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  • Writer's pictureSteve Silk

Is It Real, or Is It...Photoshopped?

RAW file straight out of camera
Edited file

This question, or some variation of it, is one every photographer hears from time to time, The truth is, if you are looking at a digital image, it is almost certainly photoshopped, if not with intention by the photographer then by the camera itself, as its internal processor employs its own built-in algorithms to interpret the image for viewing. So yes, it's "photoshopped."


But that 's not what people mean when they ask that question. What they mean is, was some digital sorcery performed to transform this image to something far different than the original capture? They want to know: is it real? Or is it fake?


When I began my professional photographic journey, it was as a staff photographer on a metro daily newspaper. We used film, souped it on return to the newspaper's darkroom, and then made prints which went out to the news desk and from there onto newsprint. Our images were journalisitc, and even in the rare circumstances where we may have manipulated our subjects, the resulting image bore a pretty close association to objective reality, They were "real." In those days there certainly were photographers who were creating wildly manipulated imagery (I'm thinking of you, Jerry Uelsmann!), but we as news photographers never strayed far from the truth.


I'm no longer a journalist. I'm not trying to document anything. As a landscape photographer, I am trying to recreate the feeling I had when I took the image. Though it has been a challenge to shake off my deeply ingrained journalistic ethic, as I have become more proficient in the use of Photoshop and other image processing software, I have become more fluid in my interpretation of what exaclty I saw. The ideal remains the single frame with minimal retouching, but I am just as apt to combine several exposures into a single image, bursting the boundaries of time and space. If I use a wide angle lens for a landscape, I might warp and stretch mountains in the far background to make them appear more as they did in real life. I might edit in a different sky, though I rarely do. I may make profound chages to the colors or to the values of dark and light. There are so many ways to alter an image, and I readily employ whatever ones best serve my purpose in the pursuit of creating a picture with the "feels" instead of one that slavishly adheres to the objective reality of the scene. to me the ends justify the means. But I'm not hiding anything, if I use extensive editing to create an image, I say as much.


Still, the subject of manipulation in photo processing is of deep interest to me. I have considered creating a reality rating for my images, marking step along the trail in the creation of a given image. It would begin with minimal manipulartion, say some simple cropping, some burning and dodging, and perhaps some basic digital cleanup. At the other extreme, are composite photos, where i might combine images shot in different places and in different times, and then use warping and stretching techniques and color and tone manipulation and maybe even a touch of AI assistance to get me where i want to go. For me, the ends justify the means when it comes to processing photos. The question for me is not, is it real, but rather, is it true to my experience? Does it have all the feels?


The photos at top of a Lilac Breasted Roller at Etosha National Park in Namibia demonstrate the lowest degree of manipulation-the original RAW file is on the right, and the finished image on the left. Cropping and correcting white balance, along with some burning and dodging, was all the maniplulation needed to create what I saw in my mind's eye.

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