Photoshop gets a bad rap

“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.”

~Ansel Adams

Photoshop gets a bad rap.  So-called ‘serious’ photographers disdain its very existence.  They think anyone using it must be sub-par as a photographic artist.


 Let’s talk about that. 

 My first class for my Master’s degree was a History of Photography class.  In it I learned an astounding truth — photographic manipulation has been practiced since the beginning of the medium!

The phrases “dodging” and “burning” quoted by Ansel Adams above refer to the conscious lightening or darkening of particular parts of an image as it’s being printed in a darkroom. 

But it goes way beyond that!

The first photograph was captured in 1826.  The first glass negative enabling multiple copies were created in 1851.  Almost immediately those negatives were being combined to create ‘manipulated’ pictures.

It is nigh impossible (even with today’s equipment) to get a properly exposed landscape shot without sacrificing detail in the sky – particularly if it is high overcast.  An image just isn’t as compelling if there a plain, overexposed sky.  Wouldn’t it be better to combine a picture of dramatic clouds with a picture of an interesting foreground?   

Sea with dramatic clouds


Here it is done masterfully by Gustave Le Gray, a French photographer in 1857.

The sky is taken from one picture and the water from another.  They were combined in the darkroom.

  “Well, that’s not that bad,” you say. 


 Just wait.

Composit photograph of girl dying


In 1858, Henry Robinson created a composite image titled “Fading Away.”  The image shows a young woman on her deathbed accompanied by grieving family members in various poses.  He made this picture by combining 5 separate negatives.



 Okay, let’s take it one step further.  What about a complete construction of a scene whose end bears no resemblance to the reality of the actual location. … That couldn’t be done without Photoshop … could it? 

Here’s a simple photograph.  Looks straight-forward, doesn’t it?  Again, just wait …

Combined negative print - "Here They Come"


Henry Robinson describes how this image was created:  “the two figures were placed in position on the bank I have described, and a negative taken of them. At the top of the bank was a brick wall: this was objectionable, and had to be removed from the picture; to do which a print was taken of the plate, but neither toned nor fixed, the figures and bank carefully cut out, and the remaining portion of the paper neatly pasted on the negative. Another print was then taken, in which the sky appeared too white; therefore the print was laid on a board, the figures and bank covered exactly with the impression from which the sky had been cut, a clean glass placed over the whole, and the board was carried into the light and the sky graduated down. This proceeding is very simple …” 

If that was ‘very simple,’ the implication is that this type of work was commonly executed by experienced photographic artists of the day.


So, all you who think that Photoshop is of the devil and the crutch of talentless goofs…

 The joke’s on you!


Cited references:
Photojournalism, an ethical approach
A paper written in 1860 by Henry Robinson regarding “Printing photographic pictures from several negatives.”

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