Is this photo doctored?
December 11, 2007 8:55 AM   Subscribe

Is this picture from Time magazine photoshopped? To my eyes, that laser beam is just wrong.

I realize it's not an earth-shattering story if the photo is doctored, but if it is, it should be noted in the credit line. The article the photo belongs to is How Graffiti Artists are Cleaning Up.
posted by Mo Nickels to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
It may be this green laser pointer or something like it.
posted by odi.et.amo at 9:01 AM on December 11, 2007


Looks like a shop to me - like someone stroked a line.

And I have seen many 'shops in my time.
posted by jquinby at 9:02 AM on December 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


What's wrong with it, specifically? Green lasers can be visible like that if they're powerful enough. You can see the laser in action in this YouTube video.
posted by zsazsa at 9:07 AM on December 11, 2007


That picture isn't really great quality, but yeah, it's a little suspicious. For the beam itself to be visible there has to be a lot of particles in the air to scatter it--water, dust, etc.

For that beam to be that visible without tapering, it would have to be pointing upwards and to the right, not across the water.

There are two things to consider however: shutter speed and whether the camera was digital. Bright light sources on digital cameras cause some wonkiness, and if the shutter speed was slow enough a weakly appearing laser beam on a hazy night will appear much stronger and brighter.

My opinion is that it is odd, but legit. Night photography is a pain; it took me a bit to figure out how to take night flash photography of traffic so that the tail-lights trailed behind the cars instead of streaking strangely forward.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 9:08 AM on December 11, 2007


Looks fine to me. Note that where the line intersects the red reflection in the water, the colors blend correctly. It's not clear what else you think an extremely high-power laser beam is supposed to look like.
posted by 0xFCAF at 9:08 AM on December 11, 2007


Considering the overall "fuzzyness" across the entire picture... my opinion would be that the green laser line looks normal (or "as I would expect it to look in relation to the rest of the photo quality)... course i'm no photo expert. I have however seen a variety of green lasers shot at night, at distances similar to this photo.. and that looks like what I remember it to look like.

I guess you'd have to ask yourself... why would TIME photoshop this specific picture ?.. its not really of anything interesting.. its not political.. (not a world event or famous location)... seems like alot of effort to photoshop something so mundane.
posted by jmnugent at 9:12 AM on December 11, 2007


It's hard to tell from a scan presented on the screen, but it looks too jaggy and dense to be a real laser line. I would expect something slightly more diffuse and, well, glow-y. But maybe the output from those tiny laser pens really looks like that. I haven't played with one.
posted by maudlin at 9:17 AM on December 11, 2007


jmnugent, that's not right. It would not be a lot of effort to insert a green laser line. In fact, the reasons you mention - not political, famous, or particularly interesting -- could very well be excuses as to why doctoring it would be OK.

I am torn.

The line does "look wrong" because the intensity does not fall off as a function of distance. It also does not seem to taper, but a narrow beam might not taper much. I have a green laser myself, a 10mw one from eBay. It does not cast a beam as shown in the image, and it doesn't look like that in photographs. To photograph the beam, I have to use smoke or other particulate matter to get it to show up.
posted by fake at 9:19 AM on December 11, 2007


Response by poster: According to the photo credit, the shot was taken by the person in the photograph. He is also a subject in the article. A non-professional photographer might not think twice about doctoring a photo for a Time magazine article about himself.
posted by Mo Nickels at 9:32 AM on December 11, 2007


certainly don't mean for this to be political, but this video also shows that (or a similar) laser in use in an urban environment. Also thought it looked strange at first, but there you go.
posted by prophetsearcher at 9:35 AM on December 11, 2007


Think of this from the camera's perspective. It's obviously a cheap camera (significant image noise) which is going to be more likely to apply heavy sharpening algorithms to overcome poor optics. The green subpixels are 100% saturated over the majority of the line, but you can see some fall-off near the end. If this were a film camera (or your eyes), you'd probably see the line appearing much more white, but on a digital camera the green wavelength is isolated to the green sensors, so the red and blue component remain low (except for where the line hits the red reflection, where things operate normally).

Also consider just how bright this beam has to be for the green glow to appear around the guy's hand - normally with a laser you'd see absolutely no glow anywhere except where it was pointing, so this is probably significantly stronger than the 10 mW things you can buy at retail.
posted by 0xFCAF at 9:38 AM on December 11, 2007


Response by poster: I wanted to let the comments run a little bit before explaining why it looks weird to me. Some of my thoughts are similar to some already given.

The beam is consistently bright all the way to the target. I think it should vary, appearing dimmer at a distance.

The beam is consistently thick all the way to the target. I think it should appear to grow thinner.

The beam has very severe edges yet it is very bright. In order for the beam to be that bright, there should be a lot of particulate matter in the air, which in turn would make the edges of the beam fuzzy or haloed. However, I think the photo is of sufficiently poor resolution and compression in order to make such halo effects disappear.

