#12 in a series of background briefs

Photography isn’t just about “how the photo looks” anymore.

  • A. The biggest change in photography’s history
    (many photographers aren’t even aware of it)...

    . . . is this:

    Unlike in the film era, in the digital age you can confirm almost nothing about a photograph just by looking at it.


    The only thing you can confirm “just by looking” is how the photograph looks to you right now.

    • You cannot confirm “just by looking” whether you’re seeing what the camera (or the photographer) saw.

    • You cannot confirm “just by looking” the direction in which the camera was pointed.

    • You cannot confirm “just by looking” how much of the photograph was in focus when recorded.

    • You cannot confirm “just by looking” whether multiple exposures were combined to produce the photo you’re seeing.

    • And you definitely cannot confirm “just by looking” how much you should trust the photograph.

    In other words, viewers can no longer tell “just by looking” one of the things they most want to know about “Wow” photographs they encounter (“Can I believe my eyes?”).

    More on the bulleted points above

  • B. What has changed since the film era

    It’s really quite simple:

    • In the film era, it was very hard to doctor photographs without making them look less trustworthy. More

    • In the digital era, it is very easy to doctor photographs without making them look less trustworthy (see #208).

    In the film era most of the bulleted actions in A above could not be undetectably executed by the typical photographer (no matter how much time they spent trying!).

    In the digital era most of the actions listed in A can be effortlessly executed by anyone with a smartphone.

    Viewers in the 21st century often cannot distinguish doctored photographs from undoctored photographs

  • C. In photography there is no longer any reliable connection between “appearance” and “trustworthiness.”

    This disconnection is a massive reversal from “the way things used to be,” and most of our culture has not absorbed it yet.

    Not one of the nine characteristics of trusted photographs can be reliably assessed “just by looking” at a photo — and while most people wouldn’t put it in those terms, they clearly know about it.


    Thanks to the wide range of manipulations they can quickly perform on their smartphones, members of the general public are aware that they can’t reliably judge the trustworthiness of someone else’s photograph no matter how long they stare at the photo.

    That’s why in the digital age one of the first things people ask when they see an impressive photograph relates to something they can’t see. (Witness the first line on the Home page.)