Photoshop makes things look beautiful just as you have special effects in movies. It’s just a part of life. —Erin Heatherton
I was quite dismayed when I saw that the use of Adobe’s premier image-editing software, Photoshop, was once again being blamed for a magazine photo looking different than what the subject expected. In this particular case, actress Kerry Washington is miffed at AdWeek for what she claims is Photoshop manipulation making her skin look lighter than it is. To my knowledge, AdWeek, of which I am an avid reader, has not yet responded (at least, not publicly), so I’m not going to weigh in on those direct allegations.
Instead, what I want to address is the increasing inference that, somehow, Photoshop is the evil villain whose sole purpose is to ruin your photographs. I am deeply disturbed by the increasing number of people, specifically actresses and models, who are adding a “no Photoshop” clause to their contracts, much to the detriment of their images. Such actions are incredibly foolish and cannot help but lead photographers to either utilize methods that are more extreme and expensive or not photograph those subjects at all (which would tend to be my response).
First, a wee bit of history. Photoshop was the brainchild of two brothers, Thomas and John Knoll. John was employed by Industrial Light and Magic, the division of LucasFilm responsible for all those cool special effects. Thomas, at the time, was a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan working on a thesis involving image processing. This was all the way back in 1987. Thomas was working on a new Apple Mac Plus and found that he was severely limited in the type of images he could use on the machine. John was having similar challenges with the early editions of Pixar, which was editing software used at ILM. Together, the brothers created a new software, originally called Display, that addressed color and gamma correction as well as controls for balance, hue and saturation. By 1988, Display developed into ImagePro.
Interestingly enough, when the brothers went looking for financial backing for their software, Adobe originally turned them down. When they did finally agree to publish what was now known as PhotoShop, there was a lot more work to do. Thomas worked on the core software while John developed the first plug-ins, which not everyone at Adobe liked, but the brothers insisted were part of the package. Anyone who has worked with software in a corporate environment knows that small projects take on scope creep quickly and the list of requirements for PhotoShop grew immensely. As a result, it wasn’t until February 1990 that the first edition of Photoshop was released. Digital photography was still more than a decade from becoming plausible. Only scanned images could be manipulated by the software, which limited its use largely to large image production houses.
When digital photography did hit the mainstream, though, sales of Photoshop boomed. Despite its professional-level pricing, amateurs who know absolutely nothing about photo or image processing snapped up the tool and began doing absolutely hideous and unnecessary things to pictures. Filters and plugins that had been oh-so-carefully applied by professionals were now being misused to levels of complete grotesqueness. Thus, at the hands of complete amateurs, the Photoshop Fail was born. Note, the very name blames the software, not the idiot using it.
I have chosen the pictures you see on this page quite on purpose to illustrate a point. These images were shot in October of 2012 in the model’s apartment using only available light. While the model herself is beautiful, from a photography perspective the images are severely lacking. There is too much noise, especially in the top image. The color is off and even out of gamut is several places. Both curves and levels are wildly out of balance. Every last one of those problems is correctable, but I’ve left them as is to demonstrate just how a picture without any “Photoshopping” done to it can look. I don’t find these images acceptable as they are displayed here and neither would any art director worthy of the title.
Could I have addressed these issues without software? Yes, by doing exactly the same thing we would have done using film: bring in more light. Doing so in such a small apartment would have been incredibly intrusive and crowded, severely complicating a rather simple shoot. I would have needed additional personnel to hold reflectors at the very least. If we had used strobes, I would have needed another assistant or two to help coordinate those and determining what type of modifiers would work best for the situation. I would have had to call on additional makeup and hair styling assistance, and probably would have needed a styling assistant to make sure clothes were lying just exactly perfect. With that many people in the model’s small apartment, we would have barely had room to move, items in the apartment would have been subject to damage, and her poor little schnauzers would have gone absolutely nuts.
While that approach would have adequately addressed color, curve, contrast, and other technical issues, it would have also, inevitably, done something else: make her skin lighter. This is a tremendous issue that many people who step in front of a camera don’t seem to understand at all. The more light we use on you, the lighter in tone your skin is likely to appear. I had a model become quite upset with me last year when her fake tan failed to make her look as dark in front of the camera as she had wanted. News flash: fake tans don’t photograph well. By the time we balance out that hideous orange to something more human looking, you’re going to appear much lighter than you expected. Whether we do that with light or with software, the results are exactly the same.
Additionally, we have to consider that one model’s disaster is another model’s savior. How many times have I had a model tell me, “You can’t airbrush me too much,” or asking that I “take off about 30 pounds or so?” And yes, I know that the Internet delights in displaying examples of both those features being done horribly wrong. Still, let’s accept the fact that not everyone wants to look back at their pictures 30 or 40 years from now and see all the wrinkles and skin blemishes they had when they were 20. Just because one person doesn’t think they needed any post-processing “fixing” doesn’t mean that same standard should apply to everyone else.
Bottom line: Photoshop is a tool, a very powerful and wonderful tool capable of many things that make my life a lot easier. There are a lot of people who misuse it, but that doesn’t make the tool a bad one and it certainly doesn’t mean that one should in any way attempt to prohibit its use. We need Photoshop. Your pictures need Photoshop.
Blaming Photoshop for poorly edited images is like blaming GM or Ford for the potholes in the road. I hope I’ve made my point.