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Photoshop and Nature Photography: How Far is Too Far?

Text and photography copyright © Darwin Wiggett and Samantha Chrysanthou. All rights reserved.

In the popular view, photography is more realistic than any other graphic art because the camera takes its images directly, optically from reality….However, all art is illusion…and a photograph as much as a painting is a two-dimensional exercise in triggering perceptual responses, not a two-dimensional version of the real world. - Michael Freeman, The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos

The nature photography world is locked in an unwinnable and pointless debate: how far should you process your nature images before you stray from photography into art? This debate can be seen as a continuum, with those photographers who inherently distrust digital photography altogether (preferring the "purity" of film) occupying one end of the spectrum; let’s call them the Purists. These people shun altering the content or look of a photograph after depressing the shutter (although filters and reflectors may be used in the field) and believe that any processing that does occur is acceptable only so far as it helps to faithfully reproduce what the photographer actually saw in the field at time of capture.

On the other end of the spectrum are the digital manipulators. These types spend as much time (if not more) working an image at their computer as in the field taking pictures. These photographers employ cloning, cross-processing, HDR, and the creation of composite images regularly to freely alter the content and look of their images. Let’s call them the Processors.

The Purists and the Processors have been engaged in a battle that has heated up to the temperature of molten metal since the advent of digital cameras. The Purists accuse the Processors of lying with their wacky creations, and the Processors accuse the Purists of hypocrisy. (A similar debate about how the camera should be used occurred when colour images became possible. Ho hum, plus ça change…) While most photographers would situate themselves somewhere more in the middle of the continuum, enough people exist at each pole to drive plenty of photo forum discussions and blog topics across the whole of cyberspace.

But this entire debate rests on a flawed assumption.

What the Purists and the Processors are arguing about is how much a photograph is or is not reality. But as Michael Freeman points out, all graphic art is an illusion. Graphic art includes paintings, drawings, writing—and photography. No two-dimensional medium is capable of reproducing our three-dimensional world; all attempts are necessarily a representation or interpretation of what is real.

How did this debate even originate within nature photography? Part of the answer lies in the nature of the camera as an artistic tool itself. The camera is designed to record and present visual information derived "directly, optically" from reality. It works in real time, with real objects. Because of how well the camera records and reproduces visual information, it came to be associated over time with communication of visual information to large amounts of people. Thus, at some point, the camera became less associated with artistic expression and more with communication of information. Information (as opposed to opinion) is often seen as objective and neutral; the origin of the camera as a purveyor of fact (reality) is born.

This association clearly continues today. In the September 2009 issue of Photolife magazine, we read the words of renowned aerial photographer and filmmaker Yann Arthus-Bertrand on his work:

I am an extremely dedicated photographer: a beautiful photograph that means nothing is of no interest to me. For me, photography is not an end in itself but a means for transmitting a message, for bearing witness, and for moving things forward. I feel more like a journalist than an artist because I attempt to bring knowledge through my photographs.

The camera has become conflated with the communication of information rather than a platform for artistic expression for its own sake. But this association has not served the photo community well.

Let’s imagine two photographers standing side-by-side by a mountain lake. Both compose and snap a photograph of the scene before them. Will their images be the same portrayal of reality? Obviously not as even superficially they weren’t standing in the same exact spot. But beyond that give-away, their images are likely to be different in other respects too. One may choose to frame more of the lake and less of the mountain; the other may select a long lens and focus on the mountain’s peak; one may use a consumer camera while the other has a professional camera body. How each photographer makes the image is the first way in which a photograph becomes an illusion of reality. Not only does the equipment used have an impact on the final result recorded, but what each photographer chooses to include—and by extension, exclude— determines what image is rendered. The photographer uses a combination of sensory perception, emotion and conscious or unconscious thought to constrain the real scene in front of him into a two-dimensional illustration.

