Flippin' photos...

June 16, 2011  •  Leave a Comment

I guess the last entry might have read like a little bit of a rant. Not too much, I hope. I’m trying to raise what I see as a serious issue. Pictures that are wrongly captioned/misplaced will annoy people who are in the know and could seriously mislead those who aren’t.

Since then I’ve heard of some more blatant examples from colleagues in the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild. Chris Townsend reports seeing a picture taken in the Pyrenees used to illustrate a feature on the Alps – and when he raised it with the editor he got the brush-off, being told ‘it looks better that way’. Hmmm, let’s see, if you were a magazine doing a feature on Mel Gibson would you use a picture of Russell Crowe because ‘it looks better that way’?*

Paddy Dillon points out that there’s a book on ‘Best Irish Walks’ but the photo on the cover is of the Langdale Pikes – which, just in case you didn’t know, are in England. He even gave a link to check it out. In this case it’s probably a mistake rather than deliberate, but it’s a pretty awful mistake.

To me, and I don’t think I’m alone, publishers who commit mistakes (including deliberate mistakes) like these are shooting themselves in the foot. I’d never buy a Baltic Guide with a fjord on the cover or an Irish Walks Guide with an English scene on the front, because I’d be saying to myself, ‘if they can’t get the cover picture right, what else have they got wrong?’ And thereby, of course, they’re hurting the poor old author, who may have had no say at all in the cover picture. It can damage their reputation as well as their royalty income.

Flippin’ heck

There’s another thing designers and publishers do which drives me crazy. Sorry, I should say, some designers and publishers; the majority of those I’ve worked with have never inflicted this particular indignity on me. I’m talking about the all-too-common practice of ‘flipping’ pictures – reversing them left to right, in other words.

Back in the “good” old days of film, this could happen by mistake, if a careless scanner operator mounted a transparency the wrong way round. With digital images there’s no way I can think of for it to happen inadvertently; it takes a specific Photoshop command. Somebody has to do it deliberately, and I wish they wouldn't.

It’s so obvious to me that this is wrong that I find it hard to grasp that I might need to explain it. But it’s not just a prima donna thing about the integrity of my artistic vision or whatever. It offends me just as much when it happens to other people’s photos.

I appreciate that part of my objection is on the philosophical level and that other people may not care so much, but I think there are lots of more practical reasons why flipping photos is nearly always a bad idea. (We might make an exception, or at least not get so worked up, for completely generic images). Here are just a few of them.

Photos of places. To me it’s completely disrespectful to the real mountains/landscape to print their images wrong way round. But such mucking around with geography can have real practical consequences when photos are used – as they often are, especially in outdoor magazines and books – as a guide to where to go. Come to think of it, let’s not bother about getting lefts and rights correct in our route descriptions either.

Photos of people. People are asymmetrical. Flipping the image misrepresents the person. Text. Text crops up in far more photos than you might think, from signs in the background to logos on clothing. I’m sure sreppohgarC and suahgreB won’t be totally thrilled, but more important (to me anyway) it just looks stupid.

Bikes. I shoot bikes quite a lot. BIkes have chainrings, gears and so on on the right. Disc brakes, if they have them, are on the left. There are other sorts of asymmetry too (Cannondale’s Lefty fork, for example). And yes, I have seen a photo of mine, with bikes in, flipped. It looked cringe-makingly, teeth-wincingly wrong. And most bikes have makers’ names on too; I don’t suppose eladnonnaC or egnarO would be exactly delighted.

I could go on. Oh boy, could I go on. But I think you know where I’m coming from by now. I do understand why designers might want to do this. We read L–R and this can affect the way we look at a spread – although it’s not genetically hard-wired as some people have stupidly claimed. Don’t they know that lots of cultures read R–L?


And most of the time I have a lot of respect for designers. I’ve done a bit of page layout myself (and I’ll be doing more from now on as I’ve just taken on the editorship of the OWPG’s journal Outdoor Focus). I know how much difference good design can make. But flipping pictures – especially pictures of specific people, places or products – is not good design.

*Names picked from thin air purely for purposes of illustration. Anyone who wishes to discuss whether Russell really is better-looking than Mel, please do so elsewhere.



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