The Photography of Truth

David Byrne has reason to be rueful. Having been awarded the title of Landscape Photographer of the Year in October 2012, he then had to sit back while other photographers and forensic experts dissected his entry, decided he used Photoshop excessively and disqualified him. In his own words:

“I have to inform you after a conversation with Charlie Waite I have been disqualified from the Landscape Photographer of the year awards, unfortunately I didn’t read the regulations and certain editing like adding clouds and cloning out small details are not allowed, while I don’t think what I have done to the photo is wrong in any way, I do understand it’s against the regulations so accept the decision whole heartily.

I have never passed off my photographs as record shots and the only reason this has come about has been due to my openness about how and what I do to my images. The changes I made were not major and if you go to the locations you will see everything is there as presented.” [i]

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Lindisfarne Boats by David Byrne

Harry Fisch suffered a similar fate in the prestigious National Geographic Photo Contest with this image:

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Preparing for Prayers by Harry Fisch

The reason he lost his title was that he cloned out a small paper bag at the extreme right of the image. He argued that he could have cropped it but to no avail. Like Byrne, he accepted the issue gracefully and vowed to read the rules more carefully next time. [ii]

The introduction to part 4 of the course has this to say:

When digital photography began to be used professionally for publication, many people voiced concerns about the threat to what was perceived to be the inherent ‘truth’ of a photograph. How are we to know any more that a photograph was truly taken from life, and not in some way manipulated unscrupulously?

We then went on to look at various Photoshop actions and were asked to comment on the ethical issues around each one. The concept of a continuum from ethically acceptable to unacceptable was used. Clearly in the two cases mentioned above, the photographers placed their entries in a more conservative position on the continuum than the organisers.

Competitions are one thing, they have well defined rules and are officiated by a judging panel. Whether the rules in terms of allowed Photoshop interventions are clear is a matter of debate beyond this post. Nevertheless, as is often quoted, “the judge’s decision is final.”

What is the situation with more ‘real world’ areas of photography? I looked at what was meant by photographic truth in my previous post “The Camera Never Lies” and questioned what the real truth was. In a reply to a blog post by Kevin Connor on fourandsix.com, Eduard de Kam argues along the same lines, “…the truth is way too complex to ever be captured in a picture, a picture or photo will only show a small part of the reality. The lens used and the direction the photographer aims his camera are choices made at the very moment the picture was taken.” [iii]

In this post I will look a bit deeper at the history of photographic manipulation and review the situation with regard to two specific genres, fashion and photojournalism.

Four and Six Technologies is a company founded by Adobe veteran Kevin Connor and photographic forensic expert Hany Farid. Their website fourandsix.com (mentioned earlier) contains a timeline of photo manipulation stretching back to 1860. It contains many examples of alterations for political reasons, either because a leader had fallen out with someone or to make them look more powerful. [iv]

Mussolini:

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Mao Tse Tung:

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The nest example was a Pulitzer prize winning photo published in Life magazine.

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But even though manipulation has been going on since the dawn of photography, the timeline shows increasing numbers. The assertion now is that Photoshop has made it easier and more widespread.

At one end of the acceptability continuum where manipulation is widespread is fashion photography. Refinery29.com is quite amused by it: [v]

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Ralph Lauren and Fillipa Hamilton
This highly controversial Ralph Lauren ad makes model Fillipa Hamilton look like distorted bobble head being sucked into a vortex. Ralph Lauren later apologized, but our eyes still haven’t forgotten.

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Carla Bruni in Closer Magazine
The perfect accessory to a beautiful evening gown is not a black clutch but apparently, a floating third hand.

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Demi Moore on The Cover of W Magazine
In this photo of Demi Moore wearing Balmain on the cover of W magazine, her body looks awfully similar to Anja Rubik’s. Demi’s disappearing hips caused a ruckus when this photo was first published, but W‘s Creative Director Dennis Freedman claims that there was no retouching of the image.