The second way in which a photograph becomes an illusion of reality is when it comes time to turn the data captured by the camera (whether on film or sensor) into a mode capable of being viewed by people. This is where the Purists really get their knickers in a knot. Although many Purists are happy to step into a scene, pick up a stick and throw it away, they will frown on those lazy Processors who decide to just clone out the stick in post-processing. We agree that a good photographer tries to get the best data possible at the time of capture; the principle of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ definitely applies to photography! But does it really matter if you have to walk into a scene to physically remove a stick or whether you clone it out in post-processing?

For some magazines it matters. Many editors will not accept nature images that have been ‘digitally manipulated’. Aside from the definition issues that arise with such a term, what does this mean? At the time of capture, a scene can be manipulated or altered from the eye-view of the photographer by the use of special filters, lens choice and "pruning" but the same effect will not be accepted if done at home on the computer? The silliness of this position is revealed when we compare the reaction to traditional, black and white photography to digitally altered, colour images. There is a certain amount of gravitas associated with black and white imagery that is likely left over from the fact that photography was birthed in a world incapable of colour expression. Modern fine art photographers tap into the flexibility inherent in this tradition and present their work in black and white. And yet, if we were truly representing reality, wouldn’t all nature images submitted in black and white be rejected by Purists now that we can shoot in colour? The legitimacy attached to black and white expression survives because of its origins, not its accuracy in communicating reality. It is an allowed exception in the nature photography world to the demand for realism because it was the only way a photograph could be made in the beginnings of the craft.

Framing the debate as a question of "how far" you can go with digital manipulation is a direct result of viewing the camera as a device to record reality rather than a tool for representation or expression of real things. We have become hung up on seeing the camera as a way of communicating information about our subjects and forget that we cannot replicate our three-dimensional world into two-dimensional "facts".

This type of thinking has brought us to a zero-sum game. The Purists refuse to embrace new tools of expression (like digital technology) and are limited in their growth as artists and photographers. (At this point, a short clarification is in order: we do not think all those who shoot in film are Luddites. Medium choice is the artist’s prerogative. We happen to shoot both digital and film for various purposes of expression). The Processors straddle the grey-ish area between photographers and software artists. Neither side can understand the other and believes that their perspective is the morally correct one. Where do we go from here?

We have to re-frame the debate. If we can junk the distinction between communicating information and communicating artistic expression, then we can approach a photograph for what it is rather than what it should be. All graphic art should be judged on how well it expresses its subject matter, and nothing else. If the idea or story the artist meant to convey is successfully told, then the image succeeds. If not, well…time to practice some more.

This means that we all have to adjust to the idea that a photograph is an illusion, a representation, and not literal truth or reality. We as photographers need to do two things: educate the public by not pretending our photographs are "reality" when they are not, and be permissive with each other to avoid that tendency of photographers to pretend they have only "manipulated" their image to make it look "like what I saw." Who cares? The viewer was not there with you when you snapped the shutter. She should be encouraged to engage with the image for its own sake rather than be called upon to compare your work with some objective realty. When we free up photography to be about expression, then this medium will really soar.

Comments on NPN nature photography articles? Send them to the editor. NPN members may also log in and leave their comments below.

Darwin Wiggett is a professional nature and outdoor photographer from Alberta, Canada. You can see more of his work at or at Samantha Chrysanthou was born in Lethbridge, Alberta. After moving for a period of time to northern Alberta, she returned in 2000 to southern Alberta to pursue a law degree in Calgary. After becoming a lawyer, Samantha began to realize her heart was more engaged in capturing the beauty of the landscape around her than debating the nuances of legal arguments in court. She has since left law to pursue writing and photography full-time. She particularly enjoys shooting the prairies, foothills and Rocky Mountains within an hour or so of her home in Cochrane, Alberta. Visit Samantha’s website to view more of her work at

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Comment posted by Buck Ward on 11/02/09 at 10:16 pm     

As you imply, these debates will continue without resolution.  As in shouting matches between political conservatives and liberals, there will be few converts.  We each take our own particular stance, and it is unlikely to change very much.  Our point of view depends on how we see ourselves as photographers.  Each of us decides, unconsciously perhaps, who we are - a documentarian or an artist, or more likely a mixture of the two.  We use the latest in technology to represent how we see our world.  Photographic technology enables us to show the world we see as we choose to show it, as faithful representations of visual facts, artistic representations of our impressions, or phantasmagorical representations of our imagination.  However they choose to convey what they see, good photographers will make good images.  Rather than argue, just show me the pictures!

