Stop the Photoshopping



by Guest Ranter Joseph Tychonievich of Green Sparrow Gardens

I'm sick of photoshopped pictures of plants in

I never really thought about the pictures in the
catalogs I drool over every year until I was at an academic conference in The
Netherlands a couple years ago and visited a company (which will remain
nameless) that produces marketing images for Dutch flower bulb companies.

I think the image above says it all: How do they
get the lovely image of a clump of daffodils growing in a perfect garden you see
in the catalog? A single flower in front of a green screen. I watched and
listened in amazement as they explained how they can take pictures of the same
flower from different angles then copy and paste them in front of a perfect
garden background picture. But I wasn't really horrified until they cheerfully
demonstrated how they also tweak the color of the flower to “make sure
the image has the true color of the real flower.” Right. I'm sure they are only
“fixing” colors which didn't photograph very well. They never adjust and
augment to make a flower brighter and richer colored than the real thing.

Are you kidding me?

Now when I get a catalog I scrutinize the images.
Funny how sometimes the flowers in the background are in just as crisp focus as
the ones on the front, funny how sometimes the flowers don't seem to cast
shadows on each other.

But even more strange is how often flower colors
are not quite what I would expect. Have you ever seen the tulip 'Blue Parrot'?
It is purple. There are no blue tulips, tulips don't have blue pigment, end of
story. But flip through some catalogs, or do a google image
, and you'll see pictures of 'Blue Parrot' every color from the
authentic purple to a breathtaking true blue that rivals delphiniums and

Ordering plants sight unseen from a catalog is
always an act of faith, and it doesn't help to undermine it with blatantly
artificial images. I love mail order plants, I love curling up with a wonderful,
beautifully photographed catalog on a winter evening and dreaming of the garden
to come next year. I don't want to have to put the catalog down and pull up
google to try and find out if the color in the picture has anything to do with
the actual color of the plant. If I seen an astonishing plant that looks too
good to be true, I want to be excited about growing it, not rolling my eyes at
the fakery.

So, if any of you catalog people are reading this,
just STOP! I don't want to have to stop ordering from you because I can't trust
you. Maybe you can fool me once with a meconopsis-blue tulip, but when they come
up purple, guess who I'll never be ordering from again. How about some
wonderful, lovely, drool-inducing, REAL pictures in your catalog this year?

Joseph lives in Lansing, Michigan, where he's a grad student in horticulture.


  1. I stopped trusting and buying from catalogs years ago after paying 45 bucks for a yellow lilac that wasn’t. Not only did the photo lie the description did too but I figured at that price (for a bare rooted twig) it had to be real.

  2. The Dutch have been famous for “sticking” tulips hyacinths etc. in perfect placement in perfectly manicured beds. Before Photoshop the pictures looked as fake as they could be. Photoshop makes it easier to make anything look real.

    But the user of photoshop must be well versed in the complete life of the flower including shadows etc.

    I guess some people still wear wooden shoes in Holland

    The TROLL

  3. I certainly don’t want to provide a defense for the “garden porn” version of mail order eastern european brides, but to get a photo prepped for printing on the cheap paper they use, you have to tweek photos some to get the photos to print reasonably clearly.

    I realize this is like saying Hitler was not so bad becasue he loved his mother, but sometimes things are not entirely cyncial in nature (unlike me).

  4. I do agree, added to this is that so often plants/bulbs are not even the correct variety or are seed raised and something similar! I keep saying I will only buy plants in flower so I know what I am getting or buy from a really trust worthy nursery.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  5. I agree, mostly, with an important correction:

    lighting, CCD capture, printing, and screen display create color problems. Things look different under different lights. The same item will have different colors depending on outdoor, fluorescent, or incandescent lighting conditions.

    Some people keep their monitors at different brightness or contract levels, and we are all familiar with printers that print lighter or darker than others.

    Different CCDs (the image sensor in a digital camera) and different brightness and color responses, and this introduces additional error.

    Color correction is an attempt to correct for these differences in lighting, sensing/capture, and printing errors and make sure the final product most closely resembles the original. It is a huge part of computer graphics and digital photography.

    No excuses for green screening though 🙂 But leave color correction out of this!

  6. It’s not just the plant catalogs- paver manufacturers do it too. One in particular just released a new product along with a gorgeous picture of a walkway using it. Problem is, it was a pretty distinctive walk- so a lot of the contractors who use their product recognized it as having originally been a totally different paver a few catalogs ago. Whoops.

  7. I bought a bunch of lilies that were advertised as a deep purple but when they bloomed they are a burnt orange. I already have too many orange lilies and didn’t want more.

    When I googled the name all the pics were orange. I’ve googled other sinces and now are the same colour as the catalogue pics.

  8. I have a problem with altering photographs in general. Now when I see a particularly pretty photo of a landscape or anything else, I wonder how “real” it is.

  9. Hey Jay, I agree. Color correction is perfectly fine. It’s color Enhancement that has to be curbed.

    I understand that technology is finally catching up to capturing blues. Blues and the related violets-with-lots-of-blue are the ones that typically need to be corrected, as they come out of my little digital camera.

  10. Enhancement is all part of marketing. Eventually we will get to the point where consumers will slam fraudulent claims by vendors – the internet will make this easy to do, and hopefully truth in advertising will appear. Enhancement is also part of the problem with standard magazine photos be it fashion or gardening images, not only are they retouched but scenes can be groomed to hide defects. It might be beautiful but it isn’t reality.

    I believe that enhancement grew out of color correction which is necessary because photography uses one system for managing colors (RGB) while printing uses a different system (CMYK). The two systems do not mesh completely and like mentioned above, purples and blues suffer in most cases. Photography can only capture about half of what our eyes can see and the printed page can only display about two thirds of that. Digital cameras and computer monitors have light coming through the image, so lights and darks can be refined on the screen. A piece of paper only has light bouncing off of it so a lot of the details and colors are diminished.

