To Photoshop or not to Photoshop

A couple of months ago a motorsports photographer whom I greatly admire posted a set of images on a forum I frequent, which, being the excellent photographer he is, met with enthusiastic praise. This was one of the photos:-

#47 TF Sport Aston Martin Vantage GT3 2019: Graham Davidson, Jonny Adam - Silverstone 500 - Round 5 - British GT

It may or may not be obvious to the casual observer, but this photo has been “Photoshop-ed”. A car travelling at an angle to the photographers point of view like this should, in part, be as blurred as the background. What the photographer has done here is artificially blur the background in Photoshop, to give the image a sense of speed.

This photo was highly praised on the forum, with a number of responders praising the skills it must have taken to capture this image.

The thing is it didn’t take any skills to capture the image, it’s shot at a shutter speed of 1/400th, plenty fast enough to get a sharp image of the car. The background has then been extensively blurred in Photoshop to give the resultant effect. The skill is in the post-processing.

Now, the photographer in question doesn’t hide the fact he processes his images, and has even published a detailed article explaining how he does it. I feel, however, somewhat uncomfortable about this, because despite the photographers honesty, the fact remains his images are getting likes because the presumption is it’s his skill behind the camera that produced the image, not his skill in front of a computer screen.

When I started my photography journey I looked at images like these and, as most people, said “wow, that’s amazing” and set about the task of trying to capture such images myself. Presuming, as mentioned, that some super-human camera skills were required I started to practise, and practise, and practise.

I’ve just about got the point where I can manage a shot like this:-


1/20th of a second shutter speed, about as low as I can go before it all becomes a gooey mess. Notice how in this shot the front of the car is sharp but the rear isn’t, this is because the front of the car is travelling at a different speed from my perspective compared to the rear. This is what the top image would’ve looked like if it were “real”.

Some would argue it’s the final image that matters, and I’d somewhat agree. Indeed I had an instance once where a friend commented on my images and said “I really like the photoshop-ed ones!”. When I asked him what he was talking about he pointed at my slow shutter images, he’d presumed the blur was a result of Photoshop. Not that he actually knew what “photoshop-ed” meant, it was just a term used for “doctored” photos, and he’d assumed any photo that wasn’t a bog standard snapshot had to have been “photoshop-ed”. I explained the effect was caused by using a slow shutter speed … then had to explain to him what a shutter was!

So I guess the average person, certainly someone with no knowledge of how a camera works, would just look at an image and like it, or not, without a single care or thought as to how it was produced. But as a photographer, I can’t help feel there’s a right way to produce an image and a wrong way.

At the end of the day, why do motorsports photographers take pictures of moving objects (whether it be cars, bikes or whatever)? I suggest the reason is because the “subject” of the image is as much the “movement” as it is the “object”. If we take a picture of a moving object at a high shutter speed we’ve captured the object, but we haven’t captured the movement, we’ve failed to capture the scene as it was presented to us, and by adding the movement in post-production we’re pretending to the viewer that we achieved something we didn’t.

Another reason for this article, now, is that a few weeks ago I attended a photography day at Snetterton circuit, on the first day of a BTCC (British Touring Cars) weekend, hosted by Olympus and Power Maxed Racing. Power Maxed were running a competition for anyone that attended one of these days, the prize being a VIP trip to Brands Hatch for the final race of the season, and an Olympus Tough TC-6 camera. To win you had to submit a photo (or several) taken at the event with an Olympus camera.

I duly submitted a few images, this being one of them:-


At 1/60th I thought this was a reasonable slow shutter panning shot of the kind motorsport photographers would typically take.

Notice how not only is the background blurred as the camera pans sideways matching the movement of the car, but also look at the wheels. The yellow banding around the outside is actually the tyre manufacturers name (dunlop in this case) blurred into a solid band because the wheels have turned part or a whole revolution whilst the camera shutter has been open. The spokes on the wheels are also blurred out, more so on the front because the rear near-side wheel is off the ground and not turning as fast as the front.

This, in my opinion, makes the image “real”, the blur is a natural part of the image and the amount of blurring is perfectly in step with the movement speed of each component.

The winning shot in the competition however was this:-

This is a screen-grab, as the photographer hasn’t allowed this image to be embedded. That in itself is definately not something I’d ordinarily do, photos are the property of the photographer, and he / she alone should have control of how they’re used. I’m using it here to illustrate a point and humbly beg the forgiveness of the person in question!

This photo was taken at 1/125th, a much “safer” shutter speed, and then the background blur applied in Photoshop. Notice how the spokes of the wheel are more apparent, and the yellow banding of the tyre manufacturers name doesn’t extend around the whole tyre. This is because the higher shutter speed resulted in the image being more frozen than mine. The background however is a blurry mess, much more blurred than the wheels of the car, and therefore noticeably “altered”.

The competition judges did comment that they thought long and hard about this, as they could see it’d been photoshop-ed, but decided the final image was all that mattered.

In hindsight I wish I’d known this, I could’ve photoshop-ed some of mine for added dramatic effect. As a tangible prize was on offer perhaps I should’ve done so anyway and hoped for the best.

But still, would I have been comfortable with this? I don’t think so.

I should add, the 2 photographers I appear to be taking to task in this article are both supremely skilled, they don’t photoshop because they have to, these guys can and do take superb slow shutter panning shots, and the guy who won the BTCC contest thoroughly deserves it. I’m not contesting the result, just putting into words the unease I feel at images who’s primary “wow factor” appears to come from (the presumption of) the skill used to capture them, when in fact the skills involved were different skills deployed after the event.

I want my images to reflect the scene as I saw it, so if movement is an integral part of the scene I want my camera to capture that movement, not add it later on my computer. So I guess I’ll stick to cranking down that shutter speed and throwing away nearly all my images because I suck at it!

2 Replies to “To Photoshop or not to Photoshop”

  1. One of the photos in this blog is mine, and whilst I prefer to obtain genuine motion in camera it can be fun to play about in photoshop.

    I have no issue with the use of my image in such context, however it would have been courteous for you to ask permission first and would ask that you do this in future if you use anyone else’s images.

  2. Toby, many apologies (almost a year too late however!), I absolutely should’ve sought your permission. I hope the article explains clearly why I used it and the point I was trying to make?

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