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First Published in November 2010 Outdoors Unlimited
BY PAUL QUENEAU
“There’s something weird with that photo,” I said to my fellow Bugle editors about an image we’d received. At that point it was the frontrunner for our magazine’s cover, a shot of a mature bull elk in buttery light with superb detail in its eyes and face.
But the photographer in me couldn’t help but notice the background seemed too bright for the light on the elk. Then I noticed the point of focus in the surround- ing grass didn’t quite match where the elk stood. Even more telling was that one of the bull’s legs disappeared into that grass with an unnatural blur. Yet it was all subtle enough that the photo had passed muster for seven of my coworkers.
Our photo editor Randi Mysse-Ristau sent a light-hearted email to the photographer expressing our concerns over the shot’s validly. He responded equally light-hearted, saying we should lay off the drugs and sasquatch-level conspiracy theoriz- ing and admit that great light does happen. But once Mysse-Ristau received the full-resolution version of the shot, she took a pixel-level look. She found the borders around the hair of the bull were too defined and spotted the telltale remnants of blue sky from a backdrop that no longer existed in the image.
When confronted with this, the photographer reacted in anger, telling us it was the last time we’d see any photo submissions from him. A few days later, though, he came back saying he’d actually been confused about which photo we were talking about, and the one in question was in fact a composite. Hack-job might have been more appropriate.
It’s somewhat eerie that this all took place barely a week before the arrival of Photoshop CS5. The following comes right from Adobe’s website: “New Content- Aware Fill Tool: Remove any image detail or object and watch as Content-Aware Fill magically fills in the space left behind. This breakthrough technology matches lighting, tone, and noise so it looks as if the removed content never existed. Easily select intricate image elements, such as hair, for refinements, compositing, or placing in layout. Eliminate background color around selection edges, and automatically vary selection edges and perfect masks using new refinement tools.”
I’m usually a fan of technology. I take full advantage of Adobe Lightroom’s post-processing tools like graduated filters, dust spot removal, changes to exposure and color intensity, and other effects to make the most of my photos. It’s often cited how photo alteration has been afoot since the days of Ansel Adams. Yet once we start wholesale deletion and insertion of the central contents of a photo, bend- ing reality to the point that it breaks, does it still hold the same value to our readers?
I submit these cutting-edge tools now so easily wielded in CS5 and other applications are going to ruin the credibility of outdoor photographers — honest ones included. Eventually, I fear, it will foster an audience so cynical about what is real that they won’t believe anything they see, most especially the spectacular. And they won’t value what they don’t trust.
That devaluation will trickle upwards until it results in less actual money for great photographs. For if extraordinary captures are a dime a dozen because they are so easily faked, how much is true-to-life then worth? How can you prove you didn’t fabricate an image when the tools are so good it’s near impossible to tell the difference, even to the trained eye? So what if you were the only human ever to catch a mammoth mule deer buck bathed in alpenglow, standing against a vast magenta sunset over the gnarliest of snowcapped peaks? It’s probably a composite of two images—or perhaps three, with extra tines or larger antlers added from another deer. What’s to say it’s not.
Will video become worth more than photographs for Web publications, because readers know it’s not so readily altered? Are we professionals, in our zest to make the most of shots, digging our own grave by bending the truth of what our cameras actually capture, until our images are nothing more than a well executed façade?
Time will tell. The cat is out of the bag and without any popular ethical code about this kind of thing, much less any a good way to verify authenticity, I fear the future may be bleak for those of us that like to get paid for wildlife and outdoor adventure photos.
Paul Queneau grew up in Colorado hunting, fishing and backpacking. He started with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Bugle magazine as an intern and is currently the conservation editor.