Project: Digital Photography and ‘Truth’

As we saw at the beginning of this course, one of the revolutions wrought by digital photography has been that you, the photographer, are fully responsible for everything to do with the image, from capture ( as you frame the shot and release the shutter) right up to producing the finished image. In particular, the recording of images as digital files means that you have full access to every pixel. It is hard to over-emphasise the importance of this. Unlike film photography, in which at some point the image becomes physically locked into the emulsion, a digital image is at all times available for adjustment.

This raises an issue that was never before particularly significant – the alteration of meaning and content. When digital photography began to be used professionally for publication, many people voiced concerns about the threat to what was perceived to be the inherent ‘Truth’ of a photograph. How were we to know any more that a photograph was truly taken from life, and not in some way manipulated unscrupulously?

There have indeed been a number of publicised instances of deliberate and effective fakery. Most of these have been in the form of additions and deletions, painstakingly retouched, in order to make the picture more effective, more as the photographer wanted it to be. Usually these were commercial in motive, to make the picture more saleable, more likely to be used by a magazine or newspaper. And for every instance uncovered become of someone else’s investigation, it is fair to assume that more go undetected.

My personal opinion of retouching images, and using post processing software, is somewhat undecided. When I first began taking photographs, I used to think that people who used Photoshop on every image of theirs, clearly shouldn’t take all of the limelight, especially when my non processed images were just as good, and unlike them, I haven’t altered any of mine. Part of me unfortunately still agrees with this. I believe that you should try as best as you can to use your photography skills in order to produce a unique photograph, and not rely on using processing soft wear, as by doing so, you are less focused on the object or location you are photographing or producing well composed images, but you are more concerned about how it may look when it has been processed. Using software to completely change or alter your image, in order to produce an image that you ‘wish’ you could have taken, but you have infact completely altered and changed your original so much so, that it’s unrecognisable, in my opinion is a lie, and is not the ‘Truth’. However, after completing the previous assignment (Assignment Three: Monochrome) and the exercises to go with it, I can understand why people alter their images, and I can see both sides to the argument.

After using Photoshop myself for my images for the previous exercises and assignments, I can honestly say that I prefer them after the retouches have been made. But I do still like them before the retouches, I think it depends on what the images are being used for. Some images may need colour alterations, contrast alterations or you may want to convert images you black and white, as the colour in the image, is not having the desired effect you want. I can completely understand why these post processing retouches or alterations are made, I can also understand that there is only so much photographic technique you can use whilst shooting an image, but it may not be enough to produce that image you want, and therefore you may alter it slightly. As you can see, my opinion is still undecided.

I know for sure that I do disagree on Photoshop or other processing software being used for false advertising in magazines, adverts, brochures etc. We are exposed to false advertising on a daily basis, whether it is in the form of magazines, television adverts, branding on items, brouchers and much more. This false advertising has been created by using an extremely retouched, photoshoped image, in order to draw the attention of the viewer, consumer, clients etc, to make us buy things that in most cases are not always what they seem or make out to be. For example, make up adverts use well known celebrities to model their product, as they assume that the viewer will be drawn in by the recognisable face, they then produce images which have been retouched in order to make their product look better than it actually is, and that their product will achieve amazing results, that we ‘Can’t Live Without’.

Taken from my book, Photography: The Key Concepts, by David Bate, Adverting relies heavily on photographs of commodity objects designed to show off the basic product. One indicator of the overwhelming importance of still life in advertising is that it even has its own language to describe them: The commercial ‘Pack Shot’. If terms like pack shot lacks any grace, it is precisely because they refer to the function of these photographs within the advertising industry: A ‘Pack’ or ‘Product Shot’, is just that, the shot of a product. Choose any glossy magazine or shopping catalogue, and you will find it populated by still life photographs showing objects in advertising. Whether it is glamorous, object based fashion magazines that show shoes, handbags, cosmetics, jewellery, watches etc, or photography magazines that show, cameras, lenses, flash guns etc, shopping catalogues that show, home equipment, kitchenware, computers, lamps etc, the still life photograph will be steadily at work there…. The photograph is used to ‘Qualify’ the product, to give it its ‘Exchange value’ by specifying what makes this one product more attractive for consumption to the designated audience.

