PetaPixel

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.


 
  • http://kulbowski.com/ Tomasz Kulbowski

    Please read my comment above clarifying few things… I had no intention to separate photography from art, I believe there’s no way to do it :)

    My arguments are not against that one particular artwork – they are PRO-communication. This artwork is using the same amount of photography techniques as illustration techniques, so to me, to call it either “just photography” or “just illustration” means that we are seriously narrowing the definition and description of this artwork and it is based on nothing more our individual preferences and spontaneous decision. I believe it’s just easier, safer and more communicative for to call it “mixed media”. It’sa widely used, recognisable and non-offensive term ;)

  • ericnl

    combining photos together in camera (double exposure) is still “photography” in my dictionary, but when it is done after the fact it is “a collage of photos”, which should be a different category.

  • FDKarl

    I believe the time has come where we might consider different categories for this kind of art “Digital Photographic artist” perhaps.i.e. a category for photos produced mostly in camera with limited post production and a category with photoshopped applied?

  • zanber

    After reading it, I have something to say.

    Photography is real.

    Photoshop is fake.

    Photography is a art.

    Photoshop is also a art.

    In this world, alot of images are tainted. Alot of people say i am a photographer I ask them, are you sure? They told me yes i am sure. Then i ask them ” do you use photoshop? They tell me that it is a must for photographer. Then i answer them back, you are not a photographer. They ask why? I ask them to try using film and conversion ended there.

    Do not mix all these things. It is sometimes all these photoshop that is causing misleading products on the market. Don you agree?

  • http://twitter.com/niksargent Nik Sargent

    I’ve stopped asking (and applying to my own work) the question “Is it a photograph?” – and simply ask “is it good to look at?” – that’s what matters IMHO.
    From the minute light hits the front of the lens it is being modified unavoidably by the equipment and possibly deliberately by the photographer even before it hits the lens, as well as after. This has ALWAYS been the case – anyone that thinks photography is somehow a pure, unadulterated capture of a scene is mistaken – because there is no such thing as unadulterated.

    Compositing and dark room adjustments were around long before the digital era – they were as much part of the photographer’s skills as capturing the light in the first place.
    Photography is about capturing light for some purpose. Some people do it at a crime scene for forensic purposes. Some people do it to create a personal memory of a moment. Some do it to document something the world needs to know about. Others do it to create works of art – as here. Sometimes these overlap.

    if a painter used oils and watercolour to create some kind of artisitc montage, you may well call it “mixed media” – but you would still also call the work “a painting” and call the activity “painting”. So why are people so hung up on the same concept for capturing light with a camera?

  • http://twitter.com/UrsBasteck Urs

    Of course it’s Photography, don’t be silly. Is it photography that I like or am interested in, namely the fabricated kind? Another question. However, what it is clearly NOT, referring to the Daily Mail article

    “taken from around the world [capturing] the magic of the animal kingdom and people’s everyday lives”

    It also not: “a girl [...] surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of butterflies”

    And the 8th-ish picture from the bottom is as well quite clearly not “Swimmers captured in Singapore”

    And this is a problem. When everything resembling a photographic recording is perceived and presented at face value, then we might need a new genre indeed.

  • justanothercommentor

    The fake butterflies would also constitute another type of media and you dont need more then two to be mixed. .

  • son

    It’s all about the emotional response to what you see, doing a dissection between the the camera, Photoshop and anything else is beside the point.

  • MMielech

    As a professional retoucher, I’m disheartened at the rigid thought that so many here are still stuck using. I’m surprised that some are shooting color. In digital! Are you all walking around with a Leica M3 shooting from the hip, tying to get that, ahem decisive moment?
    You men and ladies should know that 99% of the images you see outside of hard journalism news sources are retouched. Some a little, many a lot. Really, get over it. It’s all about creating an image. It’s not reality. It’s an illusion on paper or a computer screen.
    Btw, those butterfly images are childish, and quite obvious. I’m amazed that some actually commented that they were retouched in the first place. Duh. The best retouching is not noticed. Take a look at Annie Liebovitz’s stuff after, oh, 1994. Trust me, heavily composited and retouched. And yet, the classists think she’s just something else. She fooled ya. And, she doesn’t even give her retouchers credit, even in her books. Photographers. What are you going to do with them?

  • Anonymous

    You need to cool down a bit, Dave. So many replies all over the place and you’re not exactly convincing anyone.

