Photoshopped Dreams

Does post-processing enhance or detract from the photography experience?

Since childhood, I have suffered from a debilitating illness known as “wanderlust.” My symptoms include excessive daydreaming about places I have yet to visit, estimating travel expenses to literally everywhere in the world, and spending hours on the internet ogling photos of beautiful destinations.

Majestic ice-capped mountains. Glistening turquoise waters. Lavender fields at sunset. The places —  the photos — looked so perfect. I wanted to see it all. More than that, I wanted to join the ranks of those talented photographers who could perfectly capture those breathtaking scenes and inspire others to see the world.

Over the years, I have taken millions of photos. When I got my hands on my first DSLR camera, I thought my next photo would definitely go on the cover of National Geographic. It didn’t happen. Clearly a picture of my backyard taken using the camera’s automatic mode wasn’t going to cut it. I gradually learned how to adjust aperture, exposure, ISO, and shutter speed to get the exact lighting I envisioned. Eventually, I could shoot in manual mode and manually focus without a second thought. However, no matter where I went with my camera — Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Caribbean — I just couldn’t quite get the results I dreamed of. My sunsets were not vivid enough. My trees did not have enough sunlight streaming through. My clouds were not fluffy enough. And when they were, the sky just wasn’t blue enough.

And then one day, Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop changed my life. Sure, I had heard of photo editing and filters before. But part of me was holding on to the belief that I didn’t need post-processing to “fix” my pictures. I just needed to keep trying, keep practicing, and keep traveling until I found my perfect shot. However, my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to see what the software was all about. I started by a watching a tutorial video of someone creating a sunset. Wait. Creating a sunset? Yes. He made a sunset where no sunset existed before. It started as a gloomy photo of waves crashing against a cliffside with a lighthouse in the distance. Fifteen minutes later, it was a masterpiece. The sky glowed with pinks and oranges as the last rays of the (previously nonexistent) sun sank behind the cliff. Even the water sparkled in the sunset.

I was extremely impressed, but at the same time, I felt like I had suddenly lost something. The magic was gone. A portrait of a happy child running through a golden hayfield on a sunny day could be five or more photos meticulously stitched together. Were all the photos I looked up to merely photoshopped dreams? Was the reason that my photos never looked like the ones on postcards simply because those scenes never existed?

The photos below are examples of what a little bit of editing can do.

Forest Original

Original Image


Edited Image – “Light Through the Trees”

My original photo lacks vibrance and depth. Popular forest images often feature sunlight filtering through trees. To create the edited image, I inserted a “sun” and adjusted the transparency and placement until it blended into the original picture. Then I tweaked the exposure, temperature, saturation, etc. of the image until it looked like the sunlight belonged among the trees.


Original Image

Shine brighter

Edited Image – “Rays of Light”

For this photo of Galveston, the only tool I used was a graduated filter with a dehazing option to bring out the blue sky.

If I can drastically change my photos with just a few steps, it is no surprise that photographers skilled at post-processing can create stunning photos out of what would have initially been mediocre shots. I am not saying that all great photos are edited. It is possible to actually photograph a rainbow over Half Dome with an eagle flying overhead, and I have enormous respect for those photographers who can pull it off. However, the vast majority of my photos do not look spectacular. Sometimes my camera isn’t ready when a deer runs by, or a tourist obstructs the view. Sometimes I set my camera down to simply enjoy the view.

Initially, I was disillusioned by post-processing, but with more experience, I am starting to appreciate what it adds to the photography world. The man who created a sunset behind a cliff? Just because his original photo did not have a sunset does not mean that he didn’t see one when he was there. When photographers take long-exposure shots (think silky waters), very dim lighting is necessary, otherwise the whole photo turns out white. Thus, it is common to wait until the sun has already gone down before taking a photo and then adding the sunset back. Similarly, when I took my forest picture, the morning light filtered through the treetops as I hiked, and a light breeze blew through the leaves. I felt rejuvenated and at peace. My original photo does not convey any of this. My edited photo is much closer to my actual experience in the forest. It captures my mood at the time, the essence of my forest experience.

Sure, if you look at an HD photo of a national park and try to recreate the scene with just your camera phone in jpg format, then you will be disappointed. But it does not mean that your experience there won’t be amazing. Ultimately, a photograph is only two-dimensional. Your experiences are much more than that. Photo-editing, when done right, is not meant to mislead people. It’s a tool to help you express the sights, sounds, and feelings you lived through in a format you can hang on your wall. In a way, a post-processed photo might be a better reflection of reality.

Thus, I am going to keep looking at great photos and continue planning for my next adventure. I may not see a herd of reindeer underneath the northern lights in Norway, but I have faith that I will not be disappointed with what I do find. It’s going to take a lot more than post-processing software to cure me of wanderlust.

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