Photography is losing its credibility. Photos aren’t seen as honest anymore. People don’t trust pictures. It’s a crisis that nobody’s talking about.
I’ve noticed this for awhile now. When photography consumers (those who view photos) look at pictures, they are skeptical. They assume the photos have been altered. They think it’s a false representation of reality. They believe that the photographer is lying to them. They think right away that they are being bamboozled.
You’ve heard the phrase “pictures never lie” and the term “photographic evidence” but the truth is every picture lies. Photos are inherently deceitful. Every photograph is the truth as seen through stained glass windows. The photographer makes all sorts of decisions before the exposure is even made that have big implications on the outcome. It’s “reality” through the photographer’s mind, not what anyone else might view as reality. Photography is an extraordinarily biased endeavor, as it should be.
But that’s not the issue. People understand that each photographer will approach a subject differently. We all have our own experiences, thoughts and emotions that become the prism through which we view the world. Everyone is unique, and so everyone has the ability to create unique pictures.
The problem is manipulation. People are altering their photographs to a tremendous degree. Photographers are relying heavily on Photoshop to achieve their vision, and photography consumers feel like they’re being tricked. Even though it is the digital file that’s being manipulated, the viewer feels as though they themselves are the ones being manipulated. They’re being deceived. They’re being lied to.
I saw recently a photograph posted online that had been obviously altered significantly because it was impossible for the scene to exist. It defied reality. It was a composite of multiple photographs, some green-screen work, and some other digital wizardry. A person commented that this image wasn’t photography, but some other form of digital art, and it was incorrect to call it photography. He was fiercely attacked for making his statement, and the argument was made that if a camera was used then it must be a photograph.
Imagine if someone made an airplane out of a lawnmower (this is an actual thing, by the way). Is it a lawnmower or an airplane? I see that it has wings. I see the propeller spin. I see it fly through the air. I don’t see it cutting any grass. It’s an airplane made from lawnmower parts. It no longer serves its original purpose due to its modifications, so it cannot be called a lawnmower anymore. This is clear, yet people insist on calling digital art that at one point was an exposure from a camera “photography” even though it no longer resembles that original exposure.
When it is clear that significant manipulations have been made to a photograph, it is a disservice to insist that it be referred to as a photograph. Photography consumers can spot it from a mile away, and they’re saying it’s not a photograph. It makes them feel as though the photographer is trying to pull the wool over their eyes when they call it something that it is clearly not.
“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” People want honesty. They want authenticity. They don’t like being tricked. They don’t like being played a fool. Photography consumers have become skeptical and cynical. “Once bitten, twice shy,” as the saying goes.
I get asked frequently when showing my pictures, “How much did you Photoshop this?” They’re not really interested in what tweaking I did. They are simply verifying their suspicions that I have manipulated the picture. It’s false. It’s a lie. It’s been Photoshopped.
The word “Photoshop” has become a bad word. It’s derogatory, whether fairly or not. A lot of photography consumers don’t like Photoshop, or at least what they believe Photoshop is and what they believe it means to use it. Sure, strong arguments can be made that photographers have been manipulating images since the invention of the camera, that doing so is nothing the great photographers of past generations didn’t themselves do. What’s different today is the degree and frequency of manipulation.
Over the last couple of years a lot of photojournalists have made headlines for manipulating their pictures. Not adjustments to contrast and color saturation, but removing or adding things. In one case, taking someone else’s pictures and adding them to their own to make a story that didn’t exist. Photojournalists have gotten themselves in hot water numerous times for manipulating the story by way of manipulating their pictures. The viewers come away feeling as though they were the ones being manipulated.
There is a lack of trust, and understandably so. You can’t take a photograph at face value. And maybe you never could, but it is especially true today. Photograph manipulation is so common that many people assume all pictures have been edited to some degree. Some photographers have taken post-processing to levels never before imagined thanks to advancements in digital technology, so it can be tough to know what’s real and what’s not.
I no longer shoot RAW, but instead rely on out-of-camera JPEGs. Fujifilm cameras have the best JPEG processor in the business, and the X100F that I use creates especially excellent JPEGs that don’t typically require post-processing. The Film Simulation options have a film-like quality to them.
Lately, when showing my recent photographs, I’ve been asked, “How much did you Photoshop this?” I’ve answered, “Not at all, this is exactly as it came out of the camera, completely unedited.” The responses have been, “Oh, wow, that’s great!” And, “Amazing!” And, “Who needs Photoshop?” It’s the exact opposite reaction from what I got before, because I proved their suspicions wrong. The picture wasn’t manipulated. It was authentic. It had more credibility. It wasn’t fake in the eyes of the viewer.
Now before anyone jumps on me saying that I’m anti-Photoshop, I want to make it very clear that I’m not. I have no issues whatsoever with anyone using software to help create the images that they want to create. I’ve edited tens of thousands of pictures, and I will continue using software to edit exposures that need it. What I have said isn’t about me, but about the attitudes of photography consumers.
There is a growing anti-Photoshop movement, and it’s not from photographers but from photography consumers. It’s been building for years, but it seems to be gaining momentum lately. Within some circles, Photoshop is a curse word, the new “f” word. A sentiment that’s been widening is that Photoshop equals fake. These people believe that if you use software to manipulate your photos, then they’re fake. You are a liar. Many people don’t care whatsoever how a picture was made, but a group that’s increasing fast does indeed care!
Instead of looking at this negatively, I believe there is an opportunity. You could set yourself apart by becoming a more authentic photographer. Create more in-camera and less in-software. Be more real. Be more genuine. Be more honest. That’s what the anti-Photoshop photography consumers are asking for.
It’s not pandering to the crowd to do so. You can please those who care how an image was made and those that don’t care at the same time, by creating great pictures with only limited use of post-processing tools. If you disregard the anti-Photoshoppers you will only alienate potential consumers, so there is a downside to ignoring this crisis. You might even fight against it and double-down on digital editing; however, it’s hard to fight against a rising tide.
My recommendation is to look for ways to rely less on post-processing software and rely more on your camera skills. When you do edit, be as upfront about it as possible. If you did extensive manipulation, maybe consider calling the image something other than a photograph. Try using camera-made JPEGs, and if your camera isn’t good at making them, consider a Fujifilm product, such as the X100F. Or maybe shoot film.
Be truthful, that’s what people want. People think that you’re manipulating them through your images, and they really want you to prove them wrong. You’d be surprised at how impressed people are when you show them an excellent photograph that wasn’t touched with editing software. There is a significant group that is much more enthralled by what you can do with your camera than what you can do with your computer. They don’t care how good you are with software, they care how skilled you are as a photographer. And they don’t like feeling as though you’re trying to fool them. They want honest pictures. They appreciate authentic photographers.