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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Reality in the age of Digital Imaging

Copyright 2009-2012, ~A4size-ska

Last Sunday, an annular solar eclipse was visible across much of the US and elsewhere. I was out photographing it, like many others. A few hours after the eclipse, an image (above) started making the rounds of the internet, starting with posts on Facebook and then quickly going truly viral. It was posted as "An image of today's eclipse taken from space!" It's a marvelous image, gorgeous in every way. Just one problem...it's *not* a photo of Sunday's eclipse from space.

The image is a piece of digital art -- a combination of actual photographs from the European Space agency, some 3D modeling and rendering, and some post-processing work. It was created in 2009 by a very talented digital artist who goes by the handle ~A4size_ska (here's his web page on Deviant Art). Apparently somebody found the image on the web, and either ignorantly reposted it thinking it was a photo of the eclipse, or intentionally misrepresented it knowing that it wasn't. There are two versions being passed around the internet -- the original as above, and another where someone has edited out the Milky Way background of stars, clearly an intentional act that implies the person doing it knew the shot wasn't real, and was trying to pass it off as real anyway.

My first reaction on seeing the image was, "Wow, what a great shot!" But it only took a few seconds for me to realize that I was probably being had. First, the May 20th eclipse was an annular eclipse -- one where the apparent size of the moon is not large enough to cover the entire sun, so there should be a substantial "ring" of bright sun around the blacked-out moon, which there isn't in this image (all it shows is a bit of coronal glow). Second, the dynamic range of the image was far too great to have been an actual single photograph -- there's no way to fit the brightness levels of the sun's corona, the much dimmer shadow of the eclipse on the earth's surface, and the *much* dimmer stars all in one photo. And third, the odds of the International Space Station being in exactly the right spot to be perfectly in the eclipse's shadow are (pun intended) astronomical...not to mention that had they been in just the right spot, the moon's shadow would have been on the ISS, not the earth's surface. So it didn't take much critical analysis to realize the image was a fake, despite it being beautiful.

So I did a google search for the image, and it took me all of about 30 seconds to find ~A4size-ska's web page, where he clearly identifies it as a piece of created digital art, and not an actual photograph. I took the time to post on Facebook in comments that the image wasn't a photograph of the eclipse, and directing people to the original web page for the image. The reaction surprised me; some people wouldn't believe the image wasn't real, others actually appeared to get angry at me for "ruining" a beautiful image for them by pointing out it wasn't real! The image was popular, and beautiful, and people *wanted* it to be real -- they didn't appreciate me pointing out it wasn't.

Some other web sites had noticed the image's popularity (and non-reality), and had also started posting information about the actual image. Discovery Magazine's Blog was one of the first. Not long after, it showed up on Snopes as well. A few people began posting on ~A4size-ska's web page, letting him know the image was being misrepresented (and edited!). Still, the snowball continued to roll downhill, and even now, nearly a week later, it's still being passed around and commented on as a real photo of the May 20th eclipse.

My point in all of this? Reality in the age of digital imaging isn't always easy to spot. Even a mediocre Photoshop user can produce images with no relation to reality whatsoever, but that will fool lots of people. A really talented artist like ~A4size-ska can produce images that fool millions of people.

I have no problem at all with either fully digital art or Photoshop-modified photographs. Having wonderful digital tools to use on our images (or to create entirely synthetic ones) opens up vast worlds of artistic possibilities that no generation has had before. And I use Photoshop all the time to edit my images, even to the point of removing/replacing entire people in group shots. My point is that *if* we care whether or not an image that's being represented as real actually is real, we should take pains to critically examine it, to track down its source, and to make sure we're not being duped. Because fooling people digitally is oh-so easy today.

Let me make the point again that the artist who created this image did *not* misrespresent it as an actual photo. He produced a piece of beautiful art and posted it on his web site, clearly identifying it as what it was. It was other people, either ignorantly or intentionally, that did the misrepresentation. I love this image, it's gorgeous. But it's not what it people were claiming it was.

Incidentally, there were lots of *actual* photos of the May 20th eclipse. Here's one that actually was taken from the International Space Station, by astronaut Don Pettit:



And there were plenty of ground-based images as well, such as this series of 4 shots (all real!) that I took from my back yard:

So enjoy the gorgeous digital art created by some very talented people like ~A4size-ska. But when somebody starts claiming images like that are real, be prepared to take a look at them critically, and if they're not, call them on it.

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