    The camera was used in this instance to capture the seperate elements, but the final image was indeed generated, or brought to existence, by manipulating the pre-existing components in a computer software. Music, books, paintings and movies are all brought into existence by us working with what is already there. The above image is clearly anything but a camera-generate image.

  • Mute

    First off, The Daily Mail, piece of garbage and rarely worth quoting, especially the comments.

    Second, photo manipulation has been around as long as the photograph. As long as contests set rules outlining any post-processing restrictions then it should be clear what is acceptable or not.

    And thirdly, when a photograph becomes a photo-montage or an illustration is never going to be defined absolutely. As long as things are context-relevant I really couldn’t care less.

  • derekdj

    It’s strange that we are having this discussion over an issue that was answered years ago. What he is doing is a collage, just because he photographed individual elements and then digitally composited them together, the definition is still the same. He is expressing his vision through “collage”, he should enter his works in an art show.
    What he is doing goes beyond color and contrast fixes.

  • Tony Case

    While most photos include some amount of dodging and burning in the dark room (hell, even Ansel Adams did some heavy post production on his shots), or cropping to improve composition and remove junk in the background – this is not a photograph. If you had to trip the shutter 40 times and throw them into a photoshop blender, you’re not doing photography.

    (It also doesn’t help it’s case that the shot looks ugly as sin)

  • Guest

    So by your terms,an object cut from a photo in photoshop means that the photo is fake?
    Not sure exactly what you mean, but I think what you are saying is if it is generated through a camera, it is real, if it is generated in photoshop then it is fake.
    That I get.

  • Nick P

    Usual sort of comments! I expected this to ignite the “pure photography” vs “photoshop” debate.

    The thing is, although it would have taken even more work, you could probably do most of what was done using film – multiple exposures, masking, etc.

    I still see this as photography because really how does this differ to situations where photographers pose people, dress sets, and add lighting that was never really like that? Answer, it doesn’t. Photography is all about capturing a vision you have and he’s done just that.

  • Tom

    For me, Photoshop is just another tool (along with camera body, lens, aperture, lighting, location, subject etc.) to help realize my vision. I try not to rely on any single tool as a crutch over the others.

  • Damian Monsivais

    wow really, both?

  • http://twitter.com/marcdasharc Marc Belanger

    This strikes me as a similar debate had by those of us that are musicians. There are purists who don’t believe that a DJ makes music if they’re just chopping and processing existing material to create something else. At the end of the day, what a DJ does abides by the definition of music, albeit with its own classification and tacit understanding of just what separates it from other forms of music.

    To draw another parallel – there’s a category for “Best Animated Feature” at the Oscars. It is a distinctly different method of craftsmanship to achieve the same goal, but they are still regarded as films.

    In that regard, I would say that while Crisman’s entry is a photograph, there is a tacit understanding of what kind of photograph it is. At this rate, contests could avoid themselves a lot of trouble by having categories for photographs straight from the camera and photographs subjected to manipulation. At the end of the day, both forms are complying with the definition of the term, if not necessarily with standards and notions attributed principally to one form and not the other, for whatever reason.

    Personally, I think there is merit to being skilled in both forms, and being a firm believer in practicing one should not exclude the recognition of skill in the other. I don’t disagree with those who say that it’s NOT a photograph, I simply think that AS a photograph, it is inherently subject to a different criteria.

  • Cookiepus

    They are all the same TYPE of media i.e. photos.
    Mr. Pedantic

  • http://twitter.com/moltobeennee Molto Bene

    I really wish we could just bump this comment to the top of the list and erase all the others.

    (*heads off to ogle vintage medium format rangefinders*)

  • http://twitter.com/n0x00 John

    couldnt agree more, a photograph is the acquisition of a view, not the composition of a few !

  • Alex

    Also, for what its worth, they are butterflies that were once alive and have since been dried and preserved.

  • Anonymous

    This picture looks 110% fake, nothing about this photo looks real. I personally don’t think that these type of pictures should be used in entering competitions.

  • dragunr1

    why bother writing here at all? i find this discussion really really interesting, it offered me some insights i would not have dreamed about.

  • dragunr1

    …and because we want to learn about what we are doing, and why we are doing it, not just do it. Being passionate about something does not imply only the action, but more important, building an understanding of the subject of the passion, and its relationship with the world. Understanding makes me a better human, not clicking the button.

  • dragunr1

    by then, cameras will offer so many on-board processing options that the point of a straight-from-camera contest will be useless

  • DAMIAN MONSIVAIS

    Nope

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.penland.9 Stephen Penland

    It’s equivalent to painting a whole bunch of canvases, then taking a pair of scissors to cut out small pieces of all of those canvases, pasting the pieces of canvas onto a single board, and calling that a painting.