Modern advertising agencies are a product of the twentieth century, a phenomenon that developed when it became clear that there was a need to orchestrate the growth in industry of the production, distribution and display of advertising images. The advertising industry is dedicated to making images, primarily photographic, now heavily dependant on digital post production work, where creativity is the means to persuade an audience about the meaning and values of a product. One the one hand, it is seen as a ‘Creative Industry’, likened to the famous Renaissance schools run by artists like Michelangelo, an inspiring industry full of creative innovation, whereas, on the other hand, it is seen by critics as a waste of space, time and money.

From supermarket signs, shop windows, online catalogues or high end cosmetics, objects are given a ‘Look’ in an ideal scene. Whatever the product or the domain in which it is valued, in these scenes, we can see the product pictured. Hamburgers for example, are mostly represented on abstract backgrounds with nothing else in the scene. Trademark fast food brand franchises pride themselves on having large illuminated photographs of the food you can purchase above the serving counters. You can therefore See what you can Buy. Visually, these photographs show food against a clean background and usually isolated from any specific cultural context. The viewer sees only the object, the product. This abstraction from any social context or background gives the food an anonymous quality: It does not belong to anyone. The picture generalizes the product for the audience: ‘It can be yours!’ ‘Buy It!’.

McDonalds Burger Advert.

This type of ‘pack shot’, still life picture in advertising is extremely common and regularly encountered. These stylized photographs of a commercial product are seen as creative and hard to achieve for the uninitiated, but they are nonetheless often seen as boring pictures for an accomplished studio photographer to do.


Below are adverts which contain make up products. They are being advertised by Julia Roberts (in 2011), a famous celebrity whom we all recognise. These adverts contain images of Roberts, which have clearly been retouched and manipulated, and are therefore not the ‘true’ original image. They have been manipulated to achieve an image which would appear to show a make up product which achieves amazing results, therefore making it more saleable. However, this is false advertising, and post processing software has been used here to deceive the viewer and in this case, the ‘next buyer or consumer’ for this product.


Another example is of Beyoncé. L’Oréal used Beyoncé for one of their infallible make up campaigns in 2013. Un-Used and Un-touched photographs of her were released, which showed her before any post processing occurred.


As you can see, they aren’t the same image, as they clearly discarded photographs which they thought were not ‘up to standard’, however, these photographs were taken for the same ad campaign, and therefore show just how much post processing has been used in this instance, to achieve the companies ‘Desired Look’. Her skin is much smoother and her eyes are more wider and brighter.

In 2011, an article was written regarding the USA, banning photoshoped cosmetic commercials.

The decision came after Procter & Gamble ran an advert for Cover Girl Mascara, which featured a woman with long thick lashes. The company put a small footnote at the bottom of the ad, which was believed to have said that the image was enhanced and the model may have worn extra lashes. Therefore saying that this mascara advertised will not achieve what you see in the photograph, but at least it’s a good photograph and we are running the advert anyway… In other words, post processing had been used to deceive again and the ‘real photograph’ has not been used, therefore this is not the ‘true’ photograph.

ann ward cover girl

NAD (National Advertising Division) director Andrea Levine told Business Insider,

“You can’t use a photograph to demonstrate how a cosmetic will look after it is applied to a woman’s face and then – in the mice type – have a disclosure that says ‘okay, not really.’” Andrea Levine

Cosmetic adverts are not the only ones to use false advertising, and false, post processed images. Food companies, Celebrities, Weight Loss, Clothing etc, all use un-truthful, manipulated photographs. I have included an example of a handbag advertising campaign by the brand Versace below. They too used a well known celebrity, Lady Gaga, for their campaign. By doing so, they draw us the audience in, as we recognise her. By doing so, we take notice of their advertising campaign and look at their products being shown.

