Be Your Own Birder

The Man-Sized Condor – Photoshopped!

A photo of a bird isn’t always what it may seem, but the confusion isn’t necessarily a deliberate attempt at deception. Sometimes, just the way a photo may be taken or a bird positioned could create a skewed perception, and at times, that perception is deliberate. But is it dishonest?

Forced Perspective and Manipulated Photos

When we think of a photoshopped photo, we think of one that has been deliberately manipulated, often for a dishonest or insincere result. This could be as simple as removing blemishes or smoothing skin tone in a portrait, or as complicated as completely redesigning body shape, colors, and features for a brutally inaccurate photo. Yet some photo manipulations are far more subtle, and use angles and positions to create an illusion.

Pushing Pisa Upright - Photo by Candida.Performa
Pushing Pisa Upright – Photo by Candida.Performa

This type of manipulation is called “forced perspective” – deliberately creating an optical illusion to force distance, size, or other perspectives that may not be entirely accurate. This is often done to create a dramatic photo or a comedic effect – the classic example is a tourist “pushing” the Leaning Tower of Pisa, even though they aren’t actually touching the tower or having any impact on its angles. It also makes it seem as though the “pusher” is a literal giant next to the tower, another illusion based on distance and angles.

Honest Uses of Forced Perspective

Disney Castle Perspective - Photo by Josh Hallett
Disney Castle – Photo by Josh Hallett

Forced perspective can be used for more than just silly photos. It is often part of stage and set design for plays and movies, helping create sweeping scenery in confined spaces. It is also used in architecture to create false fronts and the illusion of more grandeur, the most familiar example of which is the facades in Disney theme parks, including the main thoroughfares and castles, which are designed to look far taller than their true measurements.

While these uses are still creating illusions, it’s an accepted practice for entertainment and creative purposes, with no malicious intent. It may be used due to site constraints, limited budgets, or simply because the artistic vision is far more grandiose than can be physically accomplished. In any case, it is not done for more than background imagery, and serves no practical purpose other than being part of an overall scene.

Less-Than-Honest Forced Perspective

It is when forced perspective, camera angles, and other tricks are used without disclosure and for deceptive purposes that these practices fall into the photoshop category. One of the most famous and widespread of these as related to birds is the giant South American condor photo.

Poor Forced Perspective - Andean Condor
Poor Forced Perspective – Andean Condor

First, to be clear, there is no such species as the South American condor. The bird pictured is actually an Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), a species of vulture native to western South America, from Peru to Chile and the southern tip of Argentina. While these are huge, spectacular birds with a length reaching up to 50 inches and a wingspan of 10-11 feet (yes, feet!), those are not the sizes portrayed in this forced perspective photo.

The photo intends the viewer to assume the bird is as tall – or taller – than the man in the background. The average height of a man is roughly 70 inches, yet by the photo, the bird is significantly taller than that. But by looking closely, we can debunk this photo’s claim and reveal the forced perspective.

First, look closely at the bird’s feet and shadow. While it blends into the ground further back in the photo, it is clear by how the shadow drops off abruptly – even the tip of the tail is lost – that the bird is actually standing on a wall or ledge. The man, on the other hand, is in the background and not standing on the same base as the bird. You can see a slight hint of the man’s legs behind the brush under the bird’s tail, another indication of just how much further back in the photo the man is positioned (you can even see the toes of his shoes in front of the bird’s leg). Naturally, since the bird is in the foreground, it would appear to be much larger.

Why Would Anyone Be Fooled?

While this photo does help show just how large an Andean condor truly is, it does so disingenuously. Without proper clarification, the overestimation of the bird’s size is extreme, and thus deceitful. Yet it’s fairly common knowledge that vultures can be very large birds, and anyone unfamiliar with the true measurements of the Andean condor could easily be misled. There’s no harm in being fooled, the only harm is in failing to question the nearly unbelievable and not seeking verification of extraordinary claims. Once you know what to look for in a forced perspective photo, you won’t be fooled again!

Andean Condor - Photo by Esmée Winnubst
Andean Condor – Photo by Esmée Winnubst

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