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I am an amateur. I have a Nikon L120 bridge camera. While taking snaps with that camera I am not able to take get the background out of focus. It is as in-focus as the subject I am trying to capture. I can use photoshop to make it out of focus, but is using PhotoShop to enhance photographs a good habit? If the outcome is good, can the photographer take the credit?

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This isn't about ethics as much as it is about good/bad practices for a novice; it's a very different thing. –  user2719 Aug 23 '12 at 16:41

9 Answers 9

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Whether using photoshop is or not a good practice for a novice, is arguable. Personally I think a novice photographer should make a reasonable effort to obtain the best results right out of the camera. A few arguments are:

Most non dslr cameras shot jpg only. Jpg is a good format, but it also looses a bit of image information. This limits how far a picture can be enhanced or recovered. Bad exposure, heavy white balance shifts, movement or out of focus blur, are often non recoverable.

Even though some effects can be obtainable through editing, they are an imitation of what physics can do, given your lens/sensor properties, and of course the subject and the light lying on them. This makes a true difference between a real "sharp subject, blurry background" and a post production blurred bg. Just to mention one: blurriness in the picture is a function of the distance of the real object from the lens, that is, nor al objects in the background will be equally blurred unless they all are in the same plane (same distance).

Other effects that can not be easily obtainable in post is lighting effects. For example "Rembrandt Lighting". If it's not done by correctly placing subject and light sources during capture, is extremely difficult to achieve in post because, the obtained image should have certain color and tone variations due to light incidence angle, reflections from other objects and that is obviously influenced by your subject's shape. To achieve the same in post, you'd want to add/remove shadows, but that has to be done with specific gradients that are not linearly shaped, tonal shifts, saturation shifts. You can end up deforming terribly a face...

If you spend more time editing your photos rather than preparing your capture, then you are being more an editing artist than a photographer. It's not a bad thing per se, but, "Basic Photography" and "Basic Photo Editing" are rather different courses (if it were about taking classes and class topics) and each has a very specific set of abilities with some overlapping knowledge areas.

A very good observator can distinguish a pre-produced photo from one with the effects applied after, specially with difficult to simulate effects like bokeh (out of focus) and lighting.

Finally, just in case: To achieve what you mention (out of focus background) try these tips:

  • If your camera has portrait mode, try it.
  • Place your subject far from the backgroud, don't make them stand right in front of a wall...
  • Step back and zoom in: this also lessens lens distortion on face and body for a more balanced proportion. It avoid big noses or big foreheads. The zooming in from a distance tends to improve bokeh for most cameras.
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That can be answered with both "yes" and "no".

Almost all digital images go through some form of post-capture processing, whether that be during the "development" of RAW images on a computer or merely the conversion to JPEG using a picture style in the camera. These sorts of adjustments are very much analogous to what we would do in the old days when selecting a film to use, choosing the processing method, and perhaps making and developing the print. For these sorts of adjustments, Photoshop (or one of its immediate competitors) is an awkward, but thoroughly legitimate choice. (Something like Lightroom is a much easier environment to work in for these more global adjustments than, say, the Adobe Camera Raw window in Photoshop.)

After that, it really boils down to intent. In this case, you are trying to make up for the deficiencies of your camera. A purist approach would be to either accept the image as your camera provides it or, if your camera can't provide the image you intended, change your camera. And that purist approach is all well and good as far as it goes, but it's expensive and prevents you from taking the pictures you want until you've paid the entry fee to join the club. As you progress down the rabbit hole that is the photographic hobby, you'll probably begin to acquire gear that is more suitable to whatever style you develop. But if you can express your vision in the meantime only through manipulation, then that is certainly legitimate.

On the other hand, using something like Photoshop to make up for deficiencies in your photography on a regular basis would be a bad habit to get into. Sure, we've all blown the shot at some point and had to rescue it through heroic action, but that should be a fairly rare event. If you find that you're being careless with the camera because you can "fix it in post", then you've gotten into a bad habit. If most of your images need to be recomposed or need major exposure adjustments, then you're relying too much on the software, and should probably try to go Photoshop-free for a period (even if that means shooting camera JPEGs exclusively) just to break you out of that habit.

The object of the game here, no matter what the end product may be, is to get things as right as you can in camera before you proceed to manipulation. That applies to "straight" landscapes and photojournalism, but it also applies to complex composited creations that could never have been shot "straight".

