Photography:  The Truth Behind Photo Manipulation

Smoke Picture

Beirut in 2007:  The fake image on the left  shows blacker smoke and more buildings being damaged as a result of an Israeli air-strike.

Have you ever browsed a magazine and saw the picture that gave you a craving to go on vacation to that destination? Then you save up; make all the necessary arrangements, pack your bag and depart for that serenity you saw in the picture.  Only to find out once you get there, the location doesn’t resemble the picture at all.  You convince yourself that it’s you, not the picture. 


Seeing Is Believing

In Rose Eveleth’s piece “How Fake Image’s Change our memory and behavior”, she states that “a big part of it is because people trust photographs”. A study sponsored by Victorian University of Wellington has shown that people are more likely to believe a photograph with a narrative than they are a standard narrative that may or may not have happened. Image takes up a great deal of storage space in our frontal lobe and is therefore the most powerful of the average human sensory group. When shown an image, the mind first checks the plausibility, then unless it is clearly evident the picture is fake, the mind will remember this moment that was frozen in time.

Girl cloud

This picture was taken during a heavy overcast, however the photographer did not rely on his camera settings; he already planned to edit the photo post shoot.

Girl Sun

After manipulating the picture with editing software, the picture is “enhanced” to give off a more vibrant effect.


Photo Manipulation

Since the beginning of time, pictures have told the stories of great triumph’s, to colossal failure’s throughout history. First cavemen drew on walls, and then came canvas and paint to tell a story, but with the advancement of technology, photography was born. The popularity of pictures and a hunger for perfection (or for some, stranger things), photo manipulation has become just as much of the process as printing a picture itself. The mere act of capturing a moment in time is not enough for most people any more, now comes the added benefit of editing software, commonly known as post-production.

Post production processing, as it is commonly known, is a feel good way to justify photo manipulation after a picture has been taken to give it that eye popping effect to tell the story the photographer intends to relay. History shows us that since the development of cameras and photography as a form of art, photo manipulation has been used to depict various scenes which most likely shaped history as we perceive the world today. Take the picture above for example. In 1942, before video editing software (or computers for that matter) was invented, Benito Mussolini (The Italian Dictator) had his horse handler removed from the picture to make him look more powerful and heroic.

Abraham Lincoln

And yet even before Mussolini’s triumphant pose, proof of photo manipulation is seen being dated back to as early as 1860 with Abraham’s Lincoln’s iconic picture; well, his face anyway (below). The photo is actually a composite of a southern politician known as John Calhoun with Abraham Lincolns head. In another example, the University of Wisconsin wanted to show how diverse the school was for recruitment, but after scouring through hundreds of photographs, school administrators realized there were no pictures of students that included other ethnicities in their photo archives. Therefore school officials decided to manipulate a photo for a brochure to effect the perception of diversity for increase enrollment in the upcoming school year for 1994/1995. These are but a few examples of how photograph manipulations along with the lack of ethics have continued to misled people over time throughout the history of photography. With the advancement of photo enhancing technology and editing software, it is becoming increasingly difficult to detect fake photographs.  Take a look at the following examples below.

Wisconsin of Maddison

project picture 1

Can you tell which is real and which is fake?


project picture 2

Once Josef Stalin’s friend, the commissar magically disappears when he loses friendship.


project picture 3

Jane Fonda and John Kerry speaking an anti-Vietnam war rally; or not.



project picture 4

Once a member, always a member; right?  Not for bassist Bill Wyman who was cut from the picture because he left the band in 1992.


project picture

American General Francis Blair (first picture; on the right), was later added in this famous picture of generals during the civil war.


Fact vs. Fiction

Deciphering reality from fiction almost appears to be irrelevant; leaving the desire for authenticity second to the eye candy editing software is creating for many professionals. Truth vs. lies is a fine line in the world of photography. “Pictures and images that distort or alter the publics’ ability to achieve an accurate representation of a news story, or a product create problems that could result in a decline in sales, product recall and overall lack of trust among consumers”. The underlining issue is how much of the photo has lost its ability to portray the truth; doctored photographs are everywhere.

From magazines like Esquire and People, to various travel and vacation magazines, photographers are clicking away without worry because within a matter of minutes they can make-over any photograph to create a perception of reality to pass off as authenticity. Their focus is then on composition and position and less on the mastery of the camera settings to do the work. All photographers really need to know in the 21st century is how to work a photo editing software like Photoshop to get great results and high praise. Photojournalist’s who defend manipulating photographs argue they capture art in real life, labeling photographs as illustrations of art. This way of thinking makes it okay for photographers to determine how their pictures ought to be depicted. This move violates the ethics of photography and therefore deceives the viewers and consumers of their work.

Firefighter sunset

Natural Beauty

Today, more reputable agencies employing photojournalist are taking action to keep the message photographers tell through their work, true and accurate. The agencies that employ the journalist put strict guidelines in place to keep photographers from manipulating their work and misleading their viewers and consumers as well as misrepresenting their agency to be perceived as fabricators. As in the photo of the firefighter above, a photographer working for the Charlotte Observer changed the colors to give the photo a more dramatic effect by deepening the colors and changing the colors slightly to reveal a yellow sun with an orange background. Once the agency learned about what he did, the Observer subsequently fired him. The photographer later admitted he crossed ethical lines producing a photograph that altered the true perception of reality in replacing fact with fiction. Pictures can tell a thousand lies.   Photographers should trust their knowledge at working a camera; knowing the functionality and settings to capture the world in true form. Photographers should trust their instincts and trust their work.  After all, that is the true meaning of originality and authenticity.

Photographers should resist the temptation to manipulate their photographs and show off their pictures proudly.  They should leave behind true imagines for the world to see and decide for themselves how to perceive the photo.  The decision should not be the sole responsibility of the photographer to make, but for their audience to decipher and decide for themselves how history is recorded.  The joy of providing the opportunity to show the world through the eyes of photographer is profound in and of itself.  It is a sacred rite of passage that every photographer should cherish, because photographs are for eternity.


Green-Lewis, J. (2000). At home in the nineteenth century: Photography, nostalgia, and the will to authenticity, Nineteenth-Century Contexts: An Interdisciplinary Journal. , 22:1, 51-75.

Jergenson, N. (2011). The Faux Vintage Photo Part 2: Grasping for Authenticity. Retrieved from

Margolis, L. (2012). How To Determine The Authenticity of a Photograph. Retrieved from

McKay, K. (2009). Ethics in Photo Editing: So What’s The Issue. Retrieved , from

Eveleth, R. (2012). How Fake Images Change our Memory and Behavior. Retrieved from

Hoaxes, fakes and doctored photos through history. (2013). Retrieved from

Margolis, L. (2012, July 17). How To Determine The Authenticity of a Photograph  [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Wade, K. A., Gary, M., Read, J. D., & Lindsay, D. S. (2002, September 1). A picture is worth a thousand lies: Using false photographs to create false childhood memories [Journal]. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9(3), 597-603.


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