Or maybe, we still use more traditional technology.  Long before the advent of digital photography, St. Ansel said, "Art implies control of reality, for reality itself possesses no sense of the aesthetic. Photography becomes an art when certain controls are applied..." 

   Buck Ward
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Comment posted by Stan Rose on 11/06/09 at 07:45 am     

I make a distinction between my "photo art" and my photography. Maybe my philosophy will change tomorrow, but i see my photo art as an alteration of reality to express a personal emotion, a dreamscape or fantasy. On the other hand, I want people to be able to relate to my 'staright' photos, which they may not be able to do if they're the product of inner interpretation. I want to capture an emotion or vision that is out there floating in space, not one within my head. The danger of the 'anything goes--all in the name of artistic expression' idea is that it promotes false impressions. To give one example (of many), when i was hiking the Subway the other day, i had visions of the place from well known photographs that depicted the spot with all sorts of psychedelic bold colors, and maybe i just had bad light, but it didnt quite appear that way to me. So, my "real" experience didnt quite match the expectations that i had from those "expressions". And i think you might be underestimating the value of photography as a copmmunicative form. There are many people, for example, who will never see the Subway or other spots in person; there only experience of the place is from photographs. So, why not encourage photographs that depict a place as it is, as opposed to how you might "feel" about it?

Im not so sure there is such a distinction between the "three dimensional" world of reality and the 2D medium. For one thing, there are various ways to make the 2D photograph appear 3D (lenticulars, cross-eyes etc). The 3D world still has to be 'read' by your eyes and processed in your brain; a scene isnt physically present in your mind, to some degree its just as illusory as a photograph registering in your brain.

The bottom line for me (at least for the next 5 minutes!) is that one can take an "artistic" nature photo without resorting to any "alterations" or "embellishment". It has to do with finding the right composition, the right conditions, and the right subjects. Processing (and i am a big "Processor" myself!) is definitely a tool, a means to an end, but for some it becomes a crutch.

I think you make a lot of excellent points in this thoughful and thought-provoking article. I just want to stress that it is important for me and other phtographers to reach out and relate to people, which is not always acheived by sticking steadfastly to ones personal vision or way of seeing things--an objective "reality" is what ties us together  for our experience with nature.

   Stan Rose
Pueblo, Colorado
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Comment posted by Kory Lidstrom on 11/06/09 at 2:30 pm     

Great essay that states my feelings perfectly.  A job well done, Darwin and Samantha.

The best photographers make, rather than take, photographs.  The image IS the thing.  Nothing else matters.  I learned that from Jim Brandenburg.  And, if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me.

   Kory Lidstrom.
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Comment posted by Sam Chrysanthou on 11/07/09 at 1:52 pm     

Thanks everyone for your comments on the article.  We want to get you thinking with this 'positional' article!

Stan, I can see you spent some time thinking about the arguments Darwin and I presented and your response.  I agree with you that one of the most valuable things a photograph can do is communicate information about reality.  My only concern occurs when people think that the photograph faithfully represents reality (which it cannot do; everyone sees things differently albeit within perhaps a certain range of reality).  You yourself experienced this when you visited the Subway: you were expecting a more colourful scene based on the images posted by photographers in this forum.  I too have seen images of the Subway and am sure that many of the photographers who posted them would argue that their images are faithful to what they saw.

In a way, your comment perfectly illustrates our point; if you went to the Subway knowing that the images that you had already seen were photographic interpretations of reality, rather than a faithful rendition of some objective reality, then you would not have been 'set up' with expectations of a certain look to the Subway. 

