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Perception, Evidence, Truth, and Seeing - Figure-Ground, Common contour, Embedding, Camouflage, Gestalt, Gestalt principles, Proximity (nearness), Similarity, Continuation, Closure

digital film seen photograph

Rochester Institute of Technology

In 1978 Henri Cartier-Bresson reminded us that Photography has not changed since its origin except in its technical aspects, which for me are not a major concern . (Zakia, 2000, p. xv) This statement, by one of the great artists in photography, is worth pondering particularly with the increasingly sophisticated imaging technology now available. Regardless of the medium used, how high tech it might be, and with what speed images can be captured, manipulated, and transported, it is the human factor that is most important. Pictures, regardless of how they are created and re-created, are intended to be looked at. This brings to the forefront not the technology of imaging, which of course is important, but rather what we might call the “eyenology” (knowledge of the visual process—seeing). What is known about vision and the visual process is overwhelming; what is directly applicable to pictures is not, and this is some of what will be covered in this section.

In the early 1900s, perceptual psychologists at the Berlin Psychological Institute were involved with research in how we see. Out of their research emerged a number of important and practical principles sometimes referred to as the Gestalt laws. They also put forth the concept of a ganzfeld , a completely homogeneous visual field in which nothing exists, no objects, no surface texture—just light. When a person is subjected to such a visual field for a prolonged period of time he feels disoriented, may hallucinate, and some experience a temporary loss of vision. The eye must have something on which to fixate for the visual system to function properly. The closest we come to experiencing a homogeneous visual field, other than in a laboratory, includes situations in which a person is completely enveloped by dense fog or a severe snowstorm (a “whiteout”), which causes plane accidents in addition to accidents on the road.

To see, we need something on which to focus. To be able to determine the size of an object in our visual field we need to be able to compare it to a familiar object. Perception is relative. The painting, “La chamber d’ ecoute (The Listening Room).” by Rene Magritte illustrates this very point. An apple rests in the middle of what appears to be a normal size room but is not. It is miniature, and because of this the apple is seen as gigantic, filling up the entire room. So-called “table top photography” and miniature movie sets such as those used in the film epic Star Wars are also examples of how relative our perception is. As long as all the objects on the table or in the movie set are of similar scale, things will appear normal.


What we visually attend to at any time is called figure, and it is always against some kind of background. The first step in perception is to distinguish figure from ground. The Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin demonstrated this in 1915 with two profile faces facing each other (Figure 13). A person normally sees the faces as figure but with a little suggestion he can see the space (ground) between the faces as figure and forming a goblet. (As early as the 1700s French and German artists were embedding faces in landscapes. One such is titled “Concealed Profiles of the Rulers of Europe” by Christian Schwan. It is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)

A few important observations regarding figure-ground include

  1. Figure and ground cannot be seen simultaneously, but can be seen sequentially.
  2. Even though the figure and ground are in the same physical plane, the figure often appears nearer to the observer.
  3. Figure is seen as having contour; ground is not.

The importance of ground to our perception of figure cannot be overstated. One has only to look at illusions , such as the Herring illusion, Wundt illusion, and other such illusions to witness how ground can make lines that are physically straight look bowed.

The measurable physical reality shows that the lines are straight. The visual reality is that the lines are indeed bowed. Remove the ground however, and the lines will look straight.

The importance of ground is further demonstrated in looking at colors. A blue object surrounded by a complementary yellow color as ground will look much more saturated than if the ground is a neutral or green color. The physical color (the colorant) remains the same but the color (our visual experience—perception) does not. Perception is relative.

Common contour

When figure and ground share a common contour , a competition or rivalry is set up for possession of the contour (Figure 13). This causes our perception to shift back and forth as we choose to see one or the other as figure. The Dutch artist Maurits Escher was keenly aware of this as one can see in his intriguing work. Of this he wrote

The borderline between two adjacent shapes having double functions, the act of tracing such a line is a complicated business. On either side of it, simultaneously, a recognizability takes shape. (Zakia, 2002, p. 151)

In a playful mood Edgar Rubin in 1921 created a double profile outline of a face of a man and a woman trying to kiss but not being able to since their lips share the same contour and shift back and forth (Figure 14).

