Becoming a fauxtographer is easier than ever

Fauxtography. Not real, but real enough for some. Anyone for a nice slice of cake?

OK, I admit it. Sometimes I fake it in my photography. The advent of digital may have made fauxtography so much easier and widespread, but bending reality is as old as the art itself. From as far back as the Cottingley fairies to the original printers dodging and burning in the sky on their lovely hand prints, photography has always proven that the camera really can lie.

When we choose a wideangle lens to exaggerate a foreground or telephoto to compress perspective, we are bending reality for our own creative purposes. To make a face look thinner we may choose to use flattering Rembrandt-style lighting. If an old-school photographer choose a grainy mono film and red filter for a bit of drama, really he was faking it, too. Just not in an obvious digital way, like is so tempting today.

Nowadays, many snappers think Photoshop is all about “fixing it” afterwards. But what starts at exposure, a bit of contrast tweaking and a little crop here and there often degenerates into full-on fauxtography. A bland sky is replaced by a more dramatic one from a different continent. The magical wizard’s wand of HDR turns every scene into something that looks like Hogwarts.

Dodgy models who aren’t the sort to say no to a second biscuit from the barrel are transformed into lean-torso Amazonians thanks to the liquify tool. And their pock-marked skin is made plastic smooth and porcelain-white with a bit of selective blur. Their teeth are given the Hollywood whitening treatment, as are the whites of their blood-shot eyes. The whole Photoshop beauty makeover is what I call the “beer goggle filter”, named after the strange effect where a few pints of amber nectar on a night out seems to magically transform the plain into supermodels.

You can digitally recreate a tilt and shift lens effect, where normal size objects are made to look like scale models. Or you can recreate the movements of a technical camera to correct converging verticals. And stitching together a few pics can fake the effect of a proper old-school panoramic camera.

You can mimic the results of a pinhole camera or toy Holga or Diana camera, complete with heavy vignetting, selective focus and any sort of old-school film effect. Fancy your photo looking like it was shot on 1974 Agfa emulsion? Not a problem. Infra red effect, bleach bypass, sepia toning and loads more are all available at the click of a mouse.

All these effects I have used and will use to get the photo that I want to make. But a shot recently took faking it a step further. I had to shoot a 34-year-old Honda motocross bike for a major feature and a front cover of a motorbike magazine. They wanted to avoid the bike looking like a museum piece, but be ridden fast and spectacularly by a current top rider in the full modern riding kit to show an old bike could be just as exciting as anything new.

Nice one. Now do it again please!
Nice one. Now do it again please!

Except, it wasn’t. The day was rainy and the track muddy and dark. The bike had been found in a garage in California and shipped over just days before. The tyres were old and cracked. And a bike that runs OK in the heat of the USA could barely be coaxed into life in the zero temperatures of a frozen winter’s day in Britain. It could hardly make half a lap of the track without choking up and grinding to a halt. It certainly couldn’t carve a turn at any sort of speed. But the magazine still wanted their cover shot.

So we faked it. We got the track owner to bulldoze a load of lovely light-coloured mulch into a pile at the bottom of a short hill. We pushed the bike up the hill then the rider was pushed off and rode it down, using gravity and what tiny bit of power the bike could muster was the only way to get any significant speed out of the ailing machine.

Got it! the almost-real shot that made a magazine cover!
Got it! the almost-real shot that made a magazine cover!

As the bike slammed into the wall of woodchip which flew everywhere, he cranked the Honda over, stuck his leg into the ground and literally pulled the front wheel into the air. The shots looked like a bike in an explosion of brute power and fooled everyone – including the magazine’s art editor who was impressed at how dramatic the bike looked in action. One faked photo, one happy client and zero use of any digital trickery. It’s still a fake, though.