Is Photoshop Overpowered?
Updated: Aug 16, 2020
Photographers today have a great luxury that was not around during much of the history of photography; Photoshop. Over the years Photoshop, and also Lightroom, have evolved into a powerful piece of software allowing you to manipulate any aspect of a photograph. From the exposure, the white balance, the colours, the depth of field. You name it and Photoshop has some function, tool or setting that can edit it. However, has the software become too powerful for it's own good? Whilst it has had negative impacts, I don't think that Photoshop is overpowered. However, there are certainly negative impacts that cannot be ignored, which is why some people think it is the bane of modern photography.
PHOTO EDITING ISN'T NEW
A common misunderstanding is that photo editing never existed before digital photography, which isn't exactly true. As anyone who has ever developed film will tell you, they didn't just produce an image as an exact replica of the film as you might think. Instead, they had the power to manipulate the image in some ways, for example if the image was underexposed in the original shot, then it was possible to develop the photograph, using different chemical mixtures, to brighten it up. Of course, they couldn't manipulate it anywhere near as much as Photoshop can, however I think it is important to note that not every photograph taken prior to digital photography is completely unedited.
THE OLD GUARD
I think that much of the frustration with Photoshop comes from the old guard who started out in the time of film prior to digital photography taking off. For them, they saw important aspects of photography, which took skill, time and effort be replaced by the click of a button. Even the simple aspect of taking multiple pictures, instead of being limited to how many were on your film, allowed photographers to snap away time and time again and "luck" onto a good shot. You can now also badly underexpose or overexpose a photograph but then salvage this in Photoshop so that no one is any the wiser. For example, I almost never worry about white balance now when i am shooting in the field because I edit my images in RAW format and this allows me to manipulate this in Photoshop regardless of what I set it to. Therefore, the old guard label modern day photographers have seen these skills, which took them time to master, be replaced by a click of a button.
One of the most negative impacts of Photoshop is that it has resulted in manipulated images to try and fake a new story or win a competition. This, for me, is the most dangerous use of the software and is one that will unfortunately still plague the internet for many years to come. In addition, people have also used Photoshop to try and win photography competitions. For example by blending photographs of animals in ways that they would have to have spent months trying to capture. The good news is that the quickest way to destroy your career in editorial photography is to be caught for manipulating photographs to create a story. Also, photography competitions do commonly require a copy of the RAW image to be submitted with entries so they can see how much the photo has been manipulated in Photoshop.
IF IT ISN'T NATURAL, THEN THAT'S CHEATING
Another common criticism of Photoshop is that photographs end up being created rather than captured. What I mean by this is that photography at times becomes similar to a painting, where you are creating an image. For example, if I take a photograph of a sunset that has no clouds, a mundane yellow glow, then it might not be that interesting a shot. However, using Photoshop, i could change the colour of that sunset to a vivid red, add in some clouds from a different shot and even a waxing moon. This would completely transform the photograph and, if done properly, turn a boring shot into a spectacular one. Therefore, similar to a painter, I haven't just captured what was in front of me but I have added in some other elements to improve the image. For many people, this is seen as cheating because if the waxing moon wasn't lining up with sunset and they sky never turned to a striking red, then I didn't really use my Photography skills to capture an interesting shot.
THE COUNTER ARGUMENT: THE BAR HAS BEEN RAISED
Whilst I don't dispute things are a lot easier now in some ways with Photoshop, I think the old guard only focus on the aspects, which have become easier and ignore the other ones where the bar has been raised, similar to the evolution of sporting equipment. For example, if you look at tennis 30 or 40 years ago, then players played with wooden rackets, which had smaller frames. This meant that you could not hit the ball with as much power and there was a smaller sweet spot for you to find, which required a more skilful technique and hand eye coordination. Metal rackets are far more forgiving and you can hit the ball with more power and pace. Therefore, if I simply focus on this aspect of tennis, then i could easily say that the game has become easier for professionals today compared to players from previous decades. However, the increased speed has resulted in serves going up by 10s of miles per hour, the reaction time now to return a tennis ball has dropped considerably to fractions of a second. You now have far less time to see the ball, not just from the serve but during a rally too. Therefore, tennis players have had to become faster, stronger and more agile to get around the court to keep up with the pace the ball is being hit at.
In photography, because you have far more options with Photoshop, then the level of creativity has gone up considerably and you now need to learn how to operate a complex piece of software. People can now use the software to merge several photographs together to capture the milk way or create stunning product shots by freezing objects in mid air using a variety of techniques. These types of shots were not possible with film photography, however neither are they possible with a simple click in Photoshop. Now any professional photographer needs to learn a new skill in Photoshop that previous photographers never had to. So some aspects of photography have undoubtedly become easier with Photoshop and you don't need to learn how to develop film in a dark room. However, you now need to learn an entirely new skill set of editing photos to not only do so properly but also to up your creativity to keep up with the competition.
COUNTER ARGUMENT: AESTHETICS
The argument that it isn't natural, then it's somehow cheating, I don't think has much weight for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as long as you aren't using it for editorial reasons or claiming that images are natural, then the main purpose of photography is to create aesthetically appealing images. At the end of the day, we all want to look at nice photographs hanging on our wall. Therefore, if someone has used their Photoshop skills to change the colour of a sunset to a more appealing one, then I don't see much of an issue with that. Similar to hanging a painting on a wall, we all want something, which is appealing to look at, therefore there is an element of artistry in photography. Secondly, even the most skilled Photoshop editors cannot just create something out of nothing and do so in a way that is subtle. It is quite easy to spot a photograph where someone has just copy and pasted an image of the moon into a different sky and this detracts from the photograph. That image of the milk way, which is common to see nowadays, still took skill to achieve. The photographer most likely had to take hundreds of photos, then select the right ones to combine together. That took time, skill and effort to get those base images, coupled with skilful editing, to create one great photograph.
COUNTER ARGUMENT: PHOTOSHOP CAN'T COMPOSE A SHOT
The strongest argument for me that Photoshop isn't overpowered is that Photoshop can't compose an image or take a photograph for you. The most important aspect of photography and skill of a photographer is composing an image, the technical side of exposing it correctly or editing it, is secondary. You still have to be the one that's spots a good subject, lighting and compose the right angle and composition before clicking the button. Without this, then no amount of Photoshop will allow you to produce a great photograph in the same way that the best tennis racket in the world won't allow me to hit a tennis ball like Rafael Nadal. Photoshop is still just a tool at the end of the day, in the same way the camera is, and it can't just pick you photographs you've taken and edit, crop or blend them together without your input. Therefore, even though it has made elements of photography easier, it hasn't impacted the hardest part of photography; composition.
In the end, there is no getting round the fact that the power of Photoshop has negative impacts with photographs being used to create fake news and create images that never really happened. Also, there are definitely skills that have been lost and some aspects, which are far easier to get way a with compared to film photography. However, photographers need to learn how to use Photoshop and use it effectively to keep up with the competition. Just as tennis doesn't pit people with wooden rackets against those with metal ones, photographers aren't being forced to only use film and compete with the power of Photoshop to get the same results. The software has allowed different avenues of creativity to be explored and raised the bar in what types of photographs can be captured and produced. It can only do what you tell it to and even though it can manipulate almost any aspect of a photograph, it can't do the most important thing; tell you how to compose a shot.