Is that a REAL photograph? Or is it Photoshopped?

February 04, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

On rare occasions, I get asked that question.  And every time I hear it, I’m somewhat nonplussed. It’s a legitimate question, I suppose, but at the same time it shows a lack of understanding of exactly what Photoshop is.  It’s simply a tool.  And in truth, almost every professional photographer working today uses Photoshop.  So by extension, practically every photo you see in a magazine, a book or on a web site these days has been “Photoshopped”.  In our industry, the exceptions are the golf course photos taken by golf course architects, superintendents, club members and club pros that go straight from camera to publisher.  But are they real?  They’ve come out of the owner’s camera as jpeg files, a format that has already been automatically processed by the camera’s built in firmware and software.  Contrast has been added, color has been enhanced and the camera has strained a gut attempting to rein in the dynamic range of the photo taken under the midday sun.  So even a “real” photograph has undergone some pretty extensive processing.


Dinosaurs at Druid Hills Golf ClubDinosaurs at Druid HillsDruid Hills Golf Club is old, sure, but not quite THIS old! WHAT IS PHOTOSHOP, ANYWAY?

Photoshop is a software package that allows a photographer to adjust, enhance, clean up and generally improve a photograph.  It also allows one to completely change an image by removing, adding, replacing or significantly altering elements of the original image.  Composite images that include elements from multiple sources to create a “photograph” that never really existed are the most extreme examples of these capabilities.  I think, when someone asks if my images have been “Photoshopped”, it’s this more extreme side of the Photoshop equation to which they are referring.  The idea is, I suppose, that if a photograph has been altered beyond a certain point, it no longer is a legitimate photograph.  


As do most landscape photographers, I shoot in Camera Raw, an image format available in higher end cameras that provides all the information captured by a camera’s sensor, with no significant alteration or adjustment to that data.  When I’m shooting, I’m essentially gathering raw material.  Aside from the basics of composition, exposure and depth of field, it’s the work I do in the studio that makes one of my images one of “My” images. 



The basic items on the agenda when I begin work on an image are adjusting color and light, detail and contrast.  But I also do a significant amount of cleanup when editing a golf course image.  Putting myself in the shoes of the course superintendent, I repair divots on the tee boxes, in fairways and on the greens. Unsightly brown patches are repaired, and sometimes power lines are eliminated.  I don’t alter anything that’s part of a golf course’s basic character, but if it’s a temporary flaw… something a good superintendent would repair himself, if he were there… I take care of it.  I also will often remove out-of-bounds markers and rakes in and around bunkers.  They’re necessary in the field of play, but they add nothing to the photograph.  So I remove them, in the interest of creating the best photograph I can.

Providence CC, 2nd hole Before editingProvidence Country Club, 2nd holeRaw file, before editing. Providence CC, 2nd hole Before editingProvidence Country Club, 2nd HoleNo more divots on the tee!






















The biggest change I ever make to a photograph is sky replacement, and I only do that as a last resort.  Sometimes the lighting is good and an image is strong, but the sky is boring.  If the sky detracts from the image, and I was unable to get the shot I wanted when conditions were good, I will replace it.  In the image below, I was very happy with most of this image from Yishan Golf Club, in Wuhan, Hubei Province, in China.  But during the one good day of light I had during my 6 days at Yishan, the the best image I could get of this hole just didn't pop.  Photoshop to the rescue!  Fortunately, I had photographed this sky earlier in the day at another location on the course, so it is an authentic, Yishan Golf Club sky!  And if I hadn’t just written this description, you would never have known it wasn’t exactly what I saw when I snapped the shutter!

15th hole at Yishan Golf Club, unedited fileYishan GC, Wuhan, Hubei, PR China15th Hole, Raw File 15th hole at Yishan Golf Club, unedited fileYishan GC, Wuhan, Hubei, PR ChinaAfter editing, including sky replacement.






















HDR photography is a controversial photographic technique I sometimes use, most often at sunrise or sunset, when the dynamic range of an image is too much for a single exposure to capture.  The controversy is more because of the poor handling of the technique by inexperienced practitioners of the craft, though, than because the technique itself is flawed.  Done properly, HDR processing is invisible.  You simply see richer color, greater depth and more detail at both ends of the light spectrum than a single image can capture.  HDR is a technique that requires shooting multiple exposures of the same image setup, which are then blended in the studio to greatly expand the dynamic range of an image.  I use this technique when I’m photographing sunrises and sunsets, especially when I’m shooting directly into the sun.  This image of Liberty National Golf Club required 9 exposures to capture the full range of light and color available for this predawn scene.  The unedited file on the left is the middle exposure of the 9 I shot.

Liberty National Golf Club, New JerseyLiberty National Golf Club, pre-dawnThis is the middle exposure of 9 Liberty National Golf Club, pre-dawnAfter editing, Manhattan and Lady Liberty shine!





















So is that a real photograph?  Or is it Photoshopped?  Damned if I know.  But I sure love doing it.  And I think I’ll continue to do so.



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