These are extreme examples but the industry finds no ethical impairment in it. Flawless magazine’s creative director and photographer, Don Horne (his Facebook page say’s ‘I’ll shoot anything!) goes further than merely justifying the approach,

<p>“These days everything is about money. We all want it, We all try to make some of it! So its not surprising to see the lengths companies / brands would go to, to try and make some of it. All that these brands are worried about is selling. Sometimes they do it in a good way, Sometimes they twist the truth a bit to try and sell…”

“…But im a strong believer in photoshop’s role in photography![vi] (sic)

He goes on to warn about “the bad things about photoshop”, nevertheless his comments indicate a level of acceptance of photo-manipulation in the industry.

Further evidence is provided by the Guardian in their article “The Camera Often Lies.” [vii]

"Every single magazine cover in the UK has been Photoshopped to some degree,…If it’s a celebrity or a model, the bare minimum is that the skin will be touched up to remove blemishes, folds in clothing that show fat, wonky looking legs, bad hair, the whites of the eyes, cellulite … For men as well as women."

A former art director at Arena recalls two complicated cover shoots where Natalie Imbruglia’s cheeky grin as she jogged away from the lens was constructed from three different pictures, and Nicolas Cage had his forehead extended using a composite of six separate shots. "With the advent of digital technology, stars are taking more and more of an active role in the picture selection and retouching," the art director explains.

The prevalence in an industry where image means everything is understandable; does that mean it is acceptable?

"It’s (unsettling) because our commitment to telling the truth is being diluted," explains Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News.

The International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis University, Massassachussetts published its ethical enquiry in August 2012[viii]. It gave a balanced report but amongst the arguments against the practise, it blamed numerous eating disorders on the “thin-ideal media images.” Although the link to Photoshop was not expicitly proven, it was criticising the attitude of the industry that leads to the digital manipulation. A number of organisations that were bucking the trend were cited, including online magazine Jezebel and the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.

Strongly allied with this is the skewed definition of beauty that is communicated and the harm done to “ordinary” people’s self image.

A genre at the further end of the continuum is photojournalism. Another competition winner who (nearly) fell foul of the forensic analysis was Paul Hansen for this winner of the World Press Photo of the Year 2012:

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Angry Mob by Paul Hansen

Neal Krawetz claimed the picture to be a composite of a number of images, a claim refuted by Hany Farid and the photographer got to keep his award.[ix]

Brian Walski was not so fortunate. The LA times staff photographer lost his job for this piece of doctoring a picture of a British soldier with Iraqi civilians in Basra. [x]

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Walski called his actions “a complete breakdown of judgement” and blamed the stress of the assignment.

Lebanese photographer, Adnan Hajj was dropped by Reuters for this digital manipulation (original on the left) of an Israeli air strike on Beirut: [xi]

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Reuters have published a “Handbook of Journalism” [xii] in which they make their views on the use of Photoshop very clear:

“Materially altering a picture in Photoshop or any other image editing software will lead to dismissal.”

They go on to describe what is allowed and what is not:

No additions or deletions to the subject matter of the original image. (thus changing the original content and journalistic integrity of an image)

No excessive lightening, darkening or blurring of the image. (thus misleading the viewer by disguising certain elements of an image)

No excessive colour manipulation. (thus dramatically changing the original lighting conditions of an image)

In defence of Brian Walski, fine art photographer Pedro Meyer asserted that Walski did not materially affect the content of the image, ‘in its essence’. He reckons they fired a photographer effectively for doing something the journalists do regularly, that he tried to come up with a better picture in the same way that the writers polish their text. He might have a point, a recent study to measure the accuracy of journalism has shown that there are errors in 59% of 4800 stories across 14 (US) metro newspapers. This reflects the results of other studies going back 70 years[xiii]. This in itself does not prove anything, but it would seem to indicate that mainstream journalism is making genuine efforts to maintain ethical standards and ensure the accuracy of its visual reporting.

The acceptability of manipulation depends very much on the context. By context I include client’s expectation, photographer’s ambition, how the picture will be used, how the viewing public will interpret it etc. We have seen how heavily manipulated images have lost competition winners their awards and photojournalists their jobs. There are rules covering both these activities, all involved broke the rules and it is to the credit of the parties involved that rules were established and enforced. On the other hand, the fashion industry has no rules and less well-established codes of practise. We have seen how this results in much more liberality with what is done to the image and something of the effect this can have on the viewing public.

