What is photography? A great question to fill many idle hours! You tell me you that you, as a new and enthusiastic photographer, are confused.
Is it photography only if one uses "traditional" tools like film and wet chemistry in a darkroom? Is it photography when one uses digital cameras and media? Is it photography when one uses Photoshop not only to process an image, but to combine images or modify the "pure" image?
You frame the question in technology terms; I would broaden the question to include artistic value. And when does photography become art? And does it matter? Personally, I think all the technical variants of photography are photography. I have my own ideas of what I think is serious and worthwhile, and what I think is fluff. I have my own ideas about what is "art" and I reject a lot of what is considered artistic today.
I expect you will be a serious photographer. To further your education and ability, I urge you to look at the work of great photographers and of great artists. Steal from them not their images or their styles, but a hunger for understanding and recording the world about you. Take from them a realization that each of us must have or be trying to discover a personal inner vision.
Like any art, a photograph is a form of communication. If it says something worthwhile to some viewers, it is a success. Perhaps it is a success if only the photographer is pleased!
Is photography art?
The world of so-called fine art photography sets forth criteria and standards that thinly mask that wealth determines what is popular. The museum evaluates artists in terms of what the patrons like; the gallery chooses to show work that its customers will buy. What is fresh, new, and scarce determines price and popularity. In a talk that I attended, a photographer and gallery owner, surveying the realities of the fine art photography market, made it clear that his clients defined his taste. (His clients were young, newly-wealthy people working in financial markets with no special experience in art except in art as investment vehicle.) And that he did not like photographers who were motivated by money, instead they should be laboring to come up with something new and exciting. In other words, everyone in the chain: gallery, collector, museum etc. was legitimately motivated by investing in the future financial value of the art--save only the photographer.
Although I long ago had photos selected for the collection of the Museum
of Modern Art (by Grace Mayer and Steichen), and I like to believe that my personal work meets the standards of excellence and permanence of a serious artist, I don't accept the art world conventions. I don't number my work, for instance, because photography is inherently a medium for creating multiple copies of an image and it is in my view, wrong to create a sense of value by artificially limiting copies.
Technology and expression
My photo roots are to wet chemistry in a darkroom, with an adaptation
and simplification of the zone system of Ansel Adams. The zone system is a sophisticated system for managing light from the scene in nature, through controlled processing in the darkroom, to presentation as a print on paper. To create a sense of wonder and heightened reality in the viewer, the record of reality is transformed in a human-controlled program. Is there any reason not to use a software program to manage a digital image to obtain similar results?
My approach is documentary: that is, what the world presents you is sufficiently "staged" and any intervention is likely to create a falsehood. At the same time composition, framing, timing and a myriad of choices that I make determine what the viewer will perceive. I think that "documentary" also carries a freight of social concern and social justice. Although that doesn't relate when capturing the complexity or simplicity of nature.
As an artist one is responsible for knowing and controlling one's tools,
but one can choose from many different tools in accordance with the
nature of the subject and the task at hand. By accepting the
capabilities and limitations of a tool one can create a masterpiece with
a pinhole camera, a large format camera using an 8x10 film plate, a 35mm reflex, or a one-time-use film camera or even a cheap digital camera.
There is nothing sacred about silver-based film: it can capture
incredible detail, can be used at very high speeds, and if correctly
processed and safeguarded, it is good for generations. But it is outmoded, for better or worse. It took me months to find a school with a darkroom that could make use of the finest darkroom enlarger I ever used: it was hard to give it away.
By controlling exposure in the camera; by controlling processing; and by
manipulations in the darkroom, people have made great images.
Digital media have their own characteristics and the manufacturers are
rapidly changing and improving things. Digital media is inherently a
different technology than film, and while it can "replace" film, it can
also enable new kinds of imagery and expression.
By scanning a traditional image or taking a digital exposure, the
photographer has a digital record. Photoshop--or some other
program--enables the photographer to manipulate a variety of variables
that will modify the digital image. Even if he does not manipulate
anything, he is accepting a set of variables imposed by a software
engineer at Adobe when using Photoshop.
All that can be discussed is where on a continuum of intervention do we
want to go? I use a very small number of the possible controls in
Photoshop to get a relatively "straight" interpretation of the image I
found in nature. But I do have my preferences which are interpretations,
maybe even a personal style.
I am not interested, at least not yet, in combining parts of two or more
images. But that is certainly a legitimate form of expression which
viewers can accept or reject. I have started to use a technique which
combines several images of the same scene in order to show exquisite
detail from the deepest shadow to the brightest part of the scene. I
think this is legitimate, but not everyone needs to like the results.
When someone copies an image from an advertisement and enlarges it and shows it in a Museum as an original work of art, I consider it as a form of theft, not of art. But otherwise, whether I like something or not, it is still a form of expression, possibly art.
I think you are right: creative use of Photoshop--or any medium--is an
art of its own, rather an art technology. Photography encompasses a very broad range of technical possibilities. The test is what we learn and what we feel when we view the final image or series of images. The standard of comparison is great art, whatever the age or medium. Are we looking at something that is a true and meaningful vision, or something trivial and ordinary? Of course great art can have a true vision of the ordinary. When I see a photograph of that quality, first I wonder at it, and only then do I wonder about the expertise and technique that went into it.