How National Geographic Traveler exposes problematic entries in its photo contest

This is an amazing photo:

The surfer is under water, and yet everything about the image is crisp and clear -- almost as if it was taken above water, where natural light abounds.

The photo was taken on a reef in Fiji by photographer Lucia Griggi and was named a Merit Winner in this year's National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest, which invites people to submit photos that "depict the beauty of the places and people that make traveling memorable."

There were about 12,000 entries submitted by 6,615 people representing 152 countries this year, the contest's 24th. (Both amateurs and professionals are welcome to submit.)

Dan Westergren, Traveler's senior picture editor, has been judging the contest for many years. I asked him how they detect manipulated or otherwise inadmissible submissions among the massive volume of entries.

"Our biggest problems come because people have been a little bit too heavy handed in burning and dodging," Westergren says, noting that outright manipulation is rare. "A lot will oversaturate the picture, or some really like the desaturated look, what the French call 'sub-saturated.' It’s easy to fall in love with those pictures because they look cool."

The Traveler contest rules allow for some photo processing techniques that are forbidden in news photos. As a result, it often comes down to a judgment call as to whether a photo has been overprocessed.

Here's what the rules say about what is allowed:

Only minor burning, dodging and/or color correction is acceptable, as is cropping. High dynamic range images (HDR) and stitched panoramas are NOT acceptable. Any changes to the original Photograph not itemized here are unacceptable and will render the Photograph ineligible for a prize.

Westergren says one fundamental question judges ask of every entry is, "Does this picture show what it felt like to be there at that moment, to combine the human elements with the place?"

It's up to the panel of judges to determine if an entry crosses the line by incorporating too much color correction or burning and dodging. They rely on trained eyes to spot a fake or an overprocessed submission. The magazine also follows up with the photographer if a shot seems too good to be true or is in contention for the winner's circle.

Few people submit manipulated images or composites, but it does happen, according to Westergren. He remembers one in particular.

"It was like perfect light on an iceberg and there was a penguin standing there," he says. "People in the room liked the picture and I looked at it and said, 'Look at that edge -- somebody pasted that penguin on there. It’s too perfect.' "

Westergren says it's so easy to manipulate and overprocess images that, "You can’t really believe much of anything anymore."

"If you have funny feeling, then it's your job to look into that," he continues. "People are very sophisticated and they can get stuff by you."

In the raw

If a submission appears too cooked or on the edge of acceptability, the magazine contacts the photographer to ask for the raw file. This is the image as it was captured by the camera, and before it has been opened in a piece of software like Photoshop, or compressed into a jpeg.

"Another reason why we want the raw file is to see if people are willing to send it," Westergren says.

By comparing the raw file with the submission, the judges can better determine if an entry falls into the accepted range for the contest.

Another technique used in judging is to take the raw file, or a jpeg if that's all that's available, and examine the EXIF data of the file. (I described EXIF data and other tips for spotting manipulated images in this previous post.)

"'[With EXIF data] I can see if it has a believable exposure time," Westergren says. "Also, if something is a true composite there often won't be any camera data ... If camera data is there, I feel a bit more secure."

As for the above winning surfer shot, Westergren says many people may look at it and think something's off.

"It looks off because of how underwater photos looked on film," he says.

We're used to seeing underwater photos that have an abundance of blue. Yet Griggi's photo is well balanced in terms of color.

Westergren says near the top of the image you can see shades of red, which is the result of a color correction process used to restore the surfer's natural flesh tone. He and the judges saw that, but determined the photo was still "a reasonably accurate representation of the scene."

"Can I justify that it isn't so dramatic because it's been cooked?," he says.

Over the phone, Westergren opens the original raw file to illustrate the comparison they used to make their decision.

"Wow, it’s pretty nice," he says.

With Griggi's permission, Westergren produced a comparison of the contest entry (left) and the raw file (right):

In Westergren's view, the raw file is very close to the submitted jpeg. The processing was used to enhance what was already there, rather than altering the image.

The result is a striking -- and winning -- image.

  • Craig Silverman

    Craig Silverman ( is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends regarding accuracy and verification.


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