New Cameras Blur Reality
It's getting easier all the time to fib with photos.
First, photo-editing programs made it possible to tweak a photo in ways that once required hours of painstaking toil with an airbrush. Then digital cameras began to automate some of the most common photo fixes, such as correcting red-eye effects and picking the best shot in a series.
Now some digital cameras can generate pictures that look better than reality. You, too, can engage in the kind of photographic deceptions once available only to politicians and movie stars!
I've been trying out a couple of new cameras, one from Hewlett-Packard and the other from Fuji, that incorporate one form or another of digital-image trickery. HP's $300 Photosmart R937, like some other recent HP models, offers a "slimming mode" that, HP says, can put the subjects of photos on an immediately effective diet. Fuji's F50fd, also $300, provides a "portrait enhancer" mode that's intended to wash away wrinkles.
When they work, both can generate a photographic likeness that looks more attractive than the real you -- a SuperYou that you can post on Facebook, MySpace, Match.com or any other site.
HP's photo alterations are more ambitious than Fuji's (and probably more in demand, given the hefty state of many Americans). To use the slimming mode, you take a picture as usual, then switch to the camera's playback mode.
Bring up the photo, tap the "Design Gallery . . . " button on the screen, tap "Enhance Photos," and then choose "Slimming." There, you can then select one of three levels of shrinkage to determine how much narrower the person in the shot will appear. The camera will save a new copy of your shot, allowing you to compare the original and the edited version back on your computer.
For this effect to avoid looking ridiculous, you need to frame the shot properly. The person needs to be centered in the frame because the camera will squish whatever's in the middle of the shot, whether or not there's a human being present.
Because that compression will leave you with a photo narrower than one of standard proportions, the camera will also stretch out scenery on either side of the middle. So you need to shoot in front of backgrounds that won't look appreciably different when expanded. Natural scenery is good, but anything with text on it -- like, for instance, a calendar on a wall in a few shots I took -- will look obviously fake once it's gotten this rubber-band treatment.
It's also a good idea to stick with the two less aggressive levels of smoothing HP offers, lest your subjects look like actors in a widescreen-formatted movie that's been squashed by a standard-proportion TV screen.
On the Fuji F50fd, the "portrait enhancer" mode doesn't require any extra work after taking the shot. The work comes beforehand, in the form of the steps needed to activate the mode -- a confusing process that requires first turning a dial on the back of the camera to "SP1," pressing the menu button twice, then scrolling up or down with the four-way controller until "Portrait Enhancer" is selected.
The camera will then slightly soften the appearance of any faces that it detects in the image. This doesn't always work out: In many of my tests, either I couldn't see any difference, or the "enhanced" shot merely looked a bit out of focus.
With the right kind of photo, though -- a close-up portrait with the subject centered or nearly so -- this mode made people's faces look slightly smoother and younger. Think of it as the reverse of what high-definition TV does to actors: Where one adds five years to a person's appearance, this feature can knock five years off.
Neither of these cameras will make a regular schmo look like a supermodel. That still requires other forms of technological intervention -- cosmetics, injections, implants.
But both can cater to people's vanity at a low cost. That makes them a pretty smart business move for manufacturers. This kind of photo fakery -- I'm sorry, embellishment -- also fits in with the overall evolution of digital cameras. As easy as some photo-album programs are, people can still be intimidated by the prospect of cleaning up their shots on the computer; some would rather press a button on the camera to have that work done automatically.
So why not build cameras that know more of the editing tricks creative photographers have used on their computers? If a camera can make people look thinner and younger than their physical selves, why not have it also whiten their teeth, dye their hair and blot out their birthmarks?
You will, however, have to know when to stop upgrading your image. At some point, you'll have to meet people who know you only as a younger, slimmer, blemish-free version of yourself. They could be shocked to see how scruffy you look in real life -- unless they've been even more aggressive about polishing their own portraits.