Bil Zelman On The Strobist

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Photoshop was something I resisted using for years, but I’m now pretty good with it and clean things up and sometimes remove things and such. But I would never use it to try and make a dull photo interesting — which we now see a lot of.


There Are 31 Comments On This Article.

  1. Russell Kaye

    I wonder if there are any photo editors that would care to weigh in on this topic – maybe share a few links?

  2. I think statements like “I would never use it to try and make a dull photo interesting” are just a bunch of bull. For one thing, it all depends on what you mean by ‘dull’ and ‘interesting.’ [Former President Clinton could perhaps address that]

    By a huge margin I am a ‘film photographer’ – but I also strongly feel that categorical statements like that just don’t contribute anything to a creative dialog.

  3. I agree with Christian @ 2 .

    As if film users didn’t do everything we could to create something from nothing; dodge, burn, airbrush, cross process, posterization – whatever it takes. There is a line that is frequently crossed that turns the photo into an electronic illustration but I don’t think the line is crossed by making a dull image interesting.

  4. el cinesajista

    Just think about some of the images that come from people using pinhole, toy, tiltshift, collodion, polaroid, etc… If he is honestly talking about talentless hacks with photoshop skills, then shouldn’t he also call out those using one of the aforementioned processes?

    Seems like this post is a bit slanted.

  5. The point he’s making which I agree with is that the interesting image/subject/lighting/technique has to come first.

    Too much using post to try and make bad images good. We used to do it all the time and it always failed.

    • Dan Westergren

      @A Photo Editor,
      Rob, I find it a little funny that you make this comment only a few days after the Andy Anderson interview. But even now as I write this I guess I don’t disagree with the part about making bad images good. What is really scary is the unbelievable level that photoshop has risen to in making good images Unbelievably good. In a comment about the Erik Almås post last month Jean-Marie really nailed it when she said,

      “Also, I think there is a group of photographers who have a very similar retouching look: Erik Almas, Andy Anderson, Jim Erickson, Jim Fiscus, Andy Mahr, Eric Kiel, and others- and I think a great deal of that look can be attributed to Jim Erickson’s FatCat retouching business that in effect solidified this look and its popularity years ago. Jim and FatCat in some ways were the tipping point for this look and its acceptance in the advertising world.”

      So, Let’s go look at FatCat to see what’s possible and what’s being done.

      Be sure to see the Easter Island example.

      Here’s another example of some amazing photoshop work

      Check out Process button example #3. Feel free to extrapolate that look onto Andy Anderson’s photos.

      I’m not even going to get into “Annie’s Look” Which is a whole ‘nother subset of Photoshop mania.

      The only thing different between this and the “Flickr” look is that incredible photoshop artists are doing the work and they know when to stop. I can totally understand that a photographer would have to cultivate this type of imagery in order to compete in the Commercial world. And I should add here that I greatly admire Andy Anderson and the photographers working in in that genre of photography. I used to look with great interest at the magazines and talk to photographers about “hey, how did they do that.” The answer used to be “Oh a Graflex and a Dallmeyer Pentac aerial photography lens.” I know it’s probably hypocritical, but it just seemed purer when it was done in the camera somehow.

      But here is the set of photos that really made me depressed about honesty in photography this this week.

      Paolo Pellegrin’s wonderful set of pictures for the New York Times. Holy Photoshop Batman! Such incredible pictures! Amazing Access! Great Portraits and Moments! And now, the incredible high standard of Photoshop art brought to you in the news! Saturate the background and eyes then desaturate the skin, yeah that’s the gritty, “real” look.

      Most Photo Editors don’t even realize how much work is done to the photos before they get them.

      So, the point of this rant is that it made my day to become reacquainted with Bil Zellman’s pictures. It’s so refreshing to see some real photography after looking through piles and piles of pictures that look too good to be true.

      Luckily, the trends become so strong that soon enough everyone runs the other way and maybe the next thing will be more straight photography. This photo editor will now return to his hole and wait for the whole tilt-shift mania to die its second death.

      • @Dan Westergren,
        Great links, Mr Westergren. I have to say I feel a bit of a dope or at least a dupe now having checked out your links. Somehow I just imagined Andy and his thirty speed graphics tucked away in his mountain home slaving away in the darkroom.

      • @Dan Westergren,
        Yes, I totally agree that Pellegrin’s work is the absolute pinnacle of great photography combined with great retouching.

        I can’t even begin to tell you how many times Andy has said to me “that is all in camera dude” (back when he only shot that graflex) and I’ve said back “who cares if it is, why do you keep telling me that, I don’t give a shit.”

        It’s all a distant second to subject, timing and composition.

