Photoshop: A Verb

Photoshop has become a household name, the standard for image editing. It’s even a verb, and not always a very flattering one. The connotations of something having been “photoshopped” are that it is not genuine, especially in the case of images of women. The Internet is filled with over-edited epic failures in using Photoshop wisely.

I have never thought of myself as much of a Photoshop expert. I have seen the results of people who composite and paint mind-boggling things using Photoshop, and I always felt like those skills were beyond my grasp. So I limited myself to using Photoshop for subtle, honest edits. Photoshop can indeed be an outlet for fantasy and the imagination, where unreal things come to life. But it is also an environment where gentle edits can really transform an otherwise unremarkable image into something special. In fact, this is where Photoshop shines.

Along the way, I grew as a photographer, image editor and designer. I have learned that sometimes the intended result is exactly the way the light was recorded on to the memory card, but many times images have to be edited for a variety of reasons to ensure that what we imagine or what we know is possible is how the image actually turns out.

A Brief Example

Here is a quick shot of a firefly (a.k.a. Lampyridae, a.k.a. lightning bug) straight out of the camera (SOOC):

Firefly - Original SOOC. This image has not been edited except compressed to JPG in the camera.

Pretty nice, eh? The depth of field is really narrow, and the insect is frozen in time in a rare moment when my kids weren’t actually attempting to hold it captive.

But as I was shooting that evening, it looked magical all around when the fireflies were glowing. I even saw this one light up through my viewfinder a time or two. I tried, but I wasn’t able to capture this firefly when it was glowing.

Enter Photoshop.

Firefly - Edited image. Edits include increase in contrast and saturation. I also painted some "light" to replicate the glowing abdomen I saw through the viewfinder but did not capture in camera.

This edited image includes some adjustments to contrast and color so the greenery looks closer to the way it actually looked. I also added a separate layer with the blend mode set to Lighten and painted some “light” to make the abdomen appear like it is glowing. Some photography purists might prefer the unedited image, but I personally think the difference is an improvement. The edited image is closer to the way the actual moment felt.

There you have it, folks. I’m generally an “anti-photoshop” user of Photoshop. I just want to correct what the camera gives me to make it the best it can be. But here is an example where I used Photoshop to create something that wasn’t ever really there in camera.

Pulling it All Together

I still have high standards. I think “photoshopped” beauty affects us in a host of negative ways. But there are times when something just didn’t happen in camera that needed to happen in the end result. Photoshop is a fantastic image editing tool, and it is a little bit like some cutting edge science disciplines: Just because we can doesn’t always mean we should.

Honesty in images is especially important in business communications. Does an article of clothing really look that way? Sure, that’s an unflattering image of that model and it needs to be edited a bit. But if she were repositioned slightly, would she really be that thin? Will the product ever look like that for the consumer? Our image-saturated media environments set us up to be tempted powerfully by the pull of what is more beautiful, more perfect, and more sensational. This is sometimes well and good. But many times, this tendency to hyperbolic imagery is a dangerous precipice from which there is rarely room to retreat.

I love seeing what creative and talented people do with Photoshop. I encourage you to use the tool creatively and responsibly at the same time.