Are Your Photos Real or Not? If They Are Real, How Do You Prove It?

Are Your Photos Real or Not? If They Are Real, How Do You Prove It?

Recently, I got into a discussion with a guy on social media about one of my photos. He claimed it was fake. I had manipulated the image by adding birds, he said. The incident got me thinking about how easy it is nowadays to change an image completely. How do you prove your image shows the reality?

When I was photographing with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II, I got a chance to capture some sheep on a dike together with a flock of geese in the air. It was just a matter of time before some of the massive amount of geese in the area would fly over the dike, because they were flying everywhere. I posted the image on social media, when one guy responded in a very negative way. He said the image was completely fake.

One guy accused me of manipulating this image. He said it was fake and wanted to see the raw file. When I refused, he told me in public it was proof against me. What do you think? Is it reality or fake?

Right then, I should have ignored the guy, but I didn’t. We got into a discussion, and he insisted I should send him the raw file to prove me right. I refused, of course. But I took the effort to send him a screenshot of the image in Lightroom. He kept on telling it was fake, and the discussion became very nasty. I ended it when he started swearing and even accusing me of manipulating all my other images also.

Are Your Photos Real or Manipulated?

The whole incident got me thinking. With modern software like Luminar and its Augmented Sky option, it has become very easy to add all sorts of elements into the image. Of course, this is not the fault of Luminar. Photo manipulation had been possible since the dark ages. Nevertheless, with Al, it has become available for everyone without the need for very complicated workflows. You can make an image very appealing by adding interesting elements with just a simple click of a mouse button. In Luminar, you can add an aurora, lightning, the Moon, planets, and even a giraffe. And birds, of course.

A flock of birds at sunrise. Or is it? In reality, it is a long exposure at sunrise, and I added the birds through the augmented sky option in Luminar 4. Did you think it was real the moment you saw the image?

Most of the things you can add to the sky in Luminar are clearly fake. They blend in nicely, but you can see they aren't real. When you add birds into the sky, it's completely different. The image may become more interesting in a very convincing way. From this point of view, I can understand how someone like that guy might think it is not real.

There Is a Difference Between Photo Manipulation and Post-Processing

I believe there is nothing wrong with manipulating images. It can be called art if it is done in an original way. Photo manipulation is completely different compared to post-processing. The latter is optimizing your image without changing reality. On some occasions, colors may be exaggerated, and perhaps some elements in the image can be removed digitally, but it is reality, for the most part. It becomes manipulating when elements are added to the image and when the image is changed completely.

I played around in Photoshop long before the age of Luminar and merged different images together. It was absolutely not art and amateurish at best. But it was fun to do, and I learned how to use the different tools in Photoshop. I have always been honest when presenting my Photoshop manipulations, and I never claimed these images were real.

I manipulated this image many years ago in Photoshop. There are three different images merged together: the foreground, the birds, and the sun and clouds. I never claimed it was real.

Software like Luminar is just the beginning. It uses clever algorithms to merge all sorts of elements into an existing image without difficulties. We have seen Luminar skies all over the internet already. We can recognize these skies. It becomes much more difficult when custom skies are being used. Also, bird silhouettes are easy to add to an image. More software with similar possibilities will follow soon.

How can you tell the difference between a real image and a fake one? If you look at the photos below, can you tell which are real and not?

Reality or manipulation? This one is a merger between two images: one of the path between the heather and one of the trees and bench in the mist. Shot in the same location, two minutes after each other, but two images, nevertheless.

Reality or manipulation? This one is real, although I have used two images with different exposures: one of the road with the traffic, and one of the sky with the aurora. It is HDR in a way. You tell me if this is considered reality or manipulation.

Reality or manipulation? I took this telephoto photo from a hill in the French Auvergne region right after sunrise. The balloon drifted in the distance behind the castle. It is reality.

Reality or manipulation? An amazing morning twilight with a flock of geese flying over. It is reality; nothing is manipulated.

Reality or manipulation? Did I add these paragliders into the image, or are they reality? Can you tell? Well, they are real. They were the reason why I took this image.

Reality or manipulation? It is an image from the archives. I took this photo back in 2012 with a long lens. The gulls flew through the frame, and I took a series of images. It is amazing how the gulls and sun fit together. Nothing is manipulated.

Reality or manipulation? If you have Luminar, you might recognize the mountains. Yes, it is manipulated. There are no mountains in the Netherlands. The Dutch Mountains don't exist.

Reality or manipulation? I photographed this fortress during a summer holiday in broad daylight. I transformed it into night scenery and added a Milky Way photo I made somewhere else. As a matter of fact, the image is facing North, away from the central part of the Milky Way. It is fake.

