy, when my family began scanning and sharing files of our tattered and faded old ancestral photos. Photoshop elements came with the scanner. It let me reveal and enlarge the barely visible faces trapped in the damaged emulsion, so that my older relatives could recognize and identify many photos. Sometimes it does the same for a flower, lost in the confusion of a border, but exquisite when cropped and enlarged.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  6. Kathy says:

    I don’t own Photoshop. The full fledged version is breathtakingly expensive. I use Paint Shop Pro, which I got as part of a package with WordPerfect. I often find using the quick fix button makes things look weird. I usually only try it if the light I was shooting in made the colors look unnatural to begin with–too blue, too red, etc. On rare occasions I will keep the fix, because the colors look more like what I see with my own eyes. I am trying to be factual. I agree with both MSS and Ellis Hollow. I don’t have any hang up with photo editing tools unless they are used to deceive. Photo editing for the web is necessary if your images are going to upload in a reasonable amount of time.

  7. Pam says:

    I just put Photoshop (the full-fledged version) on my home computer last week – it’s a program that I use for work, and we’re beginning a website on microbes and corals – so it’s invaluable. But just a few days ago was the first time I opened up a flower image in it, and WOW. That’s all I can say. I’ve never modified photos before – but I’ll have to say it’s gonna be fun to play with this program. Like you say, it can salvage photographs – and be used to create some amazing images. It is a creative process I think, like alot of things are. I’m actually curious how much I’ll use it. I don’t know yet.

    And it won’t be like you’re adding a tear to a close-up of Ronald Reagan for the cover of Time magazine. :)

    Oh – another gorgeous blog is Macro Art in Nature – he’s a SC photographer, and he is incredible generous with his descriptions of how he obtains his images ( I think that you’d really like the site.

  8. bill says:

    I don’t think I would even consider posting a photo that was not “enhanced” in some way, at least by cropping and “un-sharpening” and especially scaled down in size.

    BTW, I use “The GIMP” which I like a lot.

  9. Nicole says:

    I think for a garden blog its fine to enhance a photo-sharpen, correct red eye etc., add soft focus or blur, or when its obviously tinkered with-eg effects such as black and white, film grain etc for artistic expression. But I don’t think its good from to deceive or mislead-eg removing elements from a shot eg erase a tree or building etc. or to make something appear different that it actually did eg put more vivid color on a flower than the reality.

  10. Colleen says:

    This is very interesting, especially since I just did a post urging gardeners to reveal the ugly parts of their gardens. I commented on my post that most of what you see on garden blogs are the blooms at their best, the veggies growing perfectly, etc, and that this might give newbie gardeners the wrong idea that there are those of us out there who have “perfect” gardens. I wanted to prove that even very experienced gardeners make mistakes, or have just plain ugly areas.

    That said, I see nothing wrong with Photoshopping images for garden blogs. I know that for the vast majority of us, the photos on our blogs are pretty much posted “as-is,” other than maybe being cropped a bit. I know that I use photos mainly to illustrate the text. There is nothing artful in my photography. But there are several garden bloggers out there who are definitely artists—who have an eye for color and form that I could only dream of having. I think, as a few of the commenters have already said, that photoshop is a tool that can enhance an image. It won’t make a really crappy picture gorgeous. I don’t think it’s dishonest, unless the photographer totally changes the color of the bloom, or photoshops plants into a bed that had bare spots….that would bother me.

    So, while I cheer the occasional appearance of “garden uglies” on our blogs, I think that those who are talented with the camera and other tools of the trade (including photoshop) provide an important element of their own: inspiration. I’ll be checking this thread again…I can’t wait to read everyone else’s opinions.

  11. Kim says:

    It seems as though the general consensus is that as long as photographs aren’t altered to change reality, photo editing software is fine. I would agree with that in general, and frankly I WISH that I had some photo editing software on my home computer. That way, I could crop my photos, resize them as needed, fix the contrast that sometimes gets distorted by a shaft of sunlight entering the camera lens at the wrong angle, etc.

