To Shop or not To Shop, That is the Question
by Steve Ford, 2009

Title ImageFrom time to time people ask me if I alter my photos using Photoshop or some other image editing software. This leaves me wondering... If I alter my images are they less meritorious than unaltered images? Photography purists revel in the triumph of capturing a compelling image knowing their camera was the only tool used... and they should... it's not easy! I wonder if people who have given high praise to my images would declare me to be a charlatan if they knew I had used Photoshop as part of my process in producing those images. I hope not, so I would like to offer my thoughts on digital image processing, what I do, and why I do it.

Many people don't realize that all digital cameras do some of the very same software processing in the camera that I do in Photoshop. So if it isn't "cheating" when it is done in the camera, I wonder why it would be "cheating" when it is done in Photoshop.

Even before the advent of digital photography it was not uncommon to "alter" images. As early as the 1860s Abraham Lincoln's head from a seated portrait was combined with John C. Calhoun's body from a standing portrait to make a more "Presidential" image. On more than one occasion Stalin had his enemies executed and then had them "retouched" out of photos in which they were originally included. Even Ansel Adams had special techniques for exposing and developing that created the image as he envisioned it rather than as it would appear to the naked eye in reality.

The short answer to the "Why alter?" question is, "The end justifies the means." Of course, I would never alter an image to remove my "disappeared" comrades from it. My alterations are done more in the Ansel Adams spirit of the art. I think of the camera shutter as just the first stroke of a brush on the canvas. Sometimes only one or two strokes are needed, sometimes a few more.

A photography "purist" will see a scene that has some interest... ponder it possibly for days... consider the time for optimal natural lighting... think about the best possible location to take the shot... mull the best aperture and shutter speed... eventually taking the shot with only a few variants. A purist knows whether their efforts have been successful the first time they see the image. My approach is more serendipitous. The first time I see the image it may look promising, but some of my most wonderful images have been derived from photos that were quite drab at first glance.

While I am always happy to discover an image that needs no post camera alteration, I have no compunction about altering an image if I believe I can improve it. There are many ways I might alter my images, including cropping, color adjustment (generally just changing the brightness or contrast), filters (deliberately distorting the image), rotating, resizing, skewing, cloning (to remove blemishes or distractions in an image), and annotation (text, arrows, etc).

As a way of illustrating the kind of difference these and other alterations can make, I am providing some before and after examples of my images:

From the drab image on the left, I created the lovely abstract image on the right...

This involved...

Isolating the reflection of this lakeside cottage creates an impressionistic "feel"...

This involved...

Many changes were needed to create this "heavenly" image of a heron in flight...

This involved...

As I said, when the camera shutter closes, for me that is just the first stroke of a brush on the canvas. Sometimes only one or two strokes are needed, sometimes a few more.