Assignment Four: Real or Fake

Boats and Boating

The fourth part of this course was taught on two levels. Firstly there was an increasingly invasive set of Photoshop “manipulations”. Then at a deeper level we were invited to consider the ethical implications of what we were doing. The purpose of the assignment was to demonstrate my stance on these ethics by taking and manipulating an image for an imaginary book or magazine cover.

A lot of my thinking on the subject is in the posts “The Camera Never Lies” and the “Photography of Truth” and summarised in the research to this assignment. Therein I concluded that my stance could be best demonstrated using documentary photography or photojournalism. A hypothetical magazine cover could represent documentary photography so this is what I used.

I will first of all show the picture I used, then the adjustments I made, and follow this with a discussion on the ethics of it.

My starting image for a publication on boating is on the next page.

Apart from the obvious defects, the tilt of the image and the sensor dust midway between the swan and the boats, a number of “improvements” can be made to make the image better suited to its intended purpose. The muddy colour of the water is not especially inviting, the swan could be repositioned to close up the dead space between it and the boats, the building at the top left is a local riverside pub. Its partial inclusion does not enhance the composition but detracts from the rural scene and there is not enough dead space at the top of the picture for the magazine’s title.


1 – Correct Tilt

When I took the shot, I wanted to place the swan in the corner of the frame to create a diagonal between the swan and the boats, hence the image was tilted. Seeing it later I don’t think it worked as the image looks messy and contrived. This was a straightforward correction using the straighten tool. I used the verticals of the hut on the jetty as a reference. The result was cropped to the dimensions of A4 at 300 dpi.


2 – Remove blemish

This was another straightforward correction using the clone stamp tool. A patch of water alongside the blemish was chosen as a sample point.


3 – Change colour of water

I made a careful selection to avoid unwanted details (eg the swan), then tried two techniques for this. “Adjust Hue and Saturation” did not give me enough control so I used “Replace colour”. I had to make sure that the selection of colour to be replaced included all the muddy brown. Some attempts were not successful, leaving out some ripples or the shadow of the main boat. It was also difficult to get the colour looking right and natural.


4 – Move swan

The swan was selected fairly easily but so that it would blend in with its new surroundings when moved, I expanded the selection and feathered the edge. Then it was a simple copy, paste and move. I did not delete the original swan yet, preferring to leave it until I had moved the whole image down. Also, the new swan was kept on a separate layer to await and facilitate final positioning.


5 – Delete pub

The pub was selected and deleted. My first attempt was to add some foliage in the gap and blend it with a gradient layer mask. This proved difficult as the blending was taking place in two distinct directions so in the end I feathered the edge of the pub selection and placed the replacement foliage behind it.


6 – and replace with foliage

The foliage came from another picture taken from the same viewpoint and using the same exposure. This also had a feathered edge to enable blending with the final image.


7 – Masthead text added

This was added now so that I knew how much room would be needed when I made more room for it. This was easily done with the text tool.


8 – Create more room at top for masthead

The added foliage and background layer were merged, then converted to an ordinary layer so it could be moved. Note the swan is on another layer, this will be moved later. As it happened, I moved the image sufficiently for the original swan to disappear off the bottom, relieving me of the need to delete it.


9 – Gap at the top filled with foliage

The foliage again came from a donor image, the same as the one used earlier. It was added as another layer and merged using a gradient mask.


10 – Moved swan to final position

This was moved to a position to make a neat triangle with the boats and to attempt to merge the ripples.


11 – Add supplementary text


12 – Final tweaks

Looking at the overall final image, the boats seem a bit over exposed. The scene behind them is nicely exposed and a suitable backdrop to them so I did a local level adjustment. Unfortunately the tops of the boats were unrecoverably over-exposed (even working on the RAW file). The swan looked a bit big in its new position, I hadn’t allowed for perspective when I moved it further from the viewpoint, so I made it smaller. All through the process I was unsure what the small white dot to the right of the swan’s head was but looking at the final image, I decided it did not look right so removed it with the clone stamp tool.


Ethical Considerations

Taking each step in turn:

1 – Correct Tilt

I don’t think there is anything wrong with this, it’s correcting a fault from when the picture was originally framed. Had I done this more accurately when taking the shot, the question would not have arisen. It is not changing reality in any way but excluding a bit more of it.

2 – Remove blemish

Similarly, this is simply correcting a defect, rather than altering reality. It could be argued that I am taking something from another part of the picture to make the correction, but I don’t think this would be particularly strong argument.

3 – Change colour of water

Water’s blue isn’t it? Everyone knows that! Actually water is colourless, it’s typically thought of as blue because it reflects the colour of the sky. In this case, it was a muddy brown colour because of the suspended solids in it. That is the reality, and if it appears uninviting, that is the way that it is. In this case, changing the colour is distorting reality. It might make it a more attractive picture, it might encourage people to buy the magazine when they see it on the shelf of their local newsagent but the fact remains that it is deception and done for purely commercial interests.

4 – Move swan

This is on the borderline for me. One the one hand, in moving it I tampered with reality. On the other hand, it was moving anyway, I might have waited until it was in a more suitable position before clicking the shutter. But then, the swan was not under my command, he might have turned around and gone in totally the wrong direction. I’m reminded of the paper bag in Preparing for Prayers by Harry Fisch. He could have waited until a gust of wind blew it away but he didn’t, he used Photoshop and was excluded from the competition. Moving the swan would have resulted in my removal from a competition but this is not a competition entry. In the context of a magazine cover, I think this is acceptable – just!

