I Use Photoshop & I Am Not Afraid

I Use Photoshop and I Am Not Afraid: Confessions of a Professional Photographer

I, Kristen Meister, use Adobe Photoshop and other image editing software to create my fine art prints.


I said it. Feel free to stare and gawk. What kind of professional would admit to modifying their images with software?! Before you start throwing spears, lets have an honest conversation about what image editing software does for a photographer (software such as Photoshop, which is the term I will use in this article for simplicity).

Why the stigma? The word "Photoshop" has evolved from a noun into a verb. It's become synonymous with "airbrushing" and for many people, carries a negative connotation. We think about the models on the cover of magazines and see them as "Photoshopped" to look unrealistically beautiful. As a result, we are lead to think that photographers who use Photoshop as part of their workflow are cheating or modifying their work unnaturally. While I won't deny that some photographers do use Photoshop to modify their images significantly, that is not how I use the software. It is unfair to assume that every photographer who uses Photoshop is making extreme modifications to their images. In fact, if I don't use Photoshop to edit every single image, then my prints would look like poop. This article is dedicated to explaining how I use Photoshop as part of my workflow.

Admission #1: I edit every single print in Photoshop.
Admission #2: I'm not ashamed of this fact.
Admission #3: If I didn't, my prints will look like poop. Let's look at why.....

Photoshop (or any other image editing software) is a tool. In this case, it's a very powerful tool that allows for the creation and modification of graphics and images. My camera is also a powerful tool. So are my lenses. So are washing machines. As photographers, we need to use a variety of tools to convey our photographic vision (our art) to you, the viewer. To understand how Photoshop fits into building that artistic vision, lets look at how my camera works.

Camera 101, Why You Should Shoot RAW and Edit in Photoshop: Digital cameras all work essentially the same way - they use a combination of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to create an exposure of a scene. How that exposure is represented and saved, however, can vary greatly between cameras. A basic point-and-shoot camera saves images in the common .JPEG format. This format is a compressed image- meaning some of the data from when the image was captured gets compressed (lost) for size. The small size is what makes .JPEGs the most popular for the internet. As part of compressing into a .JPEG, the camera also is given "permission" to make some adjustments on your behalf - when the .JPEG image is rendered, your camera applies contrast, sharpness, color saturation, etc as it sees best. Unfortunately, there is no way for a camera manufacturer to program a camera with creative vision - the camera takes it's best guess at what it thinks looks the best, and you have to hope that what it thinks is in line with what you think! With a .JPEG, you can do a certain amount of editing after you've made the image, but the compressed format will ultimately limit your ability to adjust and fine tune colors, contrast, etc.

Most dSLR camera allow images to be processed and saved as RAW image files. RAW images are essentially that - raw data as collected by your camera with no compression or correction for contrast, color, etc made by the camera. Images saved as RAW files are saved in a proprietary image format based on the camera manufacturer and are 'decoded' by your computer using most common image editing software. The benefit to a RAW image is that the camera does not compress the scene, meaning you have all of the data to work with in editing later. The file sizes are huge by comparison to a .JPEG, which is why many photographers shy away from this format. However, the bigger file means you are given the freedom to recreate your photographic vision with all of the data - a .JPEG has limited ability to edit later and any edits you wish to do are being done on a smaller dataset. Because the camera does not make assumptions about contrast, sharpness, color correction, etc, you get the ability to adjust all of those variables very specifically in post processing (aka Photoshop or Adobe RAW, which comes as part of Photoshop) to recreate your photographic vision. A RAW image that isn't modified in Photoshop is ugly and boring. It looks like poop.

Ready for some examples?

Un-edited RAW file (shot in Nikon D800 with Nikon 50mm lens)Colors are fairly bland, the basket isn't very sharp. This image generally lacks any "pop" and wouldn't catch my viewer's attention.My focus was the sticker on the bottle with the dragon - it's not terribly sharp and the red of the dragon lacks pop. In real life, that sticker was very bright.
Un-edited JPEG Fine file (Same camera, same place)I think this is actually worse than the un-edited RAW! I didn't change anything, just shot in JPEG! The colors are really bland and the red tag is looking more orange. Bleh.The red on the dragon sticker is brighter, but the whole image now has a funny green hue to it. If I hadn't shown you the RAWs, you might not have noticed the green tint.
Edited RAW image (same file as before - basic edits in Adobe Camera Raw for color, contrast, etc)To edit this image I increased the sharpness so that the straw has some fine detail and adjusted the contrast and saturation to make the tags the correct color. If this image was a print, I probably would have cropped.Now the red on the dragon sticker is bright and grabs attention! Some contrast and sharpening goes a long way! The sticker is now the focus of your attention.