Photographic examples of common contour or contour rivalry can be seen in photographs of sand dunes by Edward Weston and in others where a sharp edge exists between a dark area in the shadows and a light area in sunlight. (Photographs mentioned and not shown can be seen on the Internet. For example, click on Google, Image, Weston.) Rivalry for the possession of the contour between the dark area and the light area shifts the figure-ground relationship. Our perception of this exchange activates the area, giving it a dynamic dimension. The greater the contrast at the contour, the sharper the edge, the greater the effect. This can be seen in Figure 15, Dunes—Colorado by Dr. Thomas L. McCartney. The contours are common to both the light areas and dark areas setting up a visual rivalry. When the light areas possess the contour, they are seen as figure. When perception shifts to the dark areas as figure, the contour belongs to them. The rivalry is greater at the hard edges than the soft edges.

Another important facet of common contour is the ability to collapse depth. If a camera is positioned so that a distant contour shares a near contour, overlap as a depth cue is eliminated and the experience of depth is lost. Near and far objects are seen as occupying the same plane. This can be seen in Pete Turner’s photograph called Push.

The contour of the flat part of the top of a trash can on a beach shares the same contour as the horizon line in the distance. Depth is collapsed where the contours meet but not in other areas of the photograph where parts of the scene near and far overlap. The loss of depth in one part of the photograph but not in other parts sets up a visual ambiguity, which adds interest to the photograph. Figure 16 shows a similar situation in a photograph by Gordon Brown. The top of the beach chair on the left shares the same contour as the horizon line. The top of the chair is seen as being out there where the horizon is while the bottom stands on the sand. The beach chair on the right overlaps the horizon line, providing a necessary depth cue and feeling of distance.


Having two shapes share the same contour is an effective way of embedding or concealing images. One only has to pick up a children’s magazine and look at the “Hidden Pictures” illustration challenge. Children and even adults take pleasure in finding hidden/embedded images. This can be seen as a form of “hide-and-seek” or even “peek-a-boo,” that fascinated us as little children. Both involve a sense of discovery. We play the game whenever we go to a flea market or garage sale or go hunting or fishing. As serious photographers, when we go out to photograph, there is something we hope to find, capture, and share with others. This search and discovery can be thought of as an archetype , part of our collective unconscious, a term Carl Jung introduced.


Camouflage can be thought of as a way of confusing the relationship between figure and ground, a way of creating visual noise. In wartime the razzle-dazzle patterns on ships, planes, trucks, and personnel break up the continuity of contours and shapes and therefore the figure-ground relationship. Cubism, as practiced by Picasso, Braque, and others, provided some of the inspiration for camouflage. Artists played an important role in creating such camouflage for the military, by breaking up and confusing figure and ground. When artists became part of the military camouflage units in WWI, an American army officer remarked “Oh God, as if we didn’t have enough trouble! They send us artists!”


The Gestalt school of psychology, which originated in Germany in about 1912 by Dr. Max Wertheimer, provides some simple and convincing evidence about how we organize and group individual visual elements so that they are perceived as wholes.

At that time scientists such as Faraday and Helmholtz, who were researching electrical, magnetic, and gravitational phenomena, hypothesized that a type of electrical, magnetic, and gravitational “field” existed, and that physical elements within that field are held together by some type of sympathetic force. The field elements influence one another. They are either attracted or repelled. Their strength is a function of such things as size, position, and nearness.

Wertheimer might have argued that physical fields have their counterpart in visual fields. The main tenet of Gestalt psychology supports this. The way in which an object is perceived is determined by the total context or field in which it exists. Put differently, visual elements within a person’s visual field are either attracted to each other (grouped) or repelled (not grouped). The Gestalt psychologists put forth a number of concepts to describe how grouping of visual elements occurs within a context of a field.

