Things in photography that are not true – photography lies

Photography lies – photos may not show ‘truth’

Sometimes photos pretend to be something that in reality they are not. There may be no lies involved, but the subject can be misrepresented. In fact, there are many ways that photos can be used to show something different from reality.

Photographs – proof in evidence, or photography lies?

‘Photographic evidence’ is not automatic proof. Photography lies come in many forms. Photos do not even need to be edited. Pictures can be convincing in lots of ways. We all know a short person can be photographed to look tall. And… well, just look at a few of these: Photographic illusions on Google images Photography lies on Google :: External link - opens new tab/page. Mistakes, edits and theft can all be used to spoil or lose photo-evidence. The art of illusion can also turn one thing into another in a photograph. Even digital forensics cannot detect a good illusion. Photography may be useful evidence, but it is not 100% reliable. On top of that interpretation of an image leaves us with open questions about what we see. Often we can see photography lies but our eyes deceive us. We simply do not notice them.

Photo fraud

We cannot pretend photographic fraud is a myth. Journalists have been dismissed for simple photographic edits when only slight or composition changes were at stake. There are many examples of photography lies in journalism. We recognise there are situations when manipulation costs the trust of the viewer. Nevertheless it still happens. Even top level journalists have perpetuated photography lies.

Fine line between photography lies and truths

In my view fashion magazines have frequently crossed that line using photography lies. This can particularly be seen with the obvious and routine body manipulations of celebs. photogs often remove the odd spot, wrinkle or blemish for aesthetic reasons. We may have taken a step further. However, most of us are not selling something. The extent to which misleading edits are used in the fashion and lifestyle industry is shocking. They are often easily detected. Look at these… Photoshop disasters on Google Images  Photography lies :: Photoshop disasters on Google Images ::External link - opens new tab/page. Consider these too…10 worst Photoshop disasters  Photography lies :: 10 worst Photoshop disasters :: External link - opens new tab/page; and some here too: Niaangel.blogspot Photoshop Disasters  Photography lies :: Photoshop disasters :: External link - opens new tab/page. The Internet is replete with photoshop disasters. These are just the ones that are the obvious manipulations. How many photography lies that go un-spotted will probably never be known.

Obviously past the limit…

Some of the photos we see in magazines, adverts and on TV are nothing short of criminal. In the UK the public is slowly becoming aware of this. Questions are being raised about the ethics of advert manipulation. And, more important, questions are being asked about the effects on unsuspecting or vulnerable people. Should we make celebrities thinner in photos? Should young, impressionable people see these things? Would there be less anorexia in the teen population if such editing did not happen? These are not just ethical issues. They are questions about our social direction too.

Actually the camera does lie – routinely

Many starters in photography do not realise the extent to which a camera distorts reality. This is not manipulation – it is physics. The lens which most closely approximates to the human eye is the 50mm prime. However, it is still likely to induce barrel distortions, chromatic aberrations, and random softness or distortion at the periphery of the picture.

Other lenses, most notably the fish-eye lens, are noted for distortions which are sort-after. All lenses have their special character. So do all digital image sensors. The contrast in a scene are reduced compared to the human eye too. In general, cameras don’t see exactly as we do. All sorts of aspects of a photograph differ from reality.

Lancaster Bomber fish-eye shot

• Lancaster Bomber fish-eye shot •

The fish-eye lens is noted for its ability to distort a scene.

Click image to view large.
• Lancaster Bomber fish-eye shot • By Netkonnexion on Flickr External link - opens new tab/page

Cheating? Me?

I am a member of two camera clubs. I have seen my share of new members leaving the club when they realise people have ‘cheated’ in post production. Sky’s blued, contrasts deepened; and horrors, things cloned out. Or worse, things pasted in. Unspeakable!!!

Getting on a high horse about photography lies like these are really the tantrums of a diva. On questioning one such self-righteous person, they were adamant that they did no processing and they never would. Yet, they used *.jpg images. These are notorious for the messing around done by the on-board processors in-camera. These edits are done routinely on auto-settings. This is because most entry-level photogs and snappers do not normally do their own digital developing.

