You’re cheating, it’s photoshopped!

Well, yes. What did you expect?

Eurasian siskin (Spinus spinus)

OK, let’s start from the beginning. More than anything else, especially more than a birder, I’m a photographer. As a photographer, I want to make pictures that I like, pictures that are pleasing to the eye, pictures that I find beautiful. My goal is not to make pictures that show exactly what was visible when I took them.

The first reason is very simple: we all perceive our surroundings in a different way. Given a certain scene, we will all see it differently. Therefore, there’s no absolute truth to replicate. If I wanted to reproduce what I had seen, wouldn’t it mean I discarded all the others’ vision of the scene in favour of mine?

But let’s imagine there’s a “truth” that needs to be shown. How would I find this truth?

Some people believe that an image taken straight out of the camera (SOOC for those in the know) is the truth that shouldn’t be edited, because it’s as things were when the picture was taken. This is not true.
A camera can produce two kinds of files, jpegs and raws. Raw files are large files that are not necessarily displayed by all image-viewing programs, because they contain all the information the camera got, and that includes much more than what the eye can see at first. That’s why, during post-processing, one can lower the highlights and recover some details – those details had always been there, but had stayed hidden behind other information before.
On the other end, jpeg are compressed files that include post-processing! The camera automatically applies adjustments when creating jpeg files. That’s why SOOC jpegs look much better than SOOC raw files – they have already been edited 😉

Would you rather let your pictures be edited by an algorithm conceived in a lab, or by yourself?

If you’re happy with your unedited jpegs, if you don’t want to spend any time in post-processing, it’s ok not to edit your pictures. These actually sound like very good reasons! You’re also saving a lot of time to take more pictures 😉 But please, don’t pretend they show the “truth”.

When I started photography, I was mentored by Andrey Kalinovsky, or as I knew him back then, CSAOH. I clearly remember him telling me that editing is as important as shooting for him. I had no problem with editing myself, so from the start I used Lightroom to work on my pictures. My friend and colleague Janne Kahila spends hours on Photoshop to create his stunning landscape photographs.

So then, in our quest for “the truth”, we realize we have to edit our pictures. But… we would have to memorize the whole scene in its smallest details to be able to recreate exactly what we had seen. Our brain can’t simply do that. Often, in front of my monitor, I wonder, “what did I see?”. But I can’t remember the exact color in those clouds. I can remember the awe I felt, and as a result, I want the viewer to feel the same when he or she looks at my picture.

Of course often I try to stay true to what I saw. If you see this sunset picture, above, and wonder whether it’s really what I saw – well, maybe not exactly, but it’s close enough. If that picture shows bright, powerful colors, it’s because I was really impressed!

On other occasions, I take artistic license to create a different atmosphere in my photographs, and I love this freedom. That’s when I truly feel like an artist – see below.

Siberian jay (Perisoreus infaustus)

So, back to the Eurasian siskin (Spinus spinus) that opened this article. Can you guess what this picture has been through?

The (current) final version

Intermediate version, including some edits already

I removed branches. Many branches. That’s a problem I often face when shooting small birds: they like bushes, and there are branches in bushes. Meh.

I haven’t yet learnt how to use the Clone tool in Photoshop (it’s on my list…), so I drew a selection around those twigs, and pressed Shift-F5 to remove them with a Content-aware fill action. That tool is magical, but it doesn’t always go as planned. In that case, it created weird artifacts in the background. I had to paint with a Memory brush, to try to blend the brown and the grey in a not-too-obvious way. I did the same at the bottom end of the bird’s perch, for there was a green-greyish spot I found disturbing. I painted it brown.
You can also see I removed some rain drops.
I felt terribly clumsy, but I was happy with the result. I guess that’s a picture to come back to and improve, when I have time.
I added some heavy noise reduction for the background, but you can find more details about this process in that article, which I wrote in the beginning of the year (there’s also a nice bird there, don’t be afraid to click 🙂 ).

This short paragraph doesn’t really do justice to the hours I spent on that picture… but that’s a necessary evil when you use a tool you barely know. I rarely use Photoshop, for Lightroom satisfies me most of the time.

So what do you think? Am I cheating?
Please feel free to ask any question, I’m happy to share the little I know 😉

I took this picture in Ivalo. Before leaving to Lapland, I had sent an email to the local bird protection society, asking for tips on where to watch birds. I got a couple of very kind answers, including one from Jouni who offered me to visit a couple in Ivalo, who had a feeder all year long.
That’s how I found myself in their house on a grey morning. We talked quite long (in Finnish!) while watching the birds through the window. Apparently, their place is quite famous among birders. Killian Mullarney, one of the artists in the best field guide for Europe, had sat on my chair to draw Siberian tits (Poecile cinctus). What an honor! 😀

There wasn’t any winter specialty in September yet, but a large group of Bramblings (Fringilla montifringilla) was roaming the area, and a couple of Siberian jays (Perisoreus infaustus) paid us a visit as well. I spent one and a half hour outside, before heading back to my friends. In the evening, we would sleep on the edge of Lemmenjoki, the largest national park in Finland.

Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla)

Siberian jay


Eurasian siskin

Previously in my Lapland series

Bird inventory


9 thoughts on “You’re cheating, it’s photoshopped!

  1. J’aime le traitement de photos. C’est une sorte d’art aussi et les résultats finaux sont etonnants parfois. Je les aime. J’utilise Corel PaintShop Pro X6 (ancienne version) en raison du manque d’argent! 🙂

    Merci. Bonne journée.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t really know what to say.
    -On the one hand I think it’s cheating based on the fact that the shot is artificially embellished/modified after it’s been clicked. Forget how your eye or mine perceived the same scene at the same time. The fact is that for some reason (good or bad, this is not the point) you did something to your pix afterwards. I realize that it is a very candid way of seeing things. I probably share it with many other non-photographers.
    -0n the other hand “cheating” implies deceit or fraud. Take a shot of a street scene. Clip and paste a person, an animal, a street sign or anything you need to create an effect. Now you’re cheating. So, is the art of emphasizing beauty or drama or light in any way cheating? Hell no.
    Look, way back when all you had were film cameras, every one cheated by using a special type of film, a special lense, a teleobjective, a tripod, a timer, special ways of revealing and treating your negatives, printing enhancement, and finally a perfect frame and artistic lightning of the displayed shot.
    Should we consider that only what is actually seen by the eye is the original subject? Not sure. Someone with a keen eyes for details might give a cold, methodological, precise and boring report whereas someone from Marseilles, France, may make a cargoship out of a sardine.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m all for editing when it improves the result. Taking out distractions, like branches, that muddy the shot makes sense to me. In the end, we create our own expression, and that is the most important thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Explication très pertinente. C’était déjà comme ça à l’époque de l’argentique, développer un fichier RAW est en quelque sorte le même chose. Si le résultat ressemble à votre perception de la scène grâce aux retouches, je n’appellerais pas ça tricher. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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