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Posted at 1:00 PM ET, 06/26/2008

Photoshopping the Weather

By Steve Tracton

Is this photograph fake or real? Credit: Unknown.

Fake or real? As pointed out by PBS, it's a question being asked about more and more pictures in this age of digital photography and advanced image editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop.

It turns out that weather photos are often the victim of "photoshopping" -- the term now popularly used to describe the manipulation of photos beyond mundane tweaks in color, contrast and the like, often for the purpose of deception. One example that has circulated widely across the Internet since 2002 is the above picture, which purports to be a triple waterspout descending from the rainbands of Hurricane Lili as it approached Louisiana in early October 1992.

Keep reading to find out if this and other weather photographs are fake or real. Also, see our full forecast through the weekend.

Like tornadoes, waterspouts often form in families, and in fact ships at sea have reported as many as 30 in one day, with as many as nine seen forming in a 90-minute period. A classic and spectacular example of multiple waterspouts -- four funnels at the same time -- was taken by an Italian sailor in 1999 while on a cruise in the Adriatic Sea. However, it became apparent that the above photo was a fake when it was discovered that an identical shot, except with only one funnel, appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of Anchor Lines.

Something's not quite right about this photo. Credit: Unknown

Above is another photograph, which has also made the Internet rounds, that's not quite what it seems to be. The picture professes to show the approach of Hurricane Isabel in 2003 from the deck of an oil tanker. While it's conceivable the first photo above could have been real, this clearly cannot. First, the sea is perfectly calm, which is totally inconsistent with the turbulent conditions that would exist even at considerable distances from a hurricane. Second, the clouds are clearly shelf or wall clouds, which are typically associated with severe thunderstorms, especially in the Midwest, rather than a hurricane.

A mirage? ... or just a bit misleading? Credit: Unknown

Sometimes the deception is as simple as misidentifying the location and time of the picture. One such example is the above photo, which is often trotted out whenever and wherever a severe weather outbreak occurs. For example, this photo was reported to be shot during the Sedalia, M.O., tornado outbreak in March 2006. However, as documented by the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Melbourne, Fla., the picture actually shows a tornado and lightning stroke over Lake Okeechobee in June 1991.

Speaking of Florida, I'm looking forward to some quality rest and relaxation, including kayaking and surfing, along the coast of Ft. Lauderdale this summer. Knowing this, a friend of mine recently sent me the photographs below, without comment on their origin or authenticity. I'm reasonably confident, though, that there's a better chance of being struck by a bolt from the blue than me being attacked by a shark (famous last words?).

C'mon paddles, c'mon! Credit: Unknown

This surfer sure seems calm, considering. Credit: Unknown

Bottom Line: "Believe it or not" is the name of the game when it comes to weather photos these days. And sometimes it's virtually impossible to verify a picture's authenticity. Be assured, however, that while it may sometimes seem too spectacular to be true, the work of Capital Weather Gang photographers Kevin Ambrose and Ian Livingston is the real thing -- indisputably authentic.

By Steve Tracton  | June 26, 2008; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Photography, Tracton  
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