#36 in a series of background briefs

A short history of photo manipulation

Note: Any popular definition of “doctored” can be used when reading this page; the definition used on this website is here.

  • 1. Manipulation in the film era

    In the film era, it was difficult to doctor a photograph while keeping it convincing-looking.

    In the era before digital photography there usually wasn’t a choice that had to be made between optimizing “appearance” vs. optimizing “trustworthiness.”

    That’s because back then it was difficult to substantially “enhance” the appearance of a photograph without making it look less convincing — thus making it less likely to be trusted by viewers.

    In the film era, undetectable manipulations to photographs were largely limited to “light”-related manipulations (“tones and colors”), and then only with serious limits.

    (For example, it was very difficult in the film era to change the color of a depiction of clothing in a photograph without affecting the appearance of creases, folds, pleats, and wrinkles. That kind of change is now easy to do digitally.)

  • 2. In the film era, altering “forms and shapes” without detection was even harder than altering “tones and colors”

    Back in the film era, post-exposure manipulations to non-“light”-related aspects of photographs — “forms and shapes” were fairly rudimentary (for example, tilting parts of a darkroom enlarger to accomplish “perspective correction”).

    In fact, most hobbyist photographers in the pre-digital age didn’t even bother trying to doctor their own photographs in any substantive or complex way. Those duties usually required the services of an expert retoucher.

    Even then, and even after considerable labor, the result would often look “retouched” or “airbrushed” if the prepublished master was examined in person. (In mass-printed [magazine] versions of those photographs, the signs of manipulation would often go unnoticed by readers.)

    Of course, in the film era the public knew that it was difficult to doctor a photograph without detection. That’s why if a photograph in the film era looked convincing, the public usually trusted it. (See also Summary #3)

    For most of the 19th and 20th centuries it was so difficult to undetectably doctor photographs that it was not uncommon to hear phrases like “It’s not considered a significant manipulation if viewers can’t detect it” or “If viewers can’t see the manipulation, it’s not something they’ll care about.”

    Those phrases are not heard very often in the age of Photoshop.

  • 3. The golden age of photo manipulation

    From the 1990s into the first decade of the 21st century, photographers were able to do all kinds of manipulations they had dreamed for decades about being able to do —

    — and they could perform those manipulations confident that their viewers would not mistrust the photograph.

    In other words, since “digital” allowed an unprecedented range of undetectable manipulations, photographers in the early digital era could rest assured that viewers wouldn’t notice that photos that looked “as undoctored as ever” had actually been doctored.

    Photographers had moved into the future, but the public was still applying to photographs the same expectations they had known in the film era, when most substantive manipulations could immediately be seen.

    For some years into the digital era most of the public still assumed that — just as in the film era — “If a photograph looks like it hasn’t been doctored, then it hasn’t been doctored.” (That was a case of film-think.)

    Photographers who adopted “digital” knew better.

    As it says on this page, “suddenly an amateur photographer could perform on a photograph in a matter of seconds undetectable manipulations that the 20th-century masters of the darkroom — Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, etc. — could not have accomplished in several days.”

    For a few years at least, photographers and content-providers were getting a “free ride,” and the viewing public was none the wiser.

  • 4. The free ride comes to an end

    Of course, the “golden age of photo manipulation” (described in #3 above) couldn’t last forever.

    The golden age had been built on the public’s naivete, and in the early 21st century — as the photography world moved from “film” to “digital” — people around the world were rapidly becoming more and more photographically literate.

    By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, millions of people had learned firsthand how easy it is to manipulate digital photographs.

    True, they had been reading about digital manipulation since the 1980s, but they didn’t really “get it” until they witnessed it firsthand, from personal experience — by offloading photos from their digital cameras onto their home computers and then manipulating those photos.

    By the end of the second decade of the 21st century, more than two billion people who had never carried a camera before had started carrying a camera with them all the time—

    — and had learned (from their own photos or from viewing social media) how easy it is doctor photographs with just a tap or swipe of a finger.

    As a result,

    — while in the film era, the public had assumed that “Convincing-looking photos are usually undoctored no matter how remarkable they look...”

    — in the digital era, the public is learning to assume that “Remarkable-looking photos are usually doctored no matter how convincing they look” . . .

    . . . unless labeled otherwise, that is. (TCQ was created to label exceptions to viewers’ “Doctored unless labeled otherwise” assumption.)

  • 5. Leveling the playing field

    It’s now a win-win situation as TCQ helps to “level the playing field” between photographers who choose to optimize “appearance” and photographers who choose to optimize “trustworthiness” (see this brief).

    • Content-providers win (including TCQ photographers) because when they want to optimize their audience’s trust they can easily do so with use of the “Guaranteed TCQ” label.

    • And viewers win, because they can safely regard others’ photographs as “claims” rather than “facts.” Viewers know that photographers now have the option of using TCQ when they want to convince viewers to trust a particular photograph.

    • Even non-TCQ photographers win, because they are no longer burdened by the public’s expectation that a photographer should alert viewers when a photo has been doctored.

    That’s because viewers are learning to assume that impressive photographs are “Doctored unless labeled otherwise” rather than expecting photographers to tell them when a photograph is doctored; see also #522 and #513.


    The most obvious non-winners are photographers and content-providers who benefited during “the golden age” (see #3 above) from having the public assume that doctored photographs were actually undoctored.

    But few people have said they lament the passing of that era (see “C” on this page).


















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