This seems especially true with digital where people love to pump the saturation slider.

In short, we do not want to underestimate the power of a photograph to tell a story; we just want our viewers and photographers to realize that the image may not be all of the story, or indeed the same story that person might tell if he or she was in the photographer's shoes.

A tall order, I think, given our species' tendency sometimes toward shallow thought and mental shortcuts.

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Comment posted by Kartik Venkatarama on 11/11/09 at 07:30 am     

I think the most salient point made in the article is one of how a scene is framed: what is included and what is excluded. This is as subjective as it gets, and also as real as consciousness gets. Psychologists, neuroscientists, and others who've tried to answer the question of what consciousness means have varied opinions, but almost always converge on one concept: attention. What sensory inputs triggers the mind into an attentive state? In short, what do we focus on? What do we pay no attention to, either consciously or unconsciously? The second thing psychology teaches us is just how good the mind is at "filling in the blanks". We need only a small snippet of a scene to imagine an entire wonderland surrounding it. It's why people like books better than movies. It's also why so many locations can disappoint when we get there after seeing iconic images of it. It's because the photographs show only a narrow, idealized sliver of reality. Case in point: the Glade Creek Grist mill in West Virginia. I saw thousands of awesome images of this location. When I finally got there, the mill looked as it did in the photos, sure. What I did not see coming was the awfully trashy tourist traps surrounding it, not to mention a car park within a few feet of it filled with noisy kids on their summer break. Hardly the ideal, lost-in-time feeling the photograph invoked in me.

OTOH, I've seen plenty of images that despite being the finest renditions of a location, do no justice to the actual scene. Wide-angle shots are terrible at conveying the size of mountains for example. They completely distort spatial relations relative to what the human eye sees. No surprise there, we have a curved sensor (the retina), the camera has a flat one. So when I first saw  the Grand Teton NP in the flesh, I could not believe how much bigger the mountains were in the flesh than the photographs led me to believe.

It is easy enough to look at just the colors and tones in an image and come to a subjective conclusion regarding their appearance being natural or not. But that most certainly is not the case when it comes to size, scale, local environment, grandeur, and most of all, emotion and experience. I find it rather pointless to connect photography with "realism". No photograph has ever been real compared to the real thing in my experience. A photographer can claim to have not manipulated an image and faithfully rendered the colors, but that's not enough to call the photograph "real". Sorry, but life (and imagination) are far richer than photographs can convey. Let's call it art for art's sake, and leave it there.

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Comment posted by Jim Goldstein on 11/11/09 at 3:50 pm     

Great read. This hits the nail on the head, but with one caveat... from the view of non-documentarian photographers. For documentarians what is captured requires minimal to no editing to keep the accuracy of the scene intact. Photojournalism will never sway from this and many would argue rightfully so. From an art perspective anything goes and should be embraced. Sadly there will always be an us vs. them mentality on such debates. If the canon vs nikon debate has lasted this long I expect this particular debate to last an eternity. I often find such debates are distractions that weigh creatives down. Those that free themselves in regard to their thinking on this issue excel creatively. Why limit yourself?

Assuming more people adopt a similar philosophy I think photographer etiquette is what will require adjusting. Ansel Adams never had an asterisk next to his titles that his images were manipulated in the dark room. The medium in which he shared his work was substantially more limited than what is available to modern photographers. Those who view a nature or landscape print are less likely to think in terms of photo manipulation than if someone views the same image online. Somehow seeing an image on a monitor in this day and age with numerous online photo forums has us constantly thinking in terms of digital manipulation. Why? Likely because we're at a computer with digital editing software at our finger tips. What some might argue is required in relation to etiquette is properly labeling your photos as photography or digital art. Of course that label is subjective and ripe for debate. Could this be yet another distraction? Likely but is it necessary to label a photo a cyanotype or a straight photograph? Would someone get twisted out of shape if someone didn't specify the type of print? Probably not its more of a courtesy, but would others have the same reaction of a digital art piece went unlabeled? Tough to say but for most nature/landscape photographers I think there would be more of a negative reaction by not being transparent on the issue.

