Digitally Doctored Photos- What should we do?

Goal: To learn more about how and why photos that appear on the web, as well as in print publications, are often retouched, and what the impacts of seeing "false" photos might be. In addition, to calibrate a photo rating system of 1-10 to be used to identify the degree to which photos have been changed.

: It used to be that "seeing was believing." Not so anymore. Many of the photos that you see on the web and in print publications are modified to some degree. We can blame the media producers, but the fact is that we can have come to expect it. If they aren't modified, we consider them unprofessional.

That leaves us with the following situation: most of what we see is not honest, at least from the perspective of a camera lens. Seeing is no longer believing.

There are a number reasons media producers might alter photos, including:
  • To eliminate visual noise
  • To project an idealized version of beauty
  • To inject bias into the picture, perhaps making us think less or more of a subject than we might otherwise
  • To be "politically correct" and not offend viewers
  • For political purposes, including to provide a revised version of history
  • To make fun of others; this can be anything from acceptable fun to unacceptable meanness
  • To blend art and journalism

Brainstorm: Do you know other reasons professional journalists,as well as amateur publishers, might alter photos?

Let's take a look at Time's Top 10 Doctored Photos to see some examples photo retouching that provide examples of some of the reasons for altering photos identified above. As we look at these, think about the following questions:
  • Does the alteration in the photograph also alter its meaning?
  • Does the change include bias, which might cause us to think differently about the subject?
  • Whom does the change favor? Whom does it work against?

Bottom line: The new reality is that we don't really know what we are looking at, and there is no real way to tell. We are left to wonder why the changes are occurring at all.


Your adventure

The basic steps of this adventure are:
  • Step 1. Develop a big picture perspective. You will watch some videos and read some web material that will paint the big picture of this issue.

  • Step 2. Identify kinds of photo alterations. You will work in groups to determine the different kinds of photo alteration.
  • Step 3. Determine the reasons for the alteration. In groups, you will speculate about why the photo publishers felt the photo alterations were desirable or necessary.
  • Step 4. Calibrate the photo rating scale. Suppose every picture had to be accompanied by a number from 1 to 10 that provided an indication of how much the photo had been altered. In your groups, determine how you would define a 1, a 5 and a 10. Be sure to test your rating system by considering some of the photos we have talked about today, or other photos you know about that have been altered.
  • Step 5. Establish Photo Board Qualifications. Someone will need to establish a rating system for the photos. What qualifications would these people need to have?
  • Step 6. Report in. Let the rest of the class know what you discovered.

Step 1. Developing a big picture perspective

Watch Dove's Evolution of Beauty, which shows a time lapse series of a woman's face being prepared for billboard publication.

Watch The Photoshop Effect. Photographer Tim Lynch takes us on a photo shoot with Sarah from, and shows step by step how he alters her image to "soften" it and make it more "magazine cover ready."

Visit Your Cover. It covers some of the more blatant, important photo retouching examples in major publications.

Visit Time's Top 10 Doctored photos. We looked at this early, but revisit it on your own.

Visit Photoshop Disasters and enjoy yourself as you look at some great examples of inept photo retouching.

Visit and interact with The Retouch project. This website allows you to click between "before" and "after" pictures of a typical photo prep for a glamor magazine cover.


Steps 2 & 3. Identify kinds of photo alterations, and the reasons for the alteration

Come up with your own descriptions for why photos have been changed. You can use the examples already provided, or other photos you find on the web or that you already know about.

Make a list of these kinds of photo alterations, and also make a list of the reasons you think the alterations were made.

For example, consider this photo retouch:


Be sure to test your rating system. Let's begin with above photos. How would you describe the change here? Why do you think it was made?

This is me, by the way, long before I dyed my hair white to give myself a professorial ambiance. It took me 20 minutes using Photoshop 2.0. in 1991. It was one of the first photos to be posted on our University's system. I was director of our Educational Technology Program at the time and I just didn't feel the original was professional enough, given I had my hand in my pocket.

The strange thing about this is the fact that had I known this photo would have ended up in a professional environment, then I would have posed much more like what you see in the retouched photo. Therefore, the retouched photo is closer to reality... right?


Step 4. Calibrate your photo retouching scale

Recall that we are imagining a world in which every photo we see on the web (and, ideally, in print) would be accompanied by a number 1 through 10 to indicate the degree to which it has been altered. Also, it would offer some follow-up options as well, so that consumers could find out more about the circumstances that lead to its alteration.

So, please come up with rough definitions for:

  • What is a 1?
  • What is a 5?
  • What is a 10?
  • You might begin with my picture above? What rating would you assign it?

In terms of follow-up:

  • What extra information should media publishers provide?
  • Should we be allowed to see the original?
  • Should they need to provide descriptions of how and why the photos where changed?


Step 5. Establish Photo Board Qualifications

Also, we will need to come up with qualifications for those who sit on the Photo Review Board who actually determine photo ratings, much like a movie review board does for movies today. In rough terms, please address the following:

  • How old should they be? Should there be a diversity of ages?
  • What kinds of education should they have? Should there be a diversity of educations and educational levels?
  • What kinds of jobs or professional experience should they have? Should there be a diversity in this regard?

Perhaps we could "crowd source" this, and have people vote? If you are interested in this approach, how might you go about it?

Brainstorm: You may determine all of these are unimportant. If so, what other criteria would you use?


Step 6. Reporting In

Report your findings to the group. How did you calibrate the scale? What qualifications do Photo Board Members need to have?



Image Tool Catches Fashion Industry Photo Alterations. In November 2011, Wired Science ran a story about new software that can actually detect changes in photos. This should help us develop a rating system, but it is still up to us to decide what do to with this information.

Other resources

A 'beauty function' for a better look. The article examines software that can "automatically make you look 'better.'"

FOX Irate Over Un-Retouched Sarah Palin Photo. Note that in this case, people are upset that a photo was NOT retouched.

The Politics of Camera Angles. You can inject bias into a photo without retouching it, simply based on the camera angle you use.

French MPS Want Health Warnings on Airbrushed Photos. Here is one example of legislation trying to address this issue. It comes from a politician who is also an eating disorder specialist, and spent part of her professional life helping teenage girls who were starving themselves to look like magazine cover models.