Panorama Development Underexposed

Photographic Authenticity – Photoshop – Alchemy Or Evil ?

I’ve had some discussions recently over authenticity in photographs. What I mean by this is true-to-life representations in photos.

It’s a common misconception is that “straight-off-the-camera” equals an exact representation of what the eye would have seen. Not so for anyone that’s ever done any amount of photography.

It’s become ever more noticeable with the screen on the back of my iPhone that shows an instant picture of what the camera has taken, or not taken, as is more often the case.

My Photographic Experiences

My first half decent camera was a Canon Ixus with a film cartridge. It was selectable 3 different modes for different aspect ratios. Occasionally I’d get true to life photos off it, but a great deal of the time the shots would be overexposed, underexposed, sun-hazed or blurry (and probably a bunch of other problems I don’t know the technical terms for). Also I found who processed the film and what photographic paper they used made a difference. My general experience was the Fuji stuff didn’t give as nice photos, and Kodak was the best. In the end all my film was posted to the same lab who always used Kodak paper and gave the best shots. They were also relatively inexpensive, so a bonus.

Since then I’ve had two Canon digitals and a Nikon digital, all of which I call were “hand cameras”, that is it’s lightweight and fits in the palm of your hand. Each of these cameras had similar issues for getting an accurate representation of real life. Best results have been and probably always will be in good daylight, without too much direct sunlight. I’m now using my iPhone 4s, because it’s with me all the time anyway.

The Ideals

I would love to have a ultra-portable camera that worked in all light conditions, and produced an accurate representation every time I snap a shot. But my experience is that it’s actually relatively rarely that the camera doesn’t lie. The cost and the scale of equipment needed to get accurate photos every time is beyond me. I don’t want to carry a bag of lenses and a tripod with me everywhere I go – tens of kilos of equipment. And I don’t have the money to spend £3000-£5000 necessary to get a pro/semi-pro kit.


It’s quite exasperating speaking to someone who has decided that Photoshop is evil, period. People are entitled to hold their opinions, even in the face of expertise which says otherwise, up to them. Personally Photoshop has enabled me to make my photos more not less true to life and brought life to photos that would otherwise have been discarded.

Someone described Photoshop as a modern day darkroom, and that’s pretty much how I see it.

Sure I’ve seen the plastic barbie-doll shots that have been obliterated of anything authentic. I’m sure there a whole industry of technicians that edit shots of women to make them look “beautiful”. There was a big deal about it recently in popular media in the US, a model came clean about her husband Photoshopping her photos.

Just because a tool can be used for “bad” purposes doesn’t mean that it’s “bad” per se. Any technology can be used as well as abused. Einstein’s theory of relativity wasn’t developed for making weapons, but was used for that purpose.

Also another someone said it’s art, and my art is my art, and it’s f*** all to do with someone else how I do it. I think that’s also a good route to go.

Example Panorama Development Underexposed Panorama Development Underexposed

The above contact sheet is one of the first panorama that I published on the blog. I was relatively inexperienced when I shooting it. Direct sunlight causing backlighting in the shot is a common problem. Exposure is done semi-automatically on the iPhone, so hard to avoid this problem. One has to use a quick shutter speed because of the amount of light coming into the camera. This means silhouetting often occurs, and this isn’t what the subject (the Buddha) looked like to me. Nothing like it in fact. The alternative with a longer shutter speed is a completely washed out image which doesn’t look anything like the real thing either.

My Panorama software PTGui does some fixing of exposures (see photo IMG_0989 Panorama.jpg raw out of the software). But actually backlit images are permanently “damaged”, it’s incredibly hard to get the shot back to “real life” even with Photoshop. I’ve tried very hard to fix these issues, but the colours never look quite right and they are always grainy. Big Buddha Panorama 4 Big Buddha Panorama 4

The final photo IMG_0989 Panorama_cropped.jpg is the best that I could do at the time. Essentially I’ve taken photos that were headed for the recycle bin and made them into something that’s pretty nice to look at. More than that in fact I’ve taken a shot that wasn’t technically possible with my equipment from my vantage point. For me this is alchemy not evil.

My Conclusions – Alchemy not Evil

To say “it’s been Photoshopped” and mean that it’s categorically fake, is a tad naive, bordering on uninformed and touching on ignorant. Photoshop and tools like it are a blessing to photographers, and able amateurs, just the same as the technologies employed in dark rooms.