The same principles, interestingly enough, were used by Kurt Lewin to study the behavior of people within a particular environment, how they interact with each other in various settings such as school, office, factory, and so on. Photographers doing weddings and group portraits find themselves and their equipment as part of the group dynamics. Gestalt therapy, or Family therapy as it is sometimes called, is yet another example of how Gestalt principles are used. A problem a child may be having at home involves the whole family and how they interact. Similarly, a problem a student may be having in school involves the teacher, classmates, and the environment—the entire field.

Gestalt principles

The Gestalt psychologists were especially interested in figure-ground relationships and in the things that help a person see objects or patterns as “good figure.” They suggested a number of principles including proximity, similarity, continuation, and closure.

Proximity (nearness)

The closer two or more visual elements are, the greater the probability that they will be seen as a group or pattern.

In Figure 17 the configuration of dots in A are all equally spaced and can be seen as forming a square. In B and C, by changing the proximity or nearness of some of the dots, we see them as forming a row or column of dots. It is helpful to think of the space between the dots as intervals ; in this way one can see their importance as they relate to the interval of time in music. Changing the size or time of the interval changes the visual or auditory perception. It is also helpful to think this way when preparing a slide presentation with PowerPoint or editing film or video. The importance of proximity is both spatial and temporal.


Visual elements that are similar (in shape, size, color, movement, meaning, and so on) tend to be seen as related and therefore grouped.

In Figure 18 we again see the configuration of dots in A as having the same proximity and are all similar in size and shape. To separate the arrangement so that we have rows and columns as seen in B and C, we need only change the shape or color of some of the dots. The proximity remains the same. We naturally group visual elements that are similar. Gyorgy Kepes, former head of Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, has written “Some elements are seen together because they are close to each other; others are bound together because they are similar in size, direction, shape.” (Zakia, 2002, p. 44) A classic example of proximity and similarity working together can be seen in the 1914 photograph Jungbauern Westerwald (Young Farmers) by the great German photographer, August Sander. Three men with the same dark suits, white shirts, and dark hats stand at attention holding canes in their right hands. The two men at the right are seen as a pair because of their nearness or proximity, and because of the interval between them and the third man on the left. In addition, one notices that all three men have similar postures and expressions, but the two on the right hold their canes vertically and their hats are straight, while the man on the left has his hat and cane tilted. He also dangles a cigarette from his mouth. This dissimilarity provides a counterpoint to the similarities in the photograph and adds interest. A similar gestalt arrangement can be seen in Eroded Sandstones, Monument Park, Colorado by William H. Jackson, in Sea Urchins by Anne Brigman, and in Three Nuns by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Symbolic associations can be seen as a form of similarity thus providing a connection between what is seen in the photograph and what resides in memory. For example, Bruce Davidson’s untitled photograph on the cover of his East 100th Street book shows a child partially naked with straggly hair and head titled standing limp on a fire escape against a steel bar railing, which takes the form of a cross. Although not consciously intended by Bruce, it serves for many as a reminder of paintings of the crucifixion. Similarity by association can also be seen as a rhetorical form of simili . The photograph looks like a crucifixion.


Visual elements that require the fewest number of interruptions will be grouped to form continuous straight or curved lines.

The array of dots in Figure 19 is easily grouped and seen as forming an X. This is because of the similarity and proximity of the dots as well as their continuation. One can also easily see a diamond shape. It would be more difficult, however, to see a large W or M (inverted W). This is because continuity would have to be disrupted. It takes more visual effort. A photograph that serves as an excellent example of the importance of continuity is Edward Weston’s favorite photograph of his wife Charis, titled Nude 1936. She sits with one leg tucked under her body and the other upright with her tilted head resting on it. Both arms embrace the legs in an oval shape with hands joined together at one knee. Her face is not visible, just the top of her tilted head, with her hair clearly parted. If one were to trace the contours of her arms and legs they would see a graceful continuation of curved lines.


