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.

  • Kajortoq

    “It’s a nice image” – Sure, if you like manipulated fantasy unicorn photoshop disasters

    “and well made” – See previous statement.

  • Opie

    It bums me out that this doesn’t have more downvotes. You’ve put words in the OP’s mouth and you’re mocking him for what you’re pretending he said. There was no mention at all of “things you couldn’t see”.

    Maybe this site needs a “Hitler rule”, except instead of mentioning Hitler, you lose the discussion once you surmise the poor quality of a commenter’s photography.

    Also, if you think straight photographs of the real world sound boring, you’re going to be sorely disappointed with 95% of the photography you come across.

  • Brady M

    Photography literally means writing with light. I take this to mean that all of the work that a photographer does in the camera and at an enlarger (when they are working with raw light in the purist sense) is the photography. All work done at a computer is graphic design (a wholly separate but not lesser art form). Where does a photo stop being a photography and start being graphic design? When the image no longer resembles the original scene.

  • Cadenza

    I agree with the idea very much, but those category names imply that straight photography can’t be creative, which is a bit offensive…

  • Jack

    I didn’t say it was poor quality. He could make well exposed, tack sharp, well composed photos. That are boring.

    And yes, I am sorely disappointed by 95% of photography I come across, for that exact reason. Pointing your camera at something you can see and click butan just isn’t interesting in 95% of cases. How many sunsets do you need to look at? How interesting is another snapshot?

    Anyways, since you seem to have missed the point which was that to claim that ‘photography’ has to be ‘a snapshot of reality’ is ridiculous. Aside from documentary photography, what else *really* meets that definition? Not portraiture, not landscapes, not macro, not astro, not long exposure, not HDR (although we agree there!), and definitely not anything even vaguely along the branch of surrealism. Hell, even wildlife photography doesnt necessarily meet it – look at Nick Brandt’s amazing work, for instance.

    It’s an argument that just reeks of ‘I dont know how to do post so I will just claim everyone else is cheating’.

  • Robert F.

    “At first, in the early 60s when I would show my work to other photographers, they’d always say, “Well, this is interesting, but this is not photography.” I’d buy the same cameras, spend hours in the darkroom, but somehow they were locked in to the sort of documentary, camera-conceived imagery tradition, which still dominates photography.” -Jerry Uelsmann

    Uelsmann always considered his work photography. It was other photographers who wouldn’t acknowledge it. I don’t know where you got this idea that Uelsmann considered his work something else.

  • Jack

    I didn’t realise we were strictly defining an entire artform based on its lexical construction from classical Greek.

  • Piotrek Ziolkowski

    I think you are confusing a a process of photography with a physical “photograph” (and a few other people at the same time). Maybe a word “picture” or “image” would be more appropriate in this context. To me a ‘photograph’ and ‘photography’ are very closely related – there is no photograph if it isn’t a result of photography – the process. As I said before Chris Crisman is ok with the word ‘illustration’ so it makes sense to call him a digital artist not a photographer in general.

  •!/thelonelylights Adam Cross

    I’m not confusing anything – I have set out in all of my comments talking about a photograph – not photography.

  • justanopinion

    I do this stuff a lot, but the composite isn’t very believable to be handed off as one photograph. It is so obvious that it is a photoshopped and image and should be treated as such.

  • bob cooley

    Agreed. Back when I was still doing photojournalism, we would never call this a photo, it was a deemed photo-illustration, but composite works just as well.

    Its utilizing photographic techniques, but isn’t strictly a photo.

  • Opie

    You make some interesting points here, particularly that 95% of photography disappoints you. Honestly, if I counted all the sunset and flower snapshots, I would probably say the same thing. But snapshots are not photography in the sense that’s being discussed. They are just incidental captures made without regard for the deliberate choices a photographer makes. And yes, they’re overwhelmingly boring.

    But I’m guessing 4dmaze wasn’t referring pedantically to these kinds of “snapshots” so much as the idea that a photograph intrinsically contains a moment of time that actually existed as it appears in the frame. There are many photographic choices to make while capturing this moment (focus, light, framing, DOF, shutter speed), none of which compromise the fact that it actually happened. The butterfly scene, as it appears in the final image, never existed at all.

    While I can’t speak for 4dmaze, I can say that the more I’ve learned about post-processing, the more tired I get of looking at it. Knowing how to do all of that stuff just makes me long for an honest, unspoiled photograph.

    Also, I love Nick Brandt’s work and I’d been blanking on his name for days. Thanks!

  • DamianMonsivais

    same documentary you got the quote from.

    He knew the final product wasn’t a photograph but a creation of his own, using photography.

    It falls under the field of photography.

  • DamianMonsivais

    Its easier….a lot easier and kinda lazy.
    There are big differences.

    This works for commercial use but extensively not for photography as art purposes.

  • Dave

    So it is ‘Mixed technique’, not mixed media. The medium is photography from beginning to end, no matter how you attempt to spin it.

