Learning how to professionally develop digital photography is hard. It’s taken me years to learn how to set the colors, tone curve, and detail just right. It’s even harder when developing astrophotography, and I’m still learning. In weeding out the good techniques from the “faking it” ones, my eyes have also learned to spot a lot of the fakes. You may be disappointed to learn that quite a lot of today’s professional, award-winning photographers and ambassadors have come to depend on techniques that fake their photos, in order to earn those awards – and successfully doing it. Many, brazenly enough so as to teach others the same through expensive workshops and paid tutorials. A good photo will usually have a little bit of embellishment worked in, just like a good story does, but today’s landscape photography has gotten almost as fraudulent as food photography, and companies like Epson, Zeiss, and Canon are rewarding professionals for creating sometimes blatant fakes of otherwise mediocre shots. A lot of professionals are faking it just as badly as amateurs with photoshop, they’re just better at it.
It’s difficult to explain the extent of this endemic problem without outing the professional photographers who depend on them for their livelihood, and my goal here isn’t to make enemies or to publicly shame anyone. Without providing samples to prove my point, I’ll simply give a few examples of typical fakes, and explain some of the techniques they’re using.
Fake Skies, Photoshopped Sunsets, and Copy-Paste Suns
I’ll start with one of the common examples of fake photography: the fake sunset photoshopped into shots that were otherwise taken at the wrong time of day. This is a common technique used by inexperienced amateur photographers to compensate for drive-by photography during the day, but when I see a Zeiss ambassador faking photographs using this technique, it takes things to a new level of cheating. This technique can be done in a few different ways to completely alter the mood of the photo and cover up the many flaws that come with poorly lit photography, such as a drab white sky, ugly white light, and hard shadows that come with lazy photography. The first technique involves using Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom to split-tone the highlights of the photo to be purple, or adjust the hue in ACR using various other techniques, then crank up the localized saturation to an abusive degree. Another technique to do this is to create luminosity based channels in Photoshop to select different layers of highlights in the photo, and literally paint them the color you want with the paintbrush tool, creating an utterly fake palette of colors across the photo’s light spectrum.
The second technique is what the Zeiss photographer did in the one terrible example I’m referring to, and they’ve done it to several other photos as well. They took a relatively common (and mediocre) shot of an iconic spot in Iceland and created a scene that defied the physics of light and color. A Zeiss Ambassador horrendously photoshopped together an oversized half sun at the horizon and combined it with deep purple and blue hues across the clouds and sky that were literally painted in – creating a sky that is literally impossible to happen in real life. They then took the light from the sun beating down on the water and blurred the edges into the completely artificial sunset that was colored in. Lastly, the landmark was stretched out to force it into a pano crop and make it appear bigger than it really was.
The results were tragic. It appeared as a very obvious fake passed off as if it were real: an obviously impossible sky, a distorted landmark, and god-awful colors that looked nothing like a real sunset. This was obviously taken at the wrong time of day. If you had been there in person, what you would have seen would have been a bland, cloudy day with white light ruining your chances of getting a good shot. You also would have seen a landmark that wasn’t completely distorted like a supermodel’s airbrushed wasteline. That’s assuming you could have seen it at all with direct sunlight in your eyes. I also happen to know the area, and they would have been trespassing to take the photo from the angle they did.
This photographer shoots for Zeiss. Shame on you, Zeiss.
The techniques used here can be detected in Photoshop, if not with just the naked eye. Anyone even remotely familiar with the landmark would immediately know the actual dimensions of it were off, but if you zoom in on the photo, it was easy to see that the pixels had been stretched on one side because the photographer hadn’t sharpened the image well enough before stretching it.
The fake sun copy-pasted into the shot gave hints of forgery as well. The area around where the sunlight on the water was merged in with the rest of the photo was over-blurred, where there would usually be a smooth transition. This was done to try and smooth out the rough transition you’re going to have when you paste hard, ripply water onto a different shot, and the hard bright edges you’re going to get from pasting in the sheen from the sun. This hack job looked fake from the get-go, but the especially aggressive blurring along the edges of the sunlight make it all the more obvious.
Lastly, identifying a fake sunset. If you create a solarization layer in Photoshop using the levels tool, you can isolate the different gradients in the sky’s color. A natural sky has several different layers of gradient, all very sporadically converging together in varying shades of color and intensity. In this photo’s tragic case, evidence of painting the sky was obvious as there was no transition between the blues and purples. A solarize layer showed perhaps three solid colors up against each other, instead of several bands of variation. This is a sign of an obvious fake. Additionally, the sky was heavily pixelated, showing evidence of stretching, and banded as well, due to the terrible paint job. Real sunsets also don’t usually create a completely even color cast across the photo. If the temperature of the cast in one corner of the photo is about the same as the other, it was likely manufactured by split toning, colorization or adjusting highlights.