Reality or manipulation? It could be real, but it isn't. I merged a daylight photo of this beach at Lofoten and added an aurora image I took that same photo trip.

Reality or manipulation? I was playing around with the photo of this small fishing pond. I did a horizontal flip to mirror the shore and added a Milky Way in the twilight sky. It cannot be real at all, but it was fun to do.

How to Deal With People Who Call Our Work Fake

Let’s go back to the guy to claimed my image were fake. I failed to convince him of the opposite, and he became very angry, partly because I refused to send him the raw file. I don’t feel I have to prove myself, but I also find it very frustrating how some people can react. To what lengths should we go in order to prove our images are real? Must we ignore those people and let them accuse us and slander us? Or should we try to convince them and even send them raw files?

For this fun image, I enlarged the comet NEOWISE to be more visible. But believe me, the dinosaurs are real... images from the internet. I don't have to prove it is reality or manipulated. It is obvious.

Again, this is not a rant about Luminar or similar software that allows us to change an image with the click of a mouse button. I think it is fine to add all sorts of interesting things to an image as long as you are honest about it. This is how we should deal with those who accuse us of having fake images. Feel free to let me know in the comments how you feel about this and to what lengths we have to go to prove our images are real.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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I think you can create awesome images doing montage in software. It can be art, it does not have to be real. Of course it should not be presented as a photo.
But I am sick of better then life images of both nature and people. Nature photographers adjust there images and it’s like you ask, is it real? Was it like that. And often it was not. A grey day can become a blue heaven by a touch in Lightroom. I think we are drowning in fake images, fake news and whatever.
For that reason (Among others) I am attracted to black and white photography. I feel that is a step into something that gives a frame of freedom.

Also B&W can be fake. It is not only about color. :)

There's a cognitive difference between color and B&W. Most people have difficulty separating a color image from the subject, B&W is obviously an abstraction.

I keep indexed, dated & numbered RAW files. EZ proof.

That is not the point. I have raw files also at hand. But do you feel the need to send raw files to prove your image is real?

True. Color is the first thing they see, and if it has amazing colors, composition is forgotten

I agree. I'm not going to second-guess what others choose to do, but I have a very strong distaste for manipulated photos, skys, colors, adding/removing items etc. And unfortunately we are deluged with hyper colorized,over HDR modified photos and are supposed to be impressed... but they're anything but natural.

I understand that Cartier-Bresson would not even crop his photos and that's close to my philosophy, To me a photograph is formed at the moment of exposure, the image of a moment that actually happened rather than someone's imagination'

There is a huge difference between the photographer who treks out before dawn, multiple times to get the perfect sunrise in the right spot and someone who simply slaps a 'perfect sunrise' into a mediocre photo.

What's in my camera is the only photo I am interested in.

I see what you mean. There are people who manipulates too much that photography just became unexciting to them...

Well then if you saw the blue heaven in the grey sky, which is it's potential, the whole thing becomes different.

It doesn't matter at all unless you are doing science, photojournalism, or claiming you images are unmanipulated.

Besides, no photo is a literal representation of reality.

I agree with Tyler it does not matter. I do medical photography and it is not manipulated for the part (some photos need to be enhanced for technical issues). However, I think the vast amount of photojournalism is manipulations. Before I get blasted, I attend a school of journalism and have worked in it.

Enhanced images are not the problem, I think. Well.... we all like the Hubble deep sky images. They are also not real ;)

What is "real"?

It seems there is a strongly assumed premise, which hasn't been established.

The Hubble Deep Field (or UDF) is real - kind of. Technically, it's a composite of many images stitched together, not a single file.
But those were real photons hitting Hubble's sensors.

My major was photo-illustration whose core purpose is to manipulate you commercially. Photo-journalism's object is often the same. If I take a photo of melanoma in it is straight documentary photography even if it is a crappy image. I have as much time in film photography as digital photography. It just depends on the purpose of why the images are being created, what the rules of the contest or publication. Otherwise, it is a nice photograph or image, you like it or you do not. I do not believe Diogenes found an honest man.

Reminds me of Peter Lik and the Great Moon debate from last year.

Though I've been in the digital arts, in one way or another, since 2000, I've only recently picked up Photography about a year and a half ago. In this journey I've found it interesting to learn just how much photos are truly manipulated. It all depends on the artist of course and where they fall on the scale of "<-- 'this is straight from camera' - to - 'complete fantasy' -->". I also know photos have been manipulated since the invention, even compositing of famous "photos" of history.

