Aug 14, 2006

Ease of Alteration Creates Woes for Picture Editors

Source: The New York Times
Written by Maria Aspan

The recent discovery that a Lebanese freelance photographer, Adnan Hajj, had manipulated pictures he took for Reuters has raised questions about the standards of photojournalism at a time of widespread digital photography.

The incident also increased pressure on news photo editors, who select and edit thousands of photographs under deadline each day, to detect digital alterations.

“The Soviets had to have a whole department to doctor pictures,” said David Friend, an editor at Vanity Fair and a former director of photography for Life magazine. “Now all it takes is a swipe of a mouse, and the kid down the street can add smoke and mirrors to everything.”

Detecting the smoke and mirrors is a challenge. While editors for print publications commonly rely on editing systems that track each change made to an article, photo editors have fewer tools at their disposal and often rely simply on experience and instinct. As a result, the most skilled manipulations can be difficult to catch.

Careless digital alterations, like Mr. Hajj’s, are easier to spot. He used a computer program like Adobe Photoshop to darken and duplicate the smoke from an Israeli air strike on Beirut and to add extra flares to a picture of an Israeli jet.

Charles Johnson, who disclosed the story about Mr. Hajj’s photos on his Little Green Footballs blog, was alerted to the manipulation by Mike Thorson, a Wisconsin-based artist who also works in graphic design.

Mr. Thorson said that while browsing the Yahoo News Web site, he noticed the smoke patterns in Mr. Hajj’s picture because the sloppy effect was familiar from his own fumbles with Photoshop.

“Regular smoke just isn’t going to have a pattern like that,” Mr. Thorson said. “I immediately recognized some of the bad things I do.”

Photo editors said that such patterns, which result from using Photoshop’s cloning tool, are one of a few indications of deliberate digital manipulation. They also look for differences in graininess or pixilation, which could indicate that a person or object has been added to the photo.

Variations in color or shadows on different parts of a manipulated photo are another sign, as lighting conditions are difficult to match exactly. The edges of people or objects grafted onto images can be either blurry or too sharp, yielding an outline or halo effect around the figure added.

Photoshop also allows editors to view levels of an image, which are indicated by line graph with shading underneath. If a photo is relatively untouched, the graph is smooth and solid; but a heavily modified image creates sharp spikes on the graph. These levels graphs allow editors to see whether or not a photographer has made changes to an image, but not what exact changes have been made.

The problem with relying on these graphs is that many photographers use Photoshop or other programs within the standards allowed by newspapers to clean and clarify their work. Correcting the lighting or color saturation of their pictures is generally considered the digital equivalent of darkroom emphasis or de-emphasis made on photos taken with film.

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