Real or Photoshopped? Who gives a ****?

I’ve been uploading some of my images from a recent trip to Iceland. Now the landscape in Iceland looks pretty unreal, and I might be quite well known for a little fiddling with my photos! So I surprised myself when I started getting a little erked when asked:

Q: Was that rainbow really there?

A: Er yes!

Skógafoss waterfall Iceland

Skógafoss waterfall Iceland – click image to buy

Q: Was the snow really blue?

A: It’s not snow it’s ice and yes it’s very blue.


Q: Have you Potoshopped that sun in?

A: No I held a polariser tight up to the lens as it didn’t fit and fired the shutter.


Jokulsarlon Lagoon Iceland – click to buy this image

What surprised me was not the fact that people suspected I’d fiddled but the fact that I got annoyed that they asked me when I hadn’t. What is wrong with me? Why did it matter? Should it matter?

I think it mattered to me because I wanted to show people how different from reality the landscape appeared to me, I wanted them to look in awe at what  I had seen with my own eyes. I had witnessed something unbelievable and nobody believed me! That is one thing we have lost with the widespread use of Photoshop, the ability to convince someone of the reality of something by using photography. Something that photography had earned a reputation for before it was so easy to jiggle things around.  It’s the first time it mattered to me and I almost started to sympathise with the anti Photoshop brigade for a split second. I realised that it was like being accused of cheating, that’s why I didn’t like it, I don’t usually mind because I cheat all the time! (in photography).

Prior to Photoshop and digitisation, however, people didn’t get all fired up because a photographer used velvia and their colours were all souped up.


Richard Avedon Printers Instructions

Was Richard Avedon cheating when he sent this to the printer?

This could be done with fewer hours in Photoshop than darkroom time, the results would have been similar. Avedon was legendary for the amount of resources used in the quest for one perfect print often shooting 100 frames for one final photograph before having his printer change the most minuscule details of a print.

Even post digitisation photographers change the white balance in the camera to make sunsets look more vibrant, they use long lenses to make stuff seem closer to the camera, they use shutter speed to create blur or freeze action. In fact everything the photographer does is about creating an illusion.

All those who can’t use a computer or get their heads around Photoshop will be crying by now: “Those decisions are made in the camera, not the computer!”

The digital camera is a computer! The only difference is that the changes you can make are limited.

They will cry: “It takes skill to get it right in the camera.” True and sometimes getting it right means more time out in the field or in the studio getting lots more lovely images. Getting it right in camera can mean more time feeling the sunshine and the breeze, getting all excited about that shot – witch is much more fun in my opinion than fiddling in photoshop. However it also takes several years for anyone to really master Photoshop and technically there is much more to learn.

Photography is art, no one accuses Leonardo da Vinci for making the Mona Lisa more beautiful than his model.   Why then is it such a big deal for a photographer to do the same?

Arguably there are instances when photography should not include image editing,  photojournalism for example. In this case if a news image is manipulated; the news organization is responsible for reporting the manipulation to viewers. Historical instances of just how much this really matters to people include:

Robert Capa falling soldier spanish cival war

Robert Capa’s “falling soldier” – Spanish civil war

Robert Capa’s photo of a soldier taken during the Spanish Civil War taken September 5, 1936, which appeared in LIFE Magazine, July 1937.


In 1975 Phillip Knightley alleged that the photo had been staged. He claimed Capa’s fellow journalist O.D. Gallagher shared a hotel room in 1936, and that Capa had confessed staging the photo,  it mattered, it mattered because people felt cheated because they had been emotionally moved by what they thought was reality. This is an extreme example to make the point that if a photography claims to represent reality then that’s what it should do.

In my opinion though, anything else is fair game.

My conclusion, well I will certainly continue to enjoy using Photoshop to create my own reality, to take two or three images in camera with an idea of how I am going to put them together in Photoshop later. I will stretch, squash and completely rearrange to my heart’s content. Will I confess? Only to tell you how I do it in the odd tutorial otherwise I’ll keep you guessing, you will accuse me of fiddling with everything anyway even when I don’t! I have just got to learn not to give a ****!

