Photoshop in Photography: What Defines a Photograph?

Last month photographer Chris Crisman entered the photograph above, titled Butterfly Girl, into the World Photography Organization’s 2012 World Photography Awards. It was selected from the thousands of entries as part of a promotional campaign for the contest and in that process was spread out all over the Internet. From the Daily Mail to the Huffington Post, the story about the World Photo Awards and Chris’s photo made the rounds across the web.

In particular, on the UK news site The Daily Mail, the photo generated a ton of comments and sparked some controversy as to whether or not it was appropriate for a photography competition. This caused me to ask myself the question: “What defines a photograph?”

Here’s what Chris says about his opinion on the value of Photoshop versus photography:

Photoshop is just one tool in my arsenal used to help illustrate my personal vision. But the greatest tool is my mind, followed by my camera. There are some images that just can’t be captured through the means of traditional photography. Photoshop being applied by a talented digital artist helps me complete my vision. If any one piece of mine is better classified as illustration that’s fine by me.

Butterfly Girl is the perfect example of a photograph that existed in Chris’s mind but couldn’t be completed easily through 100% traditional means of photography. Does that mean that we spent any less time working on it or that it has any less merit as a final piece? I don’t think so.

There is no denying that the photograph is a composite image, but as a final photograph it is a singular execution of a singular vision.

At it’s core, the photo is also an illustrative, conceptual portrait — a style of photography that is consistent with Chris’s body of work and vision as an artist; he’s not a reportage photographer, and most likely he never will be (it certainly wouldn’t be as fun making these crazy photos if he was).

Another question worth asking is if it would be possible to capture this all in a singular frame? The answer is yes — a very, very difficult and expensive yes. The redwood forest is real, the butterflies are all real, the model is real, they were just captured at different points in time.

It is entirely possibly to bring them all on location and spend days rigging and lighting the scene to make the final capture. It’s not unrealistic or impossible, just a bit over the budget for Chris’s personal project work.

Maybe I’m crazy, though… maybe it is too easy for me to suspend my disbelief when looking at art and photography. The readers of the Daily Mail might not be as forgiving. Here’s what some of the commentators had to say:

The butterflies picture is pretty, but about as realistic as the movie Avatar.

The first is so photoshopped it hurts. Blue morpho butterflies? Sorry, not in my backyard…they’re from Mexico/S.America and live in tropical and subtropical forests. The background looks like a forest out of the Pacific Northwest. Maybe they have a photoshop category?

Photoshop just adds an extra dimension of fine control and expression. It’s fair to use it because it will never be a substitute for the photographer’s eye, or be able to spot the decisive moment.

Looks to me the butterfly one has been photoshopped, as the light just doesn’t look right on the butterflies compared to the girl and the rest of the scene, especially at the depth of field required to get the whole scene in focus……

Some of the photographs are great, but some (e.g. butterflies and swimmers) are clearly Photoshop creations. A shame.

Wow, I could hardly see the pics for the amount of Photoshop thats been used. Nice, without doubt, but photoshopped images shouldnt be included as surely the best photos are about timing and how good your camera skills are, not how well you can photoshop an image post capture.

Leave a comment letting us know what you think about this issue.

About the photographer/author: Chris Crisman is an internationally recognized commercial photographer recognized by Luerzers Archive, Communication Arts, American Photography, and the International Photography Awards. He and his studio manager Robert Luessen frequently update their blog and can both be found on Twitter at @crismanphoto and @robertluessen. This post was originally published here.

  • Justanothercommentor

    Funny enough, neither of you actually came up with an arguement for or against the above image being a photograph. The best you both could do is state you dont like me saying mixed congratulations on your welll conceived victory.

    Now maybe you both can get your heads together and come up with a real, grown up, discussion on the current state of digital manipulation and its effect on traditional photography. Or, are you already too busy trolling other articles to post meaningless comments?

  • Aaron Lee Kafton

    Thank you for spending your time correcting me and entirely missing the point.. being that you wouldn’t call it a photograph

  • Cynthia

    I think Chris’s image is a collage that uses photography as its raw
    material. When speaking of other, non-photographic arts, no one would
    conflate a “collage” with a “painting” (or a painting with a photograph,
    for that matter); collage and painting are both considered art, but
    they are different kinds/forms of art. Could we not — should we not? —
    make similar distinctions with regard to “photographs”…? I’m inclined
    to think so.

