A fake photo on the web? How could that happen?

It was claimed this month that a picture of an Iranian missile launch was doctored to look more significant. A recent Scientific American article asks Hany Farid (a researcher into digital forensics) how likely that is, and he offers several subtle clues to suggest that this image is not authentic.

Digital Photographs are inherently vulnerable to manipulation. Indeed, manipulation is an integral part of the process of capturing and reproducing an image digitally. Factors that affect the appearance of the final image are set even before a photo is captured, starting with the photographer’s choice of shutter speed, aperture, focal length, position, perspective, timing. etc. All of these are of course relevant to analog photography. Just as different films react to light in different ways, resulting in different images, the camera sensor and associated processing mechanisms output a bitmap that is not identical with the light that fell on the sensor. Before that bitmap can be turned into a visual image, it needs to be further processed, especially if it is a RAW image, which is what most pros and advanced amateurs use.

Although the journalism field has been discussing the issues and problems associated with digital imagery since the 90s, embarrassing photo ‘fakes’ have continued to leak into the major media, which has encouraged the publication of increasingly stringent guidelines. Last year, Reuters shared their Photoshop guidelines on a blog, an interesting example of transparency in the media. In it, photographers are discouraged from doing any manipulation of their photo, including exposure and white balance, and are encouraged to rely on in house experts.

This is an especially sensitive issue with Reuters after a rather obviously manipulated photo caught the attention of the blogging world, and then the mass media (a lengthy and interesting analysis of this and several other faked Reuters pictures from the same period appears on another blog). It is certainly not the case that such incidents are limited to Reuters. A Toledo Blade photographer was let go for pasting a basketball into a game shot, which turned out not to be the first time he had manipulated a picture in a way that was considered inappropriate for the journalistic context.

Photographic integrity comes down to meeting the expectations of the anticipated viewer. If the person who you intend to view your picture knew what you did to it, would they approve? If they saw a before and after, would they consider that you had attempted a deception? Would the deception be for their gain at your loss? Expectations vary widely between media. No reasonable person should expect that the photos in glamor magazines of models look anything like a live human, but in Journalism, even the suggestion of manipulation is unacceptable.

In this month’s case of the faked Iranian missile launch, the New York Times reports that Agence France-Presse picked up the original picture from a political web site, and then it was published on the front page of several American newspapers before France-Presse retracted it. In an age when newspapers are imposing ever-stricter standards on their own people, how responsible is it for a news agency to sell a picture that they copied off the web?

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2 Responses to “A fake photo on the web? How could that happen?”

  1. ShanaMaidel Says:

    Thanks for the comment.

    However, editing, and handwork in photography, has a long history. A long long history. It isn’t just digital photogrpahy. It is photography.

    Old school, and by old school I mean the people who used to work on collodion (and yes, there are still a few people here and there who do, my prof was one who could) would know that the standard procedure was to cut out the sky in a photograph and either
    a) Paint it in
    B) insert a premade, separately exposed sky,

    Blue was the most sensitive color, and it would always cause the sky to overexpose before anything else would develop.

    It means the Brady Group photographs of the Battle of Antietem are, of course, all partially faked. Sam with Bull Run.

    Even better, Brady took Credit for the photographs he didn’t take…

    Totally new perspective on the problem. What is old is new again I suppose…

  2. admin Says:

    In his 1992 book, “The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era,” William J. Mitchell paraphrases a 1985 source with ‘It has been reported that “The Orange County Register” (in southern California, where it’s never supposed to rain) corrects all the skies in its outdoor color photographs to 100 percent cyan–whatever the weather conditions.’