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Too Much Photoshop | Is An Excessive Use Of Filters Giving Travellers False Expectations?

"I got a text warning me: 'The beach is nothing like on Instagram…'"

Words by Lisa Bowman

The way we plan our holidays has changed dramatically in recent years. Remember when you were a kid and your parents used to come back from the travel agents armed with brochures? These days, thanks to widespread use of the internet and social media, we’re bombarded with inspiration every time we mindlessly scroll on our phones.

However, all too often, when we eventually get to that destination we’ve been frothing over for six months, we’re left feeling a bit deflated. Why isn’t the water as blue as it looked in those pics? What’s with all the rubbish? Wait…is that a Starbucks?

Over-editing photos isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, back in 2012 photographer David Byrne was stripped of Take A View’s Landscape Photographer of the Year award when people noticed he’d over-manipulated his image. We’re constantly being reminded that models and celebrities are airbrushed and that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to them, but no one ever mentions people’s holiday pics.

“Except I got a text from a pal… warning me that: ‘The beach is nothing like Instagram…’”

Like many people, I get a lot of travel inspiration from Instagram. Before heading to Bali this year, I went on a follow spree of relevant travel accounts, to get ideas of where to head to on the island. First stop was Canggu on the west coast – I had friends there and from what Instagram was throwing up, it seemed dreamy – all palm trees, white sand and turquoise waves.

Except I got a text from a pal who’d landed a few days before me, warning me that: “The beach is nothing like Instagram…” Of course, Canggu’s beaches are infinitely better than, say, Bognor, but the dark sand, abundance of litter and unsavoury pipes running into the murky water added a certain vibe that the ‘explore’ page on Instagram had failed to showcase.

Bali. Credit: iStock
Bali looking dreamy but does reality match up?. Credit: iStock

Throughout our stay, it became a running joke that we were going to start an Instagram Vs Reality account. One trip found us rocking up to the Tegenungan waterfall, near Ubud, to find a busy, muddy brown waterfall – a far cry from the lush, Indonesian Jurassic Park our Google image search had promised.

Tegenungan waterfalls edited and unedited. Credit: iStock/Owen Parker
Tegenungan waterfalls edited and unedited. Credit: iStock/Owen Parker

After putting a callout on Facebook for similar experiences, one friend showed me her photos of the Whitsunday islands in Australia. Just like my trip there years ago, hers involved a lot of torrential rain, meaning her shots of the famous Whitehaven beach didn’t have the azure waters and dazzling white sands of the photos that had enticed her there in the first place. “I didn’t see what everyone else had, so I had to filter the hell out of my photos,” she admitted.

Another friend went to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland and was surprised at how difficult it was to replicate the shots you see online. “It’s so steamy, that whoever is taking the pic can’t be in the water with you,” Jerry revealed. “So it’s a bit of a mission to bring your camera out, take the pic and then go put it back in the lockers. These people with perfect Insta shots have worked really hard to get it. Plus – the water is no way as blue as they make out…!” A similar example is the Pamukkale hot spring terraces in Turkey – the internet promises bright blue water in snow-white thermal pools, but what you get is dark water and grey erosion.

Blue Lagoon Iceland. Edited and unedited. Credit: iStock/Jerry O’Sullivan
Blue Lagoon Iceland. Edited and unedited. Credit: iStock/Jerry O’Sullivan

You can understand (but not excuse) hotel and tourist board deception, but why do we do it to each other with our personal holiday snaps? I’m guilty of retouching my landscapes before I upload them, to make blues bluer and sunsets more vibrant, but why do I even care?

Apparently, it’s all in our brain’s makeup, explains Graham Jones, a psychologist who specialises in internet use and behaviour. “It’s about membership of a group,” he told us. “So there could be people for example who like going to Iceland and because there’s a picture of something that looks fabulous, if their picture doesn’t look fabulous, in order to stay part of the group, they’ve got to Photoshop their picture too. There’s a powerful instinct for that – if we didn’t have social groups like this then society would break down. There’d be no cohesion. So it’s a biological method of keeping us all together.”

“One of the reasons we post so much on social media is because we’re constantly seeking affirmation of our self identity…”

Not surprisingly, it’s also about identity. “One of the reasons we post so much on social media is because we’re constantly seeking affirmation of our self identity,” explains Jones. “So people can like, comment or share our photo, which to us says, ‘Okay I am that sort of person’ i.e. someone who likes travel. So you’ll be seeking the nicest possible photos to get maximum confirmation.”

