Great Shots That Never Happened

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, April 15, 2007

It's getting hard to believe photos these days -- the distinction between real photos and fakes is getting pretty blurry.

The convenience and power of photo-management software means that just about anybody with a computer can generate realistic-looking reproductions with a few mouse clicks. Not only can some new digital cameras from Hewlett-Packard get rid of the "red-eye" effect, they can also automatically take off facial blemishes and slim you down a few pounds.

Digitally enhanced photos are starting to bump up against the real world. A few news photographers have lost their jobs for digitally tinkering with their shots, but there's weirder stuff afoot as well. A model recently told a celebrity news Web site that she posed for Playboy last year because she wanted to show her fans that some other naked pictures of her on the Internet were frauds. (The magazine didn't call me back this week to provide the images in question.)

"There's this misconception out there that the camera doesn't lie -- well, it lies all the time," said Mindy Stricke, proprietor of a Web site called SingleShots. "It lies as soon as you pick it up."

SingleShots helps online daters gain an edge by fixing up their head shots. At rates ranging from $25 to $65 per picture, SingleShots can remove a double chin, lose the blemishes, smooth over those wrinkles and take a few pounds off. For Stricke, SingleShots is a side venture unrelated to her normal photography work -- but, she says, her business-executive customers are starting to ask for the same work.

Stricke likes to think what she does for online daters emphasizes good looks that were already there in the first place. But sometimes, she says, working with clients can become a delicate negotiation because some people want more digital help than she's comfortable doling out.

"At the end of the day, they're going to have to meet somebody in person -- and explain why they don't have any hair," she said.

Photoshop is the ubiquitous software tool of choice for folks wanting to muck around with photos. With a new version slated for release by the end of this month, the program's aim is to make image manipulation even easier.

Take the problem of getting a good group shot, for example. In the coming version of Photoshop, users will be able to stack up a series of group shots against each other and quickly splice together the photos that contain each subject's most flattering facial expression.

If, say, Joe has his eyes closed in one shot, you can just swipe the cursor over his face and see if he looks better in the next shot down in the pile. The software will swap heads for you, and chances are good that none will be the wiser when you send that spring break photo around.

Detecting image trickery is a budding industry, says Hani Farid, a computer science professor at Dartmouth College who also works as a consultant in legal cases in which there's a suspicion of image tampering.

Farid also serves as a consultant to news agencies trying to figure out whether a photo is real. A recent photo used to promote the Fox television show "American Idol" seemed a little suspicious to Associated Press photo editors, so they sent it to Farid to see if he could detect tampering.

Sure enough, Farid found that it was a composite: The proof was in the eyes. Zoom in on the photo close enough, and you can tell by the light reflected in the eyes of Simon Cowell and the other judges. Two of the people in the shot have two lights reflected in their eyes; the others have only one, indicating that the group shot was actually spliced together from two photo shoots.

Farid's students developed some tools Adobe has considered incorporating into future versions of Photoshop. One tool, the "Clone Detector," checks for repeated patterns in a digital picture that the naked eye might not notice but that could be evidence that someone has cut and pasted elements within the image. Another, "Truth Dots," counts the number of pixels in a shot and looks for anomalies that could indicate trickery.

Still, Farid admits, there are ways a motivated faker can work around all the tools developed so far. He just hopes to take profit-motivated picture fakery -- the type that tends to show up in court cases -- out of the hands of amateurs.

Fighting digital photo fraud will probably turn out to be one of those never-ending battles, said Farid, like the fight against spam or computer viruses.

"It's more easy to create than detect" photo trickery, he said. "It's a cat-and-mouse game -- I'm the mouse."

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