Digital cameras focus on revised reality

Consumers are embracing camera features that make them look thinner and more youthful. But what about society's trust in photography? Photos: Camera makeovers

Want to look thinner? Taller? Tanner? Don't worry, there's a camera for all that.

Today's cameras will let you do more than adjust the flash; they'll let you adjust reality. Photo-adjusting features that once required a PC and special know-how are now allowing consumers to alter a photo as soon as it's snapped.

Some new Hewlett-Packard cameras include a feature that makes subjects look thinner, while another mode makes facial lines and pores virtually disappear. A "skin tone" feature on some Olympus models can give consumers a leisure-class tan. Other manufacturers offer modes to make the colors of the world richer as you capture them. Using these new in-camera tools, consumers can even crop out ex-boyfriends, or put a virtual frame around a new one.

Most digital cameras to date have had tools that remove red-eye from photos or lighten darkened images because of a poor flash. But that editing corrects a deficiency in the photographer's skills, or the camera itself, not the subject.

With new tools, average people can create their own "" at the moment of capture, without any trace of the real image that was seen with the naked eye.

"People in the legal world are now concerned about whether photos can be accepted as evidence anymore, especially when you can alter the scene as you click the shutter," said Peter Southwick, associate professor and director of the photojournalism program at Boston University. "And in the old days, there was an original, now there is no original. Photography as a tool for providing evidence, or as proof, may not exist anymore."

The late media and culture critic Neil Postman had famous criteria for all technology, noted Anthony Spina, an adjunct professor of sociology at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey who specializes in technology's impact on society.

"(Postman) would ask: 'What problem does this new technology answer?' What problem is this solving? What's the point? The problem is, obviously, that people want to look thinner," Spina said.

Photos before and after

Spina is referring to HP's recently released in-camera editing feature that makes a person appear more svelte. The tool, called "Slimming Mode," is part of HP's Design Gallery software, which is included on some of its Photosmart M and R series cameras. It compresses the center of a photo and stretches the edges to fix the aspect ratio, said Linda Kennedy, a product manager for digital photography at HP.

The slimming tool doesn't target people specifically; it will elongate any object centered in the photo, with three degrees of slimness. Like most digital cameras with editing tools, the changed photo is saved as a copy, and the original image remains on the camera intact.

Kennedy, one of the proponents of the feature while it was in development, said the idea came from the many people HP surveyed who said they hated having their picture taken. Kennedy also pointed to another use.

"We had a personal trainer wanting to use the camera as a motivational tactic for her clients," she said. "Putting a good photo of the person on their refrigerator so they can say, 'I do want to look like this,' as opposed to the fat picture in a bathing suit," can be inspiring.

HP isn't the only manufacturer to offer this type of alteration feature. With the digital camera market maturing, manufacturers are using new features to entice customers to upgrade their current digicams. Canon, Kodak, HP, Nikon and all offer features that increase saturation, bumping up the richness of color "seen" by the camera. The photographer clicks and a sunset forever becomes more brilliant than it appeared in real life. Homegrown vegetables become more luscious.

"The consumer products and all these changes in photography, to me, are going to cause an undermining of people's ability to believe a photograph, which is the foundation of photojournalism," Southwick said. "Now that it is at the consumer level and people are going to see this, I am not sure on a fundamental level that they are ever going to believe a photo when they see it."

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