Spotting the Photoshop fakes
How do the experts tell if a digital photo has been faked? Dave Stevenson takes a crash course in camera ballistics
Faking a photo is easier today than ever before. Using Photoshop, users can make an almost endless number of changes to their shots.
Some of these, such as brightening parts of an image to make them clearer, actually add to the editorial integrity of a photo.
For instance, when President George Bush felt the call of nature during a UN world summit in 2005, his hastily scrawled note – “I think I may need a bathroom break? Is this possible?” – to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice became instant satirical fodder. But the contents of the note were illegible to the photographer, Reuters freelancer Rick Wilking.
The news agency only realised what it had later, when the original shot was cropped and brightened to make Bush’s note legible.
But while photo editing can produce more useful detail in a shot, or draw the viewer’s eye to a particular element, or simply make a picture more aesthetically pleasing, the ease with which a shot can be altered presents a problem.
With many photographers working alone, the temptation to turn a lacklustre shot into a Pulitzer contender by changing key elements is immense. How do editors catch photographic fakers?
Sophisticated photo editing is no longer the preserve of trained experts: even consumer packages such as Photoshop Elements allow you to easily remove people from scenes or change the backdrop of a portrait. And it’s just as easy to find examples of photo fakery. Visit the Photoshop Disasters blog and you’ll find an assortment of photos – some from major publications – that have suffered at the hands of cack-handed, rushed or careless photo editors.
Phantom hands appear draped over the shoulders of models, the rest of their owners airbrushed out. Reflections go askew and, famously, supermodel Filippa Hamilton was pictured with an impossibly tiny waist in a Ralph Lauren advert. Photoshop Disasters’ reproduction of the catastrophic image so incensed the fashion company that it threatened to sue the site if the image wasn’t removed.
The misapplication of Photoshop in advertising can have serious consequences. Last year, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) upheld more than 700 complaints about an Olay advert featuring veteran model Twiggy. Crucially, the ad told consumers its Definity eye make-up would lead to “brighter-looking eyes”, and implied the picture of a 60-year-old, wrinkle-free Twiggy was the result of its product.
In reality, Olay conceded its advert had been the recipient of “minor retouching” – enough for the ASA to conclude that the commercial was misleading under its Committee of Advertising Practice code.
Few people will be shocked to learn that glamour shots are often subject to the airbrush. But in photojournalism the emphasis is on telling a story accurately. Hugh Pinney, senior director of photography at the renowned agency Getty Images told PC Pro that an editorial image “has to be an accurate rendition of the scene that the photographer witnessed”.
Public expectations of news images were put to the test in 2006 when Adnan Hajj, a freelance Reuters photographer, doctored images of a besieged Lebanon, repeatedly copying a plume of smoke from a bombed building and making the Israeli onslaught seem more destructive than it was. The incident, according to Pinney, is a “classic example” of overuse of Photoshop to falsify an image.