Forensics Analyst Claims That the World Press Photo Winner is a Composite


Dr. Neal Krawetz, a computer science PhD who specializes in non-classical computer forensics, online profiling, and computer security, made some pretty damning claims in a blog post recently. After taking a close look at Paul Hansen World Press Photo 2012 winner (seen above), he concluded that it was “a digital composite that was significantly reworked.”

While it’s true that the photo has been at the center of a debate over photo manipulation ethics since it was first announced as the winner, nobody has yet made a claim of this gravity. As proof, Krawetz offers a few specific (though, perhaps, not entirely convincing) points.


The issues are as follows: the image size is not native, indicating cropping or scaling; the lighting on the people’s faces doesn’t match the position of the sun; error level analysis shows that the people in the middle are “much brighter than the other people,” which is either due to splices or touch-ups; the XMP blog includes a save history that has several conversions on different dates (an indicator of splicing, according to Krawetz); and the photo was edited two weeks before the contest deadline, and again the day after the international jury concluded their meeting and announced the winner.

All this has led Krawetz to call the photo a composite and accuse the World Press Photo organization of ignoring acceptable journalism standards.

Hansen's image as it won (top) and as it was first published (bottom)

Hansen’s image as it won (top) and as it was first published (bottom)

Paul Hansen, however, disagrees. Speaking with, an exasperated Hansen defended his photo:

I have never had a photograph more thoroughly examined, by four experts and different photo-juries all over the world … In the post-process toning and balancing of the uneven light in the alleyway, I developed the raw file with different density to use the natural light instead of dodging and burning. In effect to recreate what the eye sees and get a larger dynamic range. To put it simply, it’s the same file – developed over itself – the same thing you did with negatives when you scanned them.

The World Press Photo Organization is siding with Hansen on this one, claiming that the photo was legitimate. However, “in order to curtail further speculation,” the organization is having two independent forensic experts investigate the photo so they can finally put this matter to bed once and for all. The results of that investigation will be released “as soon as they become available.”

Unbelievable [The Hacker Factor Blog via A Photo Editor]

Update: The results of the expert analysis are in, and it looks like Hansen’s photo does indeed stand up to serious forensic scrutiny. Here’s an excerpt from the World Press Photo article:

After examining the RAW file and the JPEG image entered in the competition, these are the experts’ conclusions:

‘We have reviewed the RAW image, as supplied by World Press Photo, and the resulting published JPEG image. It is clear that the published photo was retouched with respect to both global and local color and tone. Beyond this, however, we find no evidence of significant photo manipulation or compositing. Furthermore, the analysis purporting photo manipulation is deeply flawed, as described briefly below.’

1. XMP Analysis. The XMP analysis reflects an incomplete understanding of the Photoshop metadata and also paraphrases the contents in a misleading way. The referenced block of metadata merely indicates that the file was adjusted in the Adobe Photoshop Camera Raw module on multiple occasions before it was opened in Photoshop and then saved out as a JPEG. In fact, this metadata does not track whether multiple files were composited.

2. Error Level Analysis. The forensic analysis of the JPEG compression as performed by error level analysis (ELA) does not provide a quantitative or reliable analysis of photo manipulation. This analysis frequently mis-identifies authentic photos as altered and fails to identify altered images, and as such is not a reliable forensic tool.

3. Shadow Analysis. The shadow analysis is flawed in its logic and conclusions. It is true that linear constraints that connect points on an object with their corresponding points on the shadow should intersect at a single point (assuming the presence of a single light source). The location of this intersection point, however, cannot be used to reason about the elevation of the light in the scene. The intersection point is simply the projection of the light source into the image plane. This projected location can be anywhere in the image (including below the ground plane) depending on where the photographer is oriented relative to the sun.

Dr. Hany Farid, Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College and co-founder and CTO of Fourandsix Technologies & Kevin Connor, CEO of Fourandsix Technologies

  • Topher Pettit

    Move along troll.

  • chubbs

    I’ll be honest, I’ve always the the photo looked strange. Captivating yes. Moving, yes. But there has always been something strange looking about it.

    That doesn’t mean it’s fake, just my own personal assessment.