Interesting times we live in. 

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Comment posted by Mark Metternich on 11/18/09 at 10:17 am     

"a photograph is an illusion, a representation, and not literal truth or reality"

"all art is illusion…and a photograph as much as a painting is a two-dimensional exercise in triggering perceptual responses, not a two-dimensional version of the real world."

Excellent article! 

   Mark Metternich leads Photo Workshops throughout the Pacific Northwest, the SW, Patagonia, Glacier National Park, Hawaii, the Canadian Rockies... He is also a Digital Imaging Specialist who produces a wide variety of Post Production Instructional Videos, teaches Post Processing online via Skype, as well as does post production for fine art photographers.


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Comment posted by Marsel van Oosten on 12/02/09 at 09:15 am     

It's interesting to see how different nature photographers are in this aspect compared to almost all other sorts of photography. Fashion photography, car photography, model photography, advertising photography, etc.- you're not very likely to hear a fashion photographer say 'I like it like this, because that's how I saw it'. Or a model photographer 'We have to leave that pimple there, otherwise it's cheating'.

There is a lot of fundamentalism in nature photography, and it's one of the main reasons why nature photography makes so little artistic progress. Look at how nude photography looked ten years ago and see the difference with how it looks now. Do the same thing with nature photography, and?

Photography is an art form. Unless you're shooting for the news, for forensic evidence or for scientific research, there is no reason you should limit yourself to what you saw. The fact that we can capture reality with a camera, doesn't mean we should use it like a Xerox machine.

Thanks for the article.

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Comment posted by Michael Ginex on 12/02/09 at 12:26 pm     

Any emotion of the human experience we wish to convey to one another can be
our motivation for taking a picture. As I see it there are two different motivations to
producing an image, regardless of the medium. The first is the desire to "capture"
what we see.  The second is to "create" images that the minds' eye sees, using
whatever  means available in order to represent a product of our imagination.

Enhancement of a photograph beyond those needed to make the image reflect
what is seen in reality to me becomes something else. To take a photograph and
then "build" the image is contrary to my idea of photography and better fits the
definition of graphic illustration. The next step would be to add text! 


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Comment posted by Steven M Kahn on 12/04/09 at 01:56 am     

A friend of mine who has had a passion to capture images with a camera, and has expanded his "vison" with the evolution of digital capture and the tools that have arisne and continue to push the envelope in post capture processing came up with the term "phartist" for himself, for photographic artist.  Yes it has a whimsical pronounciation with it, but I think it has merit being a "Processor".  With the advent of new software applications comes the invitation to revist images and "process" them anew.  The joy of digital.  With the progression of the technology,it is not like the good old days, where one can buy a newer camera body and use the older one as a back-up, and capture similar images, as the film was inserted into the camera, and not built into it as it is with the sensors and processors today.  Each new generation of sensors and processors changes the capture process, and what one camera records will be different from the older sibling, unlike with film where two camera bodies might capture a similar image if the same film is used.  Different generations of camera bodies will have diffrent capture capabilities with the same scene using the same optics. 

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Comment posted by David Lloyd on 01/24/10 at 2:58 pm     

I'm a little late here, but I wrote up a little diatribe on this very thing recently at For me the issue was related to declaring your work as manipulated or not, i.e. would you be a photographer, or a digital artist? (or a purist/processor to use the terms of this article).

   David Lloyd
London, England

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Comment posted by Sam Chrysanthou on 02/05/10 at 10:41 am     

Ha ha!  "Partist"--that's hilarious, Steven.


David, I read your piece and agree that in some instances a photographer should be open about what they are doing.  With general art, no one assumes that the piece is 'reality'.  But until people don't equate a photograph to reality, some acknowledgement of the possibility of deception may be required of photographers.

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