Fact, Fixed, or Fantasy?

Are you an April Fool? Or can you tell a fake photo from a real one?

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Fact-Fixed-or-Fantasy

Take a look around you right now. Chances are there's at least one fake photo staring you in the face and you don't even know it. Can't find one? Then take a closer look at the first photo in this story. Is it real, retouched, or radically altered? What about the other five in the portfolio? The truth is only one of them is real -- while the others are montage fantasies. Do you have what it takes to find the single real one in the bunch?

In an effort to discover how many PopPhoto.com readers have an acute sense of right and wrong, I'm not going to reveal which is which until the end of this article. To make it easier to figure out, though, I'm including "print-resolution" close-ups of each photo. Take a close look at the images and then feel free to express your expert opinion on the forum set up just for this occasion. You'll probably be surprised at how many other viewers disagree with your choice. Are they the April's Fool, or are you?

I grew up in a family that's notorious for April Fools Day jokes, which may be why I've always loved fooling people with my photos. (As one of eleven kids, it may also explain my love of cafeteria-style eating!) I started experimenting with time exposures and sandwiching slides together several years before getting my hands on a beta copy of Adobe Photoshop at RIT in 1989. Before Photoshop and other affordable imaging programs came along, producing a good "fake" photo took lots of time, money, skill, and effort. But it was worth it, since most people believed what they saw in a photo and were far more surprised (and impressed) when I revealed the fakery.

Fortunately, I wasn't employed as a photojournalist, police photographer, or investigator, so my ethics weren't in question when I altered reality a bit (although there are still arguments to the contrary.) But now, between the thousands of product ads, political portrait posters, movie and TV actor "close-ups", and dozens of other sources for "Photoshopped" images, it's getting hard to tell a real photo from a fake, and people have come to expect the unexpected. My best work from the 1980's (time exposures under full moonlight that seem to show real ghosts in a cemetery) wouldn't even qualify as a fake these days since they were all shot on single exposures of film and printed at a minilab. (No burning, dodging, cutting and pasting, etc.) Plus, anyone I show them to today assumes they were done using an amateurish layering tool in Photoshop.

Face it; as a society we've become anesthetized to fake photos. I would wager that on a typical work or school day most people pass dozens of fake photos without noticing they've been visually duped. The cover of the magazine you're reading? Probably retouched or fake -- and I'm not just talking about fashion magazines either. That giant billboard ad for a new car? Not only retouched, but I'll wager the car is a computer-generated model. The beautiful resort you're planning to visit after taking the virtual website tour? Better check Google Earth first to see if the construction is finished yet -- because you might have been looking at a 3D rendering. And hey, have you seen what passes for a real portrait on web-dating services like e-harmony.com?

In today's world, there are three types of photos -- real, enhanced, and fantasy (also called collage, "Photoshopped", and fake). For arguments sake, I'm calling any image taken in a single camera exposure as a real image, whether shot on film, as part of a video stream, or digitally recorded. Real images can often be so amazing (or so staged) that they appear to be fantasy or computer manipulated, and we could spend several more articles trying to narrow down when an image turns from real to fake (or whether anything but the RAW file on a digital camera qualifies). But in between the two categories you have a middle classification: fixed/retouched. Again, for arguments sake (or lack of argument) the fixed or enhanced rating means changes have been made to real images without altering their real status, such as cropping, normal white balance to remove color casts, and minor levels of sharpening and global exposure correction. Fixed and enhanced photos would also include color images converted from color to black and white, or those that use special effects filters such as softfocus techniques, creative filters for glamour, etc. Safe tools would include normal amounts burning and dodging, curve adjustments, and selective amounts of sharpening -- as long as the changes didn't dramatically alter the "content" of the photo. Think that definition is too broad? Voice your opinion on the forums -- but realize that in no way am I describing images that are to be used in news stories or where the veracity of a photo is an important consideration.

Among other things, fantasy photos include photo collages, significantly altered and cloned images, green screen portraits with elements layered in, and hybrid photos that combine computer-generated elements with camera-captured elements. Also, a photo can quickly turn from fixed to fantasy with overuse of the same tool or technique. For example, over-sharpening or boosting contrast on a portrait can significantly alter its content, but in moderate amounts the same tools won't be noticeable. In the future, I expect to see many more 3D computer elements added to photos as the technology improves and becomes more affordable, and those photos would instantly qualify as fantasy or fake.

So take a close look at the photos in the included gallery before jumping to page 2 for the answers.

It's the one of the model walking down the grand staircase. No, not the shot of the tall blond model, Natasha Komissarova, walking down the stairs at a fancy Tokyo hotel I visited once. That's a fake collage (take a closer look at the lighting around her feet for hints). In fact, all three shots of Natasha are faked, and while the images of her were all taken on the same afternoon at the Bronx Botanical Gardens, in two of the three photos I cut her out and carefully pasted her into other scenes. First, I added her to the Tokyo hotel stair shot and then the sunlit meadow (shot in Coldspring, NY on my way to catch a train to work). As for Natasha and the wolf (which I call "Red Riding Hood") -- the wolf was added to the shot of her strutting across the bridge.

Still can't tell which one is real? It's the vertical shot of model Melissa Re coming down the stairs at the Osborn family's Castle Rock castle in Garrison, NY. Hint: there are portraits in the background. The fake shot of her, cut out from the real scene, was added to the gold and marble staircase at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas (Hint: take a closer look at her right hand in both photos). For a more detailed look at how the other five photos were dramatically altered and manipulated, click here to see the Elements portfolio. And stay tuned for more challenges to your sense of right and wrong in upcoming weeks.

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