Telltale Signs You’re Looking at a Manipulated Image

Telltale Signs You’re Looking at a Manipulated Image
Photo: bangoland, Shutterstock

Much fuss is made over the use of digitally manipulated photos in ads and magazines, and for good reason: The impact of altered photos in media on consumers’ self esteem has long been researched — and the results are not good. More recently, the proliferation of easy-to-use apps like FaceTune has led to manipulated images popping up all over social media, too. Celebrities aren’t the only ones slimming their waists, smoothing their skin, and whitening their smiles anymore.

While there’s really no harm in using a VR filter to enhance your appearance on your Instagram Story or touching up a lacklustre pic for the grid every once in a while, some influencers (and everyday users) take the practice to extremes. Before you compare yourself to these seemingly perfect images, look for the telltale signs that what you’re seeing isn’t quite the real deal.

Look for warping

The most obvious tell on many manipulated images is warping, which happens when an object other than the subject becomes unintentionally distorted by the editing tools.

“With Facetune and similar apps, I think people know to look for warping in the background where (usually) the body has been bent, shrunken, or inflated and the background has, too,” said Natalie Peeples, a graphics editor here at G/O Media.

Warping is such a common giveaway that it’s constantly referenced on a subreddit dedicated to detecting image manipulation. Head to r/instagramreality, which boasts over 1 million members, and you’ll find people discussing social media posts from mega-celebs and regular folks alike. Whether the poster in question has 10 followers or 10 million, Redditors will dissect an image to determine if it’s been enhanced or altered, and warping is always at the top of the list of dead giveaways.

If you see a photo of a curvy woman posing in front of a fence, check to see whether the slats appear to “bend” around where her waist dips in. Long hair and mirror edges can also “bend” around waists, busts, and butts if those features have been messed with in a photo editor. Same goes for gym pics: Does the squat rack look like it’s literally bending around some dude’s arm? Metal doesn’t do that — unless it’s in a manipulated image.

Be suspicious of unnatural surroundings

Another common theme among self-appointed Facetune investigators: Say there’s an influencer who will always post photos with suspiciously clear skies in the background. Sometimes, the clouds are in the exact same spot in photos posted days apart. What’s up with that?

Background editing is really common, whether for aesthetic purposes or to obscure a person’s location. Sometimes it’s done because the person’s body in the foreground has been so edited that it has to be pasted onto an unwarped background.

“I’d say to look for anything that is duplicated. If there are parts of the background that are exactly the same, they’ve probably been cloned and stamped in another location, and [are] likely covering up or replacing something,” Peeples said.

Check the image quality

From magazine covers to movie posters, it seems like big-name media projects are always being called out for a super-obvious Photoshop blunder. If the highly-paid photo editing experts at those places can’t change an image without being detected every time, what chance do regular people have? There will almost always be shreds of visible evidence left behind, and reduced image quality can be one of them. There’s only so much an enterprising poster with a few fancy iPhone apps can reasonably do.

“Telltale signs that something is faked in either photoshop or video will be changes in the pixelation of the subject’s features,” said Jimmy Hasse, creative director of editorial art for The Onion. “Saturation, resolution, and colour balance can also identify altered work. An easy trick is to add a slight blur to the alterations to make it blend in with the original subject, then adding a touch of noise to further hide any seams from the manipulation. There can often be slight variations in the colour balance — something is cooler than the rest of a warmly lit image, or something is muted to the point where it [looks] just slightly off.”

Use common sense

Stare long and hard at the photo you’re questioning. Is the person’s hair too lush? Are their boobs too perky? Is their waist too snatched? Are their muscles too massive? For the love of God, do they have a single pore?

It can really be as simple as reminding yourself that no one is entirely perfect. There is just no way someone’s legs can be that long, no way their arse can be that round, and no way they can look that unreal.

“Proportions are a big one,” said Hasse. “Sometimes you can see things like bigger ears if a smaller face was composited on a subject. If the facial features don’t line up perfectly with the original, those proportional differences stick out.”

On r/instagramreality, you’ll find loads of examples of edited images where a person’s hands look absolutely huge in comparison to their manipulated body parts or their head seems teeny-tiny. The tiny head thing is infamous on the subreddit, in fact, because it keeps cropping up. Remember that when you change something in a photo, something nearby will suffer in comparison. Often, that’s a person’s head.

Don’t get down about yourself

Though it’s easy to compare yourself to phony images — even though you know they’re phony! — it’s not worth worrying about not looking like a supermodel when you roll out of bed. None of the people whose pics you’re oogling look that good in real life either.

That’s not to say manipulating your own images makes you a terrible person. Professional photographers have offered image touchups and photo editing for years; wanting to perfect a memory isn’t a new desire, nor is it an inherently shitty one. Just don’t go overboard with it, unless you want your selfies to show up on Reddit.

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