Archive | January 6, 2009

Photos, Realism & Photoshop: How Much Is Too Much?

A frequent jab that is thrown at scrapbookers is that we “only record the good stuff” about our lives, or that we revise history to “pretty it up” and make our lives look better on paper than they actually are.This issue came up recently here on Scrapbook Update in the discussion about author Jessica Helfand’s comments about scrapbookers, which encompassed some of those exact criticisms.

Of course, much of this criticism is based on perception of scrapbookers’ choices about page topics, the wording of journaling, and the general decorative style of a lot of  scrapbooking. But it is photos that have gotten me thinking about this topic lately. I’ve found myself with a lot of questions but not a lot of answers.

Since I went digital a few years ago for my photography, I have done some editing of my photos. Mostly it has been minor edits like cropping, brightening, and a few other things that I think of as “correcting” the camera’s capture of the scene, not actually changing the scene.

But between the increasing power available in consumer-level editing suites like the Photoshop Elements 7 for Windows that I use, and my own increasing skills with using them, I’m finding myself faced now with more gray areas where I’m not sure if I’m crossing the line between fixing a photo and changing reality. And, if I am crossing that line, is that a problem?

Photojournalists are literally not allowed to touch a photo via editing in any way that could be perceived as changing reality. They are pretty much allowed to process their photos – correct color and exposure, and sharpen them, for instance – and that is all.

A purist’s view of scrapbooking would be that we are the journalists documenting our own lives for history with our photos. Using this perspective, we are changing the history books when we change a photo to use for scrapbooking. Reality was that Susie had a big pimple on prom night and the pictures should show her that way.

On the other hand, there’s a perspective that says that Susie will be much more relaxed and cooperative with the camera if she knows that Mom will be able to Photoshop out those breakouts. Maybe edited photos of a smiling Susie is better than no photos at all, or photos of a self-conscious, grim Susie?

It’s a judgment call – a massive gray area.

And what about editing unknown people out of your scenic vacation pictures? Or editing together two different exposures of a scene so that the cloudy sky isn’t flat and blah (like it looked in real life) but has texture and depth? Where is the line of what is just “correcting” and what is “changing” reality?

Do I want this just to be a pretty picture – a piece of art, basically – or do I want it to be a historical document? Since becoming a scrapbooker, I lean naturally towards the “historical document” angle of photography, and so I tend to think really hard about heavy editing.

st-augustine-wall-webBut before I was a scrapbooker, I was an avid photographer and worked hard to improve my “art” photography skills. And sometimes I still just want to play with my camera and make pretty pictures. I’m starting to feel like I have to make a conscious decision to delineate between the two types of photos when I start editing so I know what I am “allowed” to do to that particular photo.

I took this picture just to play and create something “pretty”. I edited out a piece of trash that was on the ground because it was distracting from the image. Since I didn’t intend it as a documentary photo, it was a fairly easy call to make about doing the edit. It is the sort of photo that I might frame and hang on the wall for decorative purposes, just to enjoy the texture in it.

Most of my photos aren’t such clear-cut cases, though. Especially when they are being used on scrapbook pages, because I am usually telling some sort of story with them.

But what about this photo that I took at Rolex 24 Hours practice at Daytona last weekend? There are all sorts of potential things that could be done to it. The most annoying thing to me about the shot is the pole up the middle of the shot, which appears in many of my wider shots taken from this position by the 1st corner. Do I try to edit it out – an arduous process if I can accomplish it at all – to make my shot “prettier”, or do I go along with the reality that there is, in fact, a big ugly pole blocking the vista from that viewpoint?


What about the sky? It was pretty much flat and washed in person like it appears here, but there is some detail in the image that I could amplify if I wanted to do a layered version of this image to make the sky more interesting and not so blown out. What about that distracting guy (a track official) in the bottom right corner?

It’s all a matter of degrees, really, and I’m still struggling to find the line that I am comfortable with for different kinds of pictures, I guess.

Do you struggle with how much editing is too much? How do you decide where the line is for your pictures? With more and more tools available to make previously advanced edits “one click” easy (like the spot healing brush and scene cleaner that are now in Photoshop Elements), it will only get harder and harder to know when to stop. How do you know? I’m still figuring it out.