A picture editor writes: How Princess of Wales came a cropper

Mother’s Day image released by Prince and Princess of Wales had been digitally altered

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The British royal family and photography have been intrinsically linked for decades, with images of the royals offering insight into their lives to give the public a sense of connection to the monarchy.

Since the days of Queen Victoria in the late 19th century, photographic portraits of the royal family have been issued to authoritative news services for public consumption, as well as editorial photographers covering live news events such as royal weddings and coronations. The King’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace will soon host an exhibition on a century of royal photographic portraits.

Recently, social media has become a key platform for many to view photos of those in the public eye. This has led to a more laid-back way of public figures and brands presenting themselves. The royal family are no different.

Rather than the professionally shot traditional photographic portraits, the royals have started sharing more informal portraits – sometimes even taken themselves – on social media and news wire services. Kate, Princess of Wales, is a keen photographer and has taken many photos documenting the milestones of her children, which were then issued to the public.

Trained photographers take hundreds of shots to capture that one perfect image, going to painstaking lengths to ensure elements such as composition, lighting and focus are just right. Amateur photographers make mistakes, so rely on editing afterwards.

There are degrees of manipulation: anyone who has taken a photo on their smartphone knows you can hit the ‘auto adjust’ button and see your image immediately improved. The latest technology on Samsung and Google smartphones dubbed ‘best face mode’ or ‘best take’ allows you to merge the ‘best’ elements of a series of photos into one image – does your child have their eyes closed in one shot, or are they looking away at the vital moment? Select their face from another image and drop it onto your chosen picture.

Professional photo editors and photographers regularly improve images with small adjustments, with the most common example being the lightening or darkening of a photo when the initial camera exposure isn't quite right. More drastic measures, using tools such as Photoshop, can be used to make someone look slimmer, or more toned.

Such tools can allow an editor to replace an entire face on a body, or create scenes that never existed.

In this instance, a photograph taken by Prince William, and then edited by the Princess of Wales, has been released with several very obvious signs of digital adjustment.

The two areas of the photograph that show the clearest signs of digital work are around the Princess of Wales’s head and Princess Charlotte’s sleeve. Just below Princess Kate’s collar is a horizontal line running across her torso, which shows up most glaringly on the zip of her jacket, with the natural line of the zip totally broken. There are also more subtle signs of alteration around her hair. Princess Charlotte’s sleeve also appears to have been adjusted, looking as if it has faded into Princess Kate's grey sleeve.

In the current climate of speculation around the Princess of Wales’s health and even a wider distrust of image manipulation due to the rise of AI, it didn’t take long for the public and news outlets to spot the digital changes.

It also begs the question of how many other royal images have been doctored.

This may be a symptom of an amateur photographer trying to make the best of their photographic results but the errors were there for all to see.

Although you may sympathise with the idea of improving the way you and others look in a photograph, when there is such heavy public interest in a subject it can create a sense of distrust in the material. As much as the public want to see images of the royals, they need to know that what they’re seeing is real.

Updated: March 12, 2024, 3:54 AM