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Is there a simple, sure-fire, 100% accurate method one can use to distinguish paintings and other works of art from photographs? I am not asking: 'What is the difference between a painting and a photo?' That is obvious to me.

I was surprised to learn that there are a lot of paintings out there that look just like photographs. After taking a quiz I was disappointed to score only 71%.

Not a fan of modern digital photography at all, the images do not look real and some could be confused for really good paintings.

I have a lot of digital images that I believe have been scanned from old photographs, that were taken using old 35mm cameras (1990's era). I want to be sure I have the real McCoy, and not a painting or drawing!

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    Why's it matter? Also, can you post an example of what you're talking about? – Hueco Jan 28 '18 at 4:14
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    Well, a perfect painter migh make a painting that is as accurate as a photograph... – Janardan S Jan 28 '18 at 4:16
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    What if the image is a scan of a photograph of a painting? – Caleb Jan 28 '18 at 6:11
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    "Not a fan of modern digital photography at all, the images do not look real" - I am sorry, but...really? This does look like the real thing to me, don't you think? – flolilolilo Jan 28 '18 at 10:48
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    This question would probably get better reception without the "not a fan" opinioniating.... – mattdm Jan 28 '18 at 12:59
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Is there a simple, sure-fire, 100% accurate method one can use to distinguish paintings and other works of art from photographs?

It depends on how you are viewing them.

If using a digital medium to view them it's near impossible.

If you can actually hold each in your hand it gets a little easier as things like the texture of paints, watercolors, or even pencils or pens are harder to disguise in 3D than in a 2D collection of pixels.

Of course you're still faced with the possibility that a print you hold in your hand with Genuine Kodak Paper printed on the back could still be a photograph of a painting or other work of art rather than a photograph of that which the artwork represents...

  • "If you can actually hold each in your hand it gets a little easier as things like the texture of paints, watercolors, or even pencils or pens are harder to disguise in 3D than in a 2D collection of pixels." I like this. One day I will compare physical prints as opposed to digital images. Any other feedback (that adds to the discussion) will be appreciated. – Richard Gray Jan 29 '18 at 22:33
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There is no sure way to differentiate between a hyperrealistic painting, a photorealistic rendering or a photograph.

(If the painter / 3D artist does not give it away by using unrealistic lights / light paths.)

While it is extremely hard to accomplish, it is possible to paint or render something that is extremely hard to distinguish from "the real thing". I have seen things that looked uncanny to my eye that were real photographs and I have seen things that I seriously believed to be real that were done in a VFX department.


The easiest way to tell if a JPEG is a photo or not is to look at its EXIFs - if they include a camera model, you can conclude that it is an actual photograph. However, one can easily write any EXIF information in any file - or delete it all together.

The only other way I can think of are particles - what 3D-people call "light scattering", a.k.a dust in the air, or fumes. The other thing that is almost impossible to accomplish is realistic-looking hair.

Another thing that sometimes gets hard are highly specular materials like Gold - however, I have seen multiple almost-perfect gold-shaders by now.


All of this can - and most certainly will - change in the future. Even today, if you look at showreels of renderers like V-Ray or Houdini's Mantra, you certainly will have a hard time to see what's what. As computing power increases, Bi-Directional Path-Tracing will become available (as in: not blocking you from using your computer for a week or two) to a broad public.

Full disclosure of experience: I took both my BSc. and my MSc. in post-production and have done a lot of compositing and 3D-stuff. And although I am far away from being a decent 3D artist, even I can make something extraordinary close to reality within a day or two (taking rendering out of account, of course).


Further reading:

  • "As computing power increases, Bi-Directional Path-Tracing will become available to a broad public" - you mean, like what already exists in Blender? And it's freeware! – John Dvorak Jan 28 '18 at 10:47
  • @JohnDvorak "Available" as in "your computer won't be blocked by rendering for 72 hours for one VGA-sized frame" ;-) Blender's a nice tool, too, of course! (Added a reference to "Tears Of Steel" just now ;-) ) – flolilolilo Jan 28 '18 at 10:50
  • Understood. I have a $750 laptop specifically for 3D stuff, and I can render 256 samples at 880x880 px in about 7 minutes, though the scene isn't particularly complex. 72 hours per VGA frame seems like way overkill, except perhaps if you need to get rid of all noise, need full accuracy and can't use the denoising tool that Blender has. – John Dvorak Jan 28 '18 at 10:56
  • @JohnDvorak It just depends on the use-case. I'm sitting here on a i7-5770k machine and still, when outputting photorealistic architecture stuff at something like 720p, it may come down to 12 hours / frame. Mind you, renderers are getting better, too - and for my master thesis, I've looked into some very interesting papers about BRDF-based noise reduction...very promising stuff! – flolilolilo Jan 28 '18 at 11:02
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    @MichaelClark already happened in the meanwhile: [...] Bi-Directional Path-Tracing will become available (as in: not blocking you from using your computer for a week or two) to a broad public. – flolilolilo Jan 28 '18 at 15:43

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