The green glow around the hand is the same color. What is it? Is there light bleeding from somewhere else in the laser?
posted by Mo Nickels at 9:42 AM on December 11, 2007


Response by poster: Regarding that last point: it does look like he could be pointing the beam through a window.
posted by Mo Nickels at 9:43 AM on December 11, 2007


Actually the small green laser that I have has "vents" drilled around the main aperture. The beam is not circular and has a large penumbra that comes out these side holes, causing the kind of spill you see in the photo. And it was likely a large exposure.

'Shop or not, it's an interesting discussion. I feel like taking my laser out tonight and attempting a similar shot.
posted by fake at 9:43 AM on December 11, 2007


Time and most other publishers have pretty serious policies against, say adding or removing elements of a photo with photoshop. At most they allow some enhancement of color or contrast. They could have used that as justification for doctoring a faint line into a bright one, but I doubt it. I think the reason you get the effect is the photo is shot pretty much down the sight line of the beam and you're getting somewhat scattered light back from whatever fog and dust particles were in the air.
posted by beagle at 9:45 AM on December 11, 2007


You might expect the far away end of the beam to look thinner because it's far away. But the far away end of the beam would actually be thicker because laser light does still spread somewhat, doesn't it? Those two effects might be canceling each other out.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:00 AM on December 11, 2007


Time and most other publishers have pretty serious policies against, say adding or removing elements of a photo with photoshop.

It's funny that you mention that about Time, because they featured that infamous O.J. Simpson mugshot on the cover back in 1994.

The same wikipedia article above also mentions a scandal involving 79 photoshopped images from a staff newspaper photographer.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:13 AM on December 11, 2007


If you magnify you can see a break in the green where the beam crosses the line of car headlights along the waterfront. There's a single pixel that's whitish which would be green if the beam was drawn in. I say it's real.
posted by scalefree at 10:15 AM on December 11, 2007


Also the green is less focused looking & the colors are more washed out at the end of the beam. It really stands out if you zoom in enough to resolve individual pixels. No way is that drawn.
posted by scalefree at 10:20 AM on December 11, 2007


If you magnify you can see a break in the green where the beam crosses the line of car headlights along the waterfront. There's a single pixel that's whitish which would be green if the beam was drawn in. I say it's real.

This is identical behavior to setting "screen" mode in Photoshop. I just 'shopped in another beam. I did it by making a green 3px line, adding noise, and then setting "screen" as the layer blending mode. It exhibits all the properties that you claim makes the original image authentic, and it took me about a minute to do.
posted by fake at 10:53 AM on December 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


This is a short exposure high-ISO exposure. Look at the waves in the water. And the color noise! Those are so extreme I wouldn't be surprised if this was underexposed and they cranked stuff afterwards. Or were using a small P&S or cameraphone.

The beam doesn't fade out as it gets further away, but the further away it is the more you are looking down the beam, which makes it brighter.

Here is another laser picture at about the same angle.

Here the camera is really close to the laser, but note that as the beam gets further from the camera it is not getting any dimmer, just sharper.

The reasons this "looks fake" is that there basically is no perspective (it doesn't get harder to see as it gets further away), and that we basically don't see absolutely perfectly straight perfectly green things very often. But looking at other laser pictures I think this is real.
posted by aubilenon at 10:55 AM on December 11, 2007


Comparable shot with a 10mw laser.
posted by fake at 11:02 AM on December 11, 2007


125mw green laser.
posted by fake at 11:05 AM on December 11, 2007


Photos of lasers look fake in general. Look at some more. Its just one of those things. Although I wouldnt be surprised if more than one person touched up the photo some, especially regarding color correction. Photojournalism/photography isnt a science, its more of an art.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:11 AM on December 11, 2007


I don't know if the photo has been retouched, but I have known people who have been serious laser geeks, and have therefore seen many lasers in operation. This photo looks consistent with what better-than-average lasers do. Tightly focused lasers don't create halos or fuzzy edges. For an extreme example, here's a pic of a 5w laser at Burningman '98 (and a foolish person sticking their hand in front of it). There's definitely particulate in the air, but you don't see any fuzzing.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:44 AM on December 11, 2007


Any analysis based on zooming in scrutinizing individual pixels is going to be pretty useless, since you're mostly looking at jpeg compression artifacts.

As fake points out, faking this would be nigh trivial (I actually set out to do the same thing before I realized he had already done it; in my case I used lighten mode, a bit of noise and a bit of sharpen filter, and it has exactly the same properties 0xFCAF and scalefree point to as evidence that it's real.)

I personally would guess that it's real; a fake would probably have been tweaked to look less fake.
posted by ook at 12:43 PM on December 11, 2007


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