I have not looked at Fine Art Photography, this is an area where even higher levels of manipulation would be accepted, if not expected.

This gives some guidance to a photographer when his computer is booted up and Photoshop loaded, what is the intent? How is the audience going to view it? Is there any deception involved? Any degree of manipulation might be acceptable in some contexts, in others only a small amount of correction can be used.

In conclusion I quote an extract from Susan Sontag’s book “On Photography” where she sums up the paradox between truth and aesthetics in photography:

“As the vehicle of a certain reaction against the conventionally beautiful, photography has served to enlarge vastly our notion of what is aesthetically pleasing. Sometimes this reaction is in the name of truth. Sometimes it is in the name of sophistication or of prettier lies: thus, fashion photography has been developing, over more than a decade, a repertoire of paroxysmic gestures that shows the unmistakable influence of Surrealism. Even the most compassionate photojournalism is under pressure to satisfy simultaneously two sorts of expectations, those arising from our largely surrealist way of looking at photographs, and those created by our belief that some photographs give real and important information about the world.” [xiv]


[i] http://petapixel.com/2012/11/02/landscape-photographer-of-the-year-2012-stripped-of-title-for-too-much-shoppin/

[ii] http://www.digitalcameraworld.com/2013/01/11/first-place-not-in-the-bag-national-geographic-photo-contest-winner-disqualified/

[iii] http://www.fourandsix.com/blog/2013/5/21/what-is-a-truthful-photo.html

[iv] http://www.fourandsix.com/photo-tampering-history/

[v] http://www.refinery29.com/the-worst-fashion-photoshop-disasters/slideshow#slide-1

[vi] http://flawless-magazine.net/flawless/photoshop-fashion-industry/

[vii] http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/feb/23/newspaper-photography

[viii] http://www.brandeis.edu/ethics/ethicalinquiry/2012/August.html

[ix] http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/155617-how-the-2013-world-press-photo-of-the-year-was-faked-with-photoshop

[x] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/photo/essays/vanRiper/030409.htm

[xi] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/5254838.stm

[xii] http://handbook.reuters.com/?title=A_Brief_Guide_to_Standards,_Photoshop_and_Captions

[xiii] http://jonathanstray.com/measuring-and-increasing-accuracy-in-journalism

[xiv] Susan Sontag, “On Photography” pub Penguin Books 1979, p105

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Project: Digital Photography and ‘Truth’ – Alteration

This is the final exercise in this series of image manipulation and asks us to make some wholesale changes to an image, such as removing an element of the composition.

As a starting point I used this image of a pair of ducks:

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This is a nice picture, well lit and the duck is looking coyly toward the camera. It’s a shame about the one disappearing out of the left hand edge of the frame. I could crop it but that would defeat the object of the exercise so I used the clone stamp tool, set with a fairly small brush and sampled on a bit of grass in the same focus field as the bit of duck being removed:

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That was fairly straightforward and can’t really be thought of as tampering with reality. If I had waited a couple of minutes or framed the shot with more care I would not have had to make the intervention.

What about this picture?

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A pleasant rural landscape, a tourist enjoying the sunshine and photographing the view, a timeless scene; except the large house in the background looks too modern, too large and doesn’t really fit in. It’s got to go!

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This was achieved through a combination of Clone Stamp, Healing Brush set to “replace” mode and “normal” mode, copy and paste. It was painstaking work and by no means is it executed perfectly, it would not pass close scrutiny.

I had to invent the tree line, it came from my imagination not reality, and the distant road disappeared behind it at a point of my choosing. It might or might not be considered an improvement on the original, that is a matter of opinion, it might look better on someone’s wall, that is a matter of taste but if I attempted to pass this off as a true depiction of the scene I would be guilty of deception.

Here is a photo taken in a wine cellar producing champagne:

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The girl in the foreground is blurred and can be removed:

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This was also achieved also using a combination of Clone Stamp, cut and paste and Healing Brush.