    Like Pam, I discard an awful lot of digital images from each round of camera shots. They look so good in the little viewfinder until you realize that you left out the house again and it’s snaking through the bottom of the shot. So you have to go out and put away the darn hose–yes,like you should have done in the first place–and then retake the shot and hope that it looks good. I also can’t get any good pictures once the sun goes beyond a certain point on the horizon because the image greys out and I can’t adjust the contrast on the finished picture.

    That said, I’m a tweaker. If I did have photo editing software I can only imagine the hours I would spend adjusting contrast and resolution, cropping pictures, etc. Maybe I’m better off without it anyway. :)

  12. Karen says:

    It’s funny, my garden photos are the least played with of all my photos, except in the case of white flowers. My camera’s automatic settings were purposely programmed by the camera company’s engineers to produce low contrast images. With those automatic settings, white flowers will often look dull grey — and that can affect the viewer’s emotional reaction to the flower. I find it necessary to use contrast enhancement in these situations. I choose settings that will change contrast without altering colour, which for me means avoiding the quick fix button (I use Picasa, where that button is called “I’m Feeling Lucky”).

    I think of photo editing as akin to what good photo technicians used to do when they ran your film through the developer: adjust the colour, lighting, and contrast settings to produce the best images from your negatives. It’s just that we don’t have negatives and paper anymore, so in the digital world that “pre-processing” becomes “post-processing”.

    Where flower photo editing bothers me is in catalog photos, like those “pink” daffodils that are actually apricot in real life. If you look at the photos, you will see that the colour balance is shifted so much towards the cool side that the foliage almost looks blue. That is certainly deceptive and misleading.

  13. Pam, I picked up several gardening magazines a few weeks ago at a garage sale and just happened to have a few minutes to go through the stack this morning. There were three Outdoor Photography magazines in this stack. I started flipping through one, (May 2006), and came across a timely topic titled, Is Photoshop About Photography by Rob Sheppard. He begins the article by saying, “Photography has never been able to mimic nature in any “pure” way. Any image, whether film or digital, is an interpretation of nature from the moment of capture. It’s our job as photographers,I believe, to interpret nature honestly and accurately, and sometimes that means Photoshop is a necessity in order to get the image right.”

    He goes on to say that “the vast majority of photographs are ‘camera lies’ in that they don’t conform to reality”.

    He ends the article by saying, “nature photographers have a responsibility to viewers to use the technologies available to us, from high speed shutters to Photoshop, to meld that technology and art into effective, evocative photographs in order to affect a world that sometimes forgets how important and crucial nature is to us all.”

    Pam, you are an excellent photographer, you shouldn’t feel guilty at all for salvaging those imperfect photos, especially if that means we get to see more of them.

  14. I use Photoshop to crop, layer, add text, bevel edges, add frames, brighten an otherwise dark image. I love creating images consisting of several smaller images which I use on my website and sometimes my blog. I’m by no means even close to professional standards, but do this for my own enjoyment .. guess I’m a tweaker.

  15. max says:

    Funny that you brought this up today.

    Photoshop merely democratizes a process that people with skills and/or money have been doing since cameras were invented. And I for one am thankful: I couldn’t bear to look at my own photos without correcting the color, contrast, etc.

  16. Pam says:

    Thanks, everyone, for participating in this discussion. I also appreciated the links and quotes that some of you provided for more perspectives. It looks like Photoshop is widely accepted among garden-bloggers for enhancing but not substantially altering the original photograph. Clearly I need to get with it and start playing around with this software . . . someday. After all, as Kim pointed out, using such a program would require even more hours spent at the computer, rather than in the garden. I’m bad enough about that already. —Pam/Digging

  17. bright says:

    i thought a lot about this post, and the comments have all been really interesting. i too had a phase where i had decided that i didn’t want to photoshop my photos, though i’ve collaged and done other things to them. but i think i’ve come to the point where, like max, i’m more interested in the democratization of the process that comes with these tools and toys. google’s picture engine, i’ve heard will correct for red-eye and do other professional grade things for free. and i guess i’ve come to believe that since my pictures never do justice to reality; it comes to me to do justice to them and making them unique unto themselves instead of just shadows.

    i think of photography as an extension of painting. and i think it’s up to all of us to have these conversations, so that it’s out there, for the people who don’t realize how much doctoring there is. from us all the way to the mainstream media as craig pointed out. thanks for a compelling post.