  11. Totally agree. When I see something in a catalog and I’m likely to drop the cash on it I check member photos somewhere like DavesGarden so I have a more accurate representation to consider.

  12. Sorry to burst any bubbles…but no photograph in any media is “accurate”–whether or not it has been photoshopped. Even in the most expensive books, colors are altered/skewed, if you will, by the printer’s computers…it’s the nature of the the medium.

    It has always been this way. The only time photographs are “true” or “realistic” is when the photographer has complete control over the reproduction. But, then…
    …no two computer monitors or tv screens are alike so no image will translate exactly as you prepare it to another.

    It “just ain’t so” that looking up an image of a flower online will give you an accurate rendition. Oh that it were true.

    The only time an image can be “as you see it in real life” is when you photograph it and print it yourself–assuming that you don’t tweak it yourself, based on what you consider to be “realistic.”

    If publishers of $50 coffee table books cannot promise accurate color reproductions (and they absolutely cannot) magazines and catalogs will NEVER be “realistic.”

    Some catalogs are worse than others–some of the “big name” are the worst offenders. You have to take everything with a grain of salt, look at as many different photos of a new flower as possible, and then wait to see what appears in your own garden.

  13. I once was sorely tempted by a yellow trillium in a catalog, until I realized that the photos for white and yellow trilliums were identical with the yellow one recolored. I did some searching and the yellow trillium’s shape is dramatically different from the white. I was glad I noticed in time!

  14. A little research also goes a long way…

    It’s like believing what’s on Fox News.


    Regarding altering photos (not in the aggregious sense)- we digital photographers simply have the tools that cheap photo labs used to have when we took our roll of film in to be developed. Then, all the brightnes/contrast/saturation was left up to a technician to assess and take care of.

    Now some (usually non photographing) readers think it is unacceptable because the photographer might be doing that work themselves…

    But nothing has changed, other than individual control over the process.

    Process. That is the word.

  15. After buying daffodils shown to have orange outer petals with a darker orange trumpet, and well, you know the rest. Some of the catalog shots are so obviously tampered with, like the blue flowers of hydrangeas with leaves an astonishingly blue as well. They don’t even try to do a good job sometimes. FYI, Limbo is not an orange petaled daff.

  16. On occasion it’s deceptive marketing trickery, but Joe, John & Zephyr have it right. I’m in advertising and do a LARGE amount of printing. There are so many variables that affect color that there is no possible way to have printed (or on-screen) colors match with real life. As an art director, we generally go with “pleasing color” that looks appropriate on whatever proofing devices we use. For all the technology involved in capturing images, it’s not a science.

  17. OH ! I feel so betrayed! How can they justify lying? I guess I will just have to continue buying at my local garden center, and drooling at the pictures, but spending my money locally, where I can see the plant live and in color. I’m sad!


  18. Have you ever seen the catalogs or the web site from Ty Ty Nursery in Georgia. They don’t so much photoshop the plants as they put provocative young models among the plants. Based on the wealth of customer complaints out on the web, I would think twice about ordering anything from these folks, even with all the soft porn among the flora.

  19. Plant porn has been around for years. You didn’t really believe they looked like that? Did you? In the post airbrush world, with photoshop, you don’t have to weed the virtual garden. Can’t smell it either. Bummer!

  20. I recognize and accept that the bloom photos in gardening catalogs (and commercial web sites, for that matter) use digital techno-trickery to enhance their images. What really annoys me is that they rarely show the entire plant in an actual garden setting. Yes, that macro closeup image of the bloom is stunning, but what will the *plant* look like in my yard? I want to see foliage, plant size, and what it looks like in the midst of a real garden.

  21. Something Sharon said tickled something in my mind. It would be awfully nice it there was something like an “industry standard” that set the expectation for commericial plant pictures in catalogs and the associated description. Like always show the entire plant and then the close-up of the particulars (e.g. veining in leaf, bloom, fruit) as a smaller inset. I believe this is common practice in many industries where standards are set by trade organization to get some degree of usability. I am constantly amazed at how much fluff is provided (made-up names not scientific nomenclature, very hazy claims on bloom period, no real clarity on use in sun-shade based on regional differences, no information regarding the impact of your heat or cold zone on care or the impact of soil – clay vs. loam.)

    I can here Fox News go after this form of horticultural socialism but I have spent too much time in engineering where we tend to shoot for standards to make things much more universally usable.

  22. Really interesting comments. As pointed out by many of you, it isn’t nearly as simple as I presented it in this post — the line between correction and enhancement is awfully fuzzy.
    And, Sysiphus’s Gardener, you are absolutely right. We do need some standards, even if they are just voluntary. I’ve posted some more ideas on the subject on my blog.

  23. Sharon,

    “What really annoys me is that they rarely show the entire plant in an actual garden setting. Yes, that macro closeup image of the bloom is stunning, but what will the *plant* look like in my yard? I want to see foliage, plant size, and what it looks like in the midst of a real garden.”

    Me too.

  24. Though I’ve always known that magazines touch-up the models in the photos, somehow I didn’t think that they’d do the same for flowers. An eye-opener.
    And Hurrah! for Lansing and MSU!

  25. I can get over the color issue but what I find deceptively annoying is the size of the plant that companies are showing you what you will ‘get’ unless you read the small print and are a little knowledgeable on plants that big, lush foliage will not be seen for a few months to years 2×2 or 4×4 inch pots are not that big. You have to pay attention to words like seedling or root start.

    I love to mail order plants but you really have to read that fine print or you will have a big disappointment on ups day.

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