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Photography, sports and life as seen through the lens of Seattle Times photographer Rod Mar.

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June 9, 2008 6:33 PM

Mariners: A Flicker of Doubt.

Posted by Rod Mar

Pictures don't lie?

Sometimes they do, but not for the reasons people always think.

For example, last week I published a photo of the Mariners' Miguel Cairo walking back to the dugout after striking out against the Los Angeles Angels at Safeco Field.

Some sharp-eyed readers contacted us to ask about the discolored letters in the Safeco Field sign at the top of the frame.

Most were pleasant, asking what would cause that effect. Others were more critical.

One wrote to say:

"The photo of the SAFECO sign at the field featuring the S and the O recolored is irresponsible reporting. Photos should so (sic) what is real and not be retouched to make editorial comment.

I would like to see an apology in your paper and a statement concerning how the responsible parties are being disciplined."

Mixed reactions on my part to these comments.

On one hand, I appreciate that readers and viewers are looking carefully at our work and challenging what they see. On the other hand, to call me irresponsible and seeking to have me disciplined before finding out what happened is...irresponsible.

First off, let's get this very clear:


Clear enough?

Manipulating a photo in such a manner is against every journalistic tenet in existence. It's also against a very strict policy at our newspaper and is a fire-able offense. There would be no warnings, just an escort to the door.

Newspapers and journalists have enough problems (Anyone want to subscribe? Buy an ad?) that jeopardizing our credibility is career suicide.

Still, you say, it's a suspicious photo. What's going on with the sign?

Here's the photo in question:

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 24-70mm/f2.8 lens @ 40mm, ISO 1600, 1/800th sec., f2.8)

As far as I can tell, it's that evil menace "flicker" that has caused the letters to appear to be different colors.

I actually wrote about it in a previous post.

I'm not sure what kind of light the sign is made of, but I will find out. Most light sources flicker to some extent.

What happens is that the light source (not sure if the sign in question is neon, fluorescent or some other source), flickers very quickly, far more quickly than is visible to the naked eye.

However, a camera capturing frames at 1/800th of a second can capture some of the inconsistencies (i.e. flicker) in the light. This accounts for some letters being fully lit, and some apparently not fully lit.

Wikipedia talks about flicker here and here. It's not limited to some forms of neon and fluorescent, it's also present in sodium and mercury vapor light.

Maybe one of you scientists can weigh in and "illuminate" the situation for me?

You don't want some dilettante explanation from me, you want (and deserve proof).

Here's one of the first frames from the series. I was thinking about the best way to illustrate the loss, and from the photo well inside of first base (near the Mariners dugout), I was close to home plate. The first batter of the inning struck out and made the long walk back to the dugout and I had an idea to shoot wider if any of the following two batters met the same fate.

I put the 24-70mm lens on a camera and made a test shot to check the composition. In it, you can see that some letters appear to be of a different color. It's my belief that those letters are not fully illuminated, but I can't say for sure. The following is a screen grab from the way the images appears, unretouched when I intially open it for editing in a software program called Photo Mechanic. You can see all the exposure, lens, and time stamp info on the right side of the frame:

In this frame, you can see that the "S" and the "O" are bright white, while the letters in the middle are warmer in tone.

After Cairo strikes out, I start shooting him walking back. This is the first frame of the series of him walking, and the "S" and the "O" are discolored:

The very next frame is taken one second later and now the word "Safeco" is white and the word "Field" is discolored:

As he continues, the "S" and "O" are yellow, and the rest of the sign is white. This is the frame that ran in on the cover of the sports section and is where readers thought I was making "editorial" comments on the game.

This is a screen grab of two simultaneous frames, shot less than a second apart. In the first frame, the word "Field" is again yellow while "Safeco" is white. In the second, the "S" and the "O" are yellow:

Suffice to say, I did not manipulate these images in any way to make an editorial comment.

The "S" and "O" are discolored by coincidence, not intention.

I do understand that readers are more critical than ever about our credibility. The power of photo manipulation software and documented cases of intentional manipulation by journalists worldwide have aided in creating the perception that journalists are cheating the truth.

I don't blame readers for being critical. In an age where there is more information available than ever, and powerful tools for manipulation can be bought at any computer store, critical thinking and reasoning are more important than ever.

But calling my journalistic credibility into question is sure to garner a response, that's for sure.

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Jun 9, 08 - 06:33 PM
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