With this photograph however, you can see a major difference between the ‘Real’ un-touched photograph, and the ‘Fake’ manipulated photograph. They have softened the colour tones of her blonde hair, in order to make it less yellow in colour. Her skin appears softer, smoother and paler, the handbags also appear to be a slightly darker colour and the details within the photograph have been sharpened.

Lady Gaga, Versace Advert 2013

As you can see, false advertising is all around us, and as previously mentioned, it will continue to be used and will be un-noticed for many more years. I personally believe that we have become so used to the un-real photographs and false post processed photographs that bombard us everyday, that we barley even notice the fact that they are infact ‘FAKE’, anymore, which is sad, as I believe that photography that has been used to deceive people like this, and which deceive people into giving up money for products etc, gives photography a some what band name, as we don’t know what to believe and what not to believe anymore, as so many photographs are super enhanced.

This does not, of course, suddenly invalidate documentary photography with a sweep. But it does make all of us that bit more aware of what might happen. And while concocting a false photograph is clearly dishonest, and something that almost all photographers would claim never to do themselves, the reality of digital processing means that there are no clear dividing lines between what is acceptable and what is not. This may come as a surprise to many people who have not considered the practical details of digital processing, and who believe that the matter is exclusively ethical.

In this part of the course I want to demonstrate that there is a continuum of image adjustment in digital photography, from the basic necessities of preparing a digital camera file so that it can be view optimally, to the extreme of alteration and fake.

Bob Gilka, former director of photography and the National Geographic magazine, expressed the professionals’ view of the extreme when he said the manipulating image is ” Like limited nuclear warfare. There ain’t none.”

Yet the series of projects here will enable you to work through the continuum in order to experience the shades of intervention and to decide for yourself which aspects of image work on the computer are acceptable or unacceptable according to the situation. An ethical position is certainly called for, but given that you are responsible for processing the images, simple positions of outright dismissal or blanket acceptance are untenable.

At the lowest level of intervention, digital files fresh from the camera need to be processed in order to prepare them for display on a website or for printing. At its most basic, this is largely a technical matter, with no significant interpretation. The fundamental images qualities are;

  • Overall Brightness
  • Overall Contrast
  • Density or ‘Blackness’ of the darkest tone
  • Density or ‘Whiteness’ of the lightest tone
  • Overall Colour Cast – White Balance

The principle of optimising these, of getting them ‘Right’, implies that there are common standards, that there are norms for reproducing images. This may seem too obvious to be worth mentioning, but I stress it here because at the end of the continuum of digital adjustment no-one would seriously argue otherwise. The raw file is, as some people like to call it, a kind of digital negative, in the way that in film photography a negative is an intermediate stage between capture and display.

This concept of correctness, of generally accepted standards for tone and colour, is worth reflecting on. The reason for this is that at some point in processing, interpretation is called for, and the result begins to depart from ‘standard’.

In Part Three, you worked through the basic techniques of optimising an image and saw the reasons for making such adjustments, as closing up the black and white points. Shooting Raw, in order to capture the maximum information, inevitably means optimising later, on the computer. This is the most basic and uncontentious form of correction, but because you have already worked through these exercises it’s necessary only to review these now.

In the next exercise, you’ll address another widely-accepted reason for correction – blemishes., If you use a digital SLR, an inevitable form of blemish is dust in the sensor, and you will almost certainly be familiar with this irritation. Changing lenses allows dust and other particles into the camera’s mirror box, and they usually end up on the surface of the sensor. Another kind of blemish that suggests correction is lens flare, particularly the kind that shows as a string of bright polygons. These might be slightly more controversial to correct, but in the exercise you’ll undertake this kind of correction as well.


Photography: The Key Concepts, David Bate. Bloomsbury, London 2009. Pages 112-120.

ISBN: 9781845206673


Julia Roberts Photographs; Lancôme Advertising Campaign 2011.

Beyoncé Photographs: L’Oreal Infallible Advertising Campaign 2013

Procter & Gable Cover Girl Mascara Advert 2011:

Lady Gaga Versace Advertising Campaign 2013

McDonalds Burger Advert:


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