  • dragunr1

    i would try a different approach. not about reality, but about truth. i would say, a photograph has to contain some truth, valid for some people, not just the photographer. this way, a photograph can be taken from reality and altered in some ways, and still remain a photograph – i mean, as long as it is related to the truth it did contain initially. the butterfly image contains different pieces of reality, with no initial relation to the other, besides the artist’s mind. so it’s not truthful.

  • eraserhead12

    lol then it’s as real as calling processed, amalgamated lunch meat steak.

  • Jane Patterson-McGuire

    You are attempting to preserve one term by abusing another. If you don’t want to call this a photograph (and I wouldn’t.) this is a photoillustration, a photocomposite, a photomontage, etc — we have plenty of good words for this altready.. It’s only Mixed Media if he printed it out and then painted or drew on top of it. The “media” refers to the final product, not the process. (note that etching is not mixed media, even though it involves, metal, acid, ink and paper.)

  • Jane Patterson-McGuire

    No, you’d call it a collage. Which is different than mixed media.

  • Jane Patterson-McGuire

    There are plenty of folks who use photoshop to do exactly the same things we did with film, only faster. Also, by this logic, all black and white photography is “fake” — because that is surely not how it looked in the real world. How much darkroom manipulation makes it cross the line from “real” to “fake”?

  • Matthew Wagg

    “The best photos are about timing and how good your camera skills are”
    I love that quote…

  • http://ddon.myopenid.com/ John

    Boring, but I bet he had great fun creating it.

  • itakepicturesofthingsilike

    this is one of the oldest argument in the history of photography and it’s a dull one. every photograph is a distortion of reality; a reality augmented by technology (camera, format, processing, post-production, etc.) and the photographers artistic vision. Besides, contest rules state: “Images can be manipulated, however the manipulation must be clearly outlined within the image description.”

  • itakepicturesofthingsilike

    I’m more of a PJ guy, but the notion of anything as “pure” photography is dated. Jerry Uelsmann was an amazing photographer, his works were art photographs regardless of his darkroom work.

  • Dave

    They didn’t use a fake butterfly. They used a PHOTOGRAPH of a faked butterfly. NEXT!

  • Dave

    Really. Both.

  • Dave

    Actually I am as cool as I need to be. I have not been keeping a running tally of who I am convincing and who I am not convincing, because I don’t care. A camera indeed generated the image above, I already supplied a Websters definition, if you are having trouble comprehending it, that is your problem. You say: “Music, books, paintings and movies are all brought into existence by us working with what is already there.”

    So you are saying that movies of today are still considered movies even though so many of them are manipulated using computer software (To a far more extreme degree than this photo above mind you)? Watch Life of Pi, Avatar, Forrest Gump, Twister or anything out of Hollywood today and get back to me on that one (I can’t wait)

    Paintings are created by something already there? Please explain Salvador Dali. I’ll wait up for you.

    All books are created by something already there? Alice in Wonderland? I could keep going.

    The problem most people have with this subject is that since the darkroom moved into the computer, a lot of people have mistakenly started to believe that photography was ALWAYS just capturing a single image in a brief period of time to represent what was right in front of the camera at that time only. Photography has never been this. The thing that filmmakers, writers, painters and photographers have always had in common is the freedom to use their minds to create their artistic vision. Photographers have been manipulating their images long before Photoshop was created. Today the tools are more powerful, just as the modes of transportation, communication, exploration (the Space Shuttle?) have become more powerful. A certain segment of the population has it in their minds that the new tools for ‘darkroom’ work are voodoo. They are wrong.

  • Mickaël W

    It’s just a “photomontage”. Finely executed at most.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.french.007 Brian French

    Why does it matter what it’s called? It’s a compilation of thoughts and ideas that this photographer believes is best expressed by Photoshop. A photograph is always an idea. A photo with anything added or subtracted is always going to sprout from an initial idea. Give the guy some respect for his idea, and the quality of what he produces.

  • Andrew S

    To me this is another form of collage rather than a photograph:

    Collage (From the French: coller, to glue) is a technique of art production, primarily used in the visual arts, where the artwork is made from an assemblage of different forms, thus creating a new whole.

  • Anonymous

    I doubt I’ll turn you around in your thinking, but I do hope to leave you with a thought of some kind.

