I recently posted an image of the moon rising over Ely Cathedral (below, for those of you not following my Facebook page) – in among the comment thread on a local group appeared the all-too common query: “Is it photoshopped?”
This is a tricky question to answer. The short answer is a simple yes- because I shoot in RAW format, every photo I take makes its way through Lightroom and/or Photoshop to produce the resulting JPG that you get to see. But is that what the person asking meant? I figured probably not. I think what they were asking was did I fake the image. Did I maybe paste in the moon on the computer?
The answer is no. For context, the original “straight out of the camera” shot is below:
It’s fairly evident that the moon is indeed there- the finished image involved a few tweaks, notably cropping, brightness, contrast and tone adjustments, and some detail enhancement to sharpen things up (I used a rather antiquated 500mm mirror lens which made the moon nice and large, but resulted in a rather soft picture!).
This got me thinking- if I *had* pasted the moon into the picture, would it matter? I think it depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If I had suggested the photo was a faithful reproduction of the scene, then yes, pasting in a moon on the computer is tricking people. There are a couple of areas of photography where editing must be kept to a minimum- photo-journalism, and competitive nature photography. The former has a famous case where a photographer lost his contracts after editing a camera out of his image using Photoshop. I see a lot of people who feel a photograph isn’t “real” unless you’ve not touched it (as evidenced by the prevalence of the #nofilter hashtag people use). But people forget that the picture is still edited- if you take a JPG out of your camera, you’re just gaining an image which has had the colour balance, sharpness, contrast and so on decided by a combination of the tiny computer in the camera/phone, and the engineer who programmed it – isn’t it better to control that yourself?
But if you’re not producing photos for the news, and you’re instead producing simply “a piece of art”, I think it matters less – the important thing is the end result. Why did I choose to edit the above picture in the way I did? Simply because I wanted to evoke the scene as I remembered it. A RAW image out of the camera is always somewhat flat looking, and my memory of standing in a quiet fenland field watching the moon rise was one of warmer colours, and a striking moon. The end result is my interpretation of that.
The editing in this case is pretty minimal, but I will often be much more aggressive and creative when editing images. The end result is what matters, and as long as you don’t set out to deceive, I don’t think the original matters. I was asked recently what edits I’d made to an interior shot of the Cathedral, and I happily obliged with another blog post. I’ve also written short tutorials about how to achieve certain effects, such as this one for making a forest look a little more enchanted. Some people go further – for example John Wilhelm creates some entertaining images (usually with the aid of his kids) where he combines 3d graphic design (such as you’d see with Pixar movies) and extensive photoshop editing to produce the final picture. Would anyone complain “hey, you Photoshopped that!”?
I think this is a debate that’ll go on forever- my position is simply “as long as you don’t deny the editing you’ve done, anything goes”.