Photographers Have Always Deceived People. You Probably Have, Too. So What?

Photographers Have Always Deceived People. You Probably Have, Too. So What?

For as long as photography has existed, the art of deception has been front and center of the craft. You change photos, I change photos, we all change photos. Who cares, as long as the viewer is happy?

When new cameras are released, the news cycle revolves around a seemingly infinite number of reviews from ambassadors, YouTubers, influencers, and early adopters. The buzz around this year's Canon EOS R5 release was crazy, particularly considering we're in the middle of this century's worst global health crisis. That buzz has since abated somewhat and been replaced in the last few weeks by the debate surrounding AI software developments and releases, particularly by Adobe with regards to sky replacements and facial-editing capabilities. Is it photography, is it art, is its digital photography, is it somewhere in-between, is it something else altogether? Opinions have been coming at a breakneck speed from all parts of the spectrum.

However, the reality is that these software developments that allow for an almost inconceivable array of post-production editing capabilities are just one notch in a long, historical belt of image and truth manipulation. Fittingly, considering the current US election, there is evidence as far back as Abraham Lincoln's time that he asked photographers to retouch images so as to shorten his neck and make him appear more youthful. Indeed, he credited such editing with helping him win an election.

Joe McCarthy also used some clever cut-and-paste scissor work to discredit one of his great rivals at the time, Senator Millard Tydings. If you care to look further into the popularity of the technique at the time, you can find all sorts of examples and evidence in the Daily Herald photo archives now lodged with the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, England. Staying within the political sphere, there are countless examples of old Russian photos where disgraced party members such as Tolstoy and Molotov had been airbrushed from official photos on the orders of Stalin.

To more modern times, the infamous photo of Michael Jackson dangling his new baby over the edge of a window had the security guards deliberately removed by the newspaper that printed the picture. It's also common knowledge that GQ made Kate Winslet thinner and sleeker for its cover image in 2003, following her starring role in Titanic. Even Robert Capa's famous war image of a dying soldier in Spain was said to be staged, evidence of which was presented in Philip Knightley's "The First Casualty" in 1975.

We could go on and on forever, but the salient point here is that the deliberate finessing of truth, fact, and reality by photographers has been going on since the medium first came to fruition, for all intents and purposes. To be clear, there is a big difference between faking journalism, or war correspondence, or political photos that could potentially influence world affairs, and a landscape shot of your local beach. One is far more serious than the other, but it seems that with Adobe's recent release of its updated AI software (following Skylum Luminar and others), people are getting all tied up about fake imagery and unacceptable deception. The stark truth is that we all deceive our viewers if we're doing any kind of post-production work.

In the image above, it was not a black and white evening, nor did the clouds look like that. I put a 10-stop filter over the front of the lens and kept the shutter open for a good few minutes.

In this image here, I removed gobs of yellow gunk from round my daughter's eyes and nose, and I'm sure the viewer is thankful for it. Is it truthful to the image that the camera took? No, of course not. But who wants to see my daughter's royal, winter snot in all its glory, anyway?

Finally, it goes without saying that this is not what I saw in the morning I took this shot. I took three shots of surfers and a separate shot of the ocean where I did some intentional camera movement to get those streaky lines. Then I blended or composited them all together in Photoshop. Does it matter that this is not real? No, it doesn't.

However, it's not just post-production editing that serves to deceive our viewers. Camera gear also does that for us. Take a fast lens that has an f/1.8 aperture, like my Sigma Art 50mm, for example. When I use that lens and get that gorgeous, smooth, buttery, creamy, octagonal bokeh, do you think that's what the eye sees? And then you use a different lens, and its bokeh is slightly different again. More deception. What about real estate agents who are trying to sell a house or unit, so they make rooms and interiors appear far more roomy and spacious than they really are by using super wide-angle lenses, or even fisheye lenses? Where does that fall in the deception spectrum, particularly if, or when a disgruntled viewer sees the property as it actually is and realizes it's barely half the size it appears in the photos? Or what about architectural photographers who use tilt-shift lenses? Or night photographers who use telephoto lenses to make the moon appear far bigger within the frame than it really is? Deception is everywhere in photography, and it always has been.

