To Photoshop, Or Not To Photoshop; Is That The Real Question?

Or, is it how much to Photoshop? 

Recently there has been a lot of controversy over the over-use of over-editing photos, mainly of models that appear on magazine covers and in ads. In the UK, an ad for Lancome, featuring actor Julia Roberts was banned because an industry watchdog group claimed the photo was “excessively retouched”. There are parents groups in the US and lawmakers in Europe suggesting the need for laws either banning  or digitally altered photos or mandating that they be labeled as such.

Articles were recently published in The New York Times and Wired Magazine about a computer program that could rate how much a photo was digitally altered.

Photoshop, the leading computer software for photo editing, is like any tool that could be used for good–or can push images over the top. The National Association of Photoshop Professionals (of which I’m a member) had an insightful discussion about this on their web TV program The Grid last week. It’s  worth viewing.

Photo editing has been going on since the days of Ansel Adams and prior. Adams spent more time in the darkroom dodging and burning his images to coax the best image he could produce from his negatives than he did taking the image. A camera lens and emulsion film plan or digital camera sensor does not record an image as does the human eye.

What you see and how the camera captures that same image, freezing it in a moment in time, will never be totally identical, regardless of what you’re shooting.   The image of a person frozen in time magnifies a person’s attributes (wrinkles, blemishes, discolored teeth) that you would not typically notice looking at someone face-to-face.

Furthermore, harsh, contrasty light can highlight shadows on a face, around your nose and eyes, and accentuate wrinkles; whereas you can position  lights in such a way to  minimize or eliminate those wrinkles and shadows. Isn’t that a form of “re-imaging” your portrait’s subject?

Isn’t applying make-up, having your hair colored, teeth whitened also a way to “re-image” your features? Photo retouching can  do that virtually.

What are acceptable uses of photo retouching? Here’s what I think are acceptable:

  • Eliminating blemishes, scars, cuts: Anything that is temporary is fair game.
  • Reducing the appearance of wrinkles, laugh lines, bags under eyes: Many of these things can also be done with the right amount and positioning of lighting,  but may not have been positioned optimally, or maybe the necessary light sources weren’t available.
  • Whitening teeth, eyes, enhancing the color of the iris.
  • Fixing flyaway hair or eliminating loose strands of hair falling across a face.
  • Smoothing out skin tones–but not to the point that you look plastic.
  • Correcting for natural looking skin-tones.
  • Taking a face, or eyes (or other body part) of the same person from one photo as a replacement of that feature in another image. For example: you have your eyes closed in one photo where everyone else looks good. So, to fix that, a copy of your open eyes from another photo shot in that series is pasted into that picture. It’s still your eyes, and now the image looks better.

When a person is looking to have a portrait image they’re looking to have the best representation of how they look. How many times have you taken a photo of someone and they say, “that’s a bad picture of me!” It’s not necessarily that the image is a bad one of them; but if there’s harsh lighting, they see discolored  teeth–every “defect” magnified for them to see in that still image that they might not even notice in a mirror.

You can go too far with retouching commercial retouchers have done so. Making a model look exceedingly thin, putting a face on a different body is taking things too far. But the bottom line is that all commercial images are retouched. They’re not trying to sell reality, they’re trying to sell possibilities. So, whether you’re looking at a commercial image, doing your own photo retouching or having a professional portrait taken, be sure to put all the controversy about photo retouching in perspective.


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