‘Real’ Photographs

Join me for a little trip into my thought processes and neuroses about photography, reality, and life. Don’t worry, we won’t go in too deep. (Probably.)

I hate fakes.

In this age of digital manipulation, you really can’t believe what you see in a photo. It doesn’t take much skill to add some element or another to an actual “news” photo, or to take one out. There are plenty of examples (here, here, and here for instance) of images being manipulated for political causes (the North Korean and Iranian governments do this all the time, and do it badly) or for sensationalism and gossip.

Go through social media and  many big news stories will be accompanied by a whole slew of totally fake photos that are swallowed hook, line, and sinker by the unquestioning and gullible public. Sometimes this is just stupid (finding Photoshopped aliens on Mars), sometimes it’s a misguided attempt to inspire awe and amazement, and sometimes it’s just plain dangerous and harmful.

Then there are the “adjustments” being made to photos of celebrities and others (usually women) for advertising and publicity purposes.

I’m not sure exactly why these things get under my skin so badly. Part of it is a certain level of intolerance for weapons-grade ignorance and stupidity. Part of it is frustration in seeing friends tricked into believing some really stupid stuff (“Mars Will Be As Big As The Moon!”) when there is so much incredibly wonderful real stuff out there to see. And I’m sure some of it goes back to my Catholic school upbringing. (“No, Sister Vladamir, not the yard stick! I swear, I’ll never tell a lie again!”)

But then…

What about what I did yesterday, combining two photographs to make a composite image? Isn’t that hypocritical? Aren’t those composite images “fakes” as well?

For the longest time my gut has said, “Yes, that is a fake. In this instance, the two original photos, one too dark, one too light, those are the ‘real’ photographs. The composite image is a fake.”

Now I’m not so sure at all. Now I’m thinking that’s a knee-jerk reaction, in all honesty triggered by the conditioning at the hands of all of the Sisters Vladamir. Now I’m changing my mind. And here’s why.

It’s all about intent and transparency.

tl;dr – If you’re lurking in the shadows and/or trying to lie to someone, it’s bad. If you’re working out in plain sight and trying to show what you’re doing to anyone who’s interested, it’s good.

All of the examples I mentioned above that I hate are about deceit. The creators actively work to keep their work hidden in order to fool people, to mislead them, to lie to them.

All of the examples I’m going to list below are about accuracy and reality. The creators actively work to reveal what they’re doing to the image, and why, and to engage those viewing the images in seeing something that they couldn’t see before.

As I said yesterday and last week, High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography gives images that are much closer to what the human eye sees. By its nature, digital photography records a limited range of data from any given scene, where the eye has a much, much broader range. In a scene where there’s something bright (the moon) and much that’s dark (the silhouetted trees) the eye sees it as a beautiful contrast. The digital CCD imaging system sees a slice of that range. But take multiple slices and put them back together again, and you end up closer to portraying reality.

Taking photographs of models and celebrities and blurring away their wrinkles and making them twenty pounds thinner and with less grey hair – that’s deception. But take a picture of clouds that has some dust on the lens or imaging CCD:

IMG_5295 small

and then Photoshop out that nasty flaw in the lower left corner to get this from last Tuesday:

IMG_5295 small clean

Is that deceit or an attempt to mislead? Or an honest attempt to share what I really saw?

On the other hand, these same images used last Thursday:

IMG_5295 small clean photoshopped

were prominently labeled and advertised as being heavily modified using Photoshop. That’s “transparency” as in, “Hey, look at these fake pictures I made!”

What about a panoramic picture? There’s no way that 100MB, 29418 x 3413 image came out of the camera as “real.” While some of the panoramas I post are from the iPhone which actually takes them in that format, the rest are created in software by sewing together a series of individual photos. Do I think those huge panoramas are “fake”? Of course not.

What about the images we’re seeing from Pluto, Mars, Saturn, and Ceres? Are they “fake” by this definition? The original digital images are enhanced, stretched, manipulated, combined, and cleaned up significantly from the “raw” images that are received from a billion or more miles away. But they’re 100% real by any sane definition.

Some of the Hubble and other planetary and deep space images are “false color” or “enhanced color” renderings. In this case they don’t look like what your eye would see, but what they show is absolutely “real.” They’re using our tools, both hardware and software, to tell us a story, to teach us things that we otherwise wouldn’t know were there.

Look at all of these examples and think how they fit in with the two key criteria I mentioned.  Intent and transparency.

In every example, is the intent to fool you, to trick you, to fake you out into believing something false? Nope. Exactly the opposite, in fact.

In every example, is there an effort to hide what’s being done or conceal that fact that it’s done? Nope. NASA, ESA, JPL, and all of the other agencies giving us these pictures can and will go to great lengths to show you and teach you what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. They want you to know about it!

When I post a panorama you can’t get me to shut up about how many original images there were and how they were combined. When I do a composite picture, I show you that there are no aces up my sleeve. Like Penn & Teller do with magic, I’m more than happy to blather on nearly endlessly in order to possibly teach others how to do the same thing.

Intent. To show something that’s true and real, despite the limitations of the equipment or the location.

Transparency. To readily acknowledge what was done, why, and in many cases, how it was done. Occasionally ad nauseum.

I will stop trying to always be brutally honest and incredibly longwinded about every little manipulation done to any image shown on this site, or any others I might contribute to. If there are dust spots on pictures of planes at an airshow, I’m going to get rid of them. If an image is 30% what I want to share and 70% background or empty sky, I’m going to crop the image.

It may not be true of every site, but for here and my work, I’ll also address the “transparency” side of the equation by labeling my photos. I’ve already been doing that for quite a while with almost every image used.

If you hover your mouse over the images or right-click on them, you should see the image’s file name. If it’s got a “small” tacked on (the top picture above, for example, is “image_5295-small”), that indicates that it’s a reduced size, increased compression image. In short, most of the original files are four to six megabyte files, where most of the images posted are about one megabyte.

If the file name includes “clean”, then it’s had some slight cosmetic work down to clean up dust spots and the like. If the name has something like “composite” or “panorama” in it, then it’s an image formed from multiple other images.

Got it? Thoughts? Comments? Debate?

This is not to say that I wouldn’t ever post an image that was intentionally manipulated to mislead or  – but I guarantee there will be a huge punchline or “April Fools!” or a “Satire Alert!” attached. (Donald Trump’s ugly mug spliced onto October’s Playmate of the Month, perhaps?)

Now, having beaten Sister Vladamir’s brainwashing to a pulp, I have to go edit out some dust spots from some airshow pictures. I hope you’ve enjoyed the rant!

[Damn it, missed my midnight “deadline”! Stupid clock on my wall died and I’ve been typing away for two hours thinking it was till only 21:30. Shazzbatt!]]

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