Asking how much Photoshop is too much is a very subjective question. Much like how much make up should one wear, or how many beers is considered acceptable on a Friday night, or the dreaded does-my-butt-look-big-in-these-jeans question. But for the sake of clarity, I believe that if we want to get anywhere close to answering the question, it should be divided into at least four parts: the artistic photographer, the photojournalist, the fashion or beauty photographer, and the advertising/product shot photographer.

The artistic photographer pretty much has free reign here, because he or she is limited solely by their imagination and the power of their editing tools. Nobody criticized Vincent van Gogh or Picasso for not being realistic, so this photographer (or Instagrammer, in modern day cases) needn’t worry about a thing. Except LSD.

This leaves us with the last three.

Demi Moore's Photoshop catastrophe

A different kind of thigh gap.

Personally, I feel that the photojournalist should refrain from using Photoshop for anything more than very basic cropping, such as to remove what could be a distraction, and mild adjustments in exposure, levels, and color balancing. Basically, as a rule of thumb, don’t alter the photo in anyway where it starts to tell a different story. The photograph needn’t be beautiful to be powerful, and too much Photoshop can be like overusing adjectives in a news report. The truth should be told, not sold.

The fashion and beauty magazine photographer, on the other hand, has more moral questions to answer here than technical ones. Yes, it’s acceptable to help one look his or her best in a glossy magazine. But when you start crossing the line where beauty becomes unrealistic and manufactured, you’re only contributing to the sales of Prozac in young men and women.

But morality aside, fashion and beauty photographers still need to adhere to some guidelines. There are no real rules of thumb here because you’re relying on a subjective eye. A good example here is when I take photos of friends, women, in particular, who I know are secretly vain. I may remove a zit or smoothen out some wrinkles and brighten up their smile, but I try to always leave a trace of those imperfections behind; just enough to have them even doubting whether the photo was touched up or not.

Adam Levine's looking a bit too thin

Adam Levine or Mr. Fantastic?

If it’s whitening their teeth, I usually select the area, then go desaturate, select yellows (if you go with master desaturation the teeth will come out with an unnatural grey tinge) and then only go 50 percent. This shows an improvement, but it would take a very sharp and experienced eye to know that it was enhanced. It just comes across as a nicely taken shot. Same goes for a pimple or eyeballs and wrinkles. Unless the person deliberately asks for it to be removed, I just soften it by using airbrushes but keeping the strength set to half so that you can still see traces of it.

But as I said, you need to be very careful here because it’s no longer your technical skills that are being judged, but your possibly unsolicited opinion of the person in the photograph. And that can make some very uncomfortable.

Say, for example, you made their teeth Colgate white, made their eyes a little bigger, trimmed their chubby arms or cloned out the man boobs, the subject now is completely aware that you see those as unattractive features and will now feel very conscious knowing you were poking your airbrush around the parts of their body that they’re most conscious about.

Instant fitness with Adobe!

Instant fitness with Adobe!

This can vary, of course, if you have a paid model and this is for an advertising campaign. But if you’re not shooting professionally, it’s always best to either keep everything raw when working with portraits, or go with the tricks I’ve shared if you think your friend will not be conscious about it.

Then there’s the advertising photographer. This is the guy that makes loads of money making that burger look absolutely nothing like the one they just served you. This guy relies on Photoshop to make fiction look like reality. But the magic is all in the subtleties. And believe me, it takes a lot of work to make it look like there wasn’t.

I once worked for a watch magazine where the level of Photoshop required to get the perfect shot was so intense, they may as well have hired someone to paint each watch from scratch. They would work with countless layers and airbrushes, but even after days of work, the overall effect was barely traceable. This was because the goal was perfection, or at least our perception of it.

But perfection in a product is expected. With fashion models, it’s slowly being rejected. So to sum it up, it is not really the amount of Photoshop used that is the question here as the proper use of it. And that opens up a whole new argument.

This article was published in the August issue of 2.O Magazine.

About The Author

James Deakin

James Deakin is a multi-awarded automotive journalist. He has a weekly column in the Philippine STAR’s motoring section, is a motoring corespondent for CNN Philippines, and is the host of the Philippine motoring television show Drive, which airs every Sunday night at 10pm on CNN Philippines.