Nearly complete familiar lines and shapes are more readily seen as complete (closed shapes) than incomplete.

The array of dots in Figure 20 is more likely to be seen as forming a circle than discrete dots. Again, similarity and proximity are working to assist in the formation of the circle, of closure. In Michelangelo’s painting “The Creation of Adam” (Figure 21), the critical space (interval) between the finger of God and Adam invites closure. By forming closure we participate in the painting. If the interval had been wider or shorter, the perception would be different.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous photograph “Place de l’Europe, 1932” shows a man leaping over a large pool of water in a flooded street and his reflection in the water. One of the things that makes this photograph memorable is that the man appears to be suspended in air. As he leaps, his forward motion is captured on film the instant before the heel of his outstretched right foot touches its reflection in the water. The decisive moment becomes the decisive distance—the critical interval that invites the viewer to participate in the photograph by completing the jump.

Forming closure on what is being looked at provides satisfaction and balance. However, there are times when making it difficult for a viewer to form closure can provide a challenge. Photographs that are ambiguous do just that. They provide a visual riddle that requires extended looking and participation to form a closure.


The Gestalt principles of organization describe the way we tend to segregate and group visual elements into units or patterns. The overall rationale as to why we do this is explained in part by the law of pragnanz , which states that “Psychological organization will always be as good as the prevailing conditions allow.” This can be seen in Figure 22 in which cube A is stable as a three-dimensional pattern and B as a two-dimensional pattern. It is difficult to see them otherwise.

Digital seeing

We live in a world of color. The sky is blue; the grass, green; a sunflower, yellow. Blue, green, and yellow describe only one of the three attributes of color and that is hue (dominant wavelength of light). The other two are saturation (chroma), which describes how strong a particular hue is, and brightness (luminance), which describes the intensity of light.

When a photograph is made on black and white, only the brightness of the colors is recorded on film or on a charge-coupled device (CCD) light sensor in a digital camera set for black and white capture. The brightness of the colors is recorded and seen as neutral colors, that is, grays. To provide a vocabulary for identifying the scale of neutral gray tones from black to white, Ansel Adams and Fred Archer created a numbering system using Roman numerals (Figure 23). They established what came to be called The Zone System, a method for calibrating all the components that go into making a silver gelatin print—camera, film, development, paper grade, and printing—to consistently arrive at a predictable quality print. One could think of this sequence as the color management of neutral colors.

In using the Zone System, the first and most important stage is visualization. With black and white photography, one must learn to see colors as having only brightness, void of hue and saturation. This takes considerable practice and skill. A Wratten 90 orange filter is sometimes used to assist in the process. Exposure is usually placed at zone I. The film is then developed so that highlight detail falls at zone VII or VIII.

With digital photography and color reversal slide film, the situation is reversed. Exposure is based on the highlights and placed in zone VIII. The shadows fall where they may depending upon the brightness range of the scene. A normal scene has a brightness ratio of 128:1, 7 zones, 7 stops, 2 7 .

With black and white film, the range of exposures on the negative that is printable covers 7 to 9 zones, depending on the detail required in the shadow and highlight areas. The same is true for color negative film, but not for color reversal film such as slides and transparencies. These have a printable range of only 4 or 5 zones, as does digital photography, both color and black and white. A CCD or MOS sensor can only record about 4 or 5 zones with detail, which is about the same that an inkjet print will display.