Straight-off-the-camera has nothing to do with authenticity, all one is exposing is the deficiencies in the camera, it’s technology and the skill of the photographer. Post production is entirely necessary unless one has very deep pockets for pro equipment and enough money to pay a “caddy” to carry it everywhere – Not me.

Polite critics can be a bonus, they can inspire thought and sometimes change. However I think the critic has to approach the situation with the same open mind, otherwise I loose interest very quickly in any extended dialogue. Overly opinionated people who are stuck in their ideas probably better talking to themselves anyway 🙂 Big Buddha Panorama 1 Big Buddha Panorama 1

As I’ve said already, for me Photoshop is alchemy not evil. Photoshop is my favourite tool for performing this alchemy, but beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder.


Don Charisma

Notes for commenters:

Comments are invited. BUT you are reminded that this is a public blog and you are also reminded to think before you press the “post comment” button. 

Good manners are a mark of a charismatic person – so please keep comments civil, non-argumentative, constructive and related, or they will be moderated. If you feel you can’t comply, press the “unfollow” button and/or refrain from commenting.

I read ALL comments but can’t always reply. I will comment if I think there’s something that I can add to what you’ve said. I do delete without notice comments that don’t follow rules above. For persistent offenders I will ignore you permanently and/or report you.

Most decent people already know how to behave respectfully. Thank you for your co-operation on the above.

Warm regards, Don Charisma

45 thoughts on “Photographic Authenticity – Photoshop – Alchemy Or Evil ?

  1. I love my DSLR and what I can achieve with it but I also love that I can adjust the contrast etc in Photoshop. And really that’s all I do with my photos. Very minor adjustments.
    Unless of course I’m heading down the artistic route and then I go all out and do all sorts of things 😉

  2. Because of the advance of digital photography, the art of photography has changed. Photography either “captures” a visual moment in time, or provides the means of creating an image based on reality. Since we have two eyes set a few inches apart—and a sense of depth perception (as well as a human brain that processes, interprets, and “corrects” visual images)—it is often difficult to get a camera to “capture” what our “brains” actually “see.”

    Photoshop (digital editing), in my opinion, merely provides a useful tool for creating artistic images.

    1. I was with you right up until the last sentence !

      If you want to take that route then any technology used to capture images is for “artistic images”, there’s no such thing as a verbatim copy of what’s visually there, only the real thing will actually do …

      1. True….just as our eyes and brains are merely tools to form images within our minds of what’s “really” out there. 😉 Two people can be regarding the same scene from exactly the same visual perspective—and not “see” the same thing.

      2. Namaste!: The Zen approach. I used to shoot nature photography the same way; at some point, whenever I became one with what I was shooting, it was no longer about getting the shot; but about the inner experience.


      3. Hey Lech, yes that’s a good way of describing it, hadn’t thought about it that way recently … yes, looking at my best shots they do often come when I’m just enjoying being myself and not thinking too much about anything … being serendipity I call it 🙂

  3. I belong to a photography group. We have competitions once a month–no prize, just bragging rights. I mostly enter for critique to improve my photography–and I like my big camera. While we have photographers who over-do the post processing, and the image ends up not even close to looking like a photograph, it is art, just the same. It is the individuals way of expressing themselves. You know, even some of the famous photographers from days gone by, used to manipulated photos in the darkroom.

    I strive to capture what I’m feeling at the moment, but sometimes a little Photoshop makes a great picture, even more great.

    1. Totally agree … one thing to add, I’ve found that as a beginner I tended to overuse the features, and then learned to tone them down as my eyes “sharpened”, ie I improved … I’ve also found that I can see a good photo, where I didn’t see anything worth looking at before, so I’ve become more observant … so photography has it’s benefits …

      I can’t see myself with a DLSR at the moment, but never say never …

      Warm regards


  4. I must say I was slightly against Photoshop before I read this but I understand the need of it better now. As expressed in comments before me, the thing I hate is people using Photoshop not for post production but image manipulation.

    Thanks for the great post Don!

  5. Film photographers had their bag of tricks too, be it on-camera filters or burning and dodging in the darkroom… or even just the use of Kodachrome. Some of the most popular photos of the last century were cropped from the original capture.

    There is reality and there is design, but both are from a certain perspective “real”. To me, authenticity is a subjective value judgement. The only exception might be photoshopping someone or something in or out of a photo and not disclosing it as fiction, but even that has its grey area.

    The one aspect of photography where true representation is more important than technique is photojournalism. But in the digital era the ethical debate on PS and its limits is bandied about among that crowd as well. Quite frankly, photojournalists have better things to worry about these days.