I feel the only issue with the expression of art is when someone passes "faked" off as being "real". In my own work when I do a major edit, or composite, I will state that this is a Fantasy or Mythical piece, just to distinguish for the viewer.

The question here, how far to one side of the scale can an image be pushed and remain "real"; If that is indeed the goal to remain "real". I'm not sure there is an answer but I feel it may parallel the "uncanny valley" in a way.

For some people it also boils down to - dose it matter? There have been several composite images in the contests here on Fstoppers that have made it into the critique, some have even said straight up that they are indeed composites - Still praised, still good or even fantastic images. In this perspective the End Result is justified by the Means of the Process or Construction of the photo.

I guess I'm in the group thought of - as long as someone is straight forward and not trying to pass their work off as "this or that" and is honest; it's all good. Expression thru art and the camera is just that. I feel a screenshot of the file in lightroom (in your case in the article), was more then enough proof and was above and beyond what you had to do. There will always be knuckleheads on the internet.

Yes indeed. Peter Lik. I almost forgot about that moon photo. A good example. It is no problem, unless you pretend it is real.
There is a gray area, where we change from real to unreal. As long as you're honest about it, it doesn't matter at all.
Thanks for your opinion about my screenshot.

Peter Lik also was initially claiming the image was created in camera, that he is the world’s best landscape photographer and he charges an obscenely ridiculous amount of money for photos printed in ‘limited editions" of 995 to suckers hoping their art investment will increase in value (photographers making high end editions that can increase in value strictly limit editions to under 25 with the most expensive established artist limiting to editions of 5, Licks photos which sell in his own galleries for $10K and up have a likelihood of depreciation because they are not scarce), For Lik the claim his moon shot which was a total photoshop creation (clouds disappeared behind the moon) was a fraud and called into question the integrity of his whole business which was a scam anyways.

I can't recall any time a stranger has accused me of faking an image, but people have made some wild accusations about me as a person based on one post I made on the internet. On the one hand, there's no reasoning with people like that. On the other, it is deeply satisfying to prove someone wrong on the internet, especially after they've said something bad about you. Personally, if I choose to engage with them, my goal is to make it apparent to any neutral onlooker that I'm probably being genuine, and I'll just stop responding once the person has made a fool of themselves.

I do like the way you respond to those persons. I also try, but sometimes it isn't possible to reason with those guys

On the off chance that this ignorant person is someone you actually care about, or that holds some influence over you or potential clients, then perhaps you could simply Skype or Zoom with him, calling up the raw, and then developing it the way you did the finished product the first time. If that doesn't do the trick, perhaps he is simply trying to steal your work.

A nice suggestion. I will remember this for a next time (which I hope never will happen)

I think you should not prove anything, you just say it is, or it is not, real. I for once would believe you; those who insist not to believe have the right to do so and the discussion must stop at that. As for the state of photography nowadays- it is not promising. A few years ago I admired nice, flawless photos. Now I MEH them; as said above, better-than-life photos are not interesting any more. Manipulating images for enhancing is fine, but adding or replacing objects is faking, and for me they loose their edge: instead of rating from 1-10 i'll rate them from 1-4

I think you're right. The flaws will make the image more interesting in a lot of cases.

I tend to think it’s a false debate ultimately. Where do you draw the line between real and fake? Does using filters or even a flash make an image fake? Why is manipulating or even adding elements different? It’s too late for this discussion I feel. Almost all photography is much ‘brighter’ and/ or idealised compared to real life or how such images used to be. This debate would not happen for painters and photography has reached a point where it has no greater obligation or responsibility to reality than painting. I do agree with the comments that the world is overrun with these idealised images including most landscapes these days. I also have found myself increasingly interested in black and white when it has never appealed to me before. To accuse someone of ‘faking’ an image is frankly bizarre - this is art, it can be good or bad, but you can do whatever you want. The ‘photography as reality’ ship sailed long ago.

Thanks for your words. I think in my case it tells more about the accuser.

I think there is a difference between photographers who wants to show reality and those who want to show their reality. That s a hge difference. In my opinion if you are an artist you should be allowed to show the world as you want ;)

INdeed. Otherwise Picasso should not be so famous. ;)
But if you say it is real, when it is real, people should not question this, Unless it is obvious of course

I can always tell when they don't use real dinosaurs in movies....

I have difficulties with that. I never can tell. :)

“I never claimed these images were real” We presume things are real. It is presumed that you claim an image is real unless you explicitly say it is not real.

