John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Instant Images?

Is creating a compelling image in programs like Photoshop as simple as clicking a button?

A representative from a publisher came to my office to ask if I was interested in any new textbooks for my classes. He noticed the photographs on my wall, and mentioned that he also likes photography. We got into a little discussion about it, during which I mentioned my interest in Photohop. He admitted that he didn’t know much about it. Looking at me out of the corner on his eye, with just a hint of sarcasm, he said, “It’s great that you can just click a button and turn something into a great photograph.”

I didn’t correct him, but his statement did reflect an attitude that is quite common among people who don’t understand Photoshop or other image editing programs. As if there is some magic button you click to transform, with ease, any photograph into a marvelous work of art. That misconception causes some people to look down on Photoshop users as taking the easy way out, relying on a computer to do the work for them, or somehow being lazy or unskilled at “real” photography. In fact, some people hold that attitude about computers in general: if you produce something with a computer, it must have been easy to do, requiring little skill on your part.

Of course there are all sorts of programs, filters, presets, and actions (just to name a few of the terms people use) that can, with one click, radically transform an image, sometimes with eye-catching results. However, you do have to know what kinds of images work well with a particular photo effect. In some cases the results are rather unimpressive, or just plain bad. Even when the processed image looks good, people who know about image editing will quickly spot a standard photo effect. They may not be impressed, but that shouldn’t stop you from using them when you like the results.

On the other hand, savvy Photoshop users are quite impressed by an image processed with a combination of effects, masks, layers, and a sophisticated adjustment of tone and color controls. These images look unique in ways that cannot be duplicated by a one-button click. It takes quite a bit of knowledge and skill to create them.

Some photographers, even some good ones, may think such skills are an inferior substitute to those required for handling a camera to take a good shot. They are mistaken. Their opinion may reflect that bias against computers. In fact, learning how to process a photo in an image editing program can train the eye to work with tones and colors much like an artist painting on a canvas, in ways that are not possible when shooting with a camera.


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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche