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Are you a Realist or an Impressionist photographer?

Photographers will always wrestle with the thorny ethical question of when it is appropriate to use Photoshop for image manipulation and how much manipulation is appropriate, particularly in an editorial context.

Unfortunately, much of the conversation on Photoshop and ethics has devolved into partisan statements. “Photoshop is cheating,” some say. “An artist should use any tools at their disposal,” say others.

As a Photoshop expert I have not escaped those conversations and have spent a fair amount of time thinking about this topic. How can I explain photo manipulation to a lay-person and perhaps more important, how can I help photographers customize their workflows to match their artistic needs (whatever they may be)?

Describing photo manipulation

Perhaps it’s helpful to borrow a couple of terms from art history, specifically Realism and Impressionism.

Realist photographer: Limits their use of Photoshop or other imaging tools and techniques to faithfully replicate a scene as the camera saw it. This is of primary concern for photojournalism and editorial photography where the veracity of a photo is paramount.

Impressionist photographer: Uses a photograph as a starting point and uses any digital imaging technique to express or illustrate an idea or emotion.

A photographer’s style, their client needs and photo usage will dictate whether a photographer is more of a Realist or an Impressionist. And, photographers may often jump back and forth between the two styles, depending on the need.

How does these varied roles affect photographic workflow?

As digital imaging techniques like CGI, HDR, immersive photography and computational photography become more common, the realm of photo manipulation will most likely become more challenging and possibly more contentious.

Since photographers’ styles of shooting dictates their photo equipment, post-processing needs, workflow, pricing and value to clients, in coming weeks, keep an eye on this blog as I look at the differences between the workflow and post-processing needs for these two types of photographers and look at what the future holds for each.

In the meantime, do you find Realist and Impressionist to be useful or accurate in describing your photographic role? If not, what terms would you use? I’d love to hear your ideas.


12 comments for “Are you a Realist or an Impressionist photographer?”

  1. Jay, did you know that under all your posts is says “Comments are disallowed for this post”? I’m guessing you don’t mind comments and it’s a mistake…


    Posted by John Krumm | December 7, 2009, 9:30 pm
  2. Hi Jay,

    Interesting discussion. It comes up a lot in the art world, especially in galleries. I believe there is a perception that photography is not art and it has to be “altered” to be artistic. I think photography is an art. There is still composition, color, line, lighting, etc. and a fine art photograph has a place in a gallery. I enjoy the altered (impressionism) aspect of photography but there’s nothing like an realistic image that makes you say “wow”. It’s all good and it all has it’s place.

    Posted by Patty Bodwell | December 8, 2009, 10:01 am
  3. I tend toward a more realistic approach, but like most photographers, an “enhanced” reality, often a little more colorful and detailed than it seemed at the time.

    I just received a New Yorker with a large collection of photos of world leaders, by one of their staff photographers. Some of the images I didn’t find very flattering and seemed shot for maximum detail, but it was interesting to see it online with audio commentary from the photographer talking about each face and why he thought they were interesting or beautiful. Here’s the online version:


    Posted by John Krumm | December 8, 2009, 12:36 pm
  4. John, thanks for the great link. The photos and audio commentary lends great insight into the photographic process of a superlative portraitist.

    It also illustrates these concepts nicely. Throughout his collection, he jumps between black and white and a desaturated color palette, often with a heavy vignette to emphasize specific elements of the portrait.

    These conscious decisions in post-processing guide photography toward a deeper artistic sensibility.

    Thanks for sharing.


    Posted by jay | December 8, 2009, 12:51 pm
  5. Impressionist doesn’t go far enough. One might say there’s Realism and everything else when it comes to photo manipulation. The spectrum is far greater now with the advent of Photoshop. Photos rooted in Realism can still be manipulated and maintain a look of Realism. It is often this aspect of digital manipulation that sets people off either due to accusations of deception or breaking from norms of Realism.

    As a talking point I think this concept of Realist or Impressionist is great, but the spectrum of manipulation far exceeds an art definition such as Impressionist.

    To answer your question…
    The majority of my work is rooted in Realism, but I enjoy exploring beyond this camp.

    Posted by Jim Goldstein | December 10, 2009, 3:31 pm
  6. On short exposures of less than a few seconds, I try to make the final image look as close to reality as possible. But I also like long exposures which are more impressions of time but sometimes just as ‘realistic’ as far as the feel of the moment goes.

    However, one thing that is rarely mentioned in regards to manipulation, is timing. Great light with lots of color may only last for a minute, but does that depict reality for most of the day? Not really!

    I can show someone the back of my camera, and they will often say “That is not what it usually looks like!” So, even waiting for good light is a form of manipulation!


    Posted by Patrick Smith | December 10, 2009, 3:50 pm
  7. I find that the terms documentary vs. interpretive photography are used more often to describe the two approaches to image creation.
    Currently “impressionistic” tends to be the label put on images using camera swipes (William Neill) or high count multiple exposures (Tony Sweet).
    Both approaches result in art. We can see this same dichotimy in other art mediums as well. In painting we see documentary/realistic images and those that are more interpretive – impressionism, cubism, etc.

    Art is the production of that which the artist sees within. He uses the tools he needs communicate that.

    We should also remember that while some photographs may be “more realistic” they are still far from real or objective (the photographer cannot help but put his perspective in the image).

    Posted by Stacey | December 10, 2009, 4:19 pm
  8. I think these are the most appropriate and beautiful terms I have seen used to describe the difference in photography styles.

    I love painting with a passion but don’t have a lot of time or space to work with such a medium.

    Being an impressionist photographer allows me to express what I see as my artistic vision, by using simple reality as my starting point. Even simple situations hold a beauty that can only be shown through slight adjustments in filters and lighting.

    Thank you so much for writing this article and giving light to very subtle artistic difference.


    Posted by Kaylin Idora | December 10, 2009, 6:05 pm
  9. Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments. As your responses indicate there are many gray areas in the use of Photoshop and how photographers should incorporate it into their photography.

    In the coming weeks, I’ll look at how these terms can be used to plan workflows and develop business models for professional photographers.

    – Jay

    Posted by Jay | December 12, 2009, 1:03 pm
  10. Hope I’m not too late to the party here.

    Jay, I think your definitions are too simplistic. You assume that impressionistic (let’s go further and say artistic) images are created only after the shot has been taken using the digital darkroom. What about those that are created in camera using camera movement, taking advantage of subject movement, multiple exposures and similar techniques?

    Also, what’s real? Is a blended exposure or HDR with realistic tonemapping unreal or less real because it shows more of what the human eye could see as compared to what the more limited brightness range of the sensor or film could capture? We see in colour. Is a black and white photograph real or unreal?

    I’m glad I found your blog and I’m going to bookmark it. I look forward to the future articles you mention.

    Bob Fisher

    Posted by Robert Fisher | December 15, 2009, 6:55 pm
  11. Bob,

    Not too late at all. Personally, I wouldn’t say that photos manipulated in the digital darkroom are more or less artistic than those captured in camera. Merely that they are different tools to achieve different ends.

    The reality question is a real sticking point and to me, the crux of ethical use of digital darkroom tools for a photojournalistic usage. A tonemapped HDR might be closer to what the photographer actually saw with their eye, but that runs foul of the PJ ethics test, while lighting a room, using an extremely long lens, a fast, or slow shutter speed are all acceptable tools to achieve an end goal.

    My interest in presenting the terms this way is to foster a discussion about the philosophical differences in the approach and workflow (coming soon) that these divergent types of photography might encounter.

    I’m glad you’ve joined the conversation. I look forward to your comments on future articles. Thanks!


    Posted by Jay Kinghorn | December 17, 2009, 12:12 pm
  12. Jay, if we’re looking at realism from the PJ standpoint then I agree. Aside from cropping, colour correction and sharpening nothing should be done if the photo is for PJ use.

    I wouldn’t consider lighting a room to be necessary for PJ use. But I’m looking at PJ from the standpoint of spot news, rather than, say, photos accompanying editorial articles (e.g., profile of a politician or business exec.).

    You’re right though that choice of aperture, focal length, shutter speed can all have an effect on how the viewer perceives the final photo, even straight from the camera. Interesting.

    Bob Fisher

    Posted by Robert Fisher | December 24, 2009, 6:46 am

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