Then, what every dark cellar needs is a mysterious, ghost like figure:

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I copied this from another picture, pasted onto a new layer, and then adjusted the opacity until it looked right.

The final experiment was a simple addition, from this:

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to this:

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We have reached the end of the journey along the image manipulation continuum. Along the way we have explored ever increasing levels of intervention and considered the ethical judgements involved. I think without a doubt we have reached the heart of the ethical minefield. Rather than discuss this here, I have prepared a separate entry “The Photography of Truth”

Project: Digital Photography and ‘Truth’ – Addition

The course notes suggest that I take two images of the same scene and recommends a cloudy sky. It just so happens that we are in the middle of a prolonged spell of sunny weather!

So as not to wait I chose this image that I took a few weeks ago. As I shot it in RAW I would be enable to manipulate the exposure in the RAW editor to obtain two images, one exposed for the land, the other for the sky.

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I overexposed by about one stop to get the foreground and the island looking correct:

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and darkened by about ¾ stop for the sky:

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Following the instructions in the course notes I overlaid the two images and used the magic wand to select the sky and deleted it:

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This looks unnatural for two reasons:

1. The colour of the sea is a reflection of the sky, so darkening the sky should result in a darkening of the sea. This is most obvious at the light band of sea at the horizon.

2. There are light patches of sky appearing through the trees where they were not deleted from the top layer.

To correct these I made another selection to delete more from the top layer, including the sea:

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This looks more natural. There are still some small bits of white sky appearing through the trees, confirming the advice given in the notes to select a scene with a well-defined horizon line. The sea looks a lot better though.

The next part of the exercise is a bit more blatant intervention, to add a blue sky from another photograph. I used the last version with the darkened sea and found a nice picture of a blue sky. I placed this on a layer behind the picture I was working on and deleted the sky from that image:

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The sky here looks “too big”. In fact, there is not enough gradient as it recedes to the distance. The sky filled the image so I moved it up so that the bottom (the lightest part) lined up with the horizon and then I applied a gradient mask adjustment layer:

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The island and foreground look a bit dull for the sky so I increased contrast and brightness:

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As mentioned earlier, the sea reflects the colour of the sky so a bluer sky required a bluer sea. The final image has had the sea made more blue using hue and saturation.

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This is quite a radical change. It needed a lot of adjustments to get there and is still not perfect but it is far removed from the dull, muddy original.

Whether this degree of manipulation is acceptable depends on the context and whether the person presenting the image is deliberately trying to mislead his audience. In the case study in the course notes, the photographer (and his client) obviously considered the intervention not only acceptable, but necessary. A likely client for the picture that was the subject of this exercise might be a tour operator. They would want a blue sky to promote the holiday destination so would accept the heavily photoshopped version. Between us, would we be misleading a gullible holiday-maker? If the weather in the final picture is typical of the region and I was just unlucky when I was there, the answer is probably no, but if the weather conditions I encountered were typical, it could be argued that the public is being misled.

It is difficult to draw any hard and fast conclusions, it depends so much on the context, but it is clear that the photographer and anyone using the image has to be careful when photoshopping that the intentions are clear and there is no deliberate attempt to mislead.

Project: Digital Photography and ‘Truth’ – Enhancement

Continuing on our journey of photographic processing and developing the arsenal of possible adjustments, this exercise looked at more localised and acute alterations. It moves us a little further along the continuum, edging closer to the bounds of acceptability, by selecting a part of the image and making local adjustments.

The head and shoulder portrait I chose to work on was this one:

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Firstly I worked up the face as suggested. Levels were used to lighten it and increase the contrast:

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The eyes were difficult to work on. It was tricky selecting the pupils and irises and impossible to deselect the pupil from that. Because of this and with the dark irises, just lightening them made the pupils too light, making him look as though he had cataracts! Consequently, I concentrated on changes that kept the pupils dark. Also changing the saturation had little effect as the irises were also dark. This meant a careful hue and saturation adjustment, which gave this result:

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Then I combined both effects, the skin lightening and the eye adjustment:

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Finally, I gave him a bit more tan, using the skin tone dialogue:

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This is quite a difference from the original image. It is recognisably the same person and the skin adjustments can be considered corrections to the rather dull exposure. In this sense it is similar to the previous exercise. Under normal circumstances, I do not see much wrong with it but with the caveat expressed in that write-up. The eyes are a different matter. Changing the eye colour is changing reality and in my opinion, this is the first exercise when the ethical question really needs to be answered. Whereas with the other exercises the result is probably acceptable but there might be occasions when it is not, this one is the converse; generally it will not be acceptable but there might be contexts when it is.

