There is a very popular and persistent misconception out there that you can do absolutely anything in Photoshop; that you can take a mediocre photograph and turn it into a masterpiece if only you know the right Photoshop ‘tricks’.
Well, I suppose if you want to get technical you CAN do practically anything in Photoshop, but at some point your work stops being a photograph and starts being digital art. If that’s what you want to do then great, but it will show – the end result will not look like a photograph, and it’s also extremely difficult to make something that looks great. Digital art is hard, and takes a lot of practise. No amount of Photoshop tricks that you find on YouTube will shortcut that for you.
This post isn’t about digital art, however, it is about an awareness that the photo is much more important than the Photoshop for any image that is supposed to look like a photograph.
A brief browse around the web will turn up millions and millions of people asking how to produce a particular ‘effect’ in Photoshop – The so-called ‘Dragan Effect’ is a common one that I will use as an example – and there are thousands of blogs and video tutorials offering to teach you how to create these masterpieces in 20 minutes or so.
What a lot of them don’t mention (not all, I hasten to add) is that the effect they’re teaching you is only achievable with a significant amount of work before the picture even arrives in Photoshop. To assume that a 20 minute tutorial is all it takes to create an image just like the work of a master such as Andrzej Dragan is at best a recipe for failure and at worst, rather insulting to the artist we’re trying to emulate.
When we’re using Photoshop to modify a photo, we can only work with what’s already there. For instance, a lot of tutorials talk about burning shadows and dodging highlights to create contour and depth – fantastic and powerful techniques, yes, but largely useless if your initial image has completely flat lighting with no shadows and highlights to work with.
Some other ‘effects’ that you often see is the use of various techniques to make an almost 3D feeling to the image, but once again it’s only achievable if you’ve set up, composed, lit and shot the original photo properly.
Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that you just cannot make a masterpiece of modern photography from a shitty image no matter how many videos you watch on YouTube.
The Photoshop part becomes a lot easier if you’re working from a great basis. When you start dodging and burning like you leaned from that Phlearn tutorial (seriously great stuff, highly recommended!) or whatever, you’ll see wonderful things start to happen instead of the ghastly, blobby mess that happened when you tried it with a rubbish photo.
That’s not to say that you can instantly become a master at Photoshop – that also takes a lot of time, practise and effort. The point is that you’re up against a brick wall from the start if you don’t first take the time and put in the effort to get your photography right.
Before you learn to Photoshop, you need to learn to Photo.