How to spot the fakes, the overly-edited and the just not quite real photos on Instagram and beyond

I’ve heard it said that as many as 6 out of every 10 people really can’t tell the difference between if a photo is real or fake. As someone who has done a lot of photo manipulating in my day, I thought perhaps I’d take the opportunity to show some examples of fake, overly edited and unrealistic photos as a means to know what to look for.

If you know any of the people in this photos, please do not send them hate messages. The point of this post is not to bully, it’s just to share more insight on just how Instagram and reality aren’t always the same.

Some examples:

THE TAJ MAHAL

When I first saw this photo, the Instagrammer was claiming that she merely used a filter to give it a pink-tint, because she liked the look. The problem is, there’s a whole lot more that’s been done to this photo than just adding a filter.

Firstly, as one of the most visited, photographed and loved landmarks on earth, the Taj Mahal is crowded. All the time. Every day. Even on a slow day it’s 100% unlikely that she ever would have been able to take this photo with only her in this shot.

Secondly, the reflection of the Taj Mahal in the pool has been disproportionately scaled to fit in the pool. While it is possible to see a reflection of the structure in the pool, the width of the building and the angle of this shot make it virtually impossible for the entire Taj Mahal to be seen in the narrow pool.

Thirdly, note how the shadow of her standing in front of the pool is on the stone she’s standing on, but stops dead at the pool. Her reflection does not continue in the water… which is not really how reflection works, either.

This is a small thing, not noticed by simply looking at this photo alone, but this girl has actually photoshopped those birds, the exact cluster of birds, into several other photos from different locales around the world – the south of France, Venice, etc.. Moral of the story – there is more fake in this photo than real.

LAKE LOUISE, ALBERTA, CANADA

This photo, or photos, is at the Fairmont Lake Louise. This is a place I’ve been to many times in my life and can attest to its beauty, so when I see this photo, not only do I see a cringey photoshop job, but I also take a little bit of offense. Lake Louise is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, naturally. It doesn’t need to be edited.

Putting my personal feelings aside, do you notice how she seems to have a sort of ‘ethereal’ halo around her? When people are newbies at photoshop, that’s a trick they tend to use to try and help photos blend into the background. In her case, I think she likely thought because there was so much white in the background it wouldn’t look as obvious. You can also see the halo-like lighting at the top of the chair and all the way around the edge of the window frame.

Another thing to note is that she appears to be wearing a colour changing toque. This is a small thing but the back of her toque is pink and the front of her toque is grey. This happens a lot when you import a part of an image from elsewhere into a new image. In this case, I think she imported her body in front of this window.

While I think she likely ate at this restaurant when she was there, she likely wasn’t seated by a window. This restaurant books up months in advance, and since she couldn’t get a picture in front of a window, she photoshopped herself in front of the window, added some filters and then overly-saturated the two images to try and make them blend together easily.

IT’S PARIS… OR IS IT?

Have you ever seen stars in the middle of the city? No. There’s a reason for that, it’s called light pollution. When the light from a city brightens the sky, it drowns out the visibility of the stars.

This is Paris, the city love, the city of lights, with millions of lights everywhere… hundreds, if not thousands seen in this photo alone. The Eiffel tower itself is lit in this photo. There’s also lights lit all around the tower. And yet light pollution just didn’t happen on this day? A sky full of stars just magically appeared in a not very dark sky?

To me it looks like there’s been some stitching down around hear head, and also on her left leg. Those are more subtle.

Was she actually in Paris? Maybe. Maybe not. I’ve never been to the Eiffel Tower, so I cannot vouch as to whether or not this concrete she’s sitting on is in fact there. I will say though, this concrete she’s sitting on could really be anywhere. It could be in her back yard. The fact that she’s looking away means there really isn’t a lot involved with changing this photo to be San Francisco, or Hong Kong… or anywhere, if you catch my drift. If she wasn’t in Paris, all she really needed to do was drop Paris in the background. In her case, she also heavily edited the sky to fill it with stars so that her life looks even that much more magical.

It’s an illusion. It’s all an illusion.

