I stopped counting the number of times I have been asked the question, Was this photoshopped? while discussing my photography, and I’m not always certain what it means. In an effort to get to an understanding of the question, this article offers food for thought.
First, Photoshop, a series of software programs by Adobe allowing users to process and edit their digital images, has become somewhat of a standard for digital imaging software. Before digital photography became prevalent, not that long ago, photographers processed, edited, and produced their images in the darkroom or at a lab using various processes and chemicals. Photoshop mirrors many of those processes digitally, such as dodging, a process to lighten areas of an image. Although many photographers still use film, digital photography—carried out with digital cameras, computers and monitors, and digital imaging software to process and produce the images has become the new standard —thus eliminating the need for film and the darkroom altogether.
In addition, different digital imaging software packages accomplish different things during the digital photography workflow. Some software is all-inclusive and does everything from generating the raw images from the camera to assisting with the printing, while other types of software accomplish a specific purpose, such as adding an aged effect to the image. Digital images, with the exception of those taken with super fast and easy point-and-shoot cameras or cell phones, typically require some type of editing. Even if the photographer shoots all of their digital images as JPEGs, they usually have to load them from the camera onto the computer and edit them in some way before producing them for web or print. Some cameras, including many point-and-shoots, come bundled with simple editing software, while other cameras, such as digital SLRs, require more sophisticated software to process the images. Many serious photographers shoot their images in RAW format (comparable to negatives with film), which allows for more editing, and, theoretically, achieves a better result. During the digital photography workflow, basic edits are accomplished with digital imaging software such as Photoshop—these edits change or improve upon functions that were not or could not be optimized during shooting such as lighting, color, composition, etc. Additionally, for more advanced users, abundant software packages exist that offer numerous functionalities and effects.
A number of high-end photographers very skilled with digital imaging software use Photoshop and other software programs to create dream-like fantasy photographs, while others use similar techniques to create false impressions—sometimes with good intentions, such as for advertising, and sometimes with bad intentions, as when paparazzi alter celebrity photos in unflattering ways for monetary gain. Along those lines, a popular connotation of the term “photoshopped” refers to images altered in such a way as to create a new image/photograph that is nothing like the original. For example, a photo of a woman floating over a body of water or a photo of a dog’s head fused onto the body of a human. The very nature of digital photography allows for these types of combinations, either to create a unique piece of digital art or to create a false impression.
So, getting to the heart of the question, Was this photoshopped? requires some explanation of its intent—Is the person posing the question wondering whether the photograph was shot in film or digitally? Are they inquiring if the photograph was put through an extreme editing process that substantially altered the original image? Was there another intent to the question?
With all of that said, in reference to digital photography, the answer to the question, Was this photoshopped?, almost has to be yes, taking into consideration that Photoshop is somewhat of a catch-all term for all digital imaging software. Therein lies the rub—although the answer is yes, what do you mean by “photoshopped”?!