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When too much is too much. | Day 27

Ever been in a car with a new driver? They can be heavy-footed, stomp on the brakes with knee-jerk reactions, and generally are very reactive creatures. As someone who has severe motion-sickness – it can really throw you off.

Ever seen the edits of someone who’s just discovered Photoshop and actions in particular? They can be heavy-handed and visually assaulting. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the subject from the action. It can really throw you off.

zombie - abuse of photoshop
I have seen way too many zombie eyes around the blogosphere.

And while there is no such thing as right or wrong when it comes to art, if your intention is to capture your subject – you have a responsibility to be judicious as an artist about how you edit your images.

How much Photoshop is too much?

There are three camps in this debate.

The first is – Art is art. Allow the artist to create what he or she will, limited only by her imagination. Photoshop is a tool, like a paintbrush is a painter’s tool. There is no such thing as too much Photoshop and disliking Photoshop is like disliking a paintbrush or disliking clay. Critics of Photoshop place misguided emphasis on the tool rather than the artist. Banning Photoshop is like banning books.

The second is – Photoshop should be banished. The use of Photoshop distorts reality and perception. It is misleading and dishonest. Photoshop gives young girls body image issues and perpetuates the unattainable ideals of beauty and body size. It is destructive. All images that have been photoshopped should have a warning label, much like cigarettes and alcohol.

The third is – Photoshop has a time and place. Cameras cannot capture what the eye sees. Photoshop can enhance color or sharpness, bringing the image closer back to what we see. While Photoshop may not be appropriate in journalistic reporting, judicious use of it in portraiture is perfectly fine, and artists should be granted unlimited use of it to create art.


image credit: photoshop disasters

This ad – a Ralph Lauren ad – has received a lot of criticism about being socially irresponsible. This article, entitled Unattainable Beauty, highlights befores and afters in the Photoshop debate and features Twiggy, Madonna and Nicolette Sheridan.


image credit: Crew Creative Advertising

Actor / Comedian Dane Cook wrote a scathing (albiet rated PG-13) criticism of the photoshopping done in this movie poster, and he would know. He is a Photoshop expert in his own right – he is the personality behind the funny, blunt, rated R, not work-friendly /child-friendly Photoshop tutorials as Donnie Hoyle – You Suck at Photoshop. (Please do not email me and tell me those links are offensive. Dane Cook has a total potty mouth. You’ve been warned!)

But before we get into the debate of advertisers, movie posters and photoshopping, let’s tackle this subject locally. How much is too much for your own comfort?

photoshop before and after

This photo was taken in an experiment to demonstrate auto white balance. Photoshop was used to make the skin tones more realistic and to brighten the image. Overall, the eyes, skin, body size of the subjects were left in tact. If Photoshop, as a rule, was dishonest – then improper camera technique also is.

My children do not have gray skin. It’s more inaccurate, if that’s the goal, to leave the image as the camera captured it.

What about an image like this?

photoshop before and after

The baby’s head was swapped for a similar image in which she was looking toward the camera. The second image was the one that made the clients’ gallery.

Teenager’s hormonal skin cleaned up. Images captured in black and white. Wrinkles removed. Skin buffed. Eyes brightened. How does this relate to 31 Days to a better photo? Being intentional about your final product is a necessary step to a better photo.

How much is too much for your personal comfort level?


  1. I’ve been following along the last few weeks maybe. I think it was on your last post that I started to think about this very issue as I was reading about photoshop fixes and looking at examples. I think the photos of your boys are great, and changing the colors to match reality is perfectly wonderful. Beyond that, I’m not as sure, particularly after reading Unattainable Beauty. I do think it makes everything and everyone look a bit too perfect. I have a few pictures that were taken professionally that just don’t quite look like my kids. There is something off–and now I think it’s the photoshoping type of work that was probably done. Personally, I want to be able to remember things the way I am seeing them now. I tend to like the toddler face that is a little bit messy or maybe a bit of bed head. Because that is the child that I see every day rather than the perfected looking child.

    The article pushed me away from being more accepting of the photo fixes. I have a family portrait where my baby is switched from another picture so he’s looking at the camera. It’s always kind of bugged me that we have a “photo” of something that actually didn’t happen. I don’t mind when distracting background is removed, though. Interesting post!!

  2. Thank you for this. The zombie eyes kill me!! I figure photo editing should be like makeup. It’s there to enhance but you shouldn’t really even be able to tell it’s on. Of course, some people could use makeup lessons too 🙂

    I am impatiently waiting for photoshop to arrive at my door any day now so I can really tackle all these photoshop posts you are doing.

    As always, you’re a rock star.

  3. Oh my. Oooh, how I cringe when I look back at photos I edited in Photoshop. Right after I bought it, I went a lil’ hog wild. I have a picture of hubby and he really does look like a Zombie. I swear . . . . I must have run Jodi’s eye action like 10 times. Snort. Out. Loud.