I shoot in RAW, always. I therefore need to edit every image in Photoshop to make the modifications for contrast, color, sharpness, etc. I shoot in RAW and choose to make these modifications because I want control of the creative process and don't want to leave the decision making up to the camera. Want more reasons to shoot in RAW? My friend Jared Polin of FroKnowsPhoto.com has a very enlightening video on the point. If that doesn't drive it home, this is a very graphic video to the same point (also by Jared Polin of FroKnowsPhoto.com)

Quick History Lesson: The concept of shooting in RAW and editing in Photoshop is closer to the days of film photography than many people realize. Ansel Adams didn't take an image on film and then expose it without modification - he spent hours in the darkroom dodging and burning and adjusting the images to create his photographic vision. If you aren't familiar with the terms "dodging and burning," they refer to the adjustment of areas of bright and dark in film photography to lighten or darken portions of the image. It is essentially a fancy way of saying he adjusted the exposure and contrast. I've never heard anyone accuse Ansel Adams of 'cheating' by manipulating his images in the darkroom? Photoshop is just the modern day darkroom. 

Acceptable Editing/Modifications, My Thoughts: As a photographer, I have one goal - to present a print to my viewers that captures their attention and sparks their imagination, causing them to place themselves into the world as I captured it at that moment. In order to do that, I need to ensure my prints don't have distracting elements that could prohibit the creative process I want my viewers to participate in. Without physically modifying a scene, Photoshop is the tool that lets me remove distracting elements from a print. When making these modifications I remain careful to not physically change the scene to the point that it has lost a realistic element. Let's look at an example:

This image is part of my "Alone at Night: Lincoln's Washington" collection. It was shot at 2am on a weekend so that there would be almost no one at the monument. At the base of the statue of Lincoln is a small chain fence that is designed to keep tourists from climbing on the monument. Along the chain are small signs warning not to trespass or climb over the chain. The fence and signs themselves are very small - most visitors to the monument would never see or remember seeing that sign. When I made this composition, however, one of those signs was prominently on display facing the camera (you can see two others along the chain facing away from the camera). In a color image, the sign probably wouldn't have been as distracting, but the white letters on the black sign jumped out at the viewer when I converted the image into black & white. This was the type of element in the photograph that would keep someone from experiencing the photographic vision as I intended and removal of that sign using Photoshop didn't change the print in such a way that it became 'unbelievable.' In fact, if I hadn't just told you that story, you probably wouldn't have noticed the sign was gone, even if you visited the monument regularly!

Photoshop also gives me precise control of adjusting other elements in my prints as part of my photographic vision. For instance, a standard black and white conversion allows for no creative adjustments, while the tools in Photoshop allow me to precisely craft the black and white scene that exists in my mind. Film photographers could use different black and white films to create different looks, but my digital camera doesn't take film.... I need to use Photoshop to create the same looks and effects that different films afforded. And by no means am I suggesting that you should shoot with film to solve all these problems - you'll still edit images, but it's in the darkroom (which doesn't carry the same stigma. No one uses "darkroom" as a verb). 

Do I have to use Photoshop? Nope. There are a variety of software that all achieve the same thing, Photoshop happens to be the most common and robust. At the time of publication, I use Adobe Photoshop CS6 with plug-ins from OnOne Software and Nik Software to create my prints. These plug-ins make it easier and faster to create the looks I am going after. As a professional photographer, time is money and I need to use every plug-in I can to save time and improve my workflow.

What about Photoshopping people. That's cheating? It depends. If you are a wedding photographer, you are expected to do some touch-ups on the bride and maybe the bridal party to make them look better than they might in real life. When people pay for photos of themselves, they want to look better than they really do look. They expect editing. If you don't edit, you'll be out of business fast. It's brutally honest. 

Similarly, we expect to see the Hollywood actress de jour looking stunning on the cover of that magazine at checkout in the grocery store. Ever notice how they don't edit the actresses in the trashy tabloids (the extra eye and devil horns don't count)? Non-edited images send a message. Edited images send another. You wouldn't buy the Women's Gossip Journal advertising 100 great tips for looking sexy in 7 days if the model on the front looked normal, she has to be unnaturally pretty!

Editing people also happens regularly in fashion photography to create dramatic and attention getting effects. In those cases, however, we tend to understand there is a level of manipulation for the sake of creativity. 

Personally, I believe extreme editing isn't acceptable on people when you are doing certain types of journalistic photography. If I was reading a reputable journal article discussing Afghan refugees, I'd be pretty disappointed to realize the refugees' faces were manipulated heavily (IE, beyond basic adjustments for color, contrast, etc). This is my personal opinion and you are entitled to disagree.

Where can I learn Photoshop? There are a variety of books and materials on the internet to teach Photoshop. This is my favorite book on the subject (by non other than Scott Kelby, the master of all things Photoshop). I also recommend Kelby Training videos, which require a subscription, but offer unbelievable value for their price.