5 – Delete pub

6 – and replace with foliage

I wonder how the landlord would react if a bulldozer came along and wantonly destroyed a corner of his building, so that my picture would be more suitable! That is what I have done; not physically destroyed (the pub is still there) but removed an element of its virtual or pictorial existence. Perhaps more so than changing the colour of water, this is tampering with reality.

7 – Masthead text added

I don’t think there is any challenge with adding text over an image.

8 – Create more room at top for masthead

This is simply another way of cropping an image. It’s not changing anything at this stage, just reframing and removing some of the scene…

9 – Gap at the top filled with foliage

…however it’s made different when I add the foliage. Perhaps not in the same league as demolishing half a pub, it’s still changing what was in front of the camera. In this case, it is ameliorated somewhat by acting as a backdrop to the text.

10 – Moved swan to final position

See 4

11 – Add supplementary text

See 7

12 – Final tweaks

The Reuters handbook says “No excessive lightening, darkening or blurring of the image. (thus misleading the viewer by disguising certain elements of an image)” A level adjustment as performed here would probably be acceptable in these terms. Regarding the size adjustment of the swan, the sin was already committed when it was copied in step 4. The removal of the unidentified white dot might correspond to Harry Fisch’s paper bag, depending what it is. Even so, I think compared with the other indulgences this is fairly trivial.


I have mentioned elsewhere that to determine the acceptability of this kind of intervention one has to judge it against the context in which it is viewed. The context here is a magazine cover, the purpose of which is to make the edition stand out on a newsagent’s shelf, to advertise its contents, to encourage people to buy it. In this context, it is not a picture of a specific location, but instead symbolic of what this particular edition represents. I have commented elsewhere how liberal fashion photography can be; this is of specific, well-known and recognisable people. The Boats and Boating example is symbolic so the ethics become more dulled. The other side of the coin is the viewers reading of the image. This is a “River Thames” special edition, is the Thames really that colour? That boat looks appealing and the location is so idyllic; someone wants to hire it, does a bit of research and tracks it down; only to be ultimately disappointed. Does the commercial interest and the need to sell the magazine justify the deception? In my opinion, the answer is no. Changing the colour of the water and removing the pub each is a step too far.

Analysis of Picture

The boats, pointing as they do out of the frame say they are ready to head off into unpictured waters. Within themselves they form a triangle, with another triangle heading down to the swan. The swan in the foreground is in a dominant position but his head is pointing towards the boats so it naturally leads the eye to them. There is a rhythm in the row of punt poles, also leading the eye to the boats. The presence of the two people on the landing stage makes the image more personal, it would be a bit soulless without them. The colour scheme of largely blue and green is restful and harmonious, engendering a feeling of serenity which is fitting with the notion of lazy days on the river. The choice of colour for the text was deliberate so as not to clash with this. Against this the two orange life belts, although small, stand out without spoiling the feel.

Reflection on Assignment

When I set out on this assignment, I had a number of ideas to follow (these are discussed in my research post). In addition to the research suggested by my tutor, I found the work of Sarah Small and Wang Quinsong relevant. But these were all surrealistic and I did not feel I could demonstrate where I stood on the ethical continuum with a surrealistic image. I was at a loss what to do and my indecisiveness was to an extent compounded by only having one image to submit. Where the assignment asks for a collection of images, there is the feeling that any weak ones in the set can be carried by the strong ones. In this case, however, I had to commit to one image; all my eggs had to be in one basket! Even when I had the Boats and Boating example in mind, I was riddled with doubt, whether it would be suitable and show sufficient research.

I eventually went ahead with it for two reasons. Firstly, there would be a number of manipulations of varying degree. I thought this would make it a suitable vehicle for demonstrating where I stood on the ethics of each manipulation which collectively would summarise my stance on the issue. Secondly there was the learning value.

I had to determine what techniques would be suitable and learn those that I had not used before. These were:

Gradient mask layer – Elements does not support layer masks but there is a well-known and widely publicised work-around, using the layer mask attached to an adjustment layer. I needed to do this to merge the added foliage for the background to the masthead. It was surprisingly straightforward when I discovered that the merging had to be against the background layer.

Refine edges of selection – I have always shied away from the refine edge dialogue, not really having an understanding of what it does and how to use it. I found here it was useful when selecting the swan, the pub and its replacement foliage, to expand the selection and feather the edge made the join with the final image more invisible. The amount of expansion and degree of feathering was a matter of trial and error.

Creating layers from background and vice versa – There are things you can’t do with a background layer so it needs to be converted to an “ordinary” layer, equally there are times when a layer has to be converted to a background. It’s a simple menu item, but I didn’t know it could be done.

Replace colour – I’ve dabbled with this before but never had a good reason to learn it properly.

I am fully aware that some of the techniques I have used were executed a bit clumsily, I am also aware that there may be other, better ways of achieving the results I got here. I’m still learning and I am working through two books by Philip Andrews: Adobe Photoshop Elements 7: A Visual Introduction to Digital Photography and Advanced Photoshop Elements 7 for Digital Photographers. Together these provide a comprehensive handbook to the software and its capabilities.

The sequence presented here is the result of a number of practise attempts to see what worked, what did not, what depth of manipulation I could get away with, what order to do them in. even the final result took three versions to get right. As a result, the whole assignment has been an immense learning experience.

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