Stretching the Truth with Pictures

The expression “pictures don’t lie” was used pretty frequently when I was growing up – I was born in the mid-80’s, in case I date myself too much. Today, in much the same way that most children born after the year 2000 have never seen a roll of film, you don’t hear this phrase much anymore, at least in my experience. The rise of digital photography and Photoshop have led to an increasing awareness that there are cheap, powerful tools out there that allow you to drastically alter a photograph. What people may not realize though is that photographs have always been used to tell what we might call a subjective or biased truth and you don’t need photoshop to manipulate perception with a photo.

A picture is a narrative tool. It can help tell a story or it can do so on its own. However, unlike a video, a still image only shows one moment that existed as part of a continuum of other moments that we don’t get to see. I can show you an image of a man standing over a body with blood on his hands with a knife. Depending on other factors like his body language and expression, it’s up to the viewer to decide if the person holding the knife stabbed the man or simply happened upon the scene, whether the act was aggressive or in self-defense. We may be right or wrong in these conclusions; we might bring our own biases with us in drawing them. However, the photographer or the editor has a lot of control over our perception of the event by controlling which moment – which frame – we get to see. Such is the narrative nature of photography.

Photographers can still manipulate perception even where story-telling is not an explicit aspect or goal of an image, however.

In portraiture, photos will often be shot with the camera around the level of the subject’s shoulders or nipples. For a full-length portrait, you might see the camera at a level between the subject’s belly button and the nipple. This tends to be the approach regardless of the absolute height of the subject – whether you’re photographing a person that’s 4’10” or 6’3”. Why? Lowering the level of the camera to be in line with the upper torso limits the view of the top of the head and makes the subject look like they might be slightly taller than the viewer. Shooting a full length portrait from the level of the belly button or mid-torso visually stretches the body, making the subject look taller and thinner. As a general rule, people like to look taller and thinner and so portrait photographers find ways to tell little white lies for us. If you’ve ever met a person and found that they’re shorter than you imagined, the idea that they’re taller than they really are might not have come entirely from you.

A more extreme version of this can sometimes be seen with Macro photography and / or photographs of very small objects.

The preceding image [at the top of the post] is designed to make the object look large and imposing. The shot is taken from a very low angle, making the object appear to loom over the viewer. The shot is taken using a black backdrop with no other objects in view that would give the viewer a reference for scale. More subtly, the parts of the object that are farthest from the viewer (the missile pods) are slightly out of focus, adding to the perception that this thing is large.

The following image gives the viewer a very different perspective.

We see the miniature from a high, top-down angle. We see the hand and fingers holding the base, giving us a reference point for scale. From this, we can properly judge that this figure is only about 3 inches tall.

Both of these images are photographs of the same object. Neither has been subjected to significant modifications using Photoshop. The two images give very different impressions of the object we’re seeing. What the first image doesn’t tell you, is that the shot was taken while the figure was on the edge of the table and I was sitting on the floor – I was taking the shot with a macro lens and the camera was actually below the level of the figure’s feet when I took the shot.

This is the kind of subtle manipulation of your perception that you’re exposed to every day when you’re looking at photographs, whether you realize it or not.