Why saying “it’s photoshopped” actually means you don’t know what you’re talking about

Every day about 200 million photographs get uploaded to Facebook. That’s almost double the number of all the books that have ever been published in human history. And that’s just Facebook, I’m not even mentioning Instagram, Snapchat, or just the photos everybody takes and doesn’t even post online.

Photoshop CC

While taking all those pictures, most people don’t really think about what they’re actually doing, or how the process works. But if they did think about it, I guess their reasoning for that process would be somewhat like this:

  1. There’s this thing in front of me, it’s called reality
  2. I can use my eyes to see this reality
  3. If I want to capture the reality in front of me and show it to somebody else, I can use my camera
  4. The best possible camera would capture the reality in front of me perfectly, and it would look the same like this thing I’m seeing with my eyes
  5. If somebody uses Photoshop to change the picture that their camera had captured, it’s ok to do so if they’re trying to bring it closer to reality, but really bad if they overdo it and get it further away from reality. And it’s really, really bad if they use it to make someone look beautiful, although I think they’re ugly

Lots of photographers will jump at this conclusion and say “No, it’s not about the camera, you have to be a better photographer to get better (e.g. more realistic) pictures”. They will obviously have a problem with point nr. 4.
Other photographers will know a bit more about how their camera actually works, and they will have a problem with point nr. 3.
Other photographers will know a bit more about how art works and what they want to do, and they will have a problem with point nr. 5.

A small percentage of photographers will have a problem with point nr. 2. The reason is that as much as education about photography is crucial if you want to be a better photographer, understanding that point nr. 2 is also completely wrong requires not only learning about photography, but also learning a bit about physics and evolutionary biology.

By the end of this post you will probably agree with me that points 2, 3, 4 and 5 are all ridiculously wrong. Things we need to cover to get to that conclusion are:

  • Your camera does not “see reality”
  • Your eyes do not see reality either

After we go through this, I will explain what photography is really about, at least for me.

P.S. I know –what about point nr. 1? To tell you the truth, I have no idea. In college I had a course called “Physics & Philosophy” where we would spend most of the time arguing with the professor. He would tell you that maybe point nr. 1 is also wrong. I would strongly disagree, but the truth is that neither of us really knew. The good thing is that for the purpose of this blog post, we don’t really need to know.

So let’s get on with it…

Your camera does not “see reality”


If you use your smartphone to take pictures you probably do it by opening the camera app, pointing the smartphone in the direction of the thing you want to photograph, and clicking a button. That’s it. If the camera and the conditions around you are good enough, the image you see on the screen will look more or less like the scene you’re seeing in front of you. Then you’ll happily click the share button and just wait for the ego-boosting likes to keep coming. I don’t know about you, but I can feel the warmth of them just by writing this. :D

But then one day, you realise that maybe your smartphone has some weird stuff called “camera settings”. Or better yet, you don’t use a smartphone. Maybe you even use a big bulky complicated DSLR, and you’re so brave that you turn the little dial knob all the way to M (in this case, hopefully you dial M for manual, not murder).

Now before taking a picture there are all of these decisions that you have to make. What shutter speed to use, what aperture, what ISO value, how much to zoom in or out, where to focus, what White Balance setting to use… And when you decide on all of those, what kind of light source will you use? Continuous or flash? Big or small? Sharp or soft?

It’s normal for somebody who has just bought a DSLR to be completely intimidated, turn the knob back to A (meaning automatic), and hope that the DSLR will make better pictures then the smartphone because, well, it’s bigger and all the Pros use it. Sometimes it will. But most of the time, I’m sorry to say – no.

Some of those settings will actually make your photos “better” or “worse”. For example, using a lower ISO setting will give you photos with less noise, while using a higher ISO setting will give you sharper photos in conditions with very little light availble.

But changing most of the settings can completely alter how “real” your photo looks. Without using Photoshop or any other kind of photo manipulation on the computer, just by changing the settings, any “real” photo can be made to look incredibly “unreal”. This is why it makes absolutely no sense when someone says “it’s straight from the camera”. This usually means that it’s somehow more real or better that if it was edited on a computer. But considering that you can almost endlessly modify any picture you take before even taking it, just by pushing some buttons and turning some knobs, “straight from the camera” really makes no sense.

Sure, you’ve probably seen beautiful long-exposure waterfalls or portraits with blurry backgrounds, but here’s a photo I took of some fireworks:


I only played with long exposure and shifting the focus point, with no editing on the computer. Well, almost no editing.