Especially if you call it a photograph. I feel there's an implicit sense of "an image I shot with a camera", not "an image I created on my computer."

Good comment.

I think that goes back to what others have said about stating intention or being honest about the image. If you post something saying "look at what I shot" when you should have said "look at what I created from 2 shots put together," you're deceiving the audience and that's where all of these problems come from.

If you're intent is to deceive people that a composite or whatever is a single shot #SOOC, then that's a problem.

It's got to the point where people really feel they have to edit an image in Photoshop or Lightroom or whatever. Otherwise the image is rubbish !!!!.......or is it to prove...hey...look how good I am at using Photoshop etc....on the other hand unless you throw everything plus the kitchen sink at an image no one will give it the time of day and it will be given snapshot status 😁😁😁😁 are you supposed to do ????.......and in reply to Bjarne and white is lovely but it's also not reality...well..unless it's a photo of a zebra or a polar bear sitting on an iceberg..although that would be bluish ???!!!😁😁😁😁

My point is that black and white does not pretend to be a accurate presentation of reality. So it gives creative freedom without misrepresentation.
Also to me it’s like this that overly saturated edited glossy nature photos after some time gets tiering and I at least feels it’s a part of a everlasting flow of fake imagery.

Point taken 😁😁

It’s about deceiving perception. Any one who does it will be coined as a photo manipulator because no one likes to be lied to. I think it’s a normal and healthy behavior. This topic is actually interesting because it shows how final a judgment can be from a random viewer. I think it happens quick like instant feel of deception. So the viewer is done with it in a very short time, while it takes an excessively long time for the creator to understand why his or her work was not perceived as intended. You can fine-tune your work many times with a photo, but each time you present it, it’s final and received as is while in your mind you may still want to change things. It’s overdone now so it’s not abnormal that a perfect situation may look too natural to most of us. Context of presentation is key, social media a very bad place to start.

So...People actually think that photos are real?

Is your phone real? Are your shoes real?

Very deep question indeed...How do we even define real?

By the way, I am a 7th-grade student so I don't have a phone...

Trauma that will last your entire life time! I see $ to be made from your parents as soon as you are old enough to sue them. For now, have a good weekend.

I don't believe you wrote this article, Nando. Send me your drafts!

Whether Papa Frog is real or not, that dude is hilarious.

I guess it all comes down to what we consider to be the moment of creation and the importance of the manipulation in the final image. In my opinion, a photograph implies that an image was created with a camera (and then developed in chemicals or in a software), and digital art implies that the image was really created by manipulating the content on a computer in a fundamental way, with added elements or compositing that fundamentally change the "meaning" or the points of interest of the image. (By that I mean if you ask someone to describe some of the manipulated images in the article above, they will say "A picture of an aurora above the beach" or "A flock of birds in front of a sunset", i.e. the aurora and the birds are not just details in the final image.)

Another way to look at it, is that with digital art, the act of shooting is really just the act of collecting the raw material for the "real" creation that is going to take place later on a computer. With photography, the act of shooting *is* the creation and it produces what is basically the final image (that just needs to be polished, however extensively).

I don't even share RAW files with my clients, much less some troll who thinks he knows what he's talking about.

I don't care if anybody believes me or not. If they choose not to buy a print because I won't jump through hoops to prove it is real then so be it.

In the decades to come almost all photos will be fake anyway. It's going to be a losing battle.

Reality is real. Photos are never reality and they are never real. They are images that have been made highly selectively excluding elements in realty that do not fit the perception we want to share with the viewer. Cameras are computers which created the light, white balance and colour the computer thinks is suitable.How many times have we waited for someone or an object to move out of frame, thus changing the reality at the moment we aimed our camera. There is no absolute reality in photos.

They are real unless you alter the content afterwards. They will not show everything around but neither can your eyes, yet everything around you is real. Try watching straight ahead of you and look at your feet at the same time. There might be more behind you to see, and how do you see it? As far as that fraction of time and the crop from your lens, yes what you capture is real and will be represented as close to real as the limits of your lenses and camera capabilities allow. Also, no camera creates light. If you wait for something to move in or out of your frame, that is intentional but reality. In fact it's so real that you wait for it to happen.

They are only what I want you to perceive them to be, nothing more. They are not the same reality you would experience if you stood at the same spot and personally perceived the location that was photographed. I may use a wide angle or I might use a 500 mm lens to compress an imagine of something that you could not experience yourself without the aid of a camera. I left out a scarred hill to the left of the image. I used lights to enhance a person's face. I photographed a home so you don't see high tension wires in the back yard. The reality of every photograph is manipulated by the photographer.

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