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

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
5 min read
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 "pictures that lie" 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 Olympus 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."

With photo-editing packages widely available, Southwick said he has seen a change over the years in people's attitude toward the integrity of photos. During lectures or speaking engagements, Southwick asks his audience how many people have heard of Photoshop. Ten or 12 people used to raise their hands, but now everybody does. Still, as big as Photoshop's impact, Southwick said, in-camera photo-editing features will have an even greater effect on the way people relate to photography.

If pictures are indeed captured memories, as camera marketers would have consumers believe, these new features enable people to create a rosier vision of their personal history.

Spina pointed out that the creation of these tools and the fact that there is a market for them, speaks to the societal pressure to achieve physical perfection, as well as some people's deceptiveness when creating online personas.

"It almost does contribute to people changing their identities, for whatever reasons they are motivated to do that," Spina said. "Particularly, I can see it being used on a dating service. Now you can say the picture is current and still lie. But what I want to know is: What's going to finally happen when you meet that person? Even if you are not using it for that, its only interest is to make you look better. But why would you take a picture of yourself and give it to people who know you if it doesn't really look like you?"

But does it really matter? Photos have been "lying" for years in one respect or another. For example, photography from the 1940s, because it was black and white, gave a clean orderly appearance, with people in photos from that era appearing consistently crisp, with bright white teeth and seemingly matching outfits.

Spina said that he finds most technology of this nature as nothing more than entertainment. But he does see the trend leading to a larger philosophical question.

"Does social change drive technology change, or do changes in technology change social behavior?" he asked. "No one has won that debate...It just depends on where you fall on that continuum. My own personal bias is that technology advancements lead to social change."