  • Sky

    As you said – most important thing of a photo is the message. Totally agreed. But question is – is it a photo? This one is, but imagine it’s a deeply modified composite image – than it’s a 2D digital painting basically. Not a photograph anymore. And I can’t imaging paintings winning photography competitions, just like I can’t imagine photographs winning painting competitions.
    That’s what this whole “scandal” is about. Not whatever message matters or manipulation is allowed or not.

  • Deyson

    I can see your point of view. Thank you for explaining :)

  • Regan McCaffery

    I don’t actually see what the RAW is going to achieve apart from showing that no pixels have been altered through cloning out or adding things in). It’s not going to look like any of the shots shown so far, there has obviously been a lot of processing done on the image. That’s the whole point of a RAW file. For all we know he overexposed or underexposed the entire scene and the RAW just looks extremely light or dark so you can’t see much at all.

  • Peng Tuck Kwok

    Sometimes I wonder how that so called ‘Dr’ got his PH.D with such nonsensical analysis.

  • brandon

    i’ve always though the same.

  • harumph

    The point of showing the RAW file would be to disprove the accusation that he created a composite from multiple shots.

  • Mike Scholle

    The man on the left side of the photo is basically up against a wall – and the side of his face near a wall is lit as though by the sun. I don’t think the wall is reflecting that much light. And the man immediately to the right of him looks like the sun is shining on him from the left side of the photo – where the wall is. Just looking at the buildings, the lighting appears as though the sun would be overhead and slightly to the right side of the photo, maybe 1 or 2 o’clock. So why are all the faces illuminated brighter on our left?
    And, there seem to be shadows of the men on the wall on the left side of the photo, while their faces are lit from the left. That’s weird.

  • Todd Caudle

    Looks to me like he might’ve been holding a portable softbox-equipped strobe in his left hand to illuminate the subjects’ right side, especially those closest to him. I see nothing troubling about what he’s done to the photo.

  • Burnin Biomass
  • northwest0161

    The lighting is extraordinary but sometimes as a photographer you do experience exceptional conditions. For example sun light can reflect off windows.

  • A.Dent

    Please change the headline now that he’s proven innocent

  • Red Mercury

    There is another issue to consider here – the routine controversialisation in the media of anything that might engender sympathy for the Palestinians. This striking, high profile image could do that, thus the medium carrying it has been made the subject of excited discussion, in an attempt to efface the simple human message it carries.

    This is not to say everyone involved in the controversy does so for these motives, but that is the strength of this technique, it carries others along, enthusiastic to have their say. But the final effect is the same, we discuss the medium, not the message.

  • Syuaip

    Analyst Schmanalyst..

  • Flavio

    there is no element external of the photo, change the light is not photomanipulation and is ethic for photojournalism.

  • Theranthrope

    Does it come with a happy ending?

  • Theranthrope

    Yeah! Who needs ethics in journalism anyway?

  • Theranthrope

    This is purely my personal opinion; my instinct and my eye for photofakery says that there is NOTHING that wasn’t faked or staged in creation this image.

  • Happy_Tinfoil_Cat

    My guess is “Dr. Neal Krawetz” is more deeply distressed by the content of the photo than the editing technique. Truth stings.

  • aes53

    I couldn’t agree more, the original was much more dramatic, the “edited” on rather dull.

  • punku

    The winning photo is an example of a right time in a right place in a right moment in a great light photo. There is no manipulation in here, where the photographer didn’t add or remove any elements from the photograph by using tools such as Adobe Photoshop’s Clone tool. The winning photo just had a higher dynamic range, where the slightly over exposed highlights and under exposed shadows were normalized.

  • Grizzly Clark

    did you read the article? I hate you.

  • Kaybee

    I don’t get it! In a moment as sad as the above how will a Photographer think about the composition, colour, tone, etc. All she/ he will think about to capture the “moment” which is such a quintessential part of the story telling.
    As he is a Photographer, he has already been trained/ have an eye for the composition naturally. Also he must have preset the camera which is also a “manipulation”. About the rest, a bit can be touched up later like he has done which I don’t think is wrong in anyway. After post processing, the grimness of the photo (situation) is conveyed by the darker/ flatter tones.
    Some purists gets me… Sometimes I wonder if people are motivated by jealousy or something else to try to bring others down to this extend.
    The photo has a story…look at it rather the technicalities of it. In photos such as the above, the Photographer is trying to convey a message rather than have people talk about the post photo processing methods… C’mon!

    (P.S.- English is not my first language. Kindly excuse me)