The most annoying question to be asked as a photographer…

I can understand why people ask the question. Maybe I shouldn’t let it bother me. It’s mostly innocent and can often be complimentary, which is why I’ll always answer it clearly and in a friendly and constructive manner. But, to me, there is no more annoying question you can be asked as a digital photographer than: “Do you use photoshop for your work?

By this I don’t mean the techy question photo geeks ask each other when talking about image processing software, I’m talking about the insinuation that your work is in some way too clean, colourful or impactful that you can’t possibly have presented a natural scene without first cloning-out a distracting tree or, more commonly, creating some ethereal sky by being trigger-happy on the saturation. In short, yes I use Photoshop but then I shoot exclusively in RAW files and have to have some way of processing those images. For me, Photoshop is the best tool for that job. The problem is that Photoshop’s value as a processing tool is overlooked by most casual consumers of photography in favour of its value as a tool for creating unnatural effects, or ‘cheating’.

Photography is in my blood. My great grandfather was a press photographer and my grandfather won several competitions with his photographs after the war. When my father introduced me to photography it was with stories of hours spent at York railway station waiting for the perfect steam engine photograph. He always spoke fondly of the different techniques he and my grandfather would use in the darkroom to create certain effects on the final photograph. To keep it simple, have a read about dodging and burning. These techniques for selectively lighting and darkening areas in a photograph will be recognised by Photoshop users but they have their roots in the darkroom.

Maybe I’ve burst a few bubbles by suggesting that many photographs from film are not always presented precisely as they were taken but it’s important to remember that photography wears many hats – photography is art, it is a research tool, it is propaganda, it is journalism and it is used to candidly document moments in everyday life. For some, techniques employed in the darkroom or with Photoshop are part of the process and simply help to make an image more beautiful, more impactful and get across the message behind the photograph. For others, such techniques have no place in photography.

For me, I aim to work within the rules and declarations of understanding in my area of the industry. I always try to use my skill with a camera, knowledge of my equipment, experience of the subject and my ability to use the natural conditions to take the best possible photograph. After all of that, yes I pass the digital file through Photoshop but my agency NHPA, the competitions that I enter and the publishers that I supply all have clear guidelines on digital processing and editing. It pays to work within a set of ethical parameters, which includes declaring when you have stepped outside of your normal working practices by declaring a subject as captive rather than wild or when an image is a composite.

If you are a photographer and haven’t done already, maybe ask yourself some questions before setting a standard for your way of working. If you’re a casual consumer of photography, maybe think twice before asking every photographer if he’s Photoshopped his work…unless you don’t value the next 20 minutes of your life and prefer to hear about exciting things like image processing and RAW files and ethical parameters and…..

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One Response to “The most annoying question to be asked as a photographer…”

  1. Very well put indeed Neil.
    For me, its mainly lightroom 2.6 for my RAW editing – and Lightroom have cottoned on to this annoying question by calling their editing tools “developing” (as you’ll know).
    Every time I’m asked this question, its invariably from someone who doesnt really understand a whole lot about developing photos – either in a wet darkroom or electronic lightroom – and I tell them I am effectively “developing” my RAW shots – just like the old days.
    Of course, occasionally for fun, I dig out CS4 and have a play (did so yesterday as it happens), but as you’ve said – if you shoot RAW, you need to “develop” your electronic frames.
    I assume this attitude has come about by so many cameras doing so much editing or developing in camera.
    What do these people think is happening inside their digital camera? Nothing?! The answer (as you know as well as I do, or more in fact) is that the camera is editing their shots for them.
    Well… I’d rather not have the camera do that – I’ll do it myself I think!
    Great to meet you at the BWPA awards this year by the way – I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve put a link to this blog from my main website, as I think I’ll be popping by quite a bit.
    But I promise not to mention South African rugby…. much…..

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