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Image verification: Data verification

There is some truth to the saying, ‘the camera never lies’. The photographer, on the other hand, can manipulate the truth. The choice of lens, viewpoint and moment of exposure can all make the resulting image appear very different from the actual subject. That’s nothing, though, compared to what can be done after the picture has been taken. And we are not just talking about digital photography. Almost since the day photography was invented people have been adding to, subtracting from, and merging two or more photographs to create new images.

In their deceits, photographers are merely following in the tradition of painters. A portrait of a general sitting astride a horse would rarely be posed by man and beast together. The two would be sketched at different times and merged in the final painting, along with a background that was often imagined.

Artists and photographers also flattered their sitters – artists by omitting to paint in the wrinkles and other imperfections, photographers by employing teams of ‘retouchers’ to paint out these signs of age captured by the unchivalrous camera. Many photographs of famous film stars from the 1940s are heavily retouched.

All of these retouching techniques required special skills and extensive experience. They were rarely carried out by the photographers.

Digital deviations

The advent of digital photography has liberated us all. Computer imaging applications such as Photoshop allow almost anyone to retouch images, and if performed well, leave little evidence of any manipulation. Where once it would take hours to merge the sky from one picture with the landscape from another, it can now be done in a matter of minutes.

Does this matter? If the photographs are for our own personal pleasure, the answer must be no. But image manipulation has become so common that some photographers are blurring the line between fact and fiction in areas where truth is paramount. News reporting is just one of the areas where a few photographers have let standards slip – with serious consequences for themselves and their newspapers.

Digital image archive

Digital photography may make manipulation of images easy, but digital technology also makes it possible to detect such changes. With film, you can retouch a print, copy it and make new prints. If this is done skillfully, it is difficult to tell which is the original and which the copy.

Digital images, however, come with ‘metadata’, which gives the time and date a file was created, the time and date it was modified, and much else. Canon data verification adds to the arsenal of detection techniques.

Sometimes it is necessary to modify or enhance a digital image to bring out more information. In forensic work, for example, detail can sometimes be made clearer by increasing the contrast or by applying digital filters. In these cases it is good practice to create an archive file, starting with the original image from the camera, and adding a copy of each modified image created. This provides a clear trail back to the original image if any of the modified images are disputed in court.

It’s just not cricket

In this cricket picture (right) the bails (the two small, wooden sticks that sit on top of the three larger wooden ‘stumps’) have been captured in mid-air – testament to the photographer’s fast reflexes. However, the cricket ball has not been captured in the shot. In the second picture, the photographer has cut and pasted a ball from a different picture. This is acceptable if the photograph is for personal use, but not if you are submitting the picture to a newspaper or magazine, even if the manipulation has not altered the story that the image conveys – which is that with or without the presence of the cricket ball in this image, the actual story remains the same – the cricketer has been bowled out.

In April 2007 The Toledo Blade newspaper, Ohio, discovered that staff photographer Allan Detrich, a one-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and four-time Ohio News Photographer of the Year, had submitted for publication nearly 80 doctored images in only 14 weeks. One of these images was of a basketball match where Detrich added the ball after he had taken the picture. The photographer resigned.

Here is a wildlife image of an owl that is kept in captivity. In the original picture (above left), the tether can be seen very clearly. In the retouched image (above right), the tether has been removed. Does this matter? Not if the images are for your own personal pleasure. But if you are entering the picture into a photo competition – especially a wildlife contest – manipulation is usually forbidden.

The rules of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest, for example, state that “Digital adjustments are only acceptable if limited to minor cleaning work, levels, curves, colour, saturation and contrast work. The faithful representation of a natural form, behaviour or phenomenon must be maintained. Compositing and multiple exposures are not allowed. Sharpening is allowed. Cropping is allowed.”