  • DamianMonsivais

    Again If someone photographed pigs with fake wings and composite them over new york city flying……is that a photograph?

    I say its not. but hey there using the tools available now to them.

    I might be wrong but Id call such an image a digital composite image and not a photograph.

  • some dude that cares

    WOW, reading all the drama from this is crazy.

    It’s good to see people are so passionate about photography.

    Let’s put it in a different perspective, shall we:

    If you adjust the bass, treble or tone to the music your playing, does that render the music your listening to into a different category? You did change the output by adjusting simple controls.

    By wearing glasses, contacts or even sunglasses, are you in essence altering your perceptual vision? You “filter” out certain wavelengths of light to exemplify others.

    We as photographers are artists and what this artist has done has used the tools at his disposal to render his artistic vision. Dali and Picasso were ridiculed for their interpretations of art, but now they are widely revered as artistic pioneers.
    I’m not saying this guy is a Picasso or Dali of the photographic world, but still he has created a fine photo.

    Now if he would have tried to hide the fact that this was photoshopped and pass it off as the “real” thing something like Mili Vanilli, then I can see everyone getting so upset.

    In my opinion, and yes it is just my opinion, there are no true photographs and there never was. As a photo is a simple capture of an image or object at a particular space and length of time that can be rendered as the photographer sees fit. It is highly subjective and only offers a glimpse of what the photographer saw at the time.

  • Dave

    Some people try so hard to separate art from photography. If you use a paint brush it is ‘painting’. If you use a camera it is ‘photography’ (writing or drawing with light). If it is stone or wood (or a variety of other mediums that no one in their right minds would ever argue about) it is ‘sculpture’. The above piece of artwork was achieved by using ‘photography’. This is photography. You have no authority to put limits on it.

  • Mansgame

    Agree 100%

  • Piotrek Ziolkowski

    sorry Adam but I am out. Out of all the things I said you picked the personal bit and it’s not hard to see where it’s going. I think you must have a large collection of heavily manipulated images and among friends (and sometimes family) insist on being called The Photographer.

  • Mansgame

    This reminds me of a photo contest I entered once. I took a very good picture (or so I thought) with perfect lighting and composition and enhanced the colors and white balance in post processing and thought it had a chance to win. Instead the winner was a picture of a girl where a unicorn was photoshopped into it or something like that and of course the judges went gaga.

    Photographs have to be pure. If something isn’t in the viewfinder, it shouldn’t be added later.

  • Dave

    Very uneducated comment. Ansel Adams used many darkroom techniques to alter his images that were later adopted into Photoshop. I doubt you will refer to his work as ‘sad’. We used to travel with horse and buggy, is the Boeing 747 sad? The Porsche 911 sad? The space shuttle? Think!

  • Dave


  • Dave

    So if this is ‘mixed media’, what is the second medium? The third? Fourth?

  • Piotrek Ziolkowski

    “Dude”, bad form. We are not here to score points. There is no need to use a few nicknames in the same discussion. I am actually “on your side” but I’ve just seen the above comment under DamianMonsivais and a minute later its “some dude that cares”…

  • Dave

    Hypocrisy in your very statement. Why would you allow “enhancing shadows or color a bit” if you are bent on capturing a moment in time. It is like you ALMOST accept manipulation. Like being almost pregnant. Your opinion is worthless because of your own parameters.

  • Dave

    The above image was a camera generated image. Please refer to a dictionary for the definition of ‘generated’. Thanks.

  • Dave

    When the piece of artwork is borne of photography, as the above piece was. Photography is just another branch of graphic design, as is painting, calligraphy, silk screen etc. A pigeon is a bird, but a bird isn’t necessarily a pigeon. Photography IS graphic design, b ut graphic design isn’t necessarily photography.

  • Dave

    Yet this is 100% composed of photography. Tofu is 0% composed of steak. Sorry to destroy your poor analogy.

  • Dave

    So a triple exposure can somehow not be considered photography when a double exposure can? C’mon,….think.

  • Dave

    You are a graphic designer but do not understand the term of mixed media? OK.

  • nevbav

    i am more than a graphic designer. and i have won awards internationally. what i stated is my opinion as a photographer. as a photographer i see many others try to do collage/digital illustration/hdr etc…and create illustrations…they are not what i consider photography…and as a graphic designer who has done photographic illustration and special effects…most photographers fake very short when attempting to do the same and call it photography.
    so to you dave…you obviously did not really read my comments or you would have had a real opinion to offer.

  • some dude that cares

    1st post on this discussion, I guess Damian had the same to say, that’s cool.
    No evil intended, just commenting that’s all.

  • Cadenza

    The question isn’t whether or not this is an interesting image (although plenty have given their opinion on that). The question is, is it a photo? What if someone entered a painting contest with a photograph that was more interesting than all the other images in the contest? Should the photograph win the painting contest?