        • Dan Westergren

          @A Photo Editor,
          Actually, I loved the pictures, but the retouching felt like way too much. What’s that old phrase… Gilding the Lily. Kind of like Gold bathroom fixtures, enough already!

  6. Wow, with all the bad vibes I feel like I should just show some support… I am with you Rob and Bil.

    Of course photoshop can be a good tool when used judiciously. I am almost positive that a few of the images on Bil’s site have the old overlay dodge/burn + large radius High Pass technique used on them, but in a fairly subtle way. Used to enhance an image, not convert it from crap to not-crap. I think thats the point here: its not photoshop=bad, its “photoshoped” = way overused and getting boring.


  7. I sometimes look at one of my images on the screen in Photoshop and consider the vast array of filters and tools at my disposal….and then I think of that charming English expression…”You can’t polish a turd”….the thing is, with Photoshop you can do a lot of ‘turd polishing’ but do you really want to? wouldn’t you rather go back out with your camera and get it right than show people a picture for which the credits should really recognise the programing team at Adobe.

  8. Someone really needs to explain this to me…

    You use lights and modifiers and gels…and if you’re a fan of Strobist, you do it with duct tape, found objects, and other creative tools. If you consider that art and you consider that valid…how is using Photoshop “against the rules?’

    The guy above says you need to credit Adobe when you photoshop your shots……really? Using that rationale, you should thank Canon and Nikon for taking your photos, too.

    But really…how is it not the art form evolving? Mastering Photoshop is just as difficult as learning f-stops and flash exposure. So why do you look down on it?

    The end result is creating an image. That’s the art. If you use film and you make a double exposure with it, you’ve made your art. It’s respected. But if you take two photos and creatively meld them together and the image looks identical….how have you not created art?

    It just feels a little insulting when people look down on Photoshop use. It’s a technological step forward in creating something….so if the purists really feel the way they do…they need to give up all digital cameras, auto-focus lenses, digital light meters, etc.

    Yes, I agree: Getting it right in the camera is key…but not because you’re less of an artist if you don’t….but because you should strive to be the best at whatever craft you choose.

  9. Allen @ 11 … that reminds me of another old saw that seems apropos: “A fool with a tool is still a fool.”

  10. todd huffman

    Isn’t it about bad photoshoping and mediocre images? What you decide to point your camera at, what you set your camera to, when you press the shutter, what film you use, how you process it, what you do to it in post, etc. It’s all about editing and choices. I believe someone truly skilled @ Photoshop can build a convincing realistic photograph from nearly nothing. I also believe that an image can be very strong without being realistic. My favorite uses of post however are when the post is “invisible”

  11. I understood this to mean that it is nice when the photograph itself has some substance and meaning. I mean, there are bad photographs and you can make them appear much better on the surface by doing a lot of post work. This has nothing to do with someone using it as a tool to enhance their vision though. There are many aspects of capturing an image and it is great when the photographer chooses a subject, composes it thoughtfully including elements or details that he feels are necessary at the time and then that’s it. After that black and white, colour, contrasty, washed out you know that’s all the finishing touches. I believe the comment was about someone just snapping a couple of images without much direction, thought, concept whatever and then applying all kinds of curves, layers, effects, what have you, to make it stand out. Who cares if people shoot film, digital, do lots of photoshop, don’t do lots of photoshop, use daylight, flash – it’s just amazing seeing a great image. I remember doing cross processing in school to make almost every shot on the roll look pretty cool and amazing but they weren’t really that great. They were just a lot more colourful and contrasty than if they weren’t crossed. The ones that were good I cast two people, put them in a situation, in a certain place, wearing certain clothing – gave them a story to be in. um – I am trying to explain myself !!!! j

  12. Puleez.

    What a crock all this anti-photoshop talk is.

    Look at the image at 1:21 and tell me he’s not using a post-shutter-click technique to make the image “more interesting”.

    This blog has been such a huge supporter of Platon, someone who definitely enhances his images through printing and other techniques after the image is made, not to mention what some might call a gimmick (ultra wide lens close up).

    And the entire photo community practically unanimously agrees about the interest and quality of William Klein’s work, much of which is manipulated in the darkroom.

    And how about Nick Knight’s work. It’s heavily manipulated but he’s one of the most widely recognized and lauded photographers working today.

    It’s about having a vision, a point of view and an individuality to your work in the end, not whether or not you use a mouse or a piece of cardboard to manipulate your images after the shutter goes click.

  13. Agreed dude, photoshop and lightroom are the digital darkroom. Otherwise, the techs at Canon are your darkroom or Nikon has decided what color your blue is or Epson is deciding your black point. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on how many great contemporary photographers heavily depend on what photoshop can do to achieve their style.

    strobist is a really fun hobby site and I enjoy what he does a lot. That he doesn’t understand photoshop I find positively weird.