Summing Up

I think many of us forget that photography, as with all forms of art and creative expression, is a relationship between the photographer and the viewer. If the viewer likes the end result and reacts positively, what does it matter how that end was achieved? Of course, that excludes photojournalism or news correspondence, where there is an onus to present the truth, but that's not what Adobe's (and other software companies') latest releases are aimed at. Can you imagine what Mozart might think of electronica musicians who create their music solely from samples? I dare not think, but the truth is that those samples are just part of the current musical tools available. As photographers, we use what we have to make an impact on the viewer, and as long as we're open about how we achieved our final results, what does it matter?

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Iain Stanley's picture

Iain Stanley is an Associate Professor teaching photography and composition in Japan. Fstoppers is where he writes about photography, but he's also a 5x Top Writer on Medium, where he writes about his expat (mis)adventures in Japan and other things not related to photography. To view his writing, click the link above.

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If you are going to state a fact maybe check your fact before publishing it “even Robert Capa's famous war image of a dying soldier in France was said to be staged, evidence of which was presented in Philip Knightley's "The First Casualty" in 1975.” The dying soldier was in Spain in the Spanish Civil War so that is a major mistake.

Yes, you’re absolutely right. I just checked and had two tabs open at the time. One was a disputed image of a French soldier taken by a different photographer and I mistakenly took that in my haste. Thank you. Will update ASAP

"All photographs are accurate, none of them is the truth" - Richard Avedon.

First of all, we need to make the distinction between editing a photograph and creating a composite. Increasing the contrast is fundamentally different from replacing the sky. Lumping together all forms of post-production renders the conversation almost meaningless.

"If the viewer likes the end result and reacts positively, what does it matter how that end was achieved?"

That statement assumes that the viewer doesn't care at all about about the craft involved in making the image, and that the viewer won't feel deceived and react negatively when they discover that what they thought was a beautifully captured moment is actually a composite where the sky was replaced and elements were added.

There will be huge debate forevermore regarding your last paragraph. We could use endless analogies and comparisons but for the sake of neutrality, let’s go with surfing. Many surfboards these days are created by machine templates. The original shaper inputs the dimensions after making the first board. From there on, the machine can spit out copies ad infinitum.

So a surfer buys a new board, goes and rides it, and feels like it’s the best board he’s ever ridden and has never experienced anything so responsive. He’s over the moon. Then he finds out it was a machine made board from a template, and not handcrafted amid dust and fibreglass and resin in the factory.

This is where we begin the some, who cares? It’s the best board he’s ever ridden. End of. To others, no, he wants a board meticulously handcrafted from start to finish by the shaper and feels cheated he got a board from a machine. Yet the reality is, he loves the board.

As I said in my conclusion, as long as we’re up front about how we create an image, who cares, if the viewer loves it? When we reveal that info - before or after - is perhaps most important.

I totally agree with the fact that transparency is key.

I like your surfboard example. As I was writing my comment, I thought about sculpture: handcrafted vs. 3D-printed. Even if the end result is exactly the same, I think most people would find the handcrafted one more valuable.

Absolutely. People appreciate sweat and graft and craftsmanship more than machine production. Then we open business models as well, which is kind of tangential - do you sell one surfboard that takes 3 weeks to make from cutting, shaping, sanding, glassing, curing for $2,000? Or 3 machine made boards across 3 weeks for $700 each?

Off another tangent again, but with the quality of modern cameras, you might argue it’s virtually impossible not to get something useable (with crop options) from one exposure on a 45MB full-frame sensor. Therefore, are the real artists the post-production people?

Of course, the counter to that is presets, actions, bought “looks” and round and round we go forevermore....

I'm not a professional photographer nor am I any good at the craft so may be my take is different.

I think that Adriano really hit the nail on the head regarding composites and editing. I also agree with him about transparency and intent.

Let's say my good friend is going on a trip to a foreign country. He goes on a bunch of travel websites all of which have purchased professional photos to sell the destination. If he goes there and sees that the destination looks nothing like the photos he feels deceived or at the very least disappointed by the destination.

The truth is, none of this so called transparency is articulated. I can go to any website where photographers try and sell their work (say 500px) and no one is upfront about photos being composites.

