Lyin’ Photos & Believing What You Think You See

Lyin’ Photos & Believing What You Think You See

We exist in a tsunami of photos—from Facebook to Pinterest to Instagram to our own collections on phones and online.

Some photos, although legit, seem to lie. They do not represent a typical human point of view. How can that be? They may:

  • Distort
  • Eliminate or exaggerate important visual cues. Or
  • Capture a moment that the human eye cannot perceive.

Sports photos illustrate this.

If we were to paint a portrait of these pitchers using these photo as a reference, it would be confusing due to their contorted body positions. They do not make sense except when depicting a baseball pitcher. And then, we accept it.


Winona State baseball pitcher.
By Eric Enfermero (Own work). {CC BY-SA 3.0]


Popular Mechanics. The physics of a 105 mph fastball.
Gregory Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images

Here’s another example.

This pelican has swooped onto the beach to claim a fish. One of the wings looks weirdly like a stick without any feathers. We accept this in a photo because we are conditioned to understanding that photos present images that differ from how we see. If this were a painting, it would be confusing.


Birds on a beach in Florida. Photo by Jane M. Mason.

There was a famous experiment on proving what is actually happening as opposed to what we think we are seeing. To win a bet, Eadweard Muybridge was able to prove that when horses are galloping, there is a moment on each stride when all four feet are in the air for a fraction of a moment. This bet and subsequent experiment was an important step in the development of film and continuous motion photography.


Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Photo by Jane M. Mason

Or this photo, that is dramatic, but hard to decipher unless you recognize the scene. It looks up into a stairway at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

It illustrates how an unusual point of view disguises normal cues to interpret an image. The unique curved stairway, from a ground-level point of view, has be abstracted to a geometric level.

How do we accept images in photography that we reject in paintings or “real life”?

Each medium, (photography, video, film, sketching, painting, viewing a printed photo or painting in a book, and seeing first-hand through our own eyes), presents a different culmination of attributes defining the depiction of the scene.


What is this? Although it almost looks like a hide of some sort. It is a concrete sidewalk with bright dappled summer light. The swirls were pushed into the concrete to minimize slipping. This scene is extraordinarily common. A photograph magnifies the texture and and contrast, and separates it from its context. This allows us to think about these attributes in a new light. Photo by jane M. Mason, Cleveland Botanical Garden, Cleveland, OH.

Each medium has biases of color and depth of field. Or biases of strengths such as the a moment captured in a frame –as in a photo—or viewed as a continuous image—as in a film or video. Or being there in person presents the ability to move our point of view to gather more information. There are colors that we see that cannot be recreated through a TV set or monitor. The printing process for a book cannot create the complete range of colors from an original painting. Photography cannot capture certain hues or the ranges of shadow or darkness.


If we truly look at this photo, we could conclude that this adorable puppy has an enormous head. We are familiar though with this point of view, and we know that the distortion created here is due to the face being close to the camera. This distortion can create adorable whimsical effects. On the other hand, it is challenging to create a painting with this much foreshortening because, unless it is supposed to look a bit silly, it can look weird. Photo, Todd Kleismit, Cleveland OH, 2017.

And, each creator of an image has her own bias or visual preferences that flavor the final image.


This is a tabletop at a cafe in Chicago. The brilliance of the reflected light was captivating. This would be fun to paint. Although the redness of the reflection might be considered an exaggeration. Photo, Jane M. Mason, 2014.

Engage Your Critical Observation Skills

Critical observation allows us to intently observe and mentally process the subject of our focus. Yet our ability to register the details and to accurately remember them is imperfect.

We should accept with a grain of salt what is presented to us. Even a legitimate, unedited image or video, is the creation of the artist who composed it.

Why is this important and how do we use this information?

  1. As an artist, I’m careful about taking several photos of my subject from a variety of points of view. I’m not left with a strangely structured scene without enough information to resolve, for example, how the pelican’s wing looks. this may be advice for all of us. Don’t let one photo be the entire story.

  2. As consumers of media, (as we all are), we need to be critical about the images viewed or clicked on. Even unadulterated images can present a skewed depiction on reality.

  3. As a consumer of culture, remember that each medium presents its own biases. It is valuable to study art in books, videos, and online. Yet it is also more important to see the original art, as the artist created it, in a museum, historic house or collection in a gallery or home. Or better yet, invest in original art, and hang it in a space you can see it and enjoy it.

  4. An educated citizen of the 21st C, consider that there are many harmless and unintentional biases that underlie every piece of content we consume. In addition to intention bias in propaganda. We need to be mindful, attentive, open-minded consumers.

And remember that photos DO lie.


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