Readers' Representative Journal

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For many, seeing isn't believing

July 27, 2009 |  4:30 pm

China Lake Blvd. in Ridgecrest 

Victor Garcia of Bakersfield was among several readers asking about the July 22 photo published online only with a Business article about the booming economy in the high desert city of Ridgecrest. He wondered if the image had been altered, noting “I don't think you can see the road with all the houses at the top of  the photo. (College Heights Blvd.) from Las Flores, the light signal next to the Toyota dealership (the Toyota dealership is actually further south)  There is an Enterprise Rent-A-Car and a Speedy Lube at the corner of Las Flores and China Lake Blvd. It could just be the way the photo was taken, but it may be worth looking into.”

All such inquiries are worth looking into, and editors did so in this case. It was taken with a long lens, which, as photographer Mark Boster said in an e-mail to the reader, "compresses the view."

This inquiry is one of a growing number of questions that come in about the authenticity of published photos. Other images questioned this year include one of actress Anne Hathaway (someone thought she was too unrealistically ugly) and a picture of a member of the Taliban (readers thought he looked too nice).

One particularly adamant questioning of another photograph published earlier this year came from an online reader who said she teaches Photoshop at a continuing education department of a university in another state. Even after being assured by editors who investigated the original digital files, the reader was unconvinced that the image hadn't been manipulated.

In fact, in all such situations, editors peruse the originals and talk to the photographer to be able to assure readers the photos weren't doctored. Photographer Boster sent editors his original files, notes on where he took the shots -- and even an offer to go back to Ridgecrest to review the area. But this inquiry was a fairly open-and-shut case, says Deputy Director of Photography Calvin Hom, who added: "We seem to get queries whenever our photogs use long lens while shooting landscape. It's a technique that time and again seems to jolt the readers into thinking there's something wrong with the photos."

It’s not just use of long lenses that has readers asking questions. The increase in skepticism can be explained by several factors, including the fact that the growing number of people taking pictures, published now in an increasing number of places, brings with it a growing awareness of the ways in which images can be easily altered. Two more factors: a lack of editing rules at many places that publish photographs, and finally, as Hom says, "all the stories of ethical lapses by media publications -- including ours."

Whether readers remember or not the worst-case scenario at the L.A. Times -- when a photographer was fired in 2003 after manipulating a front-page image (a blow-by-blow description of the way the former staffer changed the image was published two days later) -- more readers than ever seem to send notes questioning, and challenging, the authenticity of photos.

In fact, that lapse and the ensuing action underscores the difference between The Times and many other sites where photographs are published: The Times' ethics guidelines state that photos cannot be digitally altered or otherwise manipulated. Times editors hold specific, stringent standards for accuracy, and take action if those directives to tell the truth aren't met.

A use of a long-lens in Orange County back in January 2001 brought questions for the same reason -- people familiar with the area couldn't figure out how those particular features appeared in one image. The caption noted that the photograph, which can be seen below, showed Mt. Baldy as well as a plane taking off from John Wayne Airport.

Boster's note back to readers, and to the readers' representative office, regarding the Ridgecrest photo, included this information: "The long lens compresses the view, which could confuse some people." Boster's e-mail continued (warning -- this will be of interest only to people familiar with photography): "It was shot with a 400mm lens with 2x converter (equals 800mm) on S. China Lake Blvd through Ridgecrest-looking south ... the picture is looking south down the main street. The picture was made with the following settings, 800mm lens at f/11, shot on ISO 400."

Boster wanted to "capture the city in one frame," so succeeded in taking a compressed view of the small desert town. He lamented that his photo might have caused confusion: "It is a photographic technique to compress as many visual elements as possible into a frame. Unless our readers have an 800mm lens it is doubtful they might have noticed the perspective afforded photographers with the fancy lenses."

The "fancy lenses" create pictures that can be both beautiful and more informative. But if they create questions, too, it might be worth telling readers in a few words in the caption. In this case, says Colin Crawford, deputy managing editor for visuals, the caption could have used a few extra words: “taken with a long lens.”

Snow in Orange County

Photos: (top) A view of China Lake Boulevard in the city of Ridgecrest. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times. (bottom) The original caption on this photograph, published in January 2001, read, in part: "On a clear day, you can see Mt. Baldy as well as John Wayne Airport takeoffs from Upper Newport Bay." Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

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