Is this art? yes.. but this attempt to justify deception by saying "it's always been done at some point" leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If you dont believe me, then next time you do a wedding shoot and composite EVERY photo; perhaps put a larger crowd at the venue and see if the bride and groom are happy with the results. Sell them the same speech about how its all technically photography. They want to remember their wedding not digital art.

i think it all boils down to "this is something new that didnt exist when i started taking photos"

Canon has (had?) an option in EOS cameras that gave a digital signature to go with JPEG images to prove they were unaltered. My old 5Dmki has an optional dongle to enable this as I recall, to be used mostly by photojournalists. Apparently the algorithm has been cracked however:

This would be good/appropriate for news sources requiring authenticity but for people outside those realms I’m not sure I ever see the point of announcing SOOC because the camera/computer that is your camera has processed it into a JPEG anyway. Which is why a Sony SOOC JPEG and a Canon/Nikon etc SOOC JPEG always have slight/noticeable differences

Aside from news reporters, authenticity is still important to some people who want to believe there’s reality expressed in the photo. So far as I know in-camera Jpg processing doesn’t do individual RGB hue shift such as was probably done in the photo at the top of the article. And cameras don’t do face narrowing, blemish removal, selective greening of grass, or a million other things we think of as falling under the umbrella of retouching. The slight noticie differences in jpg processing between brands is basically the same as what we used to have with different kinds of film. And while some film definitely doesn’t strive to be true to reality (think of Kodachrome for example) it’s still more or less a capture of reality.

All this said, however, I find reality overrated in photography. I’m definitely an “edited to taste” kind of guy myself and enjoy tweaking my digital captures. I first made enlargements in the darkroom in the 80s and was instantly in love with dodging and burning, and modern software is a whole buffet of tricks and tweaks. The airbrushing in Playboy magazines of old ain’t nothing compared to Instagram or VSCO, though, that’s for sure. And I’ll probably always be skeptical of the skies in every landscape photo from now on.

Guess I'm just one of those "Old Boy" who was taught back in the 70's by my grandfather that a camera is a tool to capture the moment and if you have the settings correct then you shall have a great photo. Can't deny that modern software has allowed artist to stretch their visions and beyond creativity. I will admit to everyone who reads this that I have no clue how to use any post software and no desire to learn. I do not do this for living but appericate those who do and admire such creativity. I have invested a chunk into my hardware and do my best to have the proper settings to take that great photo just like my grandfather taught me on his Licas. I believe we can all agree on the one thing that lays in front of us and that is every picture is worth a thousand words no matter how much or little post went into it. Keep shooting my friends.

Holy buckets that's a hell-a reply. I do believe the Unicorn are "Real" lol... To be frank, when I look at really wild pictures on this site from all you pro's I can only wonder the time that went in to the post and how one came up with this or that. I like it for keeps the mind wondering just like art is suppose to. I happen to be a abstract artist and work with metal, concrete, wood and different resins to create unique on off sculptures just as you do with your photos. Why we do it? Guess that's who we are and this is what brings joy to our soul. One day I wouldn't mind taking time to learn a post software program. Just another tool in the box to use right?

Everyone has their own preferences and perspectives, and we should never proscribe or impose things on people. For me, I just like to use absolutely everything available to me to get a final image I love. For the most part, that dictates I use post-production tools.

Maybe some day I will learn how to use a software program, but for now I'll keep creating my art with concrete, wood, steel and resins. Have to be honest, manly take photos of my boys playing sports and our adventures.

Well, even if we don’t digitally replace the sky in an image, we either rely on a cameras jpeg picture profile or we edit the colours in post to match our own particular style. Even if the photo looks realistic, we will still be creating an image that doesn’t truly represent what we saw.

First and foremost its not deception.

Most of the publications that I submit photos to have strict Submission Guidelines that prohibit any editing whatsoever. They require files that are as SOOC as possible. They want unmanipulated images so that their full-time graphic designers and Photoshop specialists can do their thing from scratch.
Almost all of the publishers that photographers sell images to already have a staff of professional image editing specialists ..... so of course they don't want their contributing photographers to do any editing themselves.
So ..... leave the picture-taking to the photographer, and the editing to the editing professional.

I don't know about percentages, but to my way of thinking, that's primarily what photography is for. From a professional standpoint, we take photographs so that they can be marketed to and used by various industries. That's the point of doing photography, isn't it?

When you first picked up a camera, was your entire reasoning for doing so selling and marketing prints to publications? Very, very, very few people would answer yes to that question. I first remember taking a photo with a disposable camera at about 10. My daughter now has an Instax and she’s 4. Do you think either of us had publications, marketing, selling in our minds when we first hit the shutter button?

Selling prints is a by-product of years and years of investment, practice, time, patience and learning.

The answer to both questions is "no".