THE ‘CLOUD CHASER’

Take a close look at the clouds in the background of these photos. This Instagram user has photoshopped the sky in every photo she’s taken, around the world, to put in clouds that she actually liked, because the actual clouds in the sky just weren’t good enough for her. That same cluster of clouds followed her around the world.

If someone is willing to go through the process to edit the clouds in the sky, what does that say about the authenticity of their Instagram?

HOW MANY HANDS DOES SHE HAVE?

Honestly, the Kardashians are easy to use for showcasing photo editing fails because there aren’t really any photos they post without editing.

Editing of this photo was clearly done in FaceTune. If you don’t notice the flaw immediately, that’s okay. It’s subtle on first glance. But look at the hand on the right side of Khloe Kardashian, she seems to have tried to pull in her thigh to make it look thinner, and in the process, created a second hand… or at least 1.5 hands. The thing about FaceTune that people often forget is that when the APP disrupts the data to make someone thinner, it’s going to try and fix that data by re-writing the background of the photo. In this case, her hand ended up getting duplicated.

WHEN YOUR THIGH IS THINNER THAN YOUR KNEE

Either her left leg (the underneath leg) is considerably longer and thinner than her right leg (disproportionately so) or, this is a bad photoshop job. Now, this is Kourtney Kardashian, who in my opinion needs no photoshopping to start with. This photo is just all sorts of weird. It seems to give the illusion that her left thigh gets thinner as yo move farther up from her knee. For a woman who’s already very thin to start with, it’s sad that she feels she needs to be this heavily edited in order to be posted for public consumption.

Things to look for:

If you’re browsing Instagram and something seems to good to be true, it probably is. I want to disclaim that, to the people who feel a need to edit their photos there is no hate here. I just want to make people more aware of just how easy it is to fake reality. If we all know the truth behind what a photo really is, we might stop trying so hard to make our lives a series of these picture perfect images. If you’re curious about how to tell for editing, here’s couple of suggestions to look for:

  • Everything in the photo is in focus. Camera’s aren’t capable of capturing both the subject in the foreground and the objects in the background to all be in focus in one photo.
  • Copied patterns. This doesn’t just happen with the sky, this happens with human body parts. Fitness influencers are big for this – not only do they photoshop their muscles, but they’ll photoshop the muscles of anyone in the photo with them. If you’ve ever seen a group of men flexing their biceps that all seem to look shockingly similar, it’s probably because they are.
  • Blurriness or lack of texture is a telltale sign that someone’s face has been smoothed over with a FaceTune filter. Human beings have pores, texture and colouring in their skin. If you’re not seeing it in photos, that’s not because they were blessed by the genetic lottery, that’s because they edited it out.
  • Damaged/Distorted Pixels. If you’re looking at a photo and there appears to be damaged pixels within the image, this is a telltale sign of poor editing. There’s something in photoshop called the ‘Clone Stamp’ and what that does is allow you to draw over portions of an image with the pixels from elsewhere in the image. The process of clone stamping works great if you’re not looking closely at an image, but, if you’re taking a second look, the clone stamp ALWAYS damages pixels in the photograph. Once those pixels are damaged, you can’t get them back.
  • When the reflection doesn’t match the body. While people will make their waist thinner, legs longer, boobs bigger and so on and so forth, the majority of people seem to forget about their reflection. If there’s anything reflective in the photo at all – mirrors, windows, any body of water, shadows from the sun, check the reflection. Often times the reflection will be a display of their original image that they were trying to edit out.
  • A distorted background. Probably the most easy of all to spot, crooked doors, lamp posts with holes in them, clean lines of walls and paintings being off are all telltale signs the photo you’re looking at isn’t legitimate. When people try to make themselves look thinner in photos, these apps they use ‘pull in’ their body. When their body is pulled in, so is the background behind them – which makes for a whole lot of cars with protruding lesions and benches that seem to defy the laws of physics.

To anyone who doesn’t already know (I’m assuming everyone does, but just in case) any and all photos you’re viewing on Instagram from your phone can be zoomed in by pinching the screen of your phone. If you’re not on your phone, or you’re elsewhere on the web and something looks off, it probably is. You can zoom in on any photo on the internet by changing the view of your Internet Browser.