    It’s good to laugh at these things. Otherwise, I would cry from embarrassment {‘Cuz I actually put that photo on my blog and was so proud of it!}.

  4. I really never knew what I was doing with Photoshop until this year…where I took time to understand why to use it and how. I don’t like photos to look too perfect or played with. I will help a teenager out because I don’t think they like looking at their breakouts – I’m a mom of 2 and trust me they would love to wake up and never see them again. I will brighten skin up to get rid of the gray cast or any other cast that is NOT realistic to what people look like in real life. But I would NEVER help someone look smaller,taller or thinner either. That is changing the gift of how God made us. Nor would I change a head from one shot to another. I’m more from the camp of photojournalism and capture people as they are – which is pretty amazing! I like our children when they are being them -smirky face or a goofy smile vs the perfect one. Sure I’ll try for those but won’t swith that off the goofy ones either. Another great post!! I am learning how to love SOOC shots with tiny enhancements more and more!


  5. Photoshop my THIGHS Darcy! Please! Banish them forever! No harm, right? Oh wait, this isn’t about me.

    Someone tweeted the other day “if I were rich, I’d eat whatever I want and have someone suck the fat out every week.”

    Okay, I’m so off topic. Sorry. But yes, photoshop can be a bit much sometimes, but I agree that your camera can be untrue as well. So it works. Someone commented that it’s like makeup. Some is fine, but too much is…too much.

  6. I totally agree with you. Over-processed photos look clownish to me.

    And I had no idea that Dane Cook was Donnie! Hubs and I just watched a Dane Cook movie last night…I think I need a Donnie fix today. It’s been too long. He’s my go-to resource for Photoshop tutorials, because I know I’ll learn AND be entertained.

  7. I think the hardest thing about overdone photos is that people actually want them! I’m so amazed by the extreme treatments that people are impressed by.

  8. hahaha! I asked you just the other day if you taught restraint. 🙂

    While I was somewhat joking at the time, this post is spot on. “obviously photoshopped” pictures bother me, but “not-so-noticeable enhancements” is what I enjoy. Brighten up skin tones, fix a couple of blemishes, make some color pop, but not to the point of colors not found in nature…. It certainly is subjective, that’s for sure!

    Great post as always Darcy. 🙂

  9. As a portrait photographer I like to touch up the color and crop appropriately. I will open up eyes and if a client asks me to remove something (like a mole they hate on their shoulder) I will but that’s about the extent of my altering of reality. The other day a client asked, can you super impose this scripture on her wall onto an image and his wife said, while you’re at it can you turn water into wine? That made me laugh.

  10. I love to play with Photoshop, but I agree…too much, is well, just too much. I like to brighten things, or play with textures and actions. It’s fun. I once took a group photo of my daughters soccer team and in the picture where the majority of the girls were looking at the camera, one girl wasn’t working at all, so I swapped out her head (C: Sometimes, it’s just necessary.

  11. I’m in the ‘whatever floats your boat’ camp : )
    I see over-photoshoppers and I cringe.
    Some days I over photo shop : (
    The funny thing about the zombie eyes is that a lot of people do it so much. Even some professionals I know locally. When I see their images I cringe, and I can’t help but wonder, do their families really buy those pictures? Does anyone love zombie eyes? Not me!

  12. This is an interesting debate. I like using Photoshop (Elements in my case) to bring back skin tones and sharpen eyes. I think I have avoided actions for a couple of reasons: one-I think my style might be more photo-journalistic, and I want to be as true to the original photo as possible; second – I have seen so may over-done images that it turns me off. (Come to think of it, the second reason is just an off-shoot of the first.) That said, I’ve seen some really beautiful photos become stunning art with the expert use of textures and overlays. I guess that means I’m on the fence about this.
    But I do know that I don’t think that model looks good scrunched up into a stick figure.

  13. I think less is more when you’re just starting out. Better too little than too much. I’m curious: do you shoot in JPEG or RAW? I’d like to try to use RAW, I’ve been trying to read up on it. It seems that if you shoot RAW, you’ll spend a lot of time in Photoshop, but most of it will make your photo more, not less, honest.

    That being said, I think surreal images (a lot of HDR images come to mind) look really cool. But maybe not for family photos 😉

  14. LOVE Dane Cook….so glad you included him in this post and I had no idea about his You Suck at Photoshop stuff. LOL How did I miss that?!?!?

    I think your points and examples are spot on Darcy! Photoshop really can bring out the beauty and depth of a photo, but yay too much is too much. I love actions (I’m addicted to them actually), but I usually adjust layers of an action according to my taste. When I first learned about actions I was probably guilty of the newbie mistakes and had too much going on. Now I really only use actions that I can tailor and tweak to my liking. Some day I’m going to go back and re-edit pictures from my early PS actions days. I’m so much better at it now. 🙂

  15. All photoshop is too much for me because I don’t have time to really learn it 🙂 LOL! No but honestly, don’t post a picture of your baby and claim she has such beautiful blue eyes when it is as clear as day that they have been photoshopped and are not, in fact, that turquoise color. Be honest about it. The touch up of the normal photos above, those are great. Just don’t do something blatantly obvious and then lie about it 🙂 Um, we all know that the baby’s eyes aren’t turquoise!

