Friday, August 31, 2012

Tip of the Day: Photoshop - The Choice is Yours

A classic example of choice

Photoshop is amazing. I remember the first time I opened Photoshop as a photographer. It was like looking at a canvass with a bunch of pastels and being told, "Here you go. Now go and paint me a Picasso"

Umm. What am I even looking at?

Years later, I love Photoshop like you'd love a redheaded stepchild. Just when you think you've seen all her tricks. Bam! She'll pull out a shovel and f- you in your ass while you're sleeping.

Back in the early days of CS4/CS5, I remember losing a few long edits to Photoshop crashing. In 7 years of college and graduate school I never lost a single document to a crash. Since I started edited in Photoshop I've lost at least 2 long edits. One of which was a 7-8 hour edit. No, I never learned to save my documents along the way. My computers always had autosave. You know, that fundamental software enhancement that they made back in the 80's? And even when my computer did crash, MS Word would always have some cached-crash-back-up somewhere on the drive as long as you looked for it. But I remember in the case of losing the 7-8 hour edit, I sat there in disbelief for about a minute. I just sat there... feeling like my intestines had fallen out of my ass. I felt the way you'd feel if someone told your child had been murdered. So I went to take a shower trying to shake it off. I remember ranting in the shower and just screaming out of frustration.

Maybe that's why I don't shoot beauty anymore.

A love-hate relationship. There have been times when the color profiles on the computer did wonky things, making me second-guess Photoshop's ability to reproduce accurate colors. Wasn't sure who was telling the truth. The red-headed stepchild Photoshop or the demon-child Mac OSX. I swear sometimes it's like playing with Chucky and the bride of Chucky. This is exactly why I don't have any shovels at my house anymore.

But with all its flaws, Photoshop is all I know. It's not like Final Cut versus Premiere/Vegas/etc. it's Photoshop versus Gimp. Seriously it's called Gimp. You've probably never heard of it. It's the GNU/freeware of Photoshop. Basically there is no competition for Photoshop. I know one person that used Gimp. I doubt he still uses Gimp.

Brushing aside all its flaws including the 'save' function that takes minutes to save a single file, Photoshop does one thing really well. It gives you choices. Choices that overlap. Like do you want a Philly cheesesteak sandwich or a Subway sandwich with cheese and steak? Many of the tools I use in Photoshop overlap but each gives you different control and sometimes does something a little different. For example you could probably get the same result with basic color toning and contrast via a curve adjustment or a level adjustment. But the power of plotting near-infinite points on the histogram (with great precision) makes the curve adjustment my favorite tool.

Same goes with things like skin retouching techniques. While there's always the plasticizing Gaussian blur, some of the more advanced techniques such as high-pass or frequency separation or even Portraiture basically do the same thing. At the very least they attempt to retain some level of detail while evening out the overall skin tones. What it boils down to is degree of control, familiarity, and end results. And honestly, I think you could probably get very similar results and each offers as much control as you want (as long as you understand what it's really doing because even Portraiture can be very well-behaved and provide predictable controlled results). So it really just comes down to familiarity.

That's the beauty of Photoshop. Like many complicated things, there's no right answer. And there sure as hell isn't just one answer. Like a blank canvass you can do whatever you want. The world is your oyster so to speak, so long as you like oysters.

So when I hear about comparisons between high-pass versus Portraiture versus spatial frequency separation. My reaction is "do what works for you". Sure, you should know your options. But if one works for you, then use it.

When I was learning how to retouch I watched Amy Dresser on and people freaked out asked her why she was dodging and burning directly on the image instead of on a curves adjustment mask (non-destructive). Her answer was simple. If you didn't want to alter the pixels you wouldn't be dodging and burning anyway. She liked the actual D&B tool (as do I) and prefers the simplicity of using it on the actual image than doing it in a roundabout manner with 2 separate layers (albeit 'non-destructive').

Plus, she is Amy F-ing Dresser. If she says you dodge and burn on the base layer. DO IT. Whatever she's doing, it obviously works.

But I now realize that the problem isn't "which tool is better?" but rather choice itself. When people are given too many options they sometimes stagnate, stumble, and fall flat on their face. "Given enough rope people simply find ways to hang themselves" as my boss would say. Given too many choices sometimes it becomes hard to choose. Like going to an ice-cream store. If they only sold chocolate, then you'd be saying, "I think I'll have the chocolate".

So my conclusion? Pick one, do it, and do it well.


  1. Beautifully written. Having played with Photoshop as well as GIMP basically since their creation in the 90s, and then going on to graphic design in college, as well as having a bit of a photography background since I was a child, I fell into a job with a professional photographer a while ago for a couple years and that's all I've been doing since. Computers have always been part of my world as well and yes I completely do not understand the lack of autosave in photoshop, if you're in the zone with editing, there's no difference in sense of time from 1 - 8 hours since your last save, until it's too late.... and round two, if you muster it, won't be as good since you're already a bit frustrated to say the least.

    With as much as I agree with everything you say, I do actually still use gimp for things when getting into the more graphic side of photo editing. There is no replacement for GIMPs color to alpha when trying to crop out a detailed subject to paste somewhere it needs to look real, (when the gods have lined up a situation when that works with the background colors), but photoshop only has a half assed version of that and it doesn't look anywhere near as natural without a ton of subtle work. I do tend to use photoshop about 100 times more than I use GIMP but there's those times I just know I can save a couple hours by using GIMP for a minute.

    Though I also have to add, photoshop and gimp are both graphic design tools, that is what they're made for. They have so many options that should probably never be used on a photograph. They were not made for photo editing the way tools such as Aperture and Lightroom were. I tend to never drop a photo out of Aperture unless something is messed up bad or I need to stitch together an HDR or a panoramic (which the free program from Hugin does better when photoshop screws up round one on the stitching, but it takes a lot more practice and actual technical knowledge of your lens and sensor size on your camera) or if I have to merge parts of pictures or switch a face from one picture to another. Photoshop has its purpose. Having discovered Aperture was like a dream come true for editing thousands of pictures a month for clients if you can shoot things right the first time and not need any major edits.

    BUT again, if you're doing photographic art, where blending and bluring and cutting and pasting and custom brushes and textures are required, nothing is better than Photoshop, that is where its infinite abilities are priceless.

    I also shoot in RAW, which are uneditable, so by the time i get to a photoshop file which must export something that isn't RAW, if I burn actual pixels and not a separate layer and ever decide I want to go back and start from scratch with the original, I just reopen the RAW file from aperture. It will always be there and perfectly unchanged just as it was shot.