The digital retouching debate

Awhile back I was at a local photographers get together and don’t remember what the original topic was but we started talking about digital photography and some of the post processing style some digital photographers have. One of my friends who happens to be an all film shooter started an interesting debate about what “photography” really is. Her argument was that digital photographers who did too much Photoshop weren’t real photographers because the image was so processed it wasn’t a real photo. It was a pretty good debate and raised some very interesting points. But the interesting thing is that this debate did not start with the digital revolution but has been going on for ages.

Since the beginning of photography there has been many debates on what photography really is.

Is photography art?
Is photography an honest look at life and reality?

Back when Alfred Stieglitz opened up his first gallery in New York, there was much debate going on if photography deserved to be showcased in it’s own gallery. This medium was fairly new and painters and other artists looked down on what photography was and really didn’t consider it an art. He started his gallery to show to the world that photography was an art form.

Now fast forward to 2010 and a similar debate continues. What is photography and what is art? In the portrait world is a portrait not a valid portrait because it was photoshopped? If film a more valid form of photography compared to digital? I believe a great portrait is an impression of that person at a point in time. Its something that can capture that persons personality, style and gives a glimpse of who they are. But it isn’t going to be a 100% true to the bone portrayal of the person due to a few reasons. One being that no matter how comfortable people are with you, when the camera is out they will act in a certain way and put up walls. You also bring you own style and personality to the shoot which effects the way the portrait is shot.

Since a portrait is an impression of a person shot with your sense of style and really a piece of art more than just a direct rendering of what the person looks like, modifying the image in photoshop in my mind is just part of the artists vision. We all have our own vision and with that there really is no wrong or right, we have to create the work that we have in our hearts to create. “retouching” or “photoshopping” has been around since the beginning of photography from the days of Ansel Adams when he would spend countless hours in the darkroom fine tuning his images to Richard Avedon one of the most respected portrait artists. Just because Avedon shot with film does not mean his photography is pure in any sense compared to a digital photographer. And to illustrate this point check out this proof which was one of his images before having the printer dodge and burn the print to retouch it. Was his photography “pure”, nope retouched just like a digital artists would be.

So what are your thoughts in this debate, would love to know.

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Author: Mark

Mark is a fine art wedding and portrait photographer from Northern California. He has been passionate about photography since childhood and started his studio 12 years ago to bring a fresh style of photography to the wedding and portrait world.

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  1. This is an interesting topic. I’ve never heard anyone say that a photograph that has been photoshopped is not art, and I would have to disagree. Of course, partially because I am a photographer that uses photoshop, but also because I am an artist of many other forms as well.

    There are many types of art and it takes a lot of skill and knowledge to do a good job of manipulating photographs in photoshop, just as it takes skill and knowledge to create all types of art. I know that when my clients receive their portraits they appreciate this form of art just as much as a non-photoshop using photographers client would.

    Just my opinion,
    Rachelle S.

  2. Digital Photography Retouching.

    Surely only the most narrow minded of photographers would try and put photography into a box!! It is as broad, or as narrow, as the photographer wishes it to be. Its an art. Its a science. Embrace it all. For it is infinite in its definition.

    Lesley Rawson.

  3. I see photography as a much more fluid medium since the arrival of digital technology. Photographers have always been ‘manipulative’ and selective; a particular framing as opposed to another, one decisive moment as more ‘essential’ than another moment…

    So, for me, I view the ‘photographic’ process as starting with the idea and ending with an image – there are some digital steps along the way but I don’t care if they happen in the camera or in the computer… The ‘truth’ issue is, however, a much bigger (and very different) subject.

    Steve M

  4. I dare anyone to claim Ansel Adams was not a real photographer. He may not have had to tools we have as digital photographers but, none-the-less he used many methods such as dodging and burning to create many of his photos. The end result is the only thing anyone really cares about other than your fellow photographers that like to critique. How you get there is your choice. After all, it is said that photographers deep down want to be painters… can remember who was quoted for saying this.

    I had someone ask me if I did a lot of cropping outside of the camera because they claimed many of my compositions were spot on. It was as if they thought I was a better photographer for not cropping in post. My response… “Considering my viewfinder is only 95% accurate, I often get more in the image than I framed from the camera and yes, I often end up cropping in post. Most of the time it is only a little bit or none and sometimes a lot if pixel count is not important and I see a stronger composition.”

    I also had someone tell me if I was a good photographer, I wouldn’t need to do post processing and could get good photos straight from the camera like themselves. I laughed at them and their elitist/purist self-righteousness. “I too can create ‘snapshots’ that are great from camera too but I like my images to be the ‘best’ they can be. I can probably take any of your unprocessed photos and make them better with just a bit of post processing as well.” was my response. Sorry… this topic always gets me going lol.

  5. Bravo Leslie!

  6. The images that are thrown on the covers of magazines will appear to be photoshopped to photographers, but the teenage girls purchasing the magazines are starving themselves to look like the retouched images because those pictures are portrayed as real and true to life. Perhaps that’s the fault of the magazines more than the photographers, but there needs to be some way to make it clear when an image isn’t a real-life photograph.

    I’m all for artistic freedom, but perhaps we need to create a new category between “photographer” and “graphic artist” … just to help promote the difference and an understanding of the difference.

  7. I do believe that there is a line in the sand between photographic art and graphic art based off a photo. Not that there is anything wrong with either but, they should be represented correctly.

    My big pet peeve is when someone says, “I never post-process and if you were a good photographer neither would you.” I just want to scream “BULL$H*T” to those people. Every photograph ever made has been post processed in some fashion. In the dark room, in the camera, or in a digital dark room. Color correction, dodging and burning were all done in the dark room with chemicals. Today, if you shoot raw then you do it with a piece of software. If you shoot in automatic mode/jpg then the camera does it for you.

    If it could have been done in the dark room with chemicals then it’s fair game in the digital era. When you start using things that weren’t available in the dark room or start to manipulate the photo from it’s original form than you’ve crossed the line to graphic art. Again I have no issue with that, I have been known to do it. When I do it with a portrait, I sell it as an artistic rendering not as a portrait.


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