What’s wrong with this picture? Plenty, say experts


What was intended as a simple family photo has become a royal headache for Princess Catherine and her family, after social media users and photo experts pointed out numerous inconsistencies that suggest the photo was heavily manipulated.

A disappearing sleeve, a misaligned zipper and green summertime leaves are just a few details that have raised questions about what was done to the photo, and by extension, about the state of Catherine’s health. 

“It is probably not wise to manipulate imagery to this degree when people are looking to the image and the image is being used as proof of Kate Middleton basically being fine,” said Claire Leibowicz, head of AI and media integrity at the Partnership on A.I., a non-profit group that works with media companies and tech giants on the creation and distribution of AI-generated content.

The image, issued by Catherine and Prince William’s Kensington Palace office on Sunday to mark Mother’s Day in the U.K., was the first official photo of the Princess of Wales since she had abdominal surgery on Jan. 16, and ultimately has added to rumours swirling around her operation and recovery.

Catherine, 42, left a hospital Jan. 29 after a nearly two-week stay following the planned surgery and has not been seen in public since Christmas Day. The reason for the operation has been kept under wraps.

Kate’s uncertain health, together with King Charles’s recently announced cancer diagnosis, have put the Royal Family under more scrutiny than usual. 

A profile photo of a woman in  a bright blue suit, with long brown hair. In the background, the heads of two people with greyish hair.
Catherine attends the Christmas Morning Service at Sandringham Church on Dec. 25, in Sandringham, Norfolk. She has not been seen in public since. (Stephen Pond/Getty Images)

Suspicious greenery

Leibowicz says the two biggest giveaways of edits are Princess Charlotte’s sleeve — which wraps around her left hand but does not connect with the rest of her arm, suggesting a missing piece of the sleeve was cut away — and the greenery visible in the background, during what was supposedly March, before springtime in England.

Several major news agencies that initially published the photo, including The Associated Press, Reuters and Getty Images, later pulled it citing concerns about digital manipulation.

Catherine apologized on X, formerly Twitter, “for any confusion” the photo caused, saying, “like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing.”

Leibowicz worries the altered image could lead to greater societal distrust in real images.

“It’s problematic that even photo editors didn’t catch this,” Leibowicz said. “They ran the story. They did kill it, but clearly there are certain protocols in place that needed some time or needed the reaction from the public before taking it down.” 

Reuters picture editors said the misaligned sleeve suggested the image had been altered, and reported that an examination of its metadata showed it had been saved twice using the photo editing app Adobe Photoshop on an Apple Mac.

“The altered photo didn’t meet Reuters standards of image quality, and that is the reason we withdrew it,” a Reuters spokesperson said in an email to CBC News. 

Likewise, AP sent out a notice for news outlets to kill the photo from their systems and archives, citing manipulation. AP allows only minor adjustments to photos, including cropping, colour balancing and, when necessary, eliminating dust and scratches to restore the authentic photograph.

Kensington Palace said it would not release the original unedited photograph.

WATCH | Apology likely ‘last we will hear’ from palace about photo:

Apology over edited image likely ‘last we will hear’ from palace on picture, royal watcher says

Katie Nicholl, a royal commentator, says an edited photo and subsequent apology from the Princess of Wales has taken on a ‘life of its own’ because of Catherine’s lack of visibility following surgery.

‘A lot of changes’

Glenn Honiball, who runs a Toronto-based photo retouching service that works with clients around the world, says the vanishing sleeve is just the tip of the iceberg, and pointed out about a dozen inconsistencies, including blurred hands and hair and missing shirt textures. 

“There have been a lot of changes made here,” he said. 

“I’m sure somebody spent a couple hours going through that and changing things, especially if they didn’t have a lot of experience.” 

Some of the glaring editing errors Honiball cites include Charlotte’s hair appearing to fall unnaturally around her right shoulder, with two identical highlighted sections appearing to be copied and pasted. 

“It’s as if they wanted to make the hair longer and maybe cover something up,” he said. “Repeat patterns are a dead giveaway.”

Also, Charlotte’s skirt sticks out past her sweater and has no pleats or shadows, which Honiball says indicates a section of the skirt was also repeated and dropped in. 

Another sign is a misaligned zipper on Catherine’s coat, which “seems to disappear — it goes off in two different directions.” 

Honiball says he’s inclined to believe Catherine’s statement that she did the editing herself, because it looks like it was done by someone who has some knowledge of Photoshop but not a great deal of experience. He said it looks like most of the work was done using the software’s cloning and liquify tools. 

“I think it might have been a little naive of them to put something out that looks obviously flawed in some areas,” he said. 

“Maybe the average person wouldn’t notice that. But of course, everybody on the internet’s looking for anything they can find.”

WATCH | Health concerns for Charles, Catherine:

Princess of Wales, King undergo medical procedures

The Princess of Wales has undergone a planned abdominal surgery at a London clinic, while the King is being treated for an enlarged prostate. Princess Catherine is not expected to return to royal duties until after Easter, but King Charles is expected to have a shorter recovery.

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