Guest Columnist – Jay Goodrich

Nature Photography and Photoshop – How Far is Too Far?

by Jay Goodrich


There are two schools of thought here. One is that limiting the use of Photoshop in nature photography restricts our creativity as photographers. The other is that the over-use of Photoshop compromises the integrity of nature photography. So who’s right?


When someone looks at an astounding photograph, the first question they often ask is, “Is this real?” What is this need we feel to label an image real or not real, true or not true, fabrication or reality? It’s one thing if the purpose of the image is documentation. Reality is important in photojournalism, for example, or to portray the shrinking of a glacier. But what if the purpose of the image is simply to capture beauty, or to startle the viewer? What then does it matter if the artist altered the original photo? Does it look less beautiful hanging on the wall, or less striking on the cover of the magazine?


For some reason, we as viewers often feel “cheated” if we find that a photo has been altered, as if the photographer somehow is lying to us. But if we look at nature photography as simply another art form, then isn’t post-processing photos in Photoshop simply another medium in that art? How do we determine how much alteration is acceptable, and when the artist has gone too far?


How do we draw the line between creative license and misrepresentation? There are so many people out there imposing “the rules” of image making, that drawing the line can become convoluted and quite frankly impossible. Who are these rule makers and what gives them the right to create ideals such as “no HDR”, “no over-saturation”, “it needs to happen in camera”, “no merging of two or more separate subjects”? People have been making rules since the dawn of photography. In the film era, the discussions were regarding exposure, composition, film type, and the like. These rules existed because if you did not expose correctly, there weren’t any images to view. In present day it seems as if people are rule making as a way to control creativity. And why would we want to limit ourselves in that way?


There isn’t a photographer, painter, architect, musician, or otherwise successful creative out there who hasn’t bent or flat-out broken the rules in his or her career. Have you ever taken a flat, colorless sunset image and pushed your white balance to 9000 degrees Kelvin to yield a perfect orange glow from nothing? Or taken a backlit, rim-lit shot and pushed the sliders to the far right with a Levels Adjustment Layer in Photoshop? Think these processes go beyond the standard accepted rules of how far is too far? Miguel Lasa of Spain went beyond when he used the aforementioned Levels technique to take the prize in the Creative Visions division of the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition for 2008.


We are in an ever-changing photographic world now. Digital cameras become more powerful with each new generation, and the same holds true of our software. Imagine what Photoshop CS10 will be able to do. So how far is truly too far? That is the question. Guy Tal said it best in one of his recent blog postings:

Certainly any freedom can be abused, but this is no reason to demonize the technology that enables it. This is especially true for creative tools. To put it simply, those who use the tools for the sake of using them will always produce gimmicks and clichés. This is true of any art at any period in time. Those who see such gimmicks and blame the tools are not much better, though. Ultimately the artist is responsible for the art. If the result fails – the artist failed; not the tools. 


I believe that it is up to you to decide how far is too far. Your failures will be your own, as will be your successes. Create to discover your vision, and utilize “the rules” as guidelines, but also as a springboard to take your work beyond the rules. Bend them and break them every time you click the shutter and post process those images in Photoshop. Throughout history, success has always been achieved by those who listened to everybody else, and then said, “What the hell, I’m doing it my way.”


The two images that I have included here are near copies. One has star trails and the other does not. I know what you are already thinking, “Which one is the original?” Did I pull the stars out of the original image with the Spot Healing Brush Tool to create the second image? Or did I adjust my light levels giving the star trail image the alpenglow of an amazing sunset? Good question. My question to you is, does it really matter?


©Jay Goodrich

©Jay Goodrich


©Jay Goodrich

©Jay Goodrich

13 Responses to “Guest Columnist – Jay Goodrich”

  1. An excellent article. Personally, I am in favor of any method that makes the work stronger artistically, except in the case of photojournalism, which, by definition, is supposed to portray actual events in a truthful manner.

