Content Aware, Truth Oblivious

This weekend, a friend (and casual user of the Adobe Creative Suite) and I chatted about all the new features of CS5. Like many, we’re most dazzled by the content aware fill tool on Photoshop. Watch this short YouTube clip from an Adobe blogger to see how it works. I think any designer who’s watched it first cringes, thinking about how much time we’ve spent correcting things like that in the past, but then smiles like a child on Christmas morning when we see how it will revolutionize and speed up our photo editing future.

For me, however, this content aware fill feature, as you saw–a speedy way to manipulate photos–brought me back to my days of reading Marshall McLuhan in college. The book (and I’m sorry I don’t remember the title…sold it back for cash at the end of the semester) questioned truth in photography. It brought up the famous example of National Geographic moving two of the pyramids closer together to fit their cover space. And there are countless other examples of such manipulation. Today, we are perhaps most familiar with photo editing for magazine covers. This site shows some great examples (and more here). The big question from these examples and the book was if this editing is okay? And if eventually, there will have to be some sort of indication, like a stamp or mark, on a digitally manipulated photo to let the public know that it’s been changed? With the advent of this very smart content aware fill, I feel that question may arise again and we must ask ourselves as designers, how much is too much? What’s an acceptable amount to photoshop and what is not? Can we color correct/enhance? Can we take out some wrinkles and whiten teeth? No one seems to mind changes like that. However, people get up in arms when pyramids are shifted a bit to fit a cover. Hmm, what a thin line we designers magnetically select.

To wax ethically a bit longer, I googled ‘truth in photography’ just to see what I’d get. One of the first results was this great link from PBS. It’s called Digital Truth, but quickly questions if there ever was truth in photography and argues that photos have always been manipulated, whether it’s tiny shifts in the darkroom or removing trees in Photoshop. The writer sums up this quandary succinctly: “The problem is that with digital manipulation of photographic images so simple [especially now with a content aware fill too], a slippery slope is created where minor cleaning up of an image can easily lead to major changes. It is not easy to identify a point where truth is lost and the picture enters the realm of fiction.” In short, “seeing is not necessarily believing.” I think perhaps the answer is that we, as designers, must stay true to our conscience–avoiding photo manipulation that crosses into our personal sense of wrong–and simultaneously gauge the voice of the public. As in the past, they’ll again let us know when a line has been crossed.

(Header image is a screen shot from

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