Photo Fakeout: How to Tell If a Picture Has Been Photoshopped

Image manipulation is everywhere, and it’s not just being used to make your coworkers’ vacation pictures appear more enticing.

From plastic surgeons using doctored photos of their results to vacation resorts cleaning up their beaches without filling a single garbage bag, brands big and small use Photoshop to sell a fantasy—hoping that it will entice more buyers.

While some companies have begun taking the initiative to speak out against the use of photo manipulation when advertising their products — including Aerie and Dove — plenty leave you guessing as to the authenticity of their images.

Even though we might ​know that these images don’t reflect reality, it’s still difficult to reject the desire to aspire to these biologically impossible ideals

Manipulated images are so prevalent that exposing photo fakery has become an entertainment genre of its own on the blog Photoshop Disasters, which catalogs some of the most obvious examples taken from magazines, newspapers, advertisements, and other media.

Why Heavy-Handed Photo Manipulation Is a Problem

“Seeing is believing” might be a classic idiom, but the expression has found a more contemporary implication in an area of digital photo editing. And consumers aren’t the only ones concerned.

The British government spent almost half a decade grappling with whether or not to force advertisers to divulge Photoshop-perfecting of fashion and cosmetics models. The issue isn’t only falsely advertising a product’s efficacy, but the concern that “many consumers do not consciously realize that scores of models in magazines today are ‘neither real nor attainable.’”

The British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) wasn’t all talk, either. In 2013, they took action to ban a print advertisement promoting a Nivea anti-aging cream on the basis that heavily manipulated images were misleading and exaggerated the effect of using the product. 

Action to protect U.S. consumers has been slower going, although the National Advertising Division (NAD) did force CoverGirl to pull an advertisement in 2011.

The ad in question was for CoverGirl NatureLuxe Mousse Mascara, which promised: “2X more volume” on women's lashes. After reviewing the ad, the NAD ruling said:

“… NAD was particularly troubled by the photograph of the model – which serves clearly to demonstrate (i.e., let consumers see for themselves) the length and volume they can achieve when they apply the advertised mascara to their eyelashes. This picture is accompanied by a disclosure that the model’s eyelashes had been enhanced post production.”

The problem faced by consumers is that the NAD can’t possibly catch every advertisement that’s been heavily manipulated before many have had a chance to make a purchase. Meaning that, until there’s a de facto ban on Photoshopping cosmetics advertisements, consumers are still forced to “see for themselves.”

So, how can you know what images are authentic, and which have been doctored beyond recognition?

How to Spot a Manipulated Image

When it comes to detecting an altered photo, your eyes are really your best asset. Without practice, they'll trick you. But you can train yourself to start noticing the little imperfections and oddities that'll point right to a manipulated photograph. 

While not foolproof, here are a few tells that a keen eye can use to spot manipulated images:

1. About Face

Image manipulation is the darling of cosmetics and anti-aging brands, as they promise you smooth skin, longer lashes, or a cure for wrinkles and crow’s feet. In fact, it’s not unusual for a retoucher to spend days focusing only on getting the skin believably perfect on a single close-up image for a beauty campaign.

Christy Turlington's Maybelline AdImage via

What to look for: Experts warn not to depend on spotting pores, since a great retoucher can bring them forward so that skin’s texture appears consistent. Instead, look for a complexion that’s completely porcelain and blemish-free.

2. Warped Waists

There’s no denying that our culture values thin. Smaller sized bodies are used to sell everything from the obvious, such as weight loss products, to simply bolstering a brand’s image.

Ironically, this photo is from the May 2014 edition of Oprah magazine, which boasted a cover story all about accepting and appreciating your body the way it is.

May 2014 edition of Oprah magazineImage via

What to look for: Certain visual characteristics are difficult to successfully duplicate and can be red flags that a photo has been tampered with. One such indicator is bent or liquid looking surfaces that should otherwise appear solid.

Straight edges, corners, wood grain, and tiles are all difficult to keep in the right perspective when working with Photoshop. Especially if the subject of a photograph has been changed, objects in the background might not appear as straight as they should be.

Another tell? When you're not dealing with human faces, edges and poor blending are still your best friend in detecting fakes — particularly when spotting trickery that’s been used to make a model appear little in the middle.

Victoria's Secret adImage via

Check out the area where the above model’s ribs should meet her hips—do they match?

3. Shifting Light

It’s expected that images of models will have been altered, but ordinary pictures of furniture aren’t exempt from the advertising industry’s unrealistic beauty standards.

The image below is highlighting a product so badly that it fails to take into account the background, which shows it’s sundown. Realistically, the light should be significantly softer. However, photo editing makes the product pop out so badly that you can actually tell it is two images mashed into one.

Beach7 AirLounge XLImage via

What to look for: Examine the way light interacts with the objects in the photo. Shadows and highlights will appear to violate the laws of physics, especially when a subject has been removed or added to a photo. An object that doesn’t cast a shadow is one common mistake, as well as subjects with highlights coming from a different direction than the light in the rest of the photo.

4. Use Technology

Image Error Level Analysis is a tool that creates a heat map-like image out of a JPEG that shows you the highest points of compression. Excessively Photoshopped images may contain JPEG parts that have been saved over and over again. This little tool will, in theory, detect those parts and highlight them for you.

Image of jewelery that had been manipulatedImage via

The image above was that of jewelery that had been manipulated to make the stones appear shinier and more sparkly. With the ELA analysis, you can see some parts are obviously brighter than others.

5. Reverse Image Search

While not the most airtight method in discovering if a photo is doctored, a reverse image search can be useful. This is particularly helpful when attempting to spot obvious manipulations of an image’s color saturation like you might see if a vacation resort has tweaked their beach to appear unnaturally blue.

Google's Reverse Image SearchImage via

To do a reverse image search, just drag and drop a photo onto the Google image search bar to bring up all sources of an image. In the case of a photo that’s been manipulated, this can bring up the original image, or images that resemble the doctored photos, giving away manipulation.

See Also: The Photoshop-Effect: How Hotels, Resorts & Cruises Trick Travelers

False Beauty in Advertising Isn’t New, But It’s Escalating

Whether smoothing skin and erasing wrinkles or enlarging muscles and slimming waists, manipulating images of men and women to so-called perfection has become the norm in advertising.

Even though we might know that these images don't reflect reality, it’s still difficult to reject the desire to aspire to these biologically impossible ideals — especially when taking action is as simple as paying for a product.

Bottom Line? Don’t Depend on a Ban to Regulate Image Manipulation

British and U.S. regulatory actions banning advertisements sent a message to the beauty industry, but transparency in advertising is just one part of larger need to change a cultural ideal of perfection.

Likewise, being able to spot a manipulated image is only half the battle — we’re each responsible for how these images influence our purchasing decisions. 

So, the next time you use the above tips to spot a the touch of Photoshop, but still consider making the purchase, just remember: If a product did its job in the first place, it wouldn’t need manipulation in post-production.

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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