To close this off, I’d just like to say that… life is a very beautiful and fragile thing and that who you are is perfect, just the way you are. If you do edit yourself in photos for your Instagram, that’s your choice, but please, at the very least, keep the real versions for yourself. There’s nothing worse than looking back at photos of your life and realizing that they’re so heavily edited you don’t even recognize yourself. It almost… distorts your memories, if that makes any sense.

There’s no hate. I just want to remind people that Instagram and reality aren’t one and the same.

Photo Editing 101

I would like to preface this post by saying that some people prefer to leave their photos unedited. The #Unfiltered look is big on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and even WordPress, so if you don’t have any desire to edit photos, please don’t. Please ignore this post. It’s not a requirement. It’s not even an ’ement’. This is just something that I’ve done over the years, that I know a lot of people who use social media do and I wanted to share some shortcuts with you. That is all.

Okay, so I’ve heard it said many a times that a picture is worth a thousand words. To that notion I say that if my photo’s going to be worth a thousand words, I better make sure they’re important words being portrayed through my images.

For nearly a decade, there wasn’t a photo that I posted, sent or printed without edits. Many edits were small… editing out a logo here, blurring a child’s face there… just small things to ensure we were in compliance with FOIP (the Freedom of Information Protection Act) in Canada. Some edits were major… reconstructing the facial shape of someone as a means to ‘filter’ distinguishing marks, fudging the dollar amount written on giant cheques (though I regret to admit to that) and changing out the people who were holding the cheque, or even completely photoshopping someone out of one location and into another. Over time I became a master at turning a photo into pretty much anything that I wanted it to be. And that says a lot because I am very picky when it comes to photos.

Luckily, from a blogging perspective, the editing (if one chooses to do so) need not be nearly as complicated as what’s practiced in the corporate world.

Before I get to the edition notes, I will say that things are a lot easier if you take good photos to start with. Take advantage of natural lighting where possible (the sun). Make sure the lens is in focus before you take the photo. If there are people in the photo that differ vastly in heights, do something to balance that height difference. These are all small steps you can take to vastly improve the quality of photos you’re taking from the get-go.

Okay, onto photo editing:

*Note – This information is from the perspective of photos being taken on a phone, since smartphones are everywhere and you use your phones to upload to social media platforms.

The number one thing that I would recommend a blogger do to edit photos is download Adobe Lightroom to your phone. There is both a free and a premium version of this app. Please do not purchase the premium version, you will not need it. Everything you need to make a photograph beautiful, you can find in the free version. Free Adobe Lightrom will allow you to:

  • Crop Images
  • Auto adjust the lighting to your photos
  • Manually adjust the lighting to your photos
  • Edit the colour balance of your photos
  • Sharpen, blur, correct, create frames or vignettes for any effects that you might like
  • Attempt to correct the focus as much as possible (if it’s an extremely blurry photo, it’ll likely just make it less blurry…)
  • Allow you to select between ‘presets’ created with specific intention to do all of the above steps in one

Examples of before and After using Adobe Lightroom:

The number two thing that I will recommend with respect to photo editing is to stay away from Facetune. Facetune is a demon that is changing the way that we see ourselves and other people. It contributes to low-self esteem because people are creating unrealistic standards of beauty and attractiveness based on what they can make themselves look like with a few minutes spent editing in Facetune. There’s a big difference between editing out a zit and changing one’s waist from being 30 inches to being 13 inches.

Now, all that being said, photo editing is all about you and what you find to be the magic factor in photos. If you like black and white images, Lightroom gives you the option to convert all of your images to black and white. If you like bright and light photos, Lightroom gives you plenty of functions that help with turning a photo that was taken in a dull/dark room into something that really pops off the page.

I am someone who likes bright photos. I want the colours to carry, the details to shine and even the dullest of days to look like a postcard. I’m providing some examples of my photos below and as you will see, even on a dull day (first, middle and last photo) it’s still possible to make the photo look like a postcard.

