This is another in an occasional series of posts about bad design, a longstanding source of disgruntlement for me.* In past editions, I’ve covered bad software interfaces, bad signs, bad fonts and bad hurricane forecast maps. This time, I’m going to briefly touch upon a topic of particular interest to me, since many of my posts (including my most recent one) revolve around it — I am talking about photoshop mashups and, in particular, the lighting of subjects and objects in those images.
There are countless examples of bad photoshop on the internet, most of which are easily spotted with a casual glance. Whenever you see an image that seems “off” or unnatural or too-good-to-be-true, it means that someone at the photoshop desk has not done their job. It is probably because they were in a rush (if I feel generous about it) or because they don’t have the training (if I feel otherwise). The typical reason that things just don’t look right is inconsistent and unrealistic lighting, something that takes time to get right.**
I am going to pick apart just one image here. What set me off about this particular one is who created the image — an architectural firm in upstate New York. (I am not spelling out its name, but here you go.) Now, you would think that architects would only hire the best graphic designers they could find, as they have their professional reputations to protect. But you would be wrong (and not for the first time, if I may gently remind you).
Anyway, this firm “partnered” with New York State’s parks department to develop some renderings of a proposed riverside park in downtown Rochester. Here is the drawing that caught my critical eye:
The Democrat & Chronicle caption says the rendering shows a “possible river-level view” of the falls area, but this would be “possible” only if our planet orbited three or more suns. (That planet would instead be Triskelion; see Star Trek Episode 46.) If I may explain…
We have one sun, and it is basically “infinitely” far away. As a result, when the sun is out and you look around at the shadows it casts, you will find all shadows point in the same direction. Sadly, this is clearly not the case in the architect’s rendering of this scene.
Which, if any, of those shadows are realistic? To find out, we first figure out where the sun is supposed to be. The answer is revealed by another amateur mistake: someone shot the background photo while facing the sun without using a lens hood, causing telltale flares, which the graphic artist could not or did not remove. I highlighted the flares in Figure 1:
Tracing the lens flares back to their source, we find the sun is at about 35 degrees from the southeast horizon (note: the waterfall faces north) as would be the case on a mid-June day at 9 AM. Give the artist credit — the shadow of the boy in the center of the drawing is about the right length for that time of day.
But a closer look at the running boy (Detail 2) reveals that his shadow is at the wrong angle. Because the boy is centrally positioned in the frame, the line of his shadow should point directly toward the sun [A]. But the shadow as drawn points well to the right of the sun.
Things get more confusing when we examine the lighting and shadows on the boy himself. The light on his face and body is not coming from the sun behind him but from some invisible source [B] above and to his right.
The rest of the drawing has similar lighting issues, which I will now enumerate (Figure 3):
[A] The river banks are sunlit, but this is not possible given the sun’s position in the sky.
[B] The seated man is illuminated by a source in back of him, not by the sun.
[C] A tree casts a shadow on the bench but there is no tree between the bench and sun.
[D] The couple walking with the small girl are illuminated not by the sun but by a source in front of them and to the right.
[E] The shadows cast by that group, by the wheelchair couple, and by the bench, point to some unseen light source above the waterfall.
[F] The couple holding the two small children are illuminated by some source on the right.
[G] The shadows cast by that group have the correct angle but are too long.
I was going to add that the woman with the bicycle at far right is not illuminated at all, but this is probably accurate given that the locale is perpetually-cloudy Rochester, New York.
But this is just a one-off, right? Other architects certainly aren’t this casual — or are they? Here’s a example (Figure 4) from a project closer to home called, ironically, Artful Way…
[A] The people in purple clothes are translucent. They must be ghosting us.
[B] Plus, they cast no shadows. (Further proof of the same.)
[C] The fence casts a much stronger shadow than does the person standing behind it.
[D] This last one is more subtle and doesn’t involve lighting. The designer presents an oblique view of the deck, together with a very close perspective; as a result, the deck floor appears to slope downward and to the right. That’s not how people perceive the surfaces that they stand on. I would have chosen a more straight-on, farther-away point-of-view.
So there you go. Good thing I’m not on a planning board or nothing would ever get built.