  • Swade

    Last I checked, photoshop isn’t actually photography. You have image capturing and image manipulation software, that is two mediums. Not sure how photoshop got lumped into photography. Can you manipulate a photo with a camera? No. Can you capture an image with photoshop? No. Two mediums. And there you go.

  • Swade

    No, each piece of the image was a photograph and photoshop was used to generate this composite. It is, in fact, a computer generated image. I’m beginning to think that you have this assumption that a camera and photoshop are one in the same.

  • Stephen Penland

    To say this is a singular execution of a singular vision misses the point entirely. Michelangelo’s creation of “David” is also a singular execution of a singular vision. Chris is engaged in computer artistry, not photography. As far as tools go, the computer was far more important to his creation than a camera. Finally, to say this possibly could have been captured in a single exposure is absurd.

  • Stephen Penland

    I know this scene didn’t exist in front of a camera because we were showed how it was created from many separate elements. Although a camera was used, the computer was more central to the final image.

  • Dave

    “Can you manipulate a photo with a camera?”

    Of course you absolutely can. Multiple exposures, timed exposures, painting with light, reticulation, posterization, solarization. The image was not generated in Photoshop, it was generated in a camera and therefore THAT is the medium. Just as photography before everyone became so frightened of the digital darkroom, in a traditional darkroom was routinely altered to suit the artist tastes. But no one ever tried to reclassify it until the voodoo digital darkroom came along.

  • Dave

    Well then you obviously would be wrong. A camera ‘generated’ the images. Websters: “to bring into existence”. Photoshop did not bring the images into existence, a camera did, and there is no argument about that: A camera GENERATED these images. Photoshop, just like the darkrooms of the past, manipulated the photos to produce the above piece of art. There was never an argument about this until the darkroom became digital and less educated people became afraid of it all of a sudden. That would be you.

  • michaelp42

    Digital art. Not particularly well done digital art either.

  • Peter

    so whoever has the best post processing software and talent should win?
    Not whining just making a point that there are different ways of making images and that they shouldn’t be judged the same as they are not made in the same way. Surely, even you can understand that

  • Dénis Wettmann

    Shooting RAW requires post-processing, so using software nowadays to finish up a photo should be considered the standard. Adjusting WB, contrast, other creative options during the post-processing are part of taking a photo. It is not less photography if you add a colour or ND filter during the shoot. Some people seem to frown upon post-processing but it is an essential part of digital photography, and was unavoidable during the pre digital photography times.

    The only thing that annoys me is that everything is called “Photoshopped” Adobe crates the most bloated, overpriced and complicated software for all platforms and is a dinosaur that is about to die out. Pixelmator, Paint.NET and others are as potential if not better, lower priced, have a smaller footprint and lightning fast.

  • Dénis Wettmann

    That depends on definition of reality. I potentially see a scene of sunshine other then you. The lens & camera combination again has a different way of capturing an “image” of something that I subjectively perceive. Adjusting colour and other values is altering an already altered image of my reality, leave alone yours.

  • kyoshinikon

    Digital painting/over photoshopping

  • Ogalthorpe

    Honestly… Why does it even matter?

  • Jason Wright

    The argument shouldn’t be about what this image is or isn’t, the argument should be about what the competition was for.
    It seems clear to me from the comments quoted in the article that the competition was for non-composite images.
    Therefor, entering this image is a bit like putting a cat in a dog show.
    It might be the best goddam cat in the whole world, but it has no place in a dog show.
    I’ve not read the rules for the competition but it seems that is the important part, what was meant to be entered.
    You can never finish the argument about what “photography” is, or if this image is x or y. That is almost part of the point of art, you can discuss it forever and there is never a one true answer (even the artists original intent is only one viewpoint).

    Answer the important point, did this image fit the rules of the competition it was entered for. If it did then the people who wrote them need to think a bit harder about rules before the next one (Purely because of the confusion caused not because of any opinion on the image itself). If it didn’t, then it shouldn’t be there, end of.

  • Jason Wright

    Because people CARE about art. Otherwise it wouldn’t exist. If you didn’t care you wouldn’t have come here, read about it and taken the time to comment.

  • gregorylent

    can see straight from camera contests and exhibitions someday

  • Tomasz Kulbowski

    I’ve used a hyper-real paintings as an example of calling things what they are. No problem with photography being art, or collage/mixed-media being art as well. I just don’t agree that the work discussed here belongs to photography. This “composite photograph” you’ve mentioned is an artwork that is using photography techniques *amongst others*, but it’s a different medium from photography. That’s my point. Sorry if it wasn’t clear – I was referring to your earlier comments as well…

    I believe over the years, in order to improve communication, people agreed to what is what in the world of art (more or less, as we can see from this discussion ;) ). I can’t see a reason to change or stretch it only because of individual preferences. I mean, don’t mind if you start calling blue colour pink, feel free to do it – just expect to be misunderstood sooner or later ;)