By now everyone is no doubt aware that there is a serious backlash in the media and on social networking against the use of Photoshop in the altering or “airbrushing” of images. The sentiment is that the use of image editing software presents an unrealistic and unattainable standard of beauty that is unhealthy and harmful. This was highlighted by a couple recent stories that have gone viral decrying the evils of Photoshop. In one, a journalist sent an un-photoshopped image of her self to a number of freelance Photoshop “artists” from all over the world. The idea was to demonstrate the cultural differences in the perception of beauty. The story is linked here: In my opinion, all this project REALLY demonstrated is how many absolutely horrible “photoshop artists” there are out there. The author even freely admits that she found all her “artists” on the website “Fiverr” which she utilized after her boss “asked me to use the site in order to contract cheap work for whatever projects I might be assigned.” So, we are comparing work done by freelance “professionals” competing with each other over who is the cheapest. Further, the author freely admits that the process was purposely manipulated. “…one person would add a filter and a little airbrush while others really went all out. I’ve chosen the images that were more manipulated to publish for my collection.”
But, should we blame the process of being able to fix and enhance our photos when the real problem is people who just have no sense of taste? I think perhaps not!
In another recent viral video, singer “Colbie Caillat Snubs Photoshop & Goes All Natural In New Video“.
Curiously, if you actually watch the video, it deals entirely with MAKEUP and has nothing at all to do with Photoshop… but of course, no one is vilifying makeup companies, and I’ll bet good money on Colbie’s next album cover and at her next concert, she’ll be wearing makeup. But it is easier to pin the blame on the evils of Photoshop.
Let’s back up and get a little history and get some perspective before throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Often mistakenly referred to as “editing”, “retouching and enhancement” is the process of correcting flaws in a photograph not able to be addressed when shooting. Only the methods have changed.
“Editing” as most photographers actually use the term, refers to the process of selecting which photos to keep, and which hit the trash can. A culling process, in or out, yes or no. That is editing.
Photographers have been doing “retouching and enhancement” on photographs since the invention of photography. In the old days, photographers would learn to remove dust spots from prints using dyes applied to the print with a brush. Temporary facial blemishes and such could be removed from an image by blending the blemish on the negative to the surrounding skin tone using pencils sharpened to a needle point or dyes with very fine brushes. This usually needed to be done with the aid of a powerful magnifying glass or even a microscope. Needless to say, this level of artistry required a great deal of skill and talent, took years to master, and there were limits to what could be done.
More extreme corrections would be done by applying colored pencils, chalks, or airbrushing actual paint onto the surface of the photograph. The more work that was done, the more apparent it became and the more the image took on the look of an illustration or painting rather than a photograph. This is where the erroneous use of the word “airbrushing” comes from. No one today actually uses airbrushing as a tool to enhance photographs.
Enter Adobe Photoshop. A natural extension of the way photographers have always “polished” their images, Photoshop has simply, and perhaps sadly, made it easier for almost anyone to go crazy and alter images badly. Just as Karaoke brought forth an entire universe of awful singers, Photoshop enabled countless “photographers” to do retouching and enhancement, really, really poorly.
But why do we even need retouching? I mean, why can’t we just accept that people have pimples and blotchy skin and bags under their eyes and crow’s feet? Why do we have to aspire to some level of unrealistic perfection?
Fair question, but I think there is actually an answer. And the answer lies in what a photograph actually represents to most people… a slice of time… a MEMORY. Here is the reality about memories. When we meet with or recall someone, a loved one or relative, we do not spend time staring at and scrutinizing every pimple, blackhead, stray hair and wrinkle. We engage the person, talk to them, smell them, touch them. We do not have these additional distractions when viewing a photograph. All we can do is look at it, and with that, we scrutinize it. We see things, in razor sharp detail, that we would simply not see in reality. THAT is the purpose of retouching and enhancement. It brings our photograph more into alignment with our actual memory. Is that wrong?
Here is an image of my lovely friend, Tina. Yes, Tina is wearing makeup… shoot me. Let’s be real, modern sentiments aside, it is the rare woman who is going to sit in front of my camera without any makeup on. Is that really so horrible? Anyway, right away we can see one of the first problems… today’s cameras and lenses are WAY TOO SHARP for portrait photography. I can promise you, if you had been there when this photo was taken, this would NOT be an accurate representation of your MEMORY of what Tina looked like. You will notice things in the photo that you simply would not be aware of in person.
So, for me, the first step would be a slight amount of general softening and contrast adjustment to help compensate for the ability of the camera to record every pore and line in harsh crispness. Step one, for me would look like this:
OK, better… and for many, this may be all that is really needed… but to me, I see a few things going on that I don’t think would stick in my mind as my impression of how Tina actually looked that day.
Is it “wrong” to remove these tiny flaws and allow the viewer to focus on Tina’s actual beauty and expression? Some of those blemishes are transitory and will not be there in 2 days. Why should her photo be eternally fixed with a temporary blemish? Other things are shadows and lines caused by the way the light is falling on her. Sure, they are real… but are they necessarily a part of her actual appearance? I don’t think so. Let’s retouch then reasonably and see if our resulting image is really a gross distortion of reality.
I’d bet money that most people would gladly choose this image over the 100% “realistic” one. Is that presenting a false ideal? I don’t think so. I think it is presenting an artistic representation of what we actually see, with our eyes AND our hearts.
So, what’s all the backlash over? Well, sadly, many photographers have taken the ease of making corrections in photoshop to the extreme. They haven’t taken the time to learn the proper use of the tools of retouching and enhancement to improve an image without making it look cartoonish and fake. This is what we often see on photographers portfolios these days:
The skin is retouched so that all texture and contouring is gone. The colors are blasted so that they look like a bad spray tan job. The whites of the eyes are enhanced to the point they look like doll eyes, and in the process, often fine details in things with texture, like hair and even clothing, turn to mush. Yeah, I agree, it makes you want to throw up, right? But it isn’t Photoshops’s fault. It is 100% operator error.
But what about those magazine covers that shrink women to impossibly thin proportions and give them skin that looks like polished porcelain? Well, that is a fantasy, and everyone knows it. Is it really any different than portraying a model wearing a dress of fire or water droplets, or a fashion model wearing 12 inch platform shoes and purple hair?
Yes, I agree that it send the wrong message to take a normal person of healthy weight and manipulate them to look anorexic. But does doing so really give young people an unrealistic standard of beauty? Only if we don’t educate them to the difference between fantasy and reality!
Tucking in a wrinkle in clothing that is making someone look a little heavier, or even, god forbid, helping someone out by removing a little love handle now and then isn’t really the end of the world is it? As before, we just don’t focus on those things in real life as we do in a photo, so why not use our skills as professionals to help the subject look their best? It’s how the world actually sees them, and if done with skill and restraint, I just don’t see anything wrong with it.
Sadly though, I see many, many newer photographers in my own field of portrait photography who have never learned the “art” of retouching and enhancement, and the importance of restraint. Photoshop does make it way too easy to do way too much, way too easily. When you see this plastic, overretouched, “Barbie Doll” look, consumers need to learn to just say “No.”