Can a Photoshopped image match reality?

What is a SOOC photo? SOOC stands for “Straight Out Of the Camera”. And those who use the term are generally looking for a pat on the back. Their photography is clearly superior because they “got it right” in the camera. No “manipulation”. No post-processing. Just a true representation of the scene in all its glory. When a photographer talks about their SOOC photos, they are often not-very-subtly implying that those who use processing software are cheating and that their photos are fakes. And that’s all well and good for them. I think I’ll stick to my post-processing, thank you very much. 😉

While I enjoy the challenge of “getting it right in the camera”, the fact is that even the most advanced cameras can’t always handle the broad dynamic range of light in nature. With the help of Photoshop, I am often able to create a photo that is much closer to reality than SOOC photos.

Consider the above image. I took this photograph of Lizard Lake in Colorado on a partly cloudy day. There’s no bright glaring sunlight here. The range of light isn’t very extreme. At first glance, the lighting, the colors, and the exposure look pretty well balanced. You might think that under such conditions, the photograph could be easily captured with a point-n-shoot or even a mobile phone camera in automatic mode. And a nice DSLR should be able to handle that range of light easily, right?

Well. No. This is not an SOOC image. In fact, I created this photo by blending three separate exposures using our iHDR workflow to maintain a natural look.

Here are the three bracketed exposures – SOOC using default settings. Notice that none of the individual exposures looks better than the processed image. And none of these SOOC shots represent reality as closely as the manually blended image. It is true that photographers can get pretty artistic with Photoshop and HDR technology – but in many cases, processing software also lets us bring our photographs much closer to reality than those SOOC photos.

There are – of course – LOTS of other good reasons to take the time to process your photos. This is just one of them!

About Author Jay Patel

I could startoff like this – “Seeds of Jay Patel’s appreciation for beautiful places were planted early in his childhood….” but it would get boring really fast. I will just sum it up and say that I am a Landscape and Wilderness Photographer who loves to capture dramatic light. My photographs have been published in various magazines, calendars and advertising materials throughout the world.
Patience is a virtue...unless you are chasing your dreams

  • why would you want to ‘match reality’? – even if it were possible.
    Photographs aren’t reality – they are photographs – they are by necessity a view point, a creative act, an invention – not an absolute.
    Lets celebrate photography for it’s fabulous ability to transcend reality, to produce stimulating, fascinating, intriguing and thought provoking imagery –
    Anyone who still believes that photography never lies ….needs help!

  • Nicely timed post as I was recently on the receiving end of criticism for cropping. The battles that photographers choose to be concerned about can be interesting at times.

  • A friend of mine posted this on Facebook tonight about two sunset photos: “City dock sunset took my breath away in orange…..and pink! No Photoshop or LightRoom needed! 11/26/2012” I had read your blog post earlier today and I actually laughed out loud when I saw her post! Your description of a SOOC photographer is right on!

    • Thanks for the comments Dawna. There is nothing wrong with getting it right in the camera…but it should not make the photography better or worse than the one that is processed.

  • “Right in the camera” is most certainly not “just like it looked.” “Right in camera” means to capture scene data that will let you produce the photograph that you had in mind.

    The “right in camera” folks are often quite naive. I like to ask them if they enjoy a photograph like Adams’ icon “Moonrise” image. Then I send them off to look at the contact print. It looks really, really awful. But it contained all of the scene data (the “score,” as Adams put it) from which his beautiful print could be built.

    Also, the notion that photography is about capturing “reality” is pure bunk, and on a whole ton of levels. First off, if I want to experience “reality” (and I do!”), I’ll go experience that reality – and quickly recognize that a photograph can never be an objective equal of that thing. At best, great photographs can evoke the imagination or the memory of such original things, but that is far different thing than recreating it. On top of that, no photograph can even be remotely free of the subjective influence of the circumstances of the “capture,” and all of these exclude and shape the subjective presentation of the visual element of that original thing – what was included/excluded, what time of day was chosen to photograph the thing, long/short lens, and much more.


  • J Michael Collins

    I don’t totally agree with you, as in anything photoshoping an image can be abused. And what ever happened to light metering a scene, have you ever used one of those, my guess is no because of your age. Many of the old ways have been lost because of the ease of DSLRs.

    • There will always be those who disagree – and I’m ok with that, J. Michael. I’ll maintain my position that the artist should define his/her own art. As for light meters – they are excellent tools, and I’ve used them many times. Believe it or not, I started out shooting film and developing it an a darkroom. Of course, as time passes, photographers will get used to newer technology… the histogram is an excellent tool that can help a digital photographer get the best exposure every time.

    • I am a photographer old enough to have been formally trained in the “old ways”. Oh the hours that I spent in the dark room manipulating images. Oh the amount of criticism I would receive from my lecturers if they thought my burning and dodging techniques were lacking! But now I use Photoshop and don’t believe for one moment that makes me any less of a photographer or my images unworthy. I would also point out that light meters were invented for use with early cameras which did not have them built in. Most studio photographers today don’t use them because of the reliability and sophistication of today’s inbuilt light meters and the fact that exposure can be checked immediately. The argument against cropping is also ridiculous in my opinion. All photographs are cropped by the nature of the lens and where you decide to point it. I reserve the right to change my mind later during the editing process if it will enhance the image.

    • Ed C

      Why so condescending? Methinks the author touched a nerve. Yea … photoshopping can be abused. The author didn’t indicate otherwise. With regard to metering a scene, the author pretty obviously metered the HDR and understood that the dynamic range of the scene was beyond the ability of the camera to capture in a single shot. I have often used incident and spot meters extensively. Metering is metering whether you are using the camera spot, average, weighted or mimicing an old school incident meter with an Expodisc on the front of the lens. Unlike our eyes, camera computer / sensor combinations (nor film) can process the full dynamic range of some scenes and make it look anything like what our eyes / brain interpreted so, in some ways of thinking the straight out of camera shot, implying it is correct is the one doing the abusing.

      • This was a post written after someone challenge us about cheating during a live seminar presentation. The person than said that there is no way an HDR Can do better than a “SOOC” shot from camera.

    • Peter Hernandez

      Light metering doesn’t magically reduce the dynamic range of a scene.