Do you think that’s what fireworks “really” look like? No, don’t think so. But then, maybe cameras can capture reality, and the photographer’s job is to get the settings right so that the camera captures the same thing that we see with our eyes? Because our eyes see reality? Right?
Wrong. The thing is…

Your eyes don’t see reality either

Your eyes don’t work like your camera

Before we get into this, let’s make one thing clear – your eyes don’t exactly work the same way your camera does.  For starters, your camera can zoom (or you can change lenses).
Your eyes, unlike the eyes of some birds, can’t do that. On your DSLR you can put lenses with shorter or longer focal length – the shorter the focal length, the wider the field of view will be. For a typical Full-Frame DSLR, this can range anywhere from about 10 to about 1000 millimeters. Here’s the lenses you could buy just for Canon DSLR cameras a couple of years ago:

Canon lens lineup

Your eye a has field of view equivalent to a 43mm lens, thus settling the everlasting debate of whether the 35mm or the 50mm lens “sees” exactly like the human eye. In other words, the human eye has more or less the same field of view like some of the small lenses in the front row.
Your typical DSLR (as well as some smartphones) has a sensor with about 20 million pixels. Your eye has about 130 million pixels, but only 6 million of them see color. Others see only black and white.
Most importantly, only a very small part of what you “see” is what you’re actually seeing. Most of the image in your brain is constructed from what you have seen in the past, while “live feed” comes only when it’s necessary. This is the brain’s way of compressing data, like when you turn a big video into a smaller compressed one. The smaller video is easier to upload to YouTube, and altough this may offend you, your brain also has limited bandwith.

And finally, just like for the camera, the settings for the eye can be changed. For example, a camera could overexpose a picture while messing up the white balance setting, thus making a certain black-and-blue dress look gold-and-white. If it does so in just the right way, different human eyes can mess up their white balance for the image in different ways.

Yes, I admit, I also see the dress as white-and-gold. I know that it doesn’t actually look like that, but my eyes and my brain keep lying to me. But there’s a reason I’m not worried about that. You see, all of our eyes and brains keep lying to us. So what I say is – screw them, let’s see how stuff really looks.

You don’t see most of the stuff that happens around you

Now let us leave the photography world for a while, and get a bit into physics biology. Don’t worry, it won’t be boring like it was in school.

So how do you actually see everything around you?
The most basic explanation is – there’s a light source. The Sun, a lamp, a flash – doesn’t really matter what. All light sources are basically the same: they emit photons. Photons travel from the light source to an object. Let’s say they travel from a light on your ceiling to a wall behind your computer screen. The photons bounce off of the wall, and travel to your eyes. Your eyes register them, send the signal to your brain, and then the brain tells you: “hey, there’s a wall behind your computer screen”.
Photons are particles, not really the same as, but kind of similar to tons of other particles which also travel around you all the time. For example, there are particles called neutrinos, and millions of them are passing through you right now. You don’t care, do you? And why would you – you don’t see them, you can’t feel them, so how do you really know that they even exist? Well, there’s really good evidence saying that they do exist, altough you can’t see them. There are also particles which you also can’t see, but damn well can feel. Maybe you don’t care about neutrinos, but if you would eat something radioactive you would definitely care about stuff like alpha particles, although you can’t see them either.
So everything that you see around you is just stuff which reflected one type of particles, while most of the things that go on around you don’t even get noticed.

Colors you see don’t really exist

Photons travel in waves. If you remember  your highschool physics, waves have a frequency. Different frequencies mean different colors. Right now, the computer I’m writing this on is standing on a brown desk. What that really means is that of all the different photons that exited a light bulb in my room, only the brown ones bounced off my desk and came to my eyes. The rest of them were absorbed by the desk.

There are tons of photons with different frequencies that you can’t even see. Infrared, ultraviolet, radio waves, microwaves, gamma rays… These are all waves of photons, but you can’t see them. The only ones that you see are a small range of photons, with different colors. All the different frequencies of photons fall into something called the electromagnetic spectrum, and by the courtesy of Wikipedia we can show them all in one picture:

Electromagnetic spectrum

Notice how the waves with color are just a tiny part of the whole spectrum. But the thing is – even they don’t really have a color. A color is just a construct that your brain has made up. Your brain said to your eyes: “When this type of photon comes in I’ll turn that into a signal for color red, and when this other type of photon comes in I’ll turn that into a signal for blue. When all of them come together I’ll show that as white, and when none of them come I’ll show that as black.”