  18. Mary says:

    Well, I only have a limited edition of Photoshop, and haven’t really mastered it, so any photo editing I do gets done within either my camera’s software (Canon’s Zoombrowser EX) or with the very basic Microsoft Photo Editor, and usually it’s just cropping and resizing images. Occasionally I’ll brighten it up a smidge, or play with the RGB so that the colors are more true to life. I’ll sometimes fix lint and stuff like that, too. Oh, and because my camera’s ISO is currently set on high (and I haven’t taken the time to look up how to turn it down), I get a lot of noise in many of my pictures, so if it’s really bothering me, I’ll use a little freeware noise reduction program (Noiseware Community Edition) to help smooth things out a bit. But I still save the original image as is, untouched.

    Lint and dust on the lens — I’d definitely ‘Shop that out, if it were mine, especially if they were irreplaceable travel photos — why not show them at their best?

    You’re right — all photography is dishonest to a certain extent, because you’re putting a box around what’s happening. You can never shoot a 3-D 360º view of your surroundings, so since it’s just a slice anyway, why not make it look the way you want? The pros certainly do it. Even the photojournalists….

    Stepping down from my soapbox. (Been reading too many photoblogs recently…).

  19. Stuart says:

    Great post Pam and awesome comments. To further the conversation one would have to ask was photography ever meant to ‘be honest’?

    When we pose for a photo don’t we turn to show our best side; dress to impress; or stand in a way that accentuates our better features? I would go one further than MSS and say that the honesty is lost long before the images get to the darkroom.

    Yes, and yet I don’t want to give up on the notion that my garden photography is essentially honest. Correcting for flaws in digital representation is one thing, but tinker too much and you lose the “truth” of the photo. Perhaps this would be a better discussion for photographers of people (taking into account airbrushing and the digital manipulation of a person’s “flaws”). With garden photography, after all, much of it is meant as inspiration, as Colleen pointed out. But garden blogs are also about keeping it real, and our photos should reflect that.

    You can see I’m still of two minds about this issue. :-) Thanks for commenting, Stuart. —Pam

  20. Tom Spencer says:

    Interesting thread… but a little bit of a tempest in a teapot from my perspective. Ansel Adams, America’s most beloved photographer manipulated all of his famous images – even before he went into the darkroom! All of those famous mountain images would have looked flat without a red filter on his camera lens which darkened the skies and brightened the snow. Honest? Adams thought of his camera as an artistic tool not a recording device. Photo editing software (I use Corel Paint Shop Pro) is just another artistic tool. BTW – I am glad to be thought of as a “professional” garden photographer – but doesn’t that mean I’m supposed to be making money at this?;)

    Thanks for your perspective, Tom. Based on all the responses, I think maybe I’m the only one who’s ever questioned the value of Photoshop. ;-) I’d run right out and buy a copy, but I’m afraid of how much more time I’d end up spending on the computer.

    You know, I do always think of you as a pro photographer, but I suppose that was just an assumption based on the quality of your photos. Well, you certainly could be a professional. Thanks again. —Pam

  21. nikkipolani says:


    I love your old town shot – postcard perfect!

    From the Amsterdam post, I assume? Thanks. It really was a “picture-perfect” city. —Pam

  22. susan harris says:

    Thanks for the terrific post and thread, everybody. And I’ve been taking notes on Photoshop features I haven’t tried yet – goody!!
    My opinion? Bring on the Photoshop, especially that “lighten background” feature. It would make it SO much easier to see the plants and gardens in gardenblogger photos. Honestly, I’m constantly thinking, “Damn, I wish he/she had fixed that.” NOT with your photos, though, Pam. I agree it’s a testament to your skill that you haven’t been tweaking your shots all along.
    Bottom line, I say let’s leave total honesty in photography to evidence in courts, mug shots, and news. Oh, maybe representation of plants in catalogues – honesty and accuracy there would be nice, too.