National Geographic manipulated photo scandal takes the web by storm
Manipulated photo scandal…… In a digital era it has become quite easy to conceal manipulated pictures. Or rather hard to detect them as this series of allegedly composited night photographs fell through Nat Geo’s however strict publishing rules. Manipulation, manipulation, manipulation……
On April 26th2019 National Geographic published an article called ‘See the world’s oldest trees by starlight’ , highlighting the story of renowned photographer Beth Moon. She traveled the world to take pictures of the oldest trees on our planet. The article only showcases pictures of trees under the stars and it performed rather well on social mediawith a whooping 23K likes and almost 8K shares on Facebook. At least until 24 hours ago when some keen-eyed surfers noticed something odd about the photographs, pointing their finger at one in particular. Who would have guessed Nat geo published a manipulated photo scandal.
It didn’t take long before more and more people took a closer look at the pictures. Which according to the photographer consist of single thirty-second exposures, taken with a DSLR camera. ‘With a 30-second exposure you don’t want the branches shaking’, she told science staff writer Catherine Zuckerman. Rapidly allegations of using Photoshop techniques like cloning, erasing and compositing for several of the published photographs, spread within astrophotography Facebook groups , and other platforms like Twitter. Among the wave of criticism towards Nat Geo and Moon, many have demanded both parties to give an explanation. As of yet neither the organization nor the photographer. Has released any statement concerning the matter. Manipulated photo scandal = complete.
Nat Geo’s reputably strict publishing rules.
In a previous article written back in 2016: National Geographic explain at length how and why their photography publishing rules, became ever stricter over the years.
‘We work with the most admired photographers in the world, but just like we require our writers to provide their notes. We require photographers on assignment to submit “raw” files of their images, which contain pixel information straight from the digital camera’s sensor. […] And, yes, sometimes what we learn leads us to reject it’, Nat Geo director of photography Sarah Leen says.
Nat Geo has created rather strict photo guidelines photographers must meet before getting published. The organization boasts rigorous ethics about photography: ‘National Geographic supports ethical photography that accurately represents cultures, ecosystems, and wildlife. We expect that the welfare of people, animals, and their environments take precedence over photography. In other words, don’t harm or manipulate the subject or its environment for the sake of creating an image’.
After a few lines one can read some specifications about picture editing and manipulating:
Cloning: ‘Cloning is not allowed. Cloning is the process of adding or subtracting elements from a photograph.[…]’
Stitched panoramas:‘These are allowed only if the segments were all made within the same time frame.[…]’
Composites:These are pictures where some elements were taken under different conditions (time frame, focal lengths, orientation, place…). Nat Geo specify: ‘To be eligible for publication in National Geographic magazine, the images must be combined parts made at the same time.[…]’
Our take on Moon’s photographs
As aesthetic as photographer Moon’s starscapes may be to certain people. It’s undeniable that some of these pictures, were manipulated. The night sky offers an unlimited source of markers (stars, constellations, milky way…) that never lie about the time of year, and location in the world you took the picture from. And you don’t even need to be a professional astronomer, or to double-check the RAW files to prove it! Tools like Stellarium or the StarWalk app, can help you verify your point within seconds. We highlighted hereafter three of the most strikingly manipulated pictures of the collection:
manipulated photo scandal
This picture can only be a panorama and not a single exposure. To be able to capture the whole span, of the southern hemisphere milky way setting. You would need a fish-eye lens, that would distort the foreground. In this image a specific warping mode was used during the stitching process, creating a bent milky way. However what is most noticeable about the picture, is the milky way itself. While its position and curvature is definitely possible at the location it was taken (Botswana), its overall shape and look is irrefutably unnatural. Some parts of the milky way were quite obviously cloned several times, probably to make it look more impressive.
Sky doesn’t match the foreground !
The caption says that this picture was taken in the famous Quiver tree forest in Namibia. However sharp eyes or people that have been to that place, will realize that the sky does not match the foreground.
For starters in real life there is visible light pollution in several directions around the forest, and not of this is visible here on the horizon. However the most compelling evidence is to have our own galaxy oriented this way. It is simply impossible in the southern hemisphere! You can surely recognize NGC 7000 (North American, Pelican nebulae, Sadr region), the bright star Vega and Polaris, which would be located above the frame.
The North Star Polaris can never appear above the horizon below the equator as a rule! The Cygnus part of the milky way, if visible, usually points downwards. All these elements constitute a solid case about the photograph being, in fact, a composite. Where the foreground was actually taken in Namibia, and the background sky somewhere else in the northern hemisphere. Also at a different time of the year.
Heavy Cloning in this manipulated photo scandal
In this last example the milky way appears over a baobab tree of Botswana. The milky way appears to be completely cloned out around the Eagle and Shield constellations, which can never happen in real life. In the upper right-hand corner we can also discern either the Large Magellanic Cloud or the Small Magellanic Cloud completely out of place. This underlines a heavy cloning manipulation in the picture.
The collection seems to have more manipulated pictures. While the problem should not firstly be about these artistic pictures themselves, or the photographer who produced them. It should be about how they ended up published by a reputable organization that promotes science and true-to-life ethics. As stated in their own guideline, these pictures would never have made it through the publishing process – if they had been correctly spotted. However this raises other questions like: Why did photographer Moon have to manipulate the pictures, and cover it up in the first place? A hint could be hidden within the lines of the article:
‘Lots of places have either old trees or dark skies, but not both. When the two do intersect, the location is often challenging to reach’, Moon mentions.
We’d like to hear your thoughts about the pictures and the article! You can leave a comment in the section below.