On to the specific topic of bokeh in post: you'll probably find that a plugin such as Topaz Labs Lens Effects or Alien Skin Bokeh 2 will do a much better job than you can do with the native tools in Photoshop (or similar), since they'll allow you to create a depth map or depth gradient to realistically simulate shallow depth of field effects.

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Photoshop has a lot of good uses. It has a lot of bad uses too. If you feel like you are using it to make up for a skill that could be better, then it would be better to go out and improve your skills. Photoshop can also be used to do things that are difficult to do otherwise- for example getting a picture of a single person on a street with more than one person. I take two snaps a couple paces (in time, same physical location) apart and I usually have enough data to get the image I imagined.

On the topic of focus, adding blur in Photoshop is difficult since focal blur is distance dependent. I have not tried doing this in a while, so maybe someone made a blur decoder that generates a z mask for you? Otherwise it is a time intensive task to do correctly.

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I think you might need to think about if you want to be good at photography or good at photoshop. There are no penalties for doing one over the other, you can even get good at both over time.

People can be harsh about photoshop use but if the mobile application Instagram is any indication of where photography is headed I don't think its such an issue to do a lot of post processing.

To achieve the effect of blur in a camera you basically need a differnt lens, or use your lens differently. You want to lock your lens at the largest aperture you lens will allow - inversely the lowest number 1.2 , 1.8 , 2 , 4. Try messing around with the camera set to Aperture priority mode with the aperture fully open. Try long shots and close ups.

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I think that there are a variety of tools available to make the image you want. Use what best helps you achieve your goal. There is no right or wrong. I my world, "good" is what produces the results you want. You have to decide what you think is good.

Having said that, I think it would be non-controversial to say that the better the raw material, the better the result.

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Photoshop has the advantage of being the defacto standard for photoediting. While there are many, many other tools for photoediting, including many that are more geared toward the beginner, Photoshop is essentially the standard.

Having started with 3 other programs before relenting and buying Photoshop, I know this from experience. When you are stuck, or need to understand how to use a feature, there is an incredible amount of online tutorials, blogs, videos, books, and classes that will instruct you on anything to do with Photoshop, much of it free or inexpensive. It is this ecosystem that makes the Photoshop purchase worthwhile, vs any other tools. Other tools have much less available.

As for ethics, ask yourself if it was ethical for Ansel Adams to dodge and burn his images, to adjust development time as he processed his photos. He did the version of photoshop from his day: wet darkroom development. Adams would never dream of sending his film off for development and printing, just as many photographers would never publish an image that they had not edited in Photoshop.

Sure, you can change or add things to an image with Photoshop, but you know what? You could do that before Photoshop or even computers.

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As with anything in life you can over do it. Practicing with moderation is key. I am a professional instructor at a university in Graphic Design & Photography and I don't try to scare my students away from editing photos or touching them up. However, getting a shot as best as you can in camera will only make it look even better when you take it into Photoshop! So really, there is not definitive answer for this besides practicing with moderation! Best of luck to you!

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Digital editing of the photo is a tool, like any other. Being a novice means you need advice when to use which tool. Given what you are trying to do, it would be more efficient to get this effect on the camera using Jahaziel's tips as that is faster.

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The question is all about personal preference, in my opinion (pun intended). Photoshop is an excellent tool for photographers to enhance or alter their images. Photoshop can also be used as a crutch for photographers who are either too lazy or not experienced and/or gifted enough to get the composition they wanted out of the shot before touching it up.

To me, there's a difference between "touching up a photo" during post-processessing, and changing the soul of the image. It's a fine line to draw, and also can become a bad habit if the photographer isn't careful. I use photoshop to make sure my color balance and tonal structure is calibrated properly, so I can get the printer to reproduce the photo exactly how it is supposed to look. I also occasionally use it for cropping and other post-production techniques depending on what my client wants out of the photo.

As a general rule, I always try to get as close as possible to the image I am going for while im on the scene. If I feel like I have a good bit of work to do post-processing that involves "cleaning up" my images (i.e. fixing mistakes) then it's clear to me I didn't do a good job capturing the image. From there I use Photoshop as a good teaching tool because I can get very specific on the things I made mistakes on (i.e. compositional issues vs. exposure and metering).

There is no question Photoshop enhances our ability to provide a better image than we could without it. But when I start to dive more into the realm of covering up mistakes as opposed to retouching already-present characteristics that I wanted, then I have to ask myself what I'm going after.

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