Detecting digital photo fakery

What's real? Learning to tell truth from fiction in the Photoshop Age.

We used to say that seeing is believing. These days, when almost anything can be made to look photorealistic, that quaint expression lacks the sincerity it might have once had. Can you really trust the images you see on magazine covers, on television, and on the Web?

Probably not. For evidence you need look no farther than this very column. Every week we talk about ways to doctor reality. Sometimes it's as subtle as changing the color of the sky from overcast to sunny, but sometimes we make dramatic changes like swap out the background, turn an ordinary scene into a miniature, and even resurrect Elvis. If amateurs can do those kinds of things, what does that tell us about professional graphic designers?

Digital Trickery in the Real World

If you pay attention to digital trickery, you'll find examples all around you. Photoshop Disasters chronicles amusing examples of digital manipulation gone awry, like this Gap ad.

This sort of thing isn't limited just to innocuous advertisements, either. Iran was recently caught red-handed doctoring press photosof a missile test: They used everyone's favorite Clone tool to add an extra missile to the landscape. Sites like Gizmodo and Boing Boing went a step farther, publishing a slew of even-more-embellished photos.

Professional journalists aren't immune from this sort of thing, either. Back in 2006, several Reuters photographers were accused of doctoring photos to make them more dramatic, or to tell a somewhat different story than what was really happening. Zombietime did an excellent job of rounding up some examples of before and after photos to show how artifacts like smoke and rocket flares can easily be edited to slew the visuals in a convincing way.

How to Spot a Fake

So how can you detect faked photos yourself? Sometimes it's easy. A photo of Snowball, the giant Canadian cat, has made the rounds in e-mail for years. It's not hard to tell that there's something not right about the photo; the cat doesn't look natural, and there are clear signs of fuzzy and doctored pixels around Snowball's extremities.

But sometimes it's not so easy. When in doubt, take a trip to one of my favorite Web sites, the myth-busting Snopes, and search for information about a suspect photo. You can find authoritative judgments on all sorts of potential hoaxes and myths here, including just about every doctored photo imaginable. Curious about good old Snowball? Predictably, Snopes weighed in on that subject.

If you're more technically minded, there are even Web sites out there designed to teach you how to tell fact from fiction yourself. Scientific American, for example, published a detailed (and quite geeky) article on how to detect fakes. When you're done reading that, try taking Autodesk's visual quiz in which you need to pick which images are photos and which have been created completely using graphics software. Good luck; I scored only 50 percent.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Dave Johnson

PC World (US online)
Show Comments


James Cook University - Master of Data Science Online Course

Learn more >


Sansai 6-Outlet Power Board + 4-Port USB Charging Station

Learn more >

Victorinox Werks Professional Executive 17 Laptop Case

Learn more >



Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?