    Whenever I meet someone who laments digital filters and tools I remind them that Ansel Adams shot at f/64 and how few people will ever shoot at that focal length. He also developed the brilliant zonal system. Was that all a gimmick? After all, he did some dreamy work of real stuff. The Weston boys might have thought Adams overrated. Then again, not everyone wants to look at B&W photos of bell peppers either. You get my drift.

    1. Thanks Paul, that’s added a lot to my knowledge, and will have to look up some of the people you mention … I get the video/film must have their own bags of tricks along similar lines to photoshop, I notice how the colours in moving pictures aren’t 100% lifelike LOL

      Warm regards


  6. I have fibromyalgia, as I’ve mentioned before, and I’m somewhat short-sighted plus I’m on a pension. Expensive photographic equipment is beyond me nor do I have the physical ability to spend time setting up shots or waiting around for the perfect shot. I love taking photos of nature and stuffed if I’ll allow someone to tell me it’s not correct if I use an inexpensive camera and take photos quickly. That’s the way I work and I’m quite happy with that. I have worked with Photoshop and Corel and I bless them both. They help create more clarity in photographs and bring out their best. It seems to me that digital cameras have democratised the whole photography business because so many more people can create wonderful shots which previously would have been denied them. Getting photos developed was costly and often the photos were pretty awful. Now it’s cheap and it’s open to so many more people, digital photography has been empowering and opened up avenues of creativity which may have been beyond many people in the past. So I do feel that some live in the past when photography was a bit elite and not the preserve of the masses. Too bad. Life moves on, change is inevitable and digital photography has opened up so much for ordinary people and enriched their lives. Long live Photoshop!

  7. Art is about something the artist has noticed, not about trying to present a duplicate of the physical appearance of the thing observed. That is impossible anyway. He chooses and uses tools fit for purpose. Photoshop is a tool not a demon, unless you’re going to call a paint brush or chisel demonic, too! B

  8. With any tool, it can be used for good or ill. For instance, a hammer can be used to build or it can be used to bash someone’s head in. It’s all in how/why you use the tool, and to what purpose.

  9. As stated, Photoshop is a tool to be used. Some people like true to life images while others prefer the challenge of composites. Personally, I think it is over done occasionally, but if it is what the artist saw, then so be it. Thanks for the read 🙂

    1. You are welcome, and it’s fair enough that it’s often overdone, sometimes I do it … But mainly it’s a tool I use to get the best out of photos, not as a tool to misrepresent what I was looking at …

  10. I agree completely. Photoshop can be magical. Often helps to save my photographs from the trash. Its the beauty of a digital age. Its still reality, just improved a little by getting rid of the rubbish on the landscape by cloning etc, which really shouldn’t be there anyway. 🙂 Great post Don.

    1. Forgot to mention the rubbish/trash and completely agree it shouldn’t be there in the first place, and not the photographers job to clear up the scene prior to taking a photo. Cheers DC

  11. Photoshop is definitely evil and I always listen to elitists about what is real in this fake world… And yes they know best about my art too! Ha ha… Photoshop is my friend! Photoshop greatly improved your shot of the Buddha. I envy your time in Thailand… poor you… could you photoshop me into a beach scene?


  12. Amen Brother! Your “Straight-off-the-camera has nothing to do with authenticity…” paragraph says it all in a nutshell. Only the best equipment can come close to what the eye can see. Purists, schmurists – beauty sells, however it’s arrived at : D

  13. I frem, that you are right with your way to use Photoshop. Everything can be used or abused. And you use it in a great way. I have worked with Photoshop for many years and like the good way of use. I do also delete a lot of my photos, but this is one of the good posibilities with the digital cameras.

  14. Don Good read my friend. I knew someone who proudly enhanced pics of his wife. He went to great lengths to make her look thin and even proved her bust. His wife loved it and he was in a dream world fantasising that his wife was thin and sexy.


    Ps having breakfast meeting at Sydney Hilton this morning!

    Sent from my iPhone

  15. Really enjoyed reading your blog, I got so torn over photoshop, I think it’s because some people now believe everything has to be photoshopped to an inch of it’s life, making it look a little fake. I’m no photography expert at all but am a fan of keeping it real. I don’t use photoshop but I do regularly change contrast and saturation via iPhoto. I’m sometimes guilty of over kill on the settings. If I want my photos to be more artistic I use apps such as colorstrokes, this makes it blatantly obvious that the piece is more like an experiment than an actual moment captured. But a great blog and interesting subject.

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