Brightness ranges

The Zone System allowed film photographers to make silver gelatin black and white photographs of what they saw and how they wanted to render them by making adjustments to the brightness range of a subject using development variations. They had to learn to “see photographically” as Edward Weston put it. A short brightness range scene could be expanded by increasing development, a long brightness range compressed by decreasing development. Further adjustments were possible by local “burning” and “dodging” the print and even using bleach to whiten highlights. However, none of this was possible with color film, which contained three integral red, green, and blue sensitive emulsion layers that later, after development, are converted to cyan, magenta, and yellow (c, y, m) dye layers. Any attempt to control the brightness range by adjusting development in one layer would affect the other two integral layers and cause undesirable changes in color and contrast. The same is true for color negative film, but not for color reversal film such as slides and transparencies since the film in the camera was the final image.


Exposure latitude refers to the amount of over or under exposure allowable before detail is lost in the image. Negative films, both black and white and color, have the greatest latitude and color slides and transparencies the least. Negative films are more forgiving for overexposure than for underexposure. Pro-Digital SLR cameras allow plus or minus two stops exposure latitude and RF digital cameras, plus or minus one stop (Figure 24). Color film slides have the least exposure latitude; plus 1/3 of a stop, minus 2/3 of a stop. Since negative films have considerably more latitude than digital sensors, they provide an advantage for image capture. The film negative can later be printed or scanned and used as a digital image for manipulation and printing. However, the short dynamic range of a digital camera can be extended by blending two images, one that has been exposed for the highlights and the other for the shadows. This allows one to render the range of tones much like the eyes see them in nature. A photographer can now create color images that are impossible with film photography. Another important fact is that the image can be seen in real time, immediately after it has been taken. This provides a great assist in translating the three-dimensional world to a two-dimensional image. Digital also provides an opportunity to enhance colors to bring out subtle effects not possible with film photography. Minor White would refer to this as “Interpreted Real.” In the extreme, one can go from the real to the surreal easily.

George DeWolfe, who for many years used and taught the Zone System and was strictly a black and white photographer, on a personal note, wrote, “I think one of the major perceptual things that changed for me when digital arrived was my ability to make color images that I had traditionally seen and felt in the real world but found impossible with traditional photography.” One might speculate that Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, both of whom are not noted for their limited color photography, might have been more successful had they had digital photography available.


The zone scale, which had been widely used for film photography, can also be helpful for digital photography. Visualization is independent of the medium used. There is a difference in how to interpret the zone scale for digital photography, however, since digital provides a more linear recording of light. The zones will record differently on the digital print. Generally, the low zones will register lighter in the print while the higher zones will register darker. For example, what is visualized as a zone VII will print darker and look more like a zone VI. A dark zone II will print more like a brighter zone III. Zone V, the middle gray, remains about the same. This, of course, presents no real problem when using digital since there are so many options available with software such as PhotoShop. “Curves” can be used to correct and adjust any of the zones in the final print. Even lighting and color can be manipulated. As practiced with film photography, one can make local changes using “dodge” and “burn” tools. In a sense, digital photography provides unlimited opportunities for post-visualization. Photographers can now become “painters.”


Some photographic films and digital sensors can “see” infrared radiation to which the eye cannot. Many objects reflect and transmit infrared radiation differently than light. The chlorophyll in green leaves, for example, is highly reflective of infrared radiation, causing the leaves to appear very dark on infrared negative film and white in the print. In short, when photographing in the infrared, what we see is quite different from what film and digital sensors see. This makes visualization, focus, and exposure difficult and prone to error. Digital photography takes some of the guesswork out of this. Now a photographer can actually see the infrared image on the liquid crystal display (LCD) of an infrared-filtered digital camera, make what changes are deemed necessary, and take another photograph if needed.