  2. I like the way you think! I for one feel that photoshop is a tool of the trade just as a sculpter, or other artist, uses their tools. Some artists are good at the Photoshop tool, and others are crap. But to fault the tool is rediculous. If you can process a photo and make it wonderful, then power to you! 🙂

  3. […] go on over this, but I just read a really cool post by Jay Goodrich on Darwin Wiggett’s blog (see it here), so my thinking is a bit […]

  4. Great article!

    It seems that some people create (manipulate) images that automatically makes the viewer think of digital manipulations due to overdone processing…and there seems to be viewers that cannot view an photo without examening how much is manipulated.
    Those who manipulate nature photographs to an almost surreal and unnatural extent probably doesn`t put nature itself in focus.
    They even might think of themselves as artists and not as nature photographers.
    And those who always scrutinize a photograph to reveal how much is done with post-processing, may likely miss the meaning, the natural responsive experience and the beauty of nature. They see only what they want to see and wants to “unveil” the digital secrets behind every photograph.

    I loved this article and it really makes us think twice about what actually matters and what doesn`t.
    Let`s not forget that nature photographs are made for enjoyment, inspiration, reflection and in many cases, preservation of nature.
    Not for dissections and examinations due to the “how much has been photoshopped here?” way of thinking.

    Thanks, Jay and Darwin.

    Seung Kye

  5. Its personal really, I think. Like everything about art, this, too is extremely subjective. To some people/artists, photography is not even art, because nobody actually ‘makes’ anything, or ‘creates from scratch’. It is a conception that is fueled by the easy availability of very technologically advanced cameras. The conception that ‘anybody can do that’ – ‘that’ referring to the fact of pointing the camera at a direction and clicking a button. Photography is the only field that an average person can hope to pick up the camera and immediately consider himself/herself a ‘photographer’ – it is not so in any other field – nobody expects a person to buy a guitar and immediately consider themself to be like jimmy page.

    This concept, and the advent of photoshop and other tools has made the field of photographers very divided. Photographers have been ‘manipulating’ pictures for the longest time. Ansel Adams used to totally manipulate his negatives in the darkroom to achieve the results he wanted, similar to what people do in photoshop with dodging and burning. Other photographers used to expose a single print multiple times, similar to that of and HDR.. so its all subjective in how you look at it.

    I personally am not opposed to either one, except that manipulated pictures should not be called ‘documentary’. The rest is all art, and there are no rules for creating art. Period.

  6. This is a great commentary. I feel the same way, that photography is art, and Photoshop is one of our tools. I don’t even necessarily think that the artist should disclose everything that was done in the “creation” of a particular image, unless its on a photo critique forum, or something similar.

    However, I don’t agree with it when an artist uses Photoshop but claims s/he doesn’t. That doesn’t sit well with me.

  7. letouttoplay Says:

    Thank you for a very thoughtful and stimulating article.
    It’s curious how people get so hung up on the idea that a photo must represent reality. To some extent, this reflects the idea that a photo is somehow less ‘artistic’ than a painting and perhaps the old idea that ‘a photograph cannot lie’ :). As if the only truth were in the representative accuracy of the image. And also as if the photographer somehow hasn’t ‘made’ the image.
    All artists have been subjected to rules since the beginning of art. I was taught that once you’ve learnt how to use the rules, then if the need arises you should know how to break them or your work will be imprisoned within them. And if you have learnt them well, you’ll break them better 🙂
    The same with the tools of the trade. You can only use them effectively if you know how. And as with all work and creativity, the more you learn and experiment, with tools and rules, the more you can make beautiful and arresting art.
    A photographer’s tools are the camera and the processing media.

    And to answer your question, no, of course it doesn’t matter. What matters is if the end result is beautiful, moving, strikes a chord in the heart of the viewer, whatever art is supposed to do! And there’s a whole new bone of contention 🙂

  8. Thank you everybody for such wonderful comments. I am so happy to see so many people in agreement with me. Look for Darwin’s response to the same title real soon on my blog. Until then, keep the comments coming, good, bad or indifferent. I want to know what you are thinking.


  9. […] Jay Goodrich was a guest columnist at Darwin Wiggett’s blog, with a great commentary on the use of Photoshop in photography.   […]

  10. […] topic for this blog. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to read his thoughtful ideas here and share your […]

  11. […] Original post: Guest Columnist – Jay Goodrich « Darwin Wiggett […]

  12. […] who has experimented with photography knows that there is an ongoing debate about the use of photo manipulation. Should it be used to enhance images or does it only distort […]

  13. […] And you can view my post on Darwin’s site by clicking here. […]

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