Photoshop is a commonly used tool by photographers. It allows for making a variety of adjustments to images to enhance the way they look.

There are many consumer targeted filters and effects that help replicate some of the techniques used by highly skilled photographers, however the results often fail to really compare to the results the original photographers achieve.

Why is this? What is needed to achieve something more akin to the original look?

  • 3
    I don't agree with your assumption. For example the consumer targeted VSCO preset app for mobile devices truly does compare and that is why I believe it has been such a successful product.
    – dpollitt
    Dec 4 '14 at 18:13
  • What app are you talking about? The only thing I could find is VSCO Cam and I couldn't find any review sites talking about it, just their own site. The number of reviews was pretty low too. Is there some other app I'm missing? And are you seriously indicating that you think an automated filter applied to a random cellphone photo achieves similar quality to a properly adjusted tone curve applied to a carefully selected image?
    – AJ Henderson
    Dec 4 '14 at 19:09
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    @DavidRicherby - yeah, I know it sounds obvious, but we get a ton of questions that this basically boils down to the answer of. The point of this question is to further explain why the skill matters for those askers. While it may seem obvious to you and I, it isn't obvious to everyone.
    – AJ Henderson
    Dec 5 '14 at 15:35
  • @AJHenderson Yeah, I noticed you'd self-answered after I wrote the comment. And, actually, your answer pretty much covers that point so I'll delete the comment. Dec 5 '14 at 17:11

In addition to the factors mentioned by AJ Henderson, I think another important aspect here is previsualization. A highly skilled photographer already has a very good idea of what she/he wants the final picture to look like before actually taking it. In such a case the photographer might then work "backwards" from the desired output (be it via the digital toolchain or via traditional darkroom techniques), imagining what input (raw file or unprocessed negative) is necessary in order to obtain the desired output (edited digital file or print). This requires a high level of skills and and a lot of experience, which an expert photographer obviously should have.

In short, this means that the Photoshop filters look good because the photographer already was thinking about applying these filters when taking the picture and thus created a raw file that was "designed" for these filters being applied.

  • +1 Yes, absolutely, that is what I was getting at when I was talking about the artistic vision, but this is a great clarification of what that means.
    – AJ Henderson
    Dec 4 '14 at 17:20

While Photoshop is a very powerful tool, it is by no means the only tool involved in producing a high quality photo, nor the most important one. Photography is a crap in/crap out type of art form. You can't achieve a good end result by taking crap in to Photoshop and somehow expecting it to magically allow you to fix what is inherently broken.

Photography is a complex and deep field. Achieving a great photo requires taking a good photo, with an artistic vision (which godfatherofpolka's answer describes well) and intent for how you want it to come out. What angle should the photo be taken from, what lens should be used, what lighting should be altered? This and countless other questions are key to having a good starting point from which to work.

So, fine, lets assume we have a great photo to start with, why do the filters still not match the results achieved by someone skilled in Photoshop? It continues to be a matter of artistic vision and skill. Filters apply a general pattern to an image, but really good application of effects to an image requires careful customization to the way the image looks to start. Just using a basic filter is a bit like trying to paint the Mona Lisa with a spray paint can that only comes in one color. You might get something that is recognizable as an imitation of the Mona Lisa, but won't get much further than that.

Really getting the look requires careful control of how the image is manipulated and painstakingly tweaking it to fit the desired aesthetic. There is no magical button to do this quickly and most likely it took the original photographer a decent amount of time to produce the look as well. It is often possible to determine the basic adjustments that were made, but the art work of it is in the fine tuning and that is going to be unique on a per photo basis, so even knowing exactly what the photographer did won't help much if you don't have a similar level of skill.

So in short, the key issue is that photography, both the capture and the manipulation is an art form. You need to be skilled in each to fine tune an image. A great photograph makes it look deceptively easy, but 9 time out of 10, it takes a lot of skill and effort to really achieve that look you are hoping to emulate.

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