The photons themselves don’t really have any color, that’s just something your brain made up because it’s useful. The reason it’s useful is because you use your eyes (e.g. registering photons) as your primary way of, well, living in the world. You use your eyes more then you use your ear or nose.
But not all animals do. Biologist Richard Dawkins has famously speculated that some species of bats see sound in the form of colors. And why wouldn’t they? Color is the most useful tool for mammal brains, and they use echolocation just like you use sight.
So while you see colors, there are bats that can hear colors. I know that this sounds really weird, but it’s really not. Hell, there are even people who can hear or smell colors. Color doesn’t really exist in physical world, it’s just a construct of your brain. Get used to it.

Objects you see… Yeah, they’re not what you think they are

If biology wasn’t shocking enough for you, let’s add a bit of physics, shall we?
We’ve established that the wall behind your computer screen, or your desk, or pretty much anything around you doesn’t really have color.
But it does exist, right? I mean, your table is a solid object, and you don’t have to actually see that – it can be checked simply by banging your fist into it. Even more so for the wall.
The things around you do feel solid, but that’s just because when you touch/hit them, there are electrical forces at work. And electrical forces can hurt.

But in reality, your wall, your desk, and everything around you (including yourself) is made of atoms. Atoms have a bunch of particles in the middle (called a “core”), and some particles around the core (called “electrons”). You’ve probably seen in school the model where the atom looks like a small solar system, with a core in the middle and electrons circling around it. That’s not completely true because electrons don’t really “circle” the core. Actually, they’re not even at one place at a certain time, but that’s due to quantum mechanics. And quantum mechanics is way too weird even for this blog post, so we won’t touch it any more.

The part that interests us is the scale of the model. The core of the atom is really, really small. But if it was waaaay bigger, let’s say like a tennis ball, you could put that tennis ball in the middle of a huge football stadium. In that scenario an electron would be smaller than a fly, somewhere on the stands of the stadium. Everything else in the stadium would just be empty space.
That’s what stuff around you is actually made of – most of it is just empty space, nothing else. Let that sink in a little bit more. Everything that you see around you right now, everything that you’ve ever seen, everything you’ve ever imagined and even everyone you’ve ever met – most of it was just empty space.

If you would take all the people that currently live on planet Earth, remove the empty space from them and push them all together, how much space do you think they would take?
We don’t have to do the math because my new favourite blog has the answer. All the humans on the planet Earth, without the empty space in them, would easily fit in one single M&M:

Single mm

So far we’ve established that your camera doesn’t capture what your eyes see, the colors that your eyes see don’t really exist, there are tons of particles around you that you don’t see, and everything that you do see is mostly just empty space. Whatever this thing that your eyes see is – it’s definitely not reality. But then the obvious question is…

So what’s the point of photography?


First I want to make something clear. Although we’ve seen that photographs don’t show reality (and neither do your eyes), real events still happen around us all the time.
Good things, bad things, funny things, sad things. Things we celebrate and things we condemn. Things that make sense, things that don’t make sense, and even Leo not winning an Oscar. All of these (don’t) really happen. And there are photographers who have a job of showing those things to the world.
For the reasons we’ve covered, this is not easy. Associations like World Press Photo now have very detailed rules about what actually is, and what isn’t, allowed when it comes to editing photographs. And they still regularly disqualify photographers whom they have already awarded. This is a complicated problem, but seeing what we’ve learned so far, it’s not really that surprising.

If you’re thinking now that the same rules should apply when it comes to “photoshopping” people, I’m very sorry, but that’s not likely to happen. And I don’t think that it should. Yes, I also hate it when someone retouches the skin to the level of it losing all texture, resulting in a face that’s smooth like a bowling ball.
But I don’t hate because it’s “not real”, I hate it because it’s bad retouching. Actually, it’s just bad taste. Like doing a black and white photo and leaving a part of it in color. It’s not bad because it’s not real – it’s bad because it’s bad. There is no good explanation for this, just like there is no good scientific explanation for the fact that guys who wear white sneakers have extremely bad taste. They just do.

But then, documentary photography is just one kind of photography among countless others. Its job is to present events which  have really happened, but in pretty much all other types of photography that’s not what we’re trying to do. Whether you like it or not, photography is a form of art, and art’s purpose is definitely not to show “reality” as it “really” is.
I won’t try to answer the question about the purpose of art, but I can tell you what its purpose is to me. First of all, for me art should be about sending a message. Saying something to the world. Expressing your opinion in a much more powerful way than just by, well, saying it. Most of my photographs can’t do that.
But I’m trying.
In most of them I can only hope that I’ll cause some emotions, to stir them up in the person who’s looking at the photograph, and most of the time that’s good enough for me.

But trying to show reality like it really is in photography? Or in art in general? I would never want to do that. Not just because it would be wrong, but also because, frankly – it would be utterly boring.