    One of my former students once said photoshop is not a software program, it’s a medium. … n’uff said.

  14. Isn’t that basically what the strobist is all about, using a tool to add artificial light to make a dull scene interesting. If something doesn’t work it’s because of poor setup, poor photoshop, poor lighting, etc.

  15. I just find the statement generally weird:

    “…clean things up and sometimes remove things and such.”

    Is exactly the process one often uses to:

    “…make a dull photo interesting.”

    It’s as if he’s in denial about his own actions, while scorning the actions of others. Look, like a lot of things in life, either extreme is not really the goal. It’s finding the appropriate balance point. Is Photoshop an awesome tool? Yup. Is it the only thing? Nope. I guess that might be his point, but that’s an awkward way to articulate it.

  16. There’s probably no right answer here, but and interesting comparison in art history would be the initial response to the Impressionist a hundred years ago. They were most often reviled. .

    Not sure why I feel compelled to add my thoughts, except I recently had an anonymous comment about my blog that stated “your picture really suck hard without photoshop.” I wanted to respond that my pictures are even worse if I don’t use a camera (let alone photoshop). The relevant point is every decision we make in the photographic process creates an interpretation of reality (as if there were such a thing), even if it’s a well placed inexpensive light by someone as innovative as Bill Zelman, it remains an interpretive. Still, like many, my preference is to create as much as possible at the moment of exposure. Then that negative or pile of data on a flash card becomes the basis for something that I hope is eventually worth looking at, or being billed for. (“the negative is the sheet music the print is the performance”) But first it has to be processed, regardless if the process is C41, E-6, D76 or Photoshop.

    No right answers here.

  17. I think there is and has been a new ‘genre’ emerging, with the advancement of photoshop, and digital photography. Call it Digital photo-illustration, or even just Digital Photography, whatever, the point is, technology evolves the medium. Photography used to not even exist, 200 years ago. Now it is something else. I see on one side the ‘purists’ who espouse the virtue of following in the footsteps of the ancient greats, and on the other side, the innovators, who embrace new techniques because they can, and because they exist. Both caucus’ have a valid claim on making art. But the same thing is happening in painting, and illustration. With a wacom tablet, you remove the technical hurdles that separate painting and your computer. Or photography and your computer. Or illustration.

    There will be those that embrace the change, and evolve into perhaps a totally new medium. And those who continue to kick it old school. I remember it wasn’t so long ago that the art world refused to let photography play in its reindeer games…


  18. PS is a tool, it’s here to stay, buck up. it can be really overdone and it can be really subtle and can work both ways in the right context – but lets get something clear – everything goes thru a little post these days, lets not kid ourselves. good images are good – bad are bad, no PS is really going to fix that and deep down the purveyors of the mediocre imagery know that as well.

  19. Wasn’t it PDN who had the “Maker not a Taker” article on Eric Almas? The maker v. taker idea can go into deep discussion. While I think we’ve all lost some “honesty” with digital imaging’s dominance, I totally reject the idea that using Photoshop for anything more than “clean-up” is bad for the art or somehow bad form. Any tool can be used poorly.

    If that is what is being said by Bil then I’m pretty sure I can talk him down unless he qualifies that statement somehow.

  20. scott Rex Ely

    Every photograph ever made is a fabrication. As a fabricator one can either start with the content(subject matter, concept) being primary OR the delivery(craft, if any) being primary. Where people, either the viewer or the fabricator, put the emphasis is their own truth.

  21. photoshop to me is just a digital darkroom. its enviornmentally friendly at least..

    yes the programmers are allowing us to go farther than before..

    its just making everything that much more beautiful..

  22. I think it has more to do with a credibility factor, than a statement of working methods. There are some who place more value upon “in-camera” techniques, or a more extreme view of PhotoShop as a crutch for so-so images. Obviously, the best cameras, or the newest version of PhotoShop, are never substitutes for creative vision.

    I have over 14 years PhotoShop experience, and nearly as much WACOM tablet time. These are tools for me, starting with illustration, then design, and now photography. I choose not to heavily manipulate, because that is not my style, though I have done some extensive compositing and image editing. Years ago these were exotic choices, but now they are all too common, and unfortunately not as well respected as choices.

    The real difference for me is I know how to draw, and how to paint. I could go to a location and draw it, paint it, or photograph it. Whether I use fine pencils, Windsor & Newton paints, or any camera, these are just my choices. I feel the same thing applies to WACOM tablets and PhotoShop, these are simply choices of tools, and not substitutes for creativity. Used without skill, none of these things will elevate those with little talent to any higher a level.