I have this pet peeve with outdoor and travel photography, and the more time I spend on Instagram, the more I encounter it. We all edit our photos. We all add a little saturation or increase the contrast to make the photo pop. Some people even apply a fancy Lightroom preset.

We all edit our photos. I get it.

What I don’t get is Photoshop. I don’t understand why people Photoshop their outdoor photos. I’ve watched people remove entire features like streams or tree stumps or power lines from places I’m familiar with. I’ve seen others edit people out of their photos or change the colours to make a summer photo seem like autumn. 

Photoshop makes me skeptical of all sunrise and sunset photos on the internet. So I end up with this question to those photographers:

Is the world not good enough for you the way it is?

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Mind you, I have a very limited perspective. For starters, I’m not a professional photographer. And I also wonder “do other people even care?” So to properly address this question, I (ironically) took to Instagram and asked everyone I could “how do you feel about Photoshop and outdoor photography?” And the responses I got were a mixed bag.

Everyone likes Lightroom

For those not familiar, Lightroom is like Photoshop’s little cousin. It is a powerful tool for changing the lighting and colour of your photos, but its functionality stops there.

You can saturate specific colours or change the tone curve, but you can’t edit or alter the actual composition of the photo. At least from my understanding, you can’t use it to remove people or objects from the image. I’m actually a big fan of Lightroom myself, and so are a lot of you.

As one person put it: “I use adobe Lightroom in almost all my photos. As long as it’s used to enhance mood or highlight a scene for artistic purpose I wholly endorse it.” But Lightroom isn’t Photoshop. Sure, you’re changing the colours, but the nature of the photo is generally unchanged.

Wait, so people Photoshop their photos?

What I didn’t expect to learn was that a lot of people were surprised that photographers used Photoshop at all. They knew that Photoshop could be used by graphic designers for a variety of purposes – if you haven’t seen the Dove commercial about Photoshop, I’d highly recommend it – but a lot of people didn’t realize it was so commonly used by photographers.

And this is where the problem lies. Say you look at a photo of the view from the top of a mountain. When you eventually go do this hike, it doesn’t look anything like it did in photos.

Is it dishonest for the photographer to let people believe something is a certain way when it’s actually been manipulated?

Sometimes it’s as simple as removing a person from the photo – check out this video to see how easy it is to just remove someone from a photo and fill in the background (skip to 6:28).

However, you can also find tutorials on how to add clouds to a clear sky by combining two images and how to create realistic reflections in water (where there wasn’t a reflection before). I’d argue that these images should no longer be passed off as photography but instead graphic art. But again, we’re back to the initial problem.

Should photographers specify when something has been altered or enhanced?

When I visited to Taj Mahal I was astonished at how many people were there. I asked if it was possible that photographers got private access, allowing them to get photos without people in the way. “It’s called Photoshop” my guide laughed. One Instagram influencer came under heat when she was caught Photoshopping herself into a photo she took. Everyone seemed on the same page that this was dishonest. Removing people and filling in the background, versus layering a photo of yourself onto another photo….

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How different are they really? 

Similarly, is there a different standard when Instagram photographers are making money off of their photos? If an influencer is paid to visit and photograph destination X, and then promotes photos that are completely manipulated – is that false advertising?

Are only sore losers bothered by Photoshop?

Okay, this one stung a little. Some Instagram photographers have told me that doing huge edits like these are incredibly difficult and require significant skill. The people who don’t support Photoshop in landscape photography are usually amateur photographers with few followers who are complaining that the world is unfair.

Amateur photographer with a small following? Check and check.

However, I don’t think that’s a fair argument. It’s incredibly difficult to pull off a high profile bank heist, and most of us would fail if we tried. Does that make a successful bank heist okay? Obviously, Photoshopping photos and orchestrating a bank heist are not the same thing. But I think the analogy acts as a reminder that you can’t judge the ethics of an act based on the skill it requires to pull off.

Do people even care?

When it came to asking non-photographers and Instagram users who aren’t influencers, opinions were mixed but skewed towards a preference for fewer edits and less Photoshop. This blogger fully embraces that she will forever be a bad Instagram-er because she refuses to edit her photos beyond cropping and contrast – anything else would be dishonest in her mind.

While this might be on the extreme side of the spectrum of opinions, it suggests that at least some people are tired of overly edited, manipulated images. The Digital Photography School reported on one instance where the winner of the Landscape Photography of the Year award was stripped of his title and required to give his prize money back after it was discovered just the photo had been extensively edited in Photoshop. So my guess is that, yeah, people care.

Not all professional photographers use Photoshop

I also want to flag that not all professional photographers use Photoshop. It’s difficult to parse out who the users and non-users, but rest assured they are there. This post has a lot of useful tips for improving your photography that don’t include photoshop.

So what’s my opinion in all this?

Personally – and this will be controversial – I don’t like Photoshop being used in outdoor photography. I think the world is beautiful the way it is and when there are inconvenient objects, like people or power lines, that communicates the reality of the image. Sure, maybe it’d be more aesthetically pleasing if they weren’t there, but for me photography is about capturing the world as it is, not manipulating it to make it something it is not.

When it comes to sponsored photographers, I think Photoshopping your images is false advertising. Honestly, I even have mixed feelings about Lightroom sometimes. I think correcting shadows and bringing out colours is reasonable, and I can understand the desire to give all your photos the same tone and theme.

But again, I feel like there is an element of misrepresentation if too much is changed. And Lightroom Presets? Those just seem like expensive Instagram filters to me. Does the world need to always be filtered? Not saying they’re bad or unethical, I just don’t love them. If you didn’t have a chance to voice your opinion when I was writing this post, I’d love for you to share it in the comments below or send me a message. I’d especially love to hear if anyone has the opposite opinion or thinks I’m being too harsh or “purist”. Let’s get a discussion going!

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