Pamukkale. Credit: iStock
Pamukkale. Credit: iStock

However, it’s not just deceptive filters that are to blame – it’s our own bodies. The human eye simply cannot detect the same spectrum of colours as a camera on a high ISO setting can. Case in point – the Northern Lights. My friend Andrew, a photographer, had posted some incredible pictures of the Aurora from Canada, but after speaking to him, I realised all was not as it seemed. “It was just like the pictures when I saw the Northern Lights in Iceland, but it actually wasn’t that spectacular in Canada,” he admitted. “Some nights you will see just a haze which doesn’t look much from your eyes. But then you crank the ISO on your camera and it’s banging.”

“The human eye simply cannot detect the same spectrum of colours as a camera on a high ISO setting can.”

There’s also the fact that professional photographers often spend weeks getting that money shot – take for example Kawah Ijen in Java, Indonesia, a volcano that ‘spits blue flames’. I decided to celebrate my 30th birthday with an overnight hike into the crater after a swift image search threw up incredible sights of what looks like electric blue lava cascading down the caldera. The ‘lava’ is actually the combustion of sulphuric gases as they escape from small cracks in the volcano and come in to contact with the air.

But the reality of the volcano is – you guessed it – nothing like the pics. The blue flames were more like wisps, and I was pretty underwhelmed. You need to be a pro on a camera to catch anything vaguely close to the pics that you see online , and you have to be there on a good day. If you read the stories behind the epic ‘lava’ pictures, you’ll find that these photographers spent weeks choking on acid in the crater to get their photos.

Blue sulphur flames, Kawah Ijen volcano, East Java. Credit: iStock
Blue sulphur flames, Kawah Ijen volcano, East Java. Credit: iStock

The trouble is, more attractive photos get more likes and we’re programmed to like pretty things. Bloggers in particular operate on likes and hits to get ad revenue and freebies, so most will choose the ‘arty’ option as it’s not in their interest to choose the honest version.

“If you read the stories behind the epic ‘lava’ pictures, you’ll find that these photographers spent weeks choking on acid in the crater to get their photos…”

One blogger bucking this trend, however, is Tom Bourlet from Spaghetti Traveller. “As a blogger, I do feel a personal requirement to be honest with the imagery I provide on my website,” he told us. “I do basic touch-ups, but I don’t edit the image at all. I think this offers a more genuine view of the destinations I visit. However since so many blogs are filled with heavily edited images, I changed my angle and began taking a GoPro with me wherever I went. This means you can get a POV style experience of the destination, removing the ambiguity around the accuracy of an image.”

Oyster is a website that sends investigators to hotels around the world to give you a true-to-life viewpoint. Their Photo Fakeout section compares hotels’ glossy and misleading promotional photos with more realistic versions.

“We’ve found that the marketing photos are sometimes nothing like the reality, Oyster’s Executive Editor, Kelsey Blodget told us. “And this can be true of tourist attractions, too – visitors to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, for example, can sometimes be surprised by just how touristy it is.”

Whitsundays editied and unedited Credit: Claire Normal
Whitsundays editied and unedited Credit: Claire Normal

Of course, the thing with the experiences mentioned above is that they’re all actually incredible places to visit. It’s laughable to think someone would go to a volcano that spits blue flames and even dare to utter the word “disappointed”. Yet we feel deflated because of the unrealistic expectations we’ve set ourselves – and the world.

What are already stunning photos of natural landscapes are being digitally manipulated into dramatic masterpieces, and a heavy-handed use of Photoshop has built nature up into something it can never be. Our brain has seen a better version of reality and it wants that instead.

So, where do we go from here? “Our best advice for consumers is to look at beautiful, glossy photos with a healthy amount of skepticism,” says Oyster’s Blodget. “Yes, there are gorgeous paradises in the world, but marketing materials always try to make places appear as perfect as possible. Keep an eye out for careful cropping, colour saturation, staged models, or places that are absolutely empty of tourists. Of course, some crowded, touristy places are still very much worth visiting, but it helps to know ahead of time what you are getting yourself into.”

So, while it’s great to see the odd travel photo turned into a work of art, we really need to start appreciating the beauty of nature as it is, otherwise we’re just going to end up a generation who feels perpetually disappointed until the day we die.

I’ll stop adding filters if you will?

Read the rest of our December ‘Excess Issue’ here

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