Capture and ritual

In comparing the process of creating a photograph on film, especially on a large-format camera with that of digital, an important component that can be lost is the actual process of capturing the image. With film photography, more time is usually spent in carefully studying what is to be recorded and how best to render it, realizing that the nearly unlimited options available with digital are not available with film. Further, large-format cameras, such as view cameras, present the image inverted on a ground glass for viewing. The photographer looks at the inverted image under a black cloth, which blocks out the light—in effect, a little outdoor darkroom. This is much different from looking at a small LCD display on a digital camera in daylight. Quiet time in the dark, alone, studying the scene to be photographed, and making adjustments can be thought of as a form of meditation. In an unpublished manuscript, Ralph Hattersley wrote about printing in a darkroom as an opportunity for meditation, a quiet time that can be therapeutic. Further, the upside-down image on the ground glass tends to engage the right side of the brain, the artist’s side, more than the technical, left side of the brain.

Color modality

Color film transparencies look different from color prints, and the image on a monitor looks different from an inkjet print. This should not be surprising. Prints are viewed by reflected light while the image on a film transparency is viewed by transmitted light and the image on the monitor by emitted light. The modality under which a color image is viewed influences how it is seen. The blue that we see in the sky, which does not belong to any object, and the blue we see in the water of a crystal clear lake are not the same. The modality of one is referred to as aperture color and the other as volume color.

Digital seeing has extended the versatility of photography by allowing immediate visual access to what is being photographed. The LCD display on the camera allows one to view the image before it is taken and after. If necessary, adjustments can be made to correct for exposure, sharpness, lighting, and composition. This is especially helpful when doing close-up photography. Prior to printing an image, it can be displayed on a monitor, studied, and a multitude of adjustments can be made. Digital photography does more than provide immediate visual feedback when capturing and manipulating a photograph. It provides confidence and assurance after the photograph has been taken, especially if the camera has a histogram representation to check the exposure of the “digital zones.” One does not have to anxiously wait till film is processed, hoping that the captured image is what was intended. Further, since nearly unlimited options are available for adjustments, the digital photographer now has, prior to printing, a monitor screen, a “canvas” on which to add or remove color, increase or decrease saturation, adjust sharpness, introduce blur, etc., much like a painter. But unlike a painter who cannot easily remove the color of paint once it is applied to the canvas, the digital photographer can. In a sense, with digital the photographer becomes both a painter and a photographer. Digital seeing provides the same immediate feedback a painter has when creating an image.

Evidence and Truth

One of Marshall McLuhan’s one-liners was “A man walked into an antique shop and asked, What’s new? ” When it comes to photographic truth, nothing is new as the history of photography reveals. Composite photography, for example, can be traced back to the 1857 photograph Two Ways of Life by Oscar Rijlander. It was a large 31 × 16 inch photograph printed, not from a single negative, but from some 30 different negatives. Henry Peach Robinson, a fellow painter turned photographer, combined five negatives a year later to create Fading Away. The photographs were allegories and intended to be seen as such. Taken literally, they are fakes.

Spirit photography, the attempt to capture ghosts on film, came into vogue during and after the Civil War. Ghostly images of deceased loved ones would “mysteriously” appear in family photographs. Many people truly believed in such photographs at the time. P. T. Barnum knew they were fake and that people who had lost loved ones in the war were being exploited. Interest in spirit photography and similar phenomena continues today. One only has to go on the Internet, type in “google” and “spirit photography” to be astonished or entertained, depending on his belief.

Seeing is believing

Seeing is believing and believing is seeing. This chiasmus rings true when we stop and think about it. Seeing is believing and the reverse, are not separable. The image incident on our retina is not seen until our brain processes it. What we see, we see to some extent, by choice and by expectancy —a condition in which a person is more receptive to seeing what he or she anticipated or wants to see rather than what is. Some people see flying saucers in images, a Loch Ness monster, the Virgin Mary splattered on a wall or on a slice of toast, and so on. Others, do not.

Imagination also plays an important role in seeing as Leonardo da Vinci reminds us in his Treatise on Painting:

You should look at certain walls stained with damp, or stones of uneven color … you will be able to see in these the likeness of a divine landscape adorned with mountains, ruins, rocks, woods, great plains, hills and valleys in great variety … (Zakia, 2002, p. 209)

We see what we choose to see. In the 1960s an amateur magician, Ted Serios, had convinced a number of people that he was able to make mental images, images of what he was thinking about when he clicked the shutter of a Polaroid camera. He even had a psychiatrist so thoroughly believing this that he wrote a book on the phenomenon, which was later proven to be fake.

