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 are set up to vary from reality.
Photos – proof in evidence, or photography lies?
‘Photographic evidence’ is not automatic proof. Photography lies come in many forms. Some photos can mislead without an edit. Pictures can convince viewers in lots of ways. For example, we all know we can take photos to make a short person look tall. And… well, just look at a few of these: Photographic illusions on Google images . 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. in addition, 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.
We cannot pretend photo-fraud is a myth. Journalists are sometimes dismissed for simple photo edits. These dismissals have even been after slight changes. Remember, to remove or add something, a person or an object can really change the impact of an image. Actually, there are many examples of photography lies in journalism. This is because there are situations when manipulation costs the trust of the viewer. As a rule journalists are honest. However, even top level journalists create photography lies and others make mistakes.
Fine line between lies and truths
In my view fashion magazines have often crossed that line using photography lies. This is often obvious with the body edits 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 appear in the fashion and lifestyle industry is shocking. Look at these… Photoshop disasters on Google Images . The Internet is replete with Photoshop disasters. These are just the ones that obviously mislead. How many photography lies that go un-spotted will probably never be known.
Obviously past the limit…
Some of the photos in magazines, adverts and on TV are criminal. In the UK the public is slowly becoming aware of this. Questions often surface about the ethics of advert manipulation. More important, the effects on vulnerable people need revealing. Should we make celebs thinner in photos? Should young, impressionable people see these things? Would there be less anorexia in the teen age group if such editing did not happen? These are not just ethical issues. They are questions about our society and culture too.
Actually, the camera does lie – routinely
Many starters in photography do not realise how much a camera distorts reality. This is not manipulation – it is physics. The lens which most closely matches the human eye is the 50mm prime. However, it is still likely to make an image that varies from reality. We see barrel distortions, chromatic aberrations, and random softness or distortion at the edge of the shot.
Other lenses, most notably the fish-eye lens, are noted for distortion. Such lenses are sort-after. Remember, all lenses have their special character. So do all digital image sensors. The contrast in a scene is reduced compared to the human eye too. In general, cameras don’t see exactly as we do. All sorts of aspects of an image differ from reality.
I am a member of two camera clubs. I have seen many new members leaving 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. People are often 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.
Most images have been edited… in some way
There are many file changes made before you see the image. Most *.jpg files have had auto processing. Sky is blue-enhanced. Images are brightened by about 50 points. *.jpg’s artificially enhance contrast and remove distortions of various kinds. Digital noise is pretty routinely removed too. Certain colour enhancements and changes are also not unusual. There is no standard for these. The makers 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 – in-camera changes are not photography lies. The photog and camera maker both try to get close to what the eye can see. However, these ‘corrections’ are really an attempt to see the camera make 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 photo?
In the early 1980’s I knew a man who worked in a big London advertising agency. As an editing trainee in photography he saw many interesting processes. One, widely used today in Photoshop, was under development for a big UK airline. Money in the hundreds of thousands of pounds was spent to develop a process to soft-edge 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 place aircraft into images to create travel articles.
Is this misleading? We all know aircraft fly. What does it matter the sort of sky we see them in? Well, 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 much of our literature. It could be seen as manipulating how a place is viewed. Messages like this impact on buying decisions.
Editing – does it change the nature of the photograph?
photog 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.
Edits are not generally there to mislead…
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 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 – images deliberately constructed to convey particular meaning or a message. They may be real lies. However, they may not be setting out to mislead in a malicious way. They are about artistic interpretation and technique. Possibly, they will also be about the state of camera and lens technology.
Hard deceptions are where a photograph conveys a deliberate falsehood. Some of the ‘Black-hat lies’ are easy to spot. Some deliberate manipulations are done with intent to mislead. These misleading images intend to fool people about their lifestyle choices are definite lies. They exist and they are damaging and sometimes criminal. Many body edits in fashion magazines fall into this category, for example.
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 apps 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’ photos. They are an approximation of the reality of the scene on the day. SOOC images are not something virginal and untouched. Be proud, move on.
Equally, we must not attempt to mislead people. We must hold up our hands and be realistic. Changes, processing, edits and deliberate distortions are there. 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 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’