Some people think of photographic post-production (especially if the word “Photoshop” is used) as synonymous with trickery—as an underhanded way of creating something fake, of “doctoring” a photo, like some supermarket tabloid cover featuring Gary Coleman partying in a hot tub with an extra-terrestrial. Sure, you can do that with Photoshop.
But for most of us photographers, post-production is not some diabolical plot to create something fake, but a useful tool to help us re-create what we saw in reality but were unable to capture in the camera. Or sometimes what we saw in our mind’s eye as the potential shot, if not for the unfortunate accidents of poor weather, bad lighting, or fat tourists.
It’s a tool to help re-create the shot that should have been.
The photo on this page is a good example.
This was an awe-inspiring metal sculpture standing alone in the vast, beautiful openness of the desert. At various times, I saw it in glorious sunset or sunrise light, sometimes with stunning clouds, sometimes in a dust storm, sometimes with people at its feet, sometimes standing all alone.
In the best of those moments it was breathtakingly beautiful. Unfortunately none of my photos managed to combine all of the best elements. In some shots the light was good. In others the sky was good. In others, there were no people cluttering the shot. And so on.
But I want my final photo to express the way it really felt to be there, caressed by a warm desert breeze, gazing up at this marvelous work of art against the beautiful backdrop of nature.
The only way I can recreate that experience is by editing one of my unsatisfactory photos into something that looks more like the real thing and which conveys that feeling.
In this case, I chose a photo where I liked the position of the camera and the angle of the light, because those are fundamentals that can’t be altered.
From that foundation, I did the following:
1. Create a Curves Adjustment Layer to increase the contrast and saturation in the entire image. This makes the scene look more like what I saw with my eye, which is so much more sensitive than my camera.
2. Remove the leaning ladder and the open access hatch (where the sculptor had climbed inside to work), because these were temporary obstructions in this shot, not indicative of the way the piece usually looked.
3. Remove distracting people and clutter on the ground by using the clone stamp tool to copy bits of the photo from one place to another. (Of course, I kept one human figure for scale.) This helped show the sculpture the way I often saw it, standing alone on a vast desert plain. By doing this I hoped to stir in the viewer the strange and beautiful sense of lonely drama the real scene stirred in me.
4. Finally, after selecting and masking the sculpture with a Layer Mask, I did another Curves Adjustment Layer, this time affecting only the sky, revealing color and detail that my eyes could see, but my camera could not.
The result is the “After” photo shown here.
While some may consider this kind of work to be fakery, trickery, cheating—a good argument could be made that it’s exactly the opposite, because the final result here is a much more accurate representation of the way this sculpture looked and felt to me in person.
Which is more real? The literal truth of a fleeting moment captured by a relatively insensitive and limited recording device—or my best attempt at enhancing that unsatisfactory snapshot to reveal the deeper truth of what it was like to actually be there?
Feel free to leave your opinion in the comments.
By the way, this photo is one of the case studies in my Photoshop Basics course, where over the span of a 20-minute video lesson, you can follow along as I go through the entire editing process described above, if you’re interested in seeing how that sort of thing is done.