  16. a loaded topic, for sure. one I’m happy to argue both ways ;-).

  17. Lots to digest here…..but I still can’t do much in Elements. I do like Picnik for ‘fun’ images, but I don’t do serious photography. I lighten and straighten in Picasa, and once in awhile, I ‘warm’ up the color temperature. Wow…I never would have thought of cloning a baby’s head, though! 😉

    • evelyn, the pioneer woman shared some great actions for elements that will save you hours when editing photos! i promise, if i can use them, anyone can. 🙂 ps. picnik on flickr is also a great tool!

  18. well i don’t really know how to use the powerful photo editing tools… i just stick to picasa and my light room trial for now, but i mostly just use it for color adjustment and brightness! i don’t know how to do any crazy things like remove pimples or make ppl skinnier (although i wish i could make myself skinnier at times)! 😉

  19. Hot topic for sure! I love photographing flowers and nature and I think that is the perfect backdrop to textures and overlays, color enhancement etc. because I see that as a form of art. But when it comes to portraiture, I am more of a stick to whats true kind of gal…sure, adjust and boost color, maybe fix a couple of flaws, but other than that…let it be as natural as possible. Have you seen that video of the super model going in as plane jane, getting hair and makeup done, photographed and then photoshopped like mad, then pasted on a billboard? It is really good. I showed my girls so they can see the accurate picture of what is done to all those “beautiful” people they see in magazines.

  20. Probably my favourite article in the series!

    My husband is a photojournalist for the U.S. Army, he is not allowed to edit his photos (except cropping, straightening and lighting at a push). I have been guilty of over-photoshopping, but it does really depend on what I’m photographing and my intentions for the photograph… my husband detests photoshopped images and usually criticizes mine, gives me a sense of balance now when I take photos for myself. Watching how my husband works, though, has really improved not only how I edit my images but also my photography in general. I try to use just lightroom to edit my photos now as it’s less destructive. It can never be wrong to try and get the photo right in-camera first!

    My pet peeve in photoshop though is the sharpening of out of focus photos, I have been guilty of it in the past to try and “save” a poor image but it drives me crazy when I see this, especially from supposed professionals. I also totally detest fake HDR, when HDR is done well the results are stunning but when done badly it’s REALLY bad.

    And LOL at “zombie eyes”, I see that a lot too!

    • Oh and I also had to add… seeing as I’m on a rant about poor photoshop…. over softening of the skin in portraits? Come on, we know real people have pores and aren’t made of plastic, you’re not fooling anyone.

      • Amen!

        There’s something kinda charming – especially on kids and babies – of sweet little wrinkles and lines. There is a time and place – I once shot a baby who had such severe eczema that the results were not what I would have liked. But the mother was thrilled because she didn’t want her memories of her baby boy to be with bright red, chapped cheeks.

        Teens also request to be cleaned up. And I hardly blame them. They are so much more than their hormonal break outs.

        But a 50 year old who magically has the skin of a 20 yr old? Sooo not buyin’ it! 😉

        Thanks for your comments!

  21. Just say NO to zombie eyes! p.s. it is killing me to wait for Christmas to give my man that lens! I want to use it now.

  22. Some people don’t know the value of subtlety when using photoshop enhancements, a bit like using herbs/spices in cooking. A little bit is good doesn’t mean that more is better. The trend to enlarge eyes in portraits is another example, I’ve seen portraits, particularly facebook profile shots, recently where people end up looking like anime characters.

  23. I just discovered your blog and your 31 Days series. I love them both!! Though I have been taking pictures of my kids like a madwoman since they were born, I only recently got a DSLR and discovered photo editing. So this post about overediting has me written all over it and I had to laugh at the analogy to a new driver. So true! I even cringe when go back and look at pics on my blog from just a month or so ago (after I upgraded to the premium level at the picnik.com photo editing site (still don’t have photoshop, yet)), where I had just discovered how fun it can be to turn photos into “art”. My kids eyes are so over-blue and and the photos are just a little too colorful (okay, WAY too colorful). But I am slowly learning and am trying to break my addiction to over-brightening the eyes and all that fun stuff. ANYway, I am looking forward to reading the rest of your series! Thanks so much for posting it!!

  24. zombie eyes are a pet peeve. that said, I use an action on all the eyes in my portraits.

  25. Photoshop does not cause anything, but the parents of those children are responsible for raising a well grounded child. To try and keep your child in a bubble is just irrational. So I do not agree with looking at everything but yourself to blame.


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