    Your first point about movies is honestly irrelevant and makes no sense in this discussion. Painters use paint to create paintings from a limited amount of colors, materials and very importantly references in one’s culture and world view. All books and stories are created by putting words together using established rules and conducts in language and literature. Music is made out of notes and lyrics, by arranging those notes in different ways one creates new songs and other musical pieces. You’re always using and re-arranging what is already there to create something new. There is simply no other way except by accident.

    I don’t see where this odd equivalence comes from between the old darkroom and modern computer software. We can today just as well “paint” with a computer, a tablet and the pen as our paintbrush, but we categorize them specifically as digital paintings, digital art or prints, if they are afterwards printed onto canvas, but still not as paintings. The above image is in a similar fashion not a photograph or camera-generated, no matter how many times you want to appeal to authority.

  • Anonymous

    I doubt I’ll turn you around in your thinking, but I do hope to leave you with a thought of some kind.

    Your first point about movies is honestly irrelevant and makes no sense in this discussion. Painters use paint to create paintings from a limited amount of colors, materials and very importantly references in one’s culture and world view. All books and stories are created by putting words together using established rules and conducts in language and literature. Music is made out of notes and lyrics, by arranging those notes in different ways one creates new songs and other musical pieces. You’re always using and re-arranging what is already there to create something new. There is simply no other way except by accident.

    I don’t see where this odd equivalence comes from between the old darkroom and modern computer software. We can today just as well “paint” with a computer, a tablet and the pen as our paintbrush, but we categorize them specifically as digital paintings, digital art or prints, if they are afterwards printed onto canvas, but still not as paintings. The above image is in a similar fashion not a photograph or camera-generated, no matter how many times you want to appeal to authority.

  • http://www.facebook.com/howie.haigh Howard Haigh

    It’s a digital photographic collage/digital art… fortunately it’s so ‘fake’ looking that you’re never going to mistake it for anything other than a composite image and happily the artist doesn’t claim it is anything other than that.

  • studio 17b

    There’s a line between illustration and photography, surely. It’s one thing to retouch out zits and saggy skin which seems to be acceptable for portraiture these days, but assembling a photo from disparate shots are something else altogether.

  • Willem van Beers

    In my opinion there is nothing wrong with top quality mix. LONG before Photoshop even existed we already mixed music. The LSO played the orchestral part of Saint-Saens 3rd
    Symphony in London while the organ part was played on the beautiful organ of the Chartres cathedral which is fully accepted

    Symphonyu

  • Dave

    Your words: “You’re always using and re-arranging what is already there to create something new.” (about music, books etc)

    You mean like this photographer rearranged photos of butterflies and a girl to create something new?

    As far as the word ‘generated’ you seem to have your own definition which is contrary to what can be found in any dictionary so you must have some higher authority than that……wonder what that could be? Maybe you just can’t admit when you are wrong? Which in this case you are. You can have an opinion about Photoshop, you cannot have an opinion about the definition of a word.

    Generated: to bring into existence (Webster)

    Genisis: The first book of the bible, creation

    Generator: Produces electricity, it doesn’t borrow electricity from somewhere else.

    A camera brought every pixel of the above photo into existence, Photoshop didn’t. Photoshop allowed the photographer to composite the pre-existing elements into his vision, the same way a composer rearranges notes and lyrics to create a song of his own vision.

    Now if the photographer decided to use Photoshop generated elements, such as gradients, fills, painting, where new pixels are created out of camera (read: non camera generated content) then he is entering the realm of mixed media.

    “I don’t see where this odd equivalence comes from between the old darkroom and modern computer software.”

    It sounds like you have spent no time in a darkroom. Photoshop tools came from the darkroom. Photoshop techniques came from the darkroom. Instead of using chemicals and then pouring them down the drain, we now have a more powerful and efficient method for processing our images. Dodge, burn, crop, color correction, filters, distorting, converting from color to grayscale, colorizing, touch up (it used to be done with a paint brush) multiple exposures of different photos on the same piece of film or paper, layering, unsharp mask (known as a contrast mask)…..all of these were born in the traditional darkroom. It is not an odd equivalence, it is a fact.

  • Catherine rose

    As lovely as this image is, I don’t feel it should be classed as a “photograph” it’s definitely more of an “artwork, digital art, photo illustration etc”.
    I believe a photograph should be more pure, a single image shot in raw or jpeg or film that is adjusted for colour, brightness, contrast, sharpness etc but with no layers. The photograph should be about the artists camera skill and eye for composition that is used to produce an image more than digital editing skill.
    A separate category for “digital art” like this would be beneficial.