  • Opie

    Because some people are more concerned with having a simple answer than with the discussion that produces it. These are the people that rumple their noses when their comrades have enthusiasm and opinions. These are people I call …”kinda boring”.

  • Opie

    I try to rely on a camera as much as possible…

  • Steeve D

    For decades photographers have been compositing images. Those who have been working in their darkroom printing their own pictures probably remember how clouds were sometimes “borrowed” from another negative to fill an otherwise bland sky (combination printing). We have all used dodging and burning to get the final photograph to look just as we wanted it to look. We also used different paper grades so as to get the feel and effect we were after. Should we mention cross-processing when working in colour (amongst other techniques) ? Or the use of infra-red film with results very far from reality ?

    Photoshop is only a tool, just like filters and flashguns are. Should we discard a photograph on the basis that the photographer has used a filter (e.g, a warm up) to enhance the shot ? Or that he used flash lighting instead of daylight ?

    Some photographs are so overly worked upon that they do not fit into the “conventional photography” definition. But that’s just a definition. Photography is evolving whether we like it or not. Digital is here to stay. If someone has got the skills to tweak his/her photos to match the image he/she has in his/her head, why not ?

    We have been haggling way too long about colour v/s black and white. Now, it’s photography v/s photoshop. It amazes me how people can waste so much time spitting on each other’s works instead of doing what we love, i.e, shooting pictures. After all, that’s what we really like. Or am I mistaken ?
    P.S. – Maybe it’s time to give a little thinking to what the word “photography” really means.

  • Vinnie Ruddy

    Well, if you break down the term photography, it means light painting. so under that moniker, digital art of any kind is photography of sorts. Now like everything, you will have your purists and those who will be innovators through the use of technology. The sheer rigidity of one’s thinking and defining of something is what will determine how far they may go in any endeavor

  • Tim

    Yeah, sorta. I’d not say `dated’ so much as a phase people go through, or, worse, in which some fundamentalists get stuck. Photography has involved manipulation including composite work since its inception; deal with it.

  • José Fernando

    Digital technology has modified all kind of art production. Obviously this should not be apreciated as a real photo, but as a step forward in this kind of art, like it happened with music.

  • Clipping Path

    This is fantastic


    Creating images as an art form has evolved and continues to do so. It may have started off with some scrawls in sand, then marks on a cave wall, to paints, photography and computer editing.

    Since traditional manipulation in the darkroom has been accepted as a part of the process but the use of modern computer software is blurring the boundaries, the problem is in the definition of photography. Until there is an agreement on what photography constitutes and what the end goal is, there will always be debate and criticism of whether the image is acceptable or not.

    I think our perception needs to evolve too – after all, a portrait taken by a camera is different from a portrait by a painter, so too is a retouched portrait different from straight out of camera portraits. So are we trying to evaluate the final image and how impactive it is? Or are we so hung up on the technique that we can only assess the image based on a particular discipline?

    After all, it is an art form whether it’s straight out of camera or painted… or Photoshopped. The use of the word “photography” has wandered over to the boundaries of digital technology – but in the end, it’s really the end image we care about. This is a never-ending debate even when it’s not to do with journalistic photography – about whether the image qualifies as photography or not.

    The purists will insist that it’s only photography the way it comes out of the camera, but the truth is, since we are converting a multidimensional experience (i.e. real life) into a 2-dimensional image, we are only capturing a fraction of the truth based on the interpretation of the photographer. We all know that different lighting, angles and cropping alone can create a different story, let alone Photoshop (not to mention the processing that is inherent in creating a processed JPEG of an image)

  • JRL


  • ‘VilleGuy

    Beautifully explained. The use of photoshop to “collage” pieces of various images is a valid artistic technique, but it is also separate from photography, I.e. capturing an image “in camera”. I’m inclined to agree with you.

  • aperturepriorityproductions

    Masking was a major part of darkroom work, where several images could be composited with several different negatives. If this is not a photo, then neither is any image captured with a digital device.