Fake sunsets are pretty common, but how about a completely fake sky? A number of professional photographs have taken one photo shot in mediocre conditions and literally paste in the sky from a more dramatic photo. In one example, another award winning photo has a completely artificial sky that simply did not exist when that photo was taken, or even in the same country, as demonstrated in a paid tutorial. The foreground you’d be looking at was a waterfall in Iceland, but the sky was actually from Norway. The waterfall was otherwise rather mediocre, with a white sky. Were it not for the contrast created by pasting together a completely fake scene, you may have just passed over the photo.
In a second paid instructional video, the same award winning photographer shows you how to paste a Milky Way into a different photo, and openly admits that his much-beloved shot “is not possible in real life” without cut and paste. The source image for the background was taken by drone shot during the day, at an angle that doesn’t even face the sky. It too was an otherwise overexposed, throwaway photo that was manipulated with a blue cast to look like a “moody” night time shot. The Milky Way was then pasted in using primitive Photoshop techniques to make it appear as a dramatic scene. The only problem? This scene never existed, and is not even possible. In other words, the photo is an entirely fake version of a crappy tourist shot, pasted together into something that could sell as “photography”.
There are some ways to detect copy/pasted skies. Often times, the aspect ratios won’t match when this is done, or the pixel ratios will look different. If you paste a sky from a 20MP shot into a photo that was 36MP, for example, you’re going to notice differences in pixel density. This can, however, be made hard to spot on some better fakes.
Another way to identify fake photoshopped skies is to look at the edges where the sky meets the foreground. In a faked photo, these lines will often be blurred, because doing this kind of a hack job leaves hard edges in the foreground, or even white edges. Milky Way shots are harder to detect, since the sky is dark. If you increase the exposure of the photo, you may be able to see hard lines in one of the color channels. In this photo’s case, the green channels exposed the edges the most. Also look for carelessly missing artifacts, such as trees that get cut off at the skyline. This is often the case when someone is lazy and doesn’t feel like masking the finer details. Also look for stretched out stars or inconsistent proportions to a known constellation. If all else fails, you may need to pull up a star charting app like Photo Pills to see if the shot is even possible.
Fake Little Men: Pasting Artifacts
Adding artifacts to a photo – or creating an entirely fictitious photo out of a bunch of artifacts pasted together – is another common crime among many professional photographers. Often times, this can alter the subject of the photo, or – if it were real – turn a ho-hum photo into a “wow” photo. This is fine, if you’re selling “art” and distinguish it from “photography”, which this is not. When I say art, of course, I mean in the same way that cutting photos out of a magazine and pasting them on construction paper for art class is “art”. When you are a professional photographer, however, and charge upwards of $10,000 for your workshops, this is unacceptable.
One particular example of this that got my attention was a very nicely processed photo of the Vestrahorn mountain range in eastern Iceland. The photographer had pasted in a man standing on one of the black sand dunes taking a photo of the mountains, to add scale to the photo and make the mountains appear vast (they’re not). While some may be tempted to label this “fine art”, this particular photo was done very unconvincingly. In an effort to make the mountain range and dunes look massive, the man they pasted in was tiny. I’ve been to the Vestrahorn twice and am quite familiar with the dunes there. The man they pasted in would have been about 8 inches tall in order for the photo to be accurate.
These types of fakes can be difficult to spot, but usually stick out as almost too amazing to believe, or that something is off but you can’t put your finger on it. If you closely examine the borders around a pasted artifact, these can often be blurred more than the rest of the photo. A good photoshopper, however, will know how to properly feather the edges of the artifact, and so that doesn’t always work. Another technique that can work is to reduce the photo to a small color index, and then do the same for the small artifact. If the colors in the two indexes don’t share the same general color temperature, or similar tones, then there’s a good chance they came from two different color palettes.
Faked Panos Win Awards
Another example is from a photographer that I otherwise respect, and has taken some great shots over their career, but went to great extremes to fake a panorama. Normally, stretching a photo a bit to fit isn’t too terrible a deal, but in this case, the photo won a gold medal at the Epson International Panorama Awards – being a fake pano. Cheating at a competition is a big deal to me. I purchased one of this individual’s tutorials a while back to see if I could learn some new techniques, and faking a pano just happened to be a bonus lesson. The photographer used the actual photo that won them the award to demonstrate how Photoshop’s transform tool can be used to widen the subject and make it look bigger than it is, so that you can fit a simple 3:2 photo into a panoramic format. There was plenty of over-processing using Nik too, which is peeve of mine, to manipulate the mood. What kills me is that the photo was a great shot, and could have stood on its own with minor editing.
