Is Photoshop About Photography?

Is there such a thing as "pure" nature photography? And how does Photoshop fit into that idea?


Is Photoshop About Photography?

Photography has never been able to mimic nature in any “pure” way. Any image, whether film or digital, is an interpretation of nature from the moment of capture. It’s our job as photographers, I believe, to interpret nature honestly and accurately, and sometimes that means Photoshop is a necessity in order to get the image right.

Other than the Photoshop reference, this is old news. Andreas Feininger, who photographed for LIFE 50 years ago and wrote many books about photography, said in 1961 (in his book Total Picture Control), “The old adage, ‘The camera does not lie,’ is not true. Actually, the vast majority of photographs are ‘camera lies’ in that they don’t conform to reality—for example: two-dimensional pictures of three-dimensional subjects, motion studies in the form of ‘stills’….

…lying in the sense it is used here…simply implies that a difference exists between a photograph and the subject it depicts. In most uncontrolled photographs [or common snapshots] this difference becomes a negative factor, for the uncontrolled photograph usually creates a lesser impression of what was apparent to the eye.”

That latter statement is important and the idea was explored a bit in “Digital Horizons” in the January/February 2006 issue. Feininger correctly points out that the reality we see and what the camera records are often quite different—sometimes our eye does better than the camera, sometimes the camera does better than we do in seeing what’s really in front of us. So, we control the image in many, many ways. Here are some examples:

  • Changing ƒ-stops for depth-of-field effects.
  • Using flash for shadow brightness.
  • Choosing shutter speeds to portray movement and action.
  • Using a grad ND filter to balance the brightness in a scene.
  • Using a polarizer to remove sky reflections from water.
  • Changing focal lengths to affect the appearance of perspective.
  • Shooting at different times of day to change the light on a subject.
  • Changing film type or color space to alter how colors are presented.

    Photoshop is also about control of the image. This can be good or bad control, helpful adjustments or “tricks,” but it definitely controls how a photograph portrays the subject.

    Feininger continues talking about control in this way, “Uncontrolled photographs show only [the medium’s] inferiority. But if a photographer knows how to control his medium, he can utilize its superior qualities to impart through his photographs more than an observer would have been able to see in the subject itself. Skillfully used, photography becomes a means for discovery and the camera an instrument for widening the range of our visual experience.”

    “Skillfully used”—that applies to how every pro nature photographer I know uses the camera, regardless of the recording medium used. That also applies to OP readers who strive to learn how to more skillfully use their cameras and lenses. “Skillfully used” doesn’t mean pointing the camera in the general direction of the subject and expecting to get a great shot because of the “purity” of the camera.

    “Skillfully used” means thoughtfully and wisely using photographic technology to create an image that best interprets the scene for the purposes of the photograph. Using a wide-angle lens to photograph a flock of spoonbills at a distance generally isn’t thoughtfully or wisely using photographic technology. Choosing a high-ISO film or digital setting when one isn’t needed isn’t wisely using photographic technology when shooting a landscape with beautiful sky that would then be marred by grain or noise.

    “Skillfully used” also applies to Photoshop when it enhances a nature photograph so that it can help us better discover and see the world around us. Photoshop for the nature photographer isn’t about tricks and cheap manipulations. It’s about thoughtfully and wisely using digital photographic technology to create an image that best interprets the scene for the purposes of the photograph.


  • Yet for many peculiar reasons, many photographers and editors who have little real experience with it see the computer with skepticism and even fear. I’ve never heard a photographer complain about another photographer using the technology of flash or a super-telephoto to create a certain image, yet I’ve heard them complain about using Photoshop. For some reason, flash and optical technology is okay, but computer technology is not.

    This attitude is reflected in an odd way with computer people, too, in that they start separating Photoshop from the photography as well. Some digitally savvy people seem to want to make Photoshop just a place to “fix” photos, even to the degree that the computer becomes a special place to revel in Photoshop’s magic. That idea then becomes a cult, which doesn’t help nature photographers in search of better ways of controlling an image to “widen the range of our visual experience” as Feininger put it.

    I saw the digital attitude where Photoshop is separated from photography when I was working on Adobe Camera Raw for Digital Photographers Only. I began the book with chapters on the actual photography and didn’t go right into the software. The book’s editors questioned why I would do such a thing, since this was a book about the software, Adobe Camera Raw, and not about photography.

    Hmm. Now, doesn’t that seem strange to you? I hope so. Working on an image in Camera Raw or its partner, Photoshop, is about photography! It’s about controlling an image to bring out its inherent qualities, and I can guarantee that if you’re going to get the best image in Photoshop, you better have an original with the best qualities.

    I consider the whole process of photography, from click to print, a discipline of control that’s critical for nature photographers. This is something Ansel Adams can still teach all photographers, making him and his books especially relevant in the digital age. (I consider this so important that I devoted a whole chapter in an upcoming book to the craft and the discipline that Adams represents; the book is an OP guide, Outdoor Photographer Nature and Landscape Photography with Photoshop CS2, and is due out this spring.)

    When photography becomes a thoughtful and wise set of choices from the time the photographer sees an image in a scene to the making of a print, then the photographer has great potential in creating something that indeed widens our visual experience. When people who don’t understand certain technologies limit photography arbitrarily, it can only hurt all of us.

    Photography is both technology and art. None of us can ever escape that sometimes uneasy marriage. I know that not everyone will use all the technology available (that would make one crazy, anyway), and that different photographers will have a different balance of art and technology in their art.

    As a group, however, nature photographers have a responsibility to viewers to use the technologies available to us, from high-speed shutters to Photoshop, to meld that technology and art into effective, evocative photographs in order to affect a world that sometimes forgets how important and crucial nature is to us all.

    OP editor Rob Sheppard‘s website is, which features photo tips, how-to videos and more.