Project: Digital Photography and ‘Truth’ – Improvement or Interpretation

This exercise moves us a little further along the continuum by selecting a part of the image and making local adjustments. This is the image I chose to work with.

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It’s reasonably well exposed but I wondered what improvements I could make. The face looks a bit pasty and the black polo shirt is grey with lots of dust and dog’s hair. Working first on the face, I selected the skin on the face and neck using the magic wand (I get on better with this than the lasso for this kind of shape and tone).

Elements has a command “Adjust colour for skin tone”. I used this and adjusted the tan and blush sliders to get a healthier looking face:

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I then tried adjusting the colour further using “Adjust hue and Saturation”:

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and then used a small Level adjustment:

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Then I made a new selection of the polo shirt, darkened it with levels and removed the dust and hair with the clone stamp tool:

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The result is a more natural looking image than the original. It could be viewed that if is more “natural” looking there can be no issue with this kind of adjustment. As it happens, the original pasty look was probably more due to the lighting, but it is not hard to imagine an alternative scenario: what if the “pasty” look in the original was due to some illness and the photo was being used to demonstrate good health? What if instead of simply darkening the polo shirt I changed the colour, maybe also blanked out the logo? The ethical discussion becomes more relevant; we have moved further along the continuum.

Just to complete the exercise, I made a final copy to whiten the teeth (selection and levels), remove a few skin blemishes (clone stamp) and accentuate the small catchlight in the right eye (dodge and burn tool):

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Project: Digital Photography and ‘Truth’ – Correction

This exercise builds on some of the thoughts started in the previous section but whereas that was about optimising the image, this part takes this a stage further and looks at more and more radical interventions. The notes talk about a continuum from simple optimisation actions that definitely do not change the content or subject matter to more extreme changes. Somewhere along this continuum we move from acceptable to possibly not acceptable changes that question the ethics of what we are doing.

This exercise looks at a couple of seemingly fairly benign changes: removal of dust spots and removal of lens flair. I chose to work with the resource images. This would give me an opportunity to work on someone else’s pictures, I would be making creative decisions on their behalf which would enhance the ethical question.

For all these exercises, I worked on the image magnified to actual size.

Removal of Dust Spots

This is the original image:

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Lots of spots to work on but which are from the sensor and which belong to the image? The taker of the original picture would have a better idea than a second party editor, he was actually there and saw the original objects. This immediately calls into question the validity of some editing decisions.

Nevertheless, I had a go at removing what I judged to be dust spots, firstly using the clone stamp (my normal first choice for the exercise) then with the spot healing brush.

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For easy comparison, here are the three images side by side:

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Original

Clone Stamp

Spot Healing Brush

The clone stamp requires more user intervention as you have to decide where to sample from. This can be considered to give more control but can be a double-edged sword: a more suitable source point can be selected but the potential for image manipulation is greater.

Lens Flare

I have never attempted to remove lens flare so this would prove to be a useful exercise.

The original image:

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As the instructions explained, I used first the clone stamp tool set to Colour…

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…and followed this with the same tool set to Darken…

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For a side-by-side comparison, here are crops of the three versions:

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Original

Clone stamp colour

Clone stamp colour + darken

The result is pleasing, it has removed almost all the flare and more practise should bring improvement.

In that lens flare is an artifact of how the lens focuses the light, its removal should not have untoward ethical connotations. But as a second party editor working on someone else’s photograph, is it still acceptable? I am taking over part of the creative process and deciding on their behalf, what is and is not desired in the image.

So are there ethical considerations in this sort of image manipulation? The answer of course depends on a number of things but it is clear that with these simple adjustments, we are starting to move along the continuum.