Stretching out a fake pano is harder to detect without a reference, as sharpening the photo well can prevent pixels from being stretched unnaturally. If you zoom in, you may still see some evidence of elongated pixels. Sometimes, inverting the photo into a “negative” will reveal edits you wouldn’t otherwise see. The only way to definitively tell is to find other photos of the same subject at similar focal lengths and determine how much distortion is in the photo. In this case, that would not have been an easy task. I love some of the awarded photos from the Epson awards, but now I have to ask myself how many of those are faked panos.
The photog did some other things to embellish the photo that I didn’t like, such as introducing fake fog, which to me should also be a disqualifier for a photography award. Remember when photography awards were about photography? Almost everything else you saw in this photo was faked. The fog, the moody light source coming from behind the trees, the feeling of the photo was entirely manufactured.
Adjusting colors and tone are common and acceptable, and you need to do a lot of things to develop the flat, raw image that digital cameras store. Dodging and burning is another common technique dating back to film photography, to add emphasis or contour to a photo. Making local adjustments can be fair game, if not overdone. There’s a gray area in distinguishing legitimate photography techniques from the fake ones, though, and at some point you cross over into manufacturing a scene and mood that simply didn’t exist. How depressing is it to know that these photographers never actually experienced the feelings and moods they’re conveying through their pictures?
Many photographers are willing to push the limits as far as people are willing to allow. More seasoned professionals are willing to push the limits as far as people are willing to believe. Both are disappointing. If there is one lesson that today’s professional photographers need to learn, it’s restraint. Have the patience to show up on time for the right atmosphere, and get a shot you could be proud of if someone saw your raws. Use development techniques to develop the photo – even embellish a little – but don’t lie. This photographer has many great photos that were done right, but also some that were complete fakes. Why waste the time on the fakes, I do not know.
For a final example, if you like those photos of Icelandic horses jumping up onto their hind legs, it might disappoint you to learn that those horses are often whipped during the photo tours, or trained with a whip to jump on command. Animal cruelty has become an acceptable form of photography. Imagine a line of photographers focused on a horse, with its owner whipping them to jump – and telling people that it’s okay, because they’re used to it. Those are the reports I’ve gotten from people who have gone on these tours. Professionals are charging upwards of $10,000 for tours to get photos like this. Bonus points if you can work in a fake sunset.
If you’re wondering why average folks haven’t noticed such fake photography, it’s for the same reason that food photography typically goes unnoticed. Psychologically, it’s been proven that you could serve a customer complete trash, and if they have a fake picture of what it should look like in their head, they’re going to equate it with the picture. Not all, but many professional photographers are turning landscape photography into McDonalds. The Canons,, Zeisses, and Epsons of the world ought to stop rewarding them for it. This is photography, not someone’s personal art project.
This is one reason I prefer National Geographic’s YourShot website to sites like 500px and 1x, which are more popularity contests. NatGeo isn’t perfect, but they do make a concerted effort to try and reward photographers who take good photographs, even if (especially if?) they’re not heavily processed. Many of the mediocre, over-processed photos posted to NatGeo don’t get nearly the attention that stunning amateur photographs have gotten, and that’s how it should be. Some of the best photographers are likely people you’ve never heard of. In contrast, someone who’s figured out how to build a large social following on 500px, whose user base is as dumb as cattle, can serve up complete trash, and it will make it to the front page. Worse, the photographer becomes an even worse one because there’s nobody to tell them how awful their work truly is.
Faking photography does a disservice to the many great photographers out there struggling to be recognized. It’s conditioned people to think that over-processed fake photography is the gold standard, so that others taking “honest” photography reflecting actual real life, are dismissed. I’m glad I don’t have to be a professional photographer today, as your direct competition are professional photoshoppers. It also does a disservice to the public. Public perception of what is truly artful photography has been turned to trash because of how they’ve been so lied to by the professionals. The public doesn’t know the difference between fake and real, and so just expects that unless it looks like a 3D game, or has a six inch man standing on a 24″ dune, it must not be that good. How deceived we’ve become.
The only real difference between some professional photos and helicopter-shark is the skill level at using Photoshop, and that’s disgraceful. I remember when examples of “great photographers” were the professional photographers, but today that’s less often the case, as many are now more dependent on Photoshop than they are on taking good pictures. There’s a certain honesty and innocence that people expect from professional photographers. That honesty is, in my opinion, betrayed by today’s current industry.
If you’re feeling down because you can’t take the photos you see online or in magazines, don’t worry – neither can the photographers who took them! There’s a very good chance that landscape photo you love was completely faked in Photoshop – even if the photographer is a professional.
Zeiss, Epson, Canon, and others need to clean up their act and stop rewarding imposters. One simple rule would fix professional photography for good: RAWs or it didn’t happen.