Fake or Not Fake?

A picture can not lie. We all know the untruth of that these days. But what do you do when a picture isn’t lying, yet looks ‘obviously’ fake?

The below photo illustrates this to some degree:

photography sometimes captures real life in an unrealistic way
photography sometimes captures real life in an unrealistic way

This is a photo of a friend’s whale watching boat (Ultimate Whale Watch in Maui). Obviously, I shot this from a different boat while a whale swam up to and under the boat. I’m using a 70-200mm f2.8 lens, so I’ve got really narrow depth of field. As a consequence, the boat is razor sharp and everything else is pretty blurred.

If you saw the above image in a marketing brochure would you believe it?

I don’t know that I would. The high-res version of the image looks almost laughably fake. (the web photo looks a bit more believable) We’re not used to seeing shots like this with such narrow DOF. So the boat looks like it’s copy/pasted into another photo. If you’ve never been whale watching, you might have a hard time believing whales get that close or are that big (hello… it’s a whale) or whatever. It’s not so unbelievable that I would doubt a friend if he said he shot it, but as part of a marketing piece… you never know with those marketing people.

One of the first pieces of software I had a part in developing was Bryce, which allowed you to create very realistic landscapes (and weird, unnatural, surreal landscapes as well). Something I realized very quickly was that we all have certain things we look for when determining whether something is fake or not. Very often the things we’re looking for are idealized. Sort of ‘dumbed down’ in a way that allows our brain to process them.

Nature is quite a bit more complex than our brains can sometimes handle. That combined with our skepticism of photos sometimes leads to our disbelief of photos that capture real phenomenon. One common example is water. We very rarely look closely at it. We see it, but not all the details. If you look at a high-rez, razor sharp close-up of a water surface it looks unreal. All the ripples and texture of the surface is not something we usually see.

It became a fun thing to pair up one real image and one Bryce image and see if someone could figure out which was the real image. There are lots of natural phenomenon that if you created on the computer people would look at it and tell you all the things that are wrong with it. It’s interesting to have someone tell you all the ‘flaws’ in your very real photograph and why it obviously isn’t real.

It’s really interesting to notice what sets off our ‘No way is that real!’ alarm. It keeps you from creating images where a client will go ‘wow, that’s cool… but I really wanted something that isn’t manipulated in a computer’. Or, of course, on the other hand, where the image is digitally manipulated and it looks completely real. :-)

So… what kind of assumptions do you make as you perceive your reality?

One thought on “Fake or Not Fake?”

  1. Hi,

    I’m running a small boat tours business in French Polynesia and I can tell you it’s quite common to have humpback whales very close to the boat, sometimes even closer than shown on this photo.

    Best regards,


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