In a previous blog post, I used a stage magician as a metaphor for Photoshop. I'm now going to raise the curtain and let you see behind the smoke and mirrors. This is what Photoshop really does for photographers and retouchers who are using it responsibly.
Our eyes VS the camera and lens
There are very fundamental differences between the way our brains interpret something we see, and what a camera and lens "sees" and captures. More often than not, there is something the lens distorts, exaggerates, or simply cannot see at all. Photographers who know the intricacies of this dynamic are able to both compensate for and take advantage of it. However, there is only so much one can do in camera.
For example; the human eye is capable of seeing a much greater dynamic range of light than what a camera sensor is able to process. During the brightest time of day, our eye is able to see detail both in the bright highlights on the sunward side of a leaf, and in the deep shadow beneath the tree. A camera sensor, though, cannot. It needs an operator to tell it what to expose for; either the highlights, the shadows or the mid-tones, and will miss a bit of the opposing side. Photoshop can help compensate for that by either blending multiple photos of different exposures or by tweaking the darker or lighter pixels and increasing the dynamic range of the resulting image. Thus, image editing software actually fills in the cameras weakness.
At any given time, only about 10 percent of what the human eye sees is in sharp focus. A camera lens at the right aperture is able to freeze a scene in crisp detail almost to infinity. This has a couple of effects, particularly on human skin.
First of all, because we have such a limited range of focus, it means that when we are interacting with a person, we don't see all of their face in sharp detail at once. Because a camera can see that way, it means that imperfections (for lack of a better word) in skin are much more evident. Portrait photographers used to use soft light and soft focus to compensate for that, blurring detail to achieve smoother skin and diminish the appearance of things like pores and wrinkles.
If you want a nice, sharp portrait, though, editing the skin in post production is the digital answer to the older techniques.
Another thing a camera lacks is interpersonal communication. While we interact with someone in person we notice several things at once; changing body language, expression, the way someones eyes sparkle when they laugh, we listen to their tone of voice, and all those things come together to make one unified vision of a person. When you snap a portrait, you are hoping to capture as much of the subject's authentic nature as possible but because the photo is frozen, it is easier for the viewer's eye to roam and note details that are not usually seen when interacting with someone. For instance...lazy eyes, mismatched eyebrows, ears that are a bit bigger on one side or that stick out farther from the head, acne scars, (and the list goes on...) that we might not notice while someone is talking to us, are all frozen for our eye to roam over and dissect at will.
Lens choice and camera angle also have an effect on the appearance and proportion of the body. Our eye doesn't distort the human figure when we view it.
A lens can and does.
There are many circumstances that influence what lens a photographer chooses. If we know that we are going to be shooting in low light, we may choose a prime lens. This allows for a fast enough shutter speed to freeze motion, but can distort the appearance of the face and/or body shape of the subject by doing such things as making the nose appear larger because it is the part of the face that extends the farthest toward the lens. I'm not going to get into all of the technical details in this post, but here is a link to some examples of barrel distortion to give you an example.
There are literally hundreds of factors that may effect the appearance of the body in a photograph. Body position, angle, frame of reference, lighting, lens choice (shape, barrel length, etc...) Photographers, good ones at least, will do their best to control as many factors as possible. However, there are instances where, for one reason or another, image editing software can make the difference between making at accurate representation of someone or a distorted one.
So, often, Photoshop is used to make an image more closely match what the human eye sees or what the viewer would experience had he or she been with the person or at the location of the photo.
The effects of light
I am a photographer. I know the effect of light on a human body. I
know that human skin naturally has bumps, scars, uneven tones, pores,
stretch marks, wrinkles, blemishes and so on. I know that the appearance
of those things can either be enhanced or diminished not only by technique but more importantly by certain kinds
of light. Because a photograph cannot interact with a viewer using the force of personality, voice, mood, ect. in order to make an impression, I have to think long and hard about how I present a portrait. What I want the photo to say, the mood, and what I hope a viewer sees about the subject of my photograph can all be influenced by the kind of light I shoot under.
Even, soft light will reduce the appearance of shadows
that define texture in the skin,
while directional light will cause the shadows and highlights that make those
imperfections so visible.
If I am taking what is known as a
"beauty shot" I want to use light that will flatter not only the facial
structure of the model but also his or her skin. These are generally head and
shoulders photos with bright, even light and very soft-or little to no-shadows. This
diminishes the look of pores, wrinkles, blemishes, and any other facet that causes texture in the skin. The skin appears much
more "perfected," without the use of Photoshop.
However, if I would like a photo with more dynamic
light and a dramatic feel, then I may want to use directional
light. The downfall of directional light is that it tends to highlight
any area of texture. This means that blemishes, wrinkles, pores and
everything else is going to be even more obvious than under other
lighting conditions because it will have both a strong shadow and a highlight. If someone has larger pores or deeper wrinkles this kind of light will exaggerate it, much more even than what the human eye will see in person. Couple that with the sharpness I discussed above and we are talking about visible detail and texture in the skin than can possibly distract from the vision, mood, or feeling of the final photo. Photoshop (or other editing software) allows me to achieve the more flattering look of even light on the skin while maintaining dramatic light for atmosphere. It's the best of both worlds.
I'm not even going to bother going in-depth about more artistic images that are designed to look surreal or fantastic because those have an unnatural element to them that clearly falls in line with digital alteration and fools no one into thinking the images are "real."
Finally, and not lease important, there is personal body image and confidence to consider. It would be wonderful if everyone was proud of their body and comfortable in their skin. How much happier would we be!? The reality is that many people are not.
I personally know people who will not get their portrait taken because of things they view as imperfections. Maybe they are on a weight loss journey and hoping to wait until they feel more confident in their skin before taking family portraits. Maybe they have scars from an accident that they don't want to relive every time they see their photo. Maybe they have always been insecure about the size of their arms, and can't see a photo of themselves without sighing and thinking "why do my arms always look so HUGE!?"
I also know from experience that people with misgivings like these have a very hard time feeling comfortable in front of a camera even if they've drummed up the courage to get their photo taken. If someone is uncomfortable, the camera can tell. The resulting images are almost never flattering. These people do not deserve to have the joy of a well taken portrait stolen from them because they aren't yet secure enough to bare it all.
Is it such a horrible thing, then, when I look at someone and tell them, "Listen, if you feel insecure about your arms, I can handle that."
If that helps them feel comfortable enough to relax and smile genuinely during a portrait session, it's worth it to me. Would it be better for everyone to do some soul searching and realize that those things they are uncomfortable with aren't imperfections at all, and that they are special and amazing and unique? Of course. But that is something that takes time and a lot of work and is a LONG road for most people. Technical aspects of post production aside, if doing a bit of tweaking in Photoshop to diminish or distract from areas a person is insecure with helps them feel more confident in front of a camera and enjoy their photos without reservations...then that is reason enough to use Photoshop for me.