Context and cropping

Whenever a photograph is taken, it is always out of the larger context from which it was selected. It is not unlike quoting words out of context; meaning changes with context or lack of context. As such, every photograph looked at can be misread. For example, a photographer on assignment to photograph a large crowd at a protest gathering discovers, not a crowd of 1000 or more as expected, but less than 100. By carefully positioning his camera, he records only the small crowd and speaker and not the empty surround. The result is a misleading photograph that is completely filled with the protestors and nothing more. The visual implication is that there are more protestors “outside the frame” of the picture—hundreds more. When we look at a picture, we can only see what it shows, nothing more. In effect, the photographer has camera-cropped what he did not want the photograph to show. Cropping is usually done after a photograph has been made, which photo editors do routinely but not necessarily to mislead.

Stretch or shrink

Photographs can be subtly expanded or compressed in a vertical or horizontal direction to create an anamorphic image in which a person or object is seen as a bit thinner or wider. If carefully executed and there is no valid reference, the slight change is not distinguishable. At times this is done, for example, to make a female model look thinner in a fashion magazine, or to look wider for an advertisement on losing weight. Stretching is also used in some advertisements for automobiles to give them a slick elongated look. Photo editors sometimes stretch or shrink a photo to fit a layout of a page. What is seen is not necessarily what is.

Photographs as evidence

The ability to doctor photographs by adding, subtracting, multiplying, or substituting things has been with us since the beginning of photography. It has now not only accelerated with digital photography, but has become nearly impossible to detect. Unlike film photography in which one could refer to the original film negative as a physical record, digital cameras not using RAW files leave no tracks behind, so to speak. RAW files are not processed in the camera as are JPEG and TIFF files. They can therefore be considered as the digital equivalent of a film negative and the processing software as equivalent to what goes on in a darkroom to make a print from a negative.

“Photo fakery is everywhere,” proclaims the author of Photo Fakery , who is a retired CIA expert. In some cases it is impossible to detect. Even a battery of experts can disagree on the truth of a photograph. The Loch Ness monster photo taken and published in 1934 was never proven to be a fake. It remained for one of the perpetrators, on his deathbed in 1994, to reveal that it was faked.

Proving the authenticity of some photographs is painstaking and laborious, requiring much research and analysis. With the advent of digital photography, it has become much more so. Photographic prints now can be a result of a marriage of both film and digital. For example, one could, with the right equipment, write a digital image onto film at a resolution so high that it would look like an “analog” optical image under a high-power microscope. The final print could be a result of capture with a digital camera and digital printing—digital all the way, or it might have had its origins as a film negative or transparency that was subsequently scanned into a computer to create a digital file. In either case, the file could easily have been manipulated before printing. To track down evidence of alterations, one would need access to the source, either the film original or RAW files.

Manipulating a photograph for artistic or dramatic effect is not a problem, unless the photograph is intended to be used as evidence or as documentary. Forensic photography, scientific photography, and medical photography need to be accepted as truthful, although at times, to secure grants or promotions, some fraud is, unfortunately, involved. With photojournalism and documentary photography, there is also an expectation on the part of the viewer that the photographs are indeed factual and not tinted with fiction. And as we have seen in political elections, photographs that are used to promote a candidate should be viewed with the same skepticism as any advertisement.

If critical judgment is to be made regarding the contents of a photograph, then the cliché “buyer beware” becomes “viewer beware.” Be critical in assessing the content of a photograph and the legitimacy of its source. The Internet has become notorious for displaying fake and deceptive images and will continue to do so. Fake photographs that get on the Internet spread like a virus and are difficult to stop.

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