Photographic Integrity


The advent of digital photography brought with it many software tools designed to process, enhance and manipulate digital images.  Most people are familiar with the term ‘Photoshop’ in this context.  Although ‘Photoshop’ is a proper noun used by Adobe as a trade name for their brand of photo editing programs, the term has worked its way into our vocabulary as a verb.  If someone says a picture has been ‘Photoshopped’, they mean that the picture was altered in some way that significantly changed the subject or composition.  The change is such that the resulting picture is now materially different from the reality captured by the original photograph.

Every photo, whether captured on film or on a slice of silicon, has to go through some rendering process to make a viewable picture.  In the film days, a photo-chemical process made a print or slide out of a film negative.  With digital, the camera itself has all the programming and circuitry to convert digital zeros and ones into a photograph.  Just plug your ink jet printer into the side of your camera, and violà!

When you want more post-processing options than your digital camera’s menus offer, you have hundreds of choices from the external programs designed for your computer, laptop, tablet or smart phone.

A few days before writing this article, newspapers, blogs and other media were full of stories announcing the arrival of a ‘Super Moon’.  May 2012’s full moon was special because the full phase coincided with the moon’s closest approach to Earth.  According to NASA, Earth-based viewers would enjoy a full moon that was 14% larger and 30% brighter than a typical full moon.  As a result, photographers across the globe took advantage of the phenomenon to take some impressive photographs.

I was one of those photographers.  Limited only by my local weather, I was out before sunrise to catch the moon’s set in the west and out at sunset to capture the moon’s rise in the east.  I posted a few of these photos on my own Facebook page.

One particular photograph making the rounds on Facebook caught my eye…

Photo from the Facebook page of Mr Daniel Zeevi

Supposed ‘Super Moon’ Photograph – actually a fake

While I did not identify the original photographer, I found the photo on the personal page of Mr Daniel Zeevi.

Two things struck me right away.  First, while the image was striking as a work of visual art, I instantly identified several cues that told me the scene depicted in the image could not have existed in real life.  Second, I noticed the number of people commenting about how breathtaking the image was.  Again, my point is not to diminish the power of this image as art.  I was more disappointed that the author of this digitally manipulated work had not disclosed to fans and viewers that the image was not a real photograph.  It’s very possible that Mr Zeevi did not know this when he posted it on his page.  It’s very possible that the image’s creator did but it didn’t survive being shared and re-shared on Facebook.  I just don’t know.  But the emotional investment I saw people make in this lie of a photograph got me thinking about the level of integrity a photographer owes those who view their photographs.

Here’s what jumped out to me the moment I saw this image:

  1. It is not possible to expose to capture both detail in the moon’s surface AND to capture star points immediately next to the moon’s rim.  The moon is WAY too bright compared to the relatively dim star points.  Assuming equal ISO and aperture, shutter speed to capture moon disk detail is several stops faster than shutter speed needed to capture star points. The photographer has a choice… expose for Moon detail and allow the stars to remain invisible, or expose for star points and allow the Moon to overexpose and blow out.
  2. Assuming the moon is truly in the full phase, it is astronomically impossible for the moon to be at the horizon AND have a sky so dark that star points are visible in the same region.  The celestial mechanics involved in a full moon requires the moon and sun be on opposite sides of the sky.  There will always be some amount of twilight within 30 minutes either side of moon rise/set on the day of the full moon.
  3. Where does the ambient light illuminating the foreground come from?  As orange as the moon is, I would expect the entire scene to have an orange glow.  But it doesn’t.  The snow has a neutral white color you would expect from a full moon higher in the sky.  The only place that has the orange glow I would expect is in the valley behind the moon’s disk.  Obviously, city light is responsible for that orange glow. But the orange glow should be universal across the scene if the light were from that orange moon.
  4. Look at the shadows cast by the trees in the lower left center.  The light source casting those shadows is high and to the left – not from the direction of the moon.  Same thing with the shadows cast by the ski lift support poles and other tress in the area.  Same thing with the shadows cast by the rock outcroppings on the hill.  The moon is certainly illuminating the scene, but it’s not the moon you see in the picture.

I shared this photo from Mr Zeevi’s page on my Facebook page and challenged my friends and subscribers to analyze the photo.  Many of them did and noticed the same red flags as I saw.  High five to you all!

In my photography, I post-process almost every photo I publish.  I have to because I save my images on my camera’s memory card in the raw format.  As a matter of personal style, my goal in post processing is to compensate or overcome the limitations of my equipment’s ability to display the scene as I saw it.  Usually, that involves brightening areas of shadow to reveal visible detail that actually existed, but not fully visible in the image due to sensor dynamic range limitations.  The detail is really there in the original photograph – I just have to bring it out to match what I saw.

One area where people could argue my photography involves digital manipulation is with the High Dynamic Range (HDR) technique.  It is still my goal to recreate reality with HDR, but this is an area where I intentionally capture exposures that I know will create a certain look and feel in the end product.  It’s the one area where I like being a little playful and creative.

My assumption has been that HDR photos still have enough of an ‘HDR look’ to them that people realize there is something more going on.  But this whole issue of people investing emotion in liking and sharing a faked moon picture caused me to reconsider my assumption.  When people emotionally invest in my photographs, I want them to do so with trust.  Much of my photography business comes from training and workshops.  Why would people bother to learn photography from me if they can’t trust what they see in my work?

For several years, I’ve added a watermark to the photos I publish on-line to show that a certain photograph was mine.  Its my name in that watermark.  That’s my way of saying that I stand behind that photo and am happy to be judged by its content and quality.

After reading all the comments on the fake super moon photo and mulling the issue of photographic integrity in my mind, I decided that trust in my work – in my brand – is the most important asset I have.  I don’t want someone to fall in love with one of my HDR images, then later find out it took some special software and computer magic to make it happen.

From now on, I will add the letters ‘HDR’ to my watermark to indicate when I create an image using this technique.  Even though I happily tell people when they ask if an image is HDR, that answer may not survive being shared and reposted across the internet.  Embedding ‘HDR’ in my watermark will.

Thanks again to all who have enthusiastically supported my work for the past decade.  It will only get better from here.

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