Jökulsárlón Lagoon iceland

Jökulsárlón Lagoon Iceland – click image to buy

18 replies
  1. Catherine Benson
    Catherine Benson says:

    Very interesting Heather, and well said. Hadn’t seen that Avedon print before. I think some people can go overboard with Photoshop, but that doesn’t mean we should blame the tools for the workman’s shoddy output!
    Photojournalism is indeed a good exception. Truth is truth, be it text or photographic journalism.

  2. Mike Z
    Mike Z says:

    Bravo, excellent post. Photography is all about crafting an image, not “taking pictures” Part of the process is manipulation and as you said illusions.


  3. Nick Hodgson
    Nick Hodgson says:

    Hi Heather – your blog makes a really good point – what form of manipulation is acceptable and when. And I agree – most things are acceptable unless by its nature it claims to represent the truth. Just about everything today is manipulated somehow and we all have our own personal version of reality. Its a shame that those who made the comments on your shots from Iceland couldn’t just appreciate them for how good they are. They are only jealous …

  4. Heather Buckley
    Heather Buckley says:


    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – if over photoshopping is your bag then I say go for it, though I do remember when a judge said of my image once “this one just manages to escape the vomitorium” just before he gave it a gold award!

  5. Heather Buckley
    Heather Buckley says:


    Oh I don’t mind really, in fact I like and know the people who asked, I’ve always been pro photoshop I was just surprised at my own reaction when I started to get annoyed when my images were real for a change!

  6. Julie Edwards
    Julie Edwards says:

    Me again 🙂

    Nice post and I think you are right, in art photography. When I had a darkroom I spent ages “dodging and burning” areas on a print. As you know I work in press where the rules on manipulation are very strict (even down to having the camera set to a neutral preset).

    The problem for me though is not in the images themselves but the mind of the viewer.

    We live in a world now that is surrounded by manipulation. Tv and movies we cannot work out what is real and what is cgi (take inception – I think most of assumed that the upside-down hotel/bar scene was cgi but was actually a rotating set). adverts and fashion photos are regularly photoshopped; we all know the models do not have skin as perfect as that.

    This has left us in a state were viewers are no longer sure what they are viewing, is it real or is it not? this I think is the real problem. Should it be a requirement that an image MUST be marked as maniplutated if it goes past a certain point of manipulation?

    FYI. Press manipulations listed here;

  7. Heather Buckley
    Heather Buckley says:

    I think that rather than trying to police digital imagery which would ultimately be impossible – to get people to state when an image is manipulated, we need to assume that all images are manipulated unless otherwise indicated, that way those who wish to promote the fact that their image is “as is” can state the fact – all else is speculation.

    Take the Olympus pen project

    For the ad, Olympus took 355 photographs with a PEN camera and printed them out to billboard size. They then took those billboards and photographed them in an urban environment to tell a story. The result is a very cool, especially when you consider that no special effects were involved. We only know this however because Olympus told us so.

  8. Julie Edwards
    Julie Edwards says:

    If we do it that way round, there would need to be a statement in every newspaper / tv news broadcast etc? Is that really the right way round?

    I think there is a difference in meaning between “image” and “photograph”. I used to refer to manipulated photos as images and non-manipulated as photographs… maybe that is a way round it..

  9. Heather Buckley
    Heather Buckley says:

    I don’t really think there is any way around the issue, people will fiddle and diddle no matter what. Journalism is the only exception when it comes to politics and world events then we clearly need to know that what we are seeing is the truth, however images of celebs are still going to be diddled! It is as it is, we just have to accept it, you can’t change anything except the way you view things.

  10. Rob Friel
    Rob Friel says:

    I think that in certain circumstances, publications should say whether an image is manipulated or that the images they use are manipulated- and by that I mean more than dodging and burning (levels or curves) or cropping ie touched up / altered / bits added or composited.

    Its a little parallel to whether nature images should be identified as captive or wild – its about journalistic integrity – and its about valuing different types of work – what will be the point of skill if it can just be created using software – or is that the ultimate result of the digital path?

