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How We Spot Altered Pictures

National Geographic’s top editors explain how to keep photography honest in the era of Photoshop—and why they’ll never move the pyramids again.

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Digital technology has simplified the alteration of images, such as moving a pyramid to make a horizontal image (above) fit on a vertical cover (below).


This story appears in the July 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

In the digital age, when it’s easy to manipulate a photo, it’s harder than ever to ensure that the images we publish, whether on paper or on a screen, reflect the reality of what a photographer saw through his or her viewfinder. At National Geographic, where visual storytelling is part of our DNA, making sure you see real images is just as important as making sure you read true words.

I’ll explain how we strive to keep covertly manipulated images out of our publications—but first an admission about a time when we didn’t. Longtime readers may remember.

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In February 1982 the magazine’s cover showed a camel train in front of the Pyramids at Giza. The image produced by the photographer was horizontal; here at headquarters we altered the photo to fit our vertical cover. That change visually moved the pyramids closer together than they really are.

A deserved firestorm ensued—“National Geographic moves the pyramids!” came the outcry. We learned our lesson. At National Geographic it’s never OK to alter a photo. We’ve made it part of our mission to ensure our photos are real.

I went to our expert to explain how we do this. Sarah Leen is director of photography at National Geographic and has been here for 30 years. A few decades ago it was easier to spot photo manipulation because the results were a lot cruder. Now, she says, “you can’t always tell if a photo is fake, at least not without a lot of forensic digging.” Even our experts can be fooled, as in 2010 when we published what we later learned was a doctored photo from a contributor to Your Shot.

We work with the most admired photographers in the world, but just like we require our writers to provide their notes, we require photographers on assignment to submit “raw” files of their images, which contain pixel information straight from the digital camera’s sensor. We request the same for Your Shot photos sent in by members of the public or stock images we buy. If a raw file isn’t available, we ask detailed questions about the photo. And, yes, sometimes what we learn leads us to reject it.

Still, reasonable people can disagree: One of our photographers recently entered a photo in a contest. It was rejected as being overprocessed; our editors, on the other hand, saw the same photo and thought it was OK. We published it. Were we right, or were the contest judges right? That’s a subject we can continue to discuss.

“We ask ourselves, ‘Is this photo a good representation of what the photographer saw?’” Leen says. For us as journalists, that answer always must be yes.

Thank you for reading National Geographic.

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