These are some of my photos from various locations and times over the past year. I’m not sure if you can tell just from looking at them, but they’ve all been edited to very much carry the same tone to them. I wanted the whites to be clean, the greens to pop, the skies to be the bluest that could be while accurately depicting what a camera on my phone couldn’t catch on the day the photo was taken.

I used what is called ‘Adobe Lightroom Presets’.

I know what you’re thinking and I hear you. ‘Presets, Vee? That sounds so extra. Who would bother?’

These presets are used by people far and wide on social media. If you’ve ever looked at someone’s Instagram page and seen similar tones to all of their images, it’s a safe bet they’re using a preset for their photos.

The ‘Preset’ is exactly what it sounds like – it’s a preset collection of edits for LightRoom to apply to the photograph in one step. It’s a matter of hitting one button in LightRoom and your photo is brighter, more vivid and depicting the image you want to convey in a matter of seconds.

Extra. I know.

But, if you’re particular with photos, it is a big time saver, helps with branding, makes your photos aesthetically themed and ensures you always have a beautiful photo, even on the dullest of days.

The presets that I use I developed several years back to cover my basis when I needed to turnaround press-releases in a hurry and always seemed to get sent shitty looking photos. They’re a ‘formula’ that I keep a tight secret around and will stay in the vault to one day be passed down to my children and grandchildren. (joking)

If you would like to delve into the option of presets, you can do one of two things:

  1. You can make your own. I highly recommend this option because it allows you to draw out the aspects of photos that you most appreciate.
  2. You can purchase some.

I highly recommend, if you download Lightroom yourself, that you try option one before option two. I say this because creating your own presets will allow you to create edits that you find most important in photographs.

It’ll also give you an appreciation for the photo editing process. It’ll also make you appreciate the photos you’re taking that much more and it’ll cause you to stop and think about your photos as you’re taking them. You’ll find yourself stopping to think ‘can I get better lighting if I make my subject face the window instead of against’, and various other thoughts of what’s going to make your photos better. Then, when you’re taking better photos, there’ll be less editing to do.

After all, if a picture is worth a thousand words, you might as well make those words important.

If you tried your hand at creating presets and you didn’t like it, or if you’d just like some help and believe you’d like to purchase some Lightroom presets, the place to do is on Etsy. Using your phone type ‘Mobile Lightroom Presets’ in to the search bar and you will be innundated with different presets made by different designers.

I’ve seen them range anywhere from $3.00 USD to $350 USD. And let me be abundantly clear, you do not need a $350 package of Lightroom presets. There’s a lot to choose from, so it’s a matter of you taking a look at what you find most aesthetically pleasing and what’s the price you’re ultimately willing to pay.

With 17,034 listings to go through, though, I thought I’d provide a couple of suggestions if you decide to purchase presets:

  • A good Lightroom preset package will have 3-4 Presets. Don’t buy a package that has 99 presets (and they are available on Etsy) because you don’t need 99 presets
  • Realistically, if you wanted to use a preset, your criteria should be to have one preset for outside photos, one for inside, one for without people and one for with people
  • Don’t get sucked in by the ‘gimmicky’ presets like the one titled ‘Peach’ in the screenshot above. Might it look nice if your presets always make you look like you have tanned skin? Sure. But, it’s winter and unless you live in California or Florida, people are likely going to see through the artificial tan your adding to your photos. Try to select a set of presets that will be applicable to all of your photos year round, whether you’ve got a tan or you’re in the deep of winter

To finish off this exceptionally long description of how to edit photos, I would like to add a reminder to please leave face structure and body shapes alone in your editing process. You, your friends, your family and any subjects your taking photos of are perfectly beautiful just the way they are.

Yes, we all have insecurities, but that doesn’t mean that you need to edit the length of your fingers to make it look as though you have larger hands. (If you understand this reference, we’re soulmates) Insecurities will NEVER be fixed by making it look as though they don’t exist in photos. That and there’s a big difference between bringing out the beauty of someone and completely changing their entire being. People are beautiful just the way they are.

If you like editing, if you want to get into editing or even if you don’t like editing, thanks for reading and for making it this far. Go forth and do good, grasshopper. I have the utmost faith in you.