  11. Diane Seddon
    Diane Seddon says:


    I fed through to this site from the Photoshop Users group in LinkedIn. You make such a good point – something that’s irritated me more recently for similar reasons. I shot some hot air balloons coming up out of some low lying cloud – and the comment was that I’d made a good composite – I was jumping up and down inside as I’d waited till just the right moment (the defining moment!) to take the shot. It felt as though my efforts had been for nothing.

    Like you I’m happy to photoshop some images, and create composites as suits – but equally I do like to try to get things as right in camera as I can.

    The other instance in which I think images should not be over manipulated is in the area of Natural History.

    Lovely images from Iceland – I’d love to visit there sometime…..


  12. Crystel
    Crystel says:

    Have you ever wondered if an image was altered with Photoshop? This tool can show you whether an image is Photoshopped through content level image analysis: Photoshopped Image Killer. It seems that Jpeg Exif data is also used there to enhance the results.

  13. David M Clarke
    David M Clarke says:

    Very interesting article Heather… one of the most balanced arguments to suggest that photoshop is just another part of the process of photography….

    As a photographer, I like to think of photoshop as more than just another creative process… Firstly, when shooting in RAW it is essential really because the camera isn’t making the same adjustments it makes for jpegs. And for all the people who want to ‘keep it real’ and make finished images straight from the camera I’d remind them that human sight can handle about 20+ stops of light, film could handle maybe 10 stops and digital sensors can only handle maybe 6 stops at best… so unless your shooting HDR then some lighting and contrast adjustments are essential if your looking for a decent range of light in your finished image. Ok so it helps if you know how to use fill flash and happen to have reflectors handy but much of the time this simply isn’t practical so a little tweak of the light in photoshop can help to make the image look more ‘real’…

    And that’s before we get into a philosophical discussion about what’s real anyhow!

  14. David M Clarke
    David M Clarke says:

    “Truth is truth, be it text or photographic journalism”

    ………but we bend ‘the truth’ (which is in itself highly subjective most of the time) all the time by simply changing our angle of view, our in-camera framing and perhaps most of all – with our choice of ‘the decisive moment’

    Photoshop isn’t just a tool used for replacing, cloning, emphasising or exaggerating elements… its also an essential part of the photographic process in terms of things like improved contrast and colour correction, particularly if you’re shooting RAW.

    I’m sure we would all like to think we can present images straight from the camera but if the camera, with all its limitations, has produced an image with limited contrast for example then isn’t our job as a photographer only half complete? In this way I would see photoshop as just another part of the photographic process…..

  15. David M Clarke
    David M Clarke says:

    With reference to Robert Capa’s famously staged shot… this was certainly nothing new and is now being practiced with great effect by people like Jeff Wall who see themselves as social commentators. Wall stages images that are designed to look photojournalistic and in doing so he has much greater control over what he would like to ‘say’ as a photographer. Bending the truth? I don’t think so… i would rather see it as ‘creating a truth’ that serves a purpose.

    Interestingly, in the days before fast films and SLR’s, photographers had to stage images of people in the streets, otherwise they’d end up with an empty street on film due to the long exposures needed for the process…. Many of those photographers would have probably seen this as a heavily compromised way of making street photos but Wall has embraced the technique in order to achieve precisely the opposite…. greater control both technically and artistically and arguably a much less compromised image.

  16. Dade Freeman
    Dade Freeman says:

    FAB post and right on the money!
    People tend to get caught up in the details rather than the content. Was it photoshopped, what lens was used and how was it shot etc, rather than, is it a great image, did it affect you, would you buy it etc.

    Something I recently heard and rather liked is: painters decide what to put into an image, photographers decide what to leave out.

    A photograph is merely representative of how we want to see it. We decide on angles, lenses, aperture, lighting, composition etc and thats what makes photography so amazing in my book. The very fact that lots of different people will shoot exactly the same thing SO many different ways, is amazing, and thats before they even start with photoshop – which offers and endless array of choices. But you as an artist have to decide what to do and when to stop, and thats tough sometimes.

    Photography is in a very interesting place right now 🙂

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