As a result there are many file changes made before you see the image. Most *.jpg files have had auto processing to blue the skies, brighten the image by about 50 points, artificially enhance contrast and remove distortions of various kinds. Digital noise is pretty routinely removed too. Certain colour enhancements and changes are not unusual. There is no standard for these. The manufactures work out what they think will look best. When they get credible results they produce a new sensor/camera combination. If that is what you want to go with – great. But, don’t try and kid anyone you have an unprocessed picture. Straight out of camera (SOOC) it may be, unprocessed it is not. Are these things photography lies?

As they are not intended to mislead – no. They are not photography lies. The photographer and camera maker are both intent on something close to what the eye can see. These ‘corrections’ are really an attempt to see the camera reproduce a more real picture. If you use a RAW format image file in your capture then you will have to make similar changes. Next you will produce your *.jpg file. The benefit of RAW is you can gain more control over the outcome. You can do what the manufacturer cannot. You can make the image how you saw it in your minds eye.

What is the nature of a photograph?

In the early 1980’s I knew a man who worked ina big London advertising agencies. As a trainee in their photographic department he saw many interesting photographic processes. One, widely used today in Photoshop, was under development for a big UK airline. Money in the hundreds of thousands of pounds was being spent developing soft-edging for aeroplanes. This allowed the image to be placed in almost any sky. They were using chemical films then. The process would allow them to easily images with aircraft as they thought right for travel articles.

Is this misleading? We all know aircraft fly. What does it matter the sort of sky we see them in? The right sort of aircraft and sky can convince people they are going to exotic or sunny places. It’s a sales point. This lifestyle message comes over in a lot of much of our literature. It could be seen as manipulating how a place is viewed. Messages like this impact on buying decisions.

Camera club members, general photographers and artists routinely and robustly defend their right to edit images. This sometimes results in an image that is nothing like the original capture. Editing, even ‘processing’ is in itself an artistic pursuit. Actually, this leads us to consider the very nature of a photographic image. Clearly it is not true Record of reality. Neither is a photograph a definitive reflection of reality. Every photograph is a personal interpretation of a scene. Every one is to some extent changed by the camera equipment, the processing, and the settings. Even the way the camera was held or mounted has an impact.

In general terms edits are not about creation of photography lies. There are elements of the capture and camera mechanism that affects the result. There are inputs that are interpretation and some that are pure art.

Photography is an art and a science. We should recognise that every image, to a lesser or greater extent, changes the reality of the scene depicted. What we appreciate about an image should not be about the process. It should be about the result. Is it a great image? Does it convey the right message or impression?

Only historians of photography will be interested in the photo-production processes in the future. Everyone else will consider the image for its merit.

So, are there really photography lies?

Yes, pure and simple.

There are photo-white lies. These may be images deliberately constructed to convey particular meaning or a message. They may be real lies. They are however not setting out to mislead in malicious way. They are about artistic interpretation and technique. They will also be about the state of camera and lens technology.

Hard deceptions are where a photograph has been set up to convey a deliberate falsehood. Some of the ‘Black-hat lies’ are easy to spot. Fraud is obvious. Deliberate manipulation with intent to mislead and misleading images to fool people about their lifestyle choices are also black-hat lies. They exist and they are damaging and sometimes criminal.

Judging is not the issue

I am not judging anyone here. There are cases where the public have been misled. There are borderline issues and blatant criminality. On the other hand we should concede an important point. Artists through the ages have sought to use contemporary tools to express themselves. The use of post-processing and editing applications is no different. It’s a reality we are not going to change. I think we should live with it and enjoy it.

What we must not do is get purist about ‘straight-out-of-camera’ as if it is something virginal and untouched. Be proud, move on.

Equally we must not attempt to mislead people. As photographers we must hold up our hands and be realistic. Changes, processing, manipulations and deliberate distortions are here, they always have been. We just need to acknowledge that fact, rejoice in it and be honest.

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
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3 responses to “Things in photography that are not true – photography lies

  1. Apologies- I forgot to include my name and email above!

  2. Well done and balanced presentation Damon! I like the line about photography being both art and science. I have always approached processing in this way and it helps me to not over-process the good photos, while sometimes saving the disasters!

    • Damon (Editor)

      Hi Ann, thanks for the feedback. Yes, art and science… I think some people forget that photography has so many dimensions. Art to science; good to bad; journalistic to fantasy and many more. I embrace and celebrate them all, but we must be honest about it. Thanks for taking the time to read this.