Saturday, March 13, 2010

Zen and the Art of Photoshop

Gautama Buddha gathered his students for a talk. When all were gathered, the Buddha remained silent. Some students wondered if the Buddha was tired or sick as he remained completely quiet, merely holding up a flower and staring intently at it.

Many of the Buddha's students tried, without success, to interpret what this might mean? One student, a dude named Mahakasyapa, suddenly broke into a really big, fat, smile! The Buddha acknowledged Mahakasyapa's insight.

As I continue on my photographic journey towards photo nirvana, I find myself applying less and less Photoshop processing to my pics. Yeah, I still make adjustments to the levels and color. I crop. I cover blemishes. I sharpen the pics a bit. I might also convert the images to monochrome. But, for the most part, that's pretty much all I do these days.

It wasn't always that way.

There was a time I applied almost everything Photoshop could conjure in an attempt to make my pretty girl pictures, well, picture perfect. I sought Photoshop knowledge regularly. Every new tool or process or action or technique I found, I'd try out on my pics. Sometimes I liked the results. Sometimes I didn't. Sometimes, most times in fact, I was unsure of whether I liked what I had done, what Photoshop had done... or not.

These days, once I've edited my pics down to a few I want to play with, I find myself staring intently at them. More so as I consider what I might do, post-processing-wise, to enhance the photos. I use a few, basic, Photoshop tools and processes rather automatically, e.g., crop, basic adjustments, blemish removal. Then, I stare again. I usually try this and that but, more often than not, I end up deleting the layers that contain whatever I thought would make the photo better. Often enough, I do this even when whatever it was I applied does seem to make the picture "better." Last thing I do is sharpen the image a bit, then save it.

But what constitutes better? Is manipulating the image in ways that no longer reflects the natural beauty or allure of the model better? Better than what? Better than reality? Better than nature? Better than the model herself?

I suppose it often is.

Better, that is.

Leastwise, it's often better in the eyes and minds of the masses. After all, when it comes to pretty girl pics and the many people who enjoy them, fantasy usually trumps reality. We see those fantasy aspects played out in the model's poses and expressions, in the lighting we throw at our subjects, in the environments we shoot our models in and more. Why not also use plenty of post-processing to further create pure fantasy?

Sounds reasonable.

But then, as I sit and stare at my photos, I question whether exaggerating the fantasy aspects of my pretty girl pics, especially in post, makes the model too perfect, too unattainable, too unlike a real woman? So much so, that it creates a feminine image of someone who is quite unlike every pretty girl I see, every day.

And here's the rub, no pun intended, too much fantasy manipulation actually ruins the fantasies for me.

Who knew a sexy pic of a sexy chick could motivate such heavy, introspective, thinking?

I think the Buddha knew.

And I think the Buddha would approve.

As usual, I'm just saying.

The pretty girl at the top is Cytherea from a few years ago. Cytherea's modeling handle, BTW, is another name for the goddess, Aphrodite, of Greek mythology. Aphrodite is the goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality.


John said...

"But what constitutes better?"

Better? I don't know. I can only judge whether it is closer to what was in my mind when I pressed the shutter release.

Nice koan.

Lee said...

Great post, Jimmy. I've come to many of these same conclusions and have gotten to the same place in Photoshop. Sometimes sitting in front of an image trying to decide where to take it I realize that I do so little these days that I can't even remember a lot of what I used to know. I think I used to be better with photoshop but worse at photography. These days I guess I'm not so great at photoshop but I'm a better photographer.

I'll take that.

jimmyd said...


What constitutes "better" is the point. If your photography is only for you, it's simply what you think is better. If you're shooting for clients, they decide what's better. If you're shooting for both yourself and for others, e.g., a forum or Flickr audience the others often decide what's better whether you agree or not.


It's easier to become a better digital image maker than it is to become a better photographer. For the most part, a photograph is what you snap. A digital image is less static. It can be changed as often as you wish.... if that makes sense.

Bill Giles said...

I think back to the time that I read Ansel Adams "The Print". Most of his straight prints were pretty plain and lifeless. Adams said that he worked on the prints until they met his "vision". I think that the most important thing is to have a vision of what you want an image to be. Once you reach the vision, in camera or in post, you are done.

Anonymous said...

Spot on buddy, I see lots of people wanting to enter the commercial photography arena and I see the tons and tons and tons of post processing (famous photographer style they call it in the countless PS tutorials) but when someone asks for advice I always send them to open a magazine (one that has advertising that´s likely the one he/she wants to get to do) and ask them to watch if there´s the "famous photographer style" photoshop there.

More often than not some of these shooters have already found their "voice" in photography and they muted it by doing a post processing that´s popular in flickr making his/her photos less striking because they look like the 349,592,234 people who thought the tutorial was super awesome.

How many Dave Hills we need? I think just 1, Dave Hill is unique because his post processing is linked to the core of the concept and style of his photos which are like comic book/illustration style: his lighting, posing, composition, etc. are done to match this style of his (unlike thinking his style is just the way he does his post processing) if you take this core out of the photo and you add only the post processing it becomes meaningless.

There´s has to be a meaning on why we do something: adding blindly rim lights or using a ringflash or using a PS tutorial because someone read in a blog/tutorial that´s what makes a photo cool isn´t reason enough.

As for "fixing" in post: if you put a ribbon to a turd it doesn´t makes it less ugly neither less stinky :P.

PS isn´t a panacea is just a tool that used judiciously allows you to get the photo were you want (like you said contrast, sharpening, removal of dust bunnies, skin post processing -no blur filter please!-) if you use it to "fix" then it looks like a page typed in a typing machine with lots of spots of liquid paper!.

Great article Jimmy!
My best wishes


gary roberts said...

It is funny I have recently started keeping before and afters of my edits of certain photos. Mostly to see what it is I am doing and possibly to share as I try to focus my online social media strategy.

What I have found interesting is except in cases where I am working toward a specific look most of my edits don't really show.

I think for me this has helped me realize just how far my lighting and understanding of photography has come in the past 4 or 5 years.

Then again sometimes I still have to go off the photoshop beam and play with layers, textures plug ins etc just to keep myself educated and sometimes please the client.

But the less I have to do by necessity the happier I am.