Error Level Analysis (ELA) identifies areas within an image that are at different compression levels. With JPEG images, the entire picture should be at roughly the same level. If a section of the image is at a significantly different error level, then it likely indicates a digital modification.
ELA highlights differences in the JPEG compression rate. Regions with uniform coloring, like a solid blue sky or a white wall, will likely have a lower ELA result (darker color) than high-contrast edges. The things to look for:
Edges. Similar edges should have similar brightness in the ELA result. All high-contrast edges should look similar to each other, and all low-contrast edges should look similar. With an original photo, low-contrast edges should be almost as bright as high-contrast edges.
Textures. Similar textures should have similar coloring under ELA. Areas with more surface detail, such as a close-up of a basketball, will likely have a higher ELA result than a smooth surface.
Surfaces. Regardless of the actual color of the surface, all flat surfaces should have about the same coloring under ELA.
Look around the picture and identify the different high-contrast edges, low-contrast edges, surfaces, and textures. Compare those areas with the ELA results. If there are significant differences, then it identifies suspicious areas that may have been digitally altered.
Resaving a JPEG removes high-frequencies and results in less differences between high-contrast edges, textures, and surfaces. A very low quality JPEG will appear very dark.
Scaling a picture smaller can boost high-contrast edges, making them brighter under ELA. Similarly, saving a JPEG with an Adobe product will automatically sharpen high-contrast edges and textures, making them appear much brighter than low-texture surfaces.
JPEG images use a lossy compression system. Each re-encoding (resave) of the image adds more quality loss to the image. Specifically, the JPEG algorithm operates on an 8x8 pixel grid. Each 8x8 square is compressed independently. If the image is completely unmodified, then all 8x8 squares should have similar error potentials. If the image is unmodified and resaved, then every square should degrade at approximately the same rate.
ELA saves the image at a specified JPEG quality level. This resave introduces a known amount of error across the entire image. The resaved image is then compared against the original image.
If an image is modified, then every 8x8 square that was touched by the modification should be at a higher error potential than the rest of the image. Modified areas will appear with a higher potential error level.
JPEG Encoding Blocks
JPEG stores colors using the YUV color space. 'Y' is the luminance, or gray-scale intensity of the image, 'U' and 'V' are the chrominance-blue and chrominance-red color portions. For displaying, the JPEG decoder converts the image from YUV to RGB.
JPEG always encodes luminance with an 8x8 grid. However, chrominance may be encoded using 8x8, 8x16, 16x8, or 16x16. The chrominance subsampling is a JPEG encoding option. Depending on the selected chrominance subsampling, each 8x8, 8x16, 16x8, 16x16 grid will be independently encoded.
With ELA, every grid that is not optimized for the quality level will show grid squares that change during a resave. For example, digital cameras do not optimize images for the specified camera quality level (high, medium, low, etc.). Original pictures from digital cameras should have a high degree of change during any resave (high ELA values). Each subsequent resave will lower the error level potential, yielding a darker ELA result. With enough resaves, the grid square will eventually reach its minimum error level, where it will not change anymore.
An original digital photograph (Source: Hacker Factor) has high ELA values, represented by white colors in the ELA. The sections that are black correspond to the solid white book and the black 8x8 squares in the original image. Solid colors compress very well, so these are already at their minimum error levels.
The original image was resaved one time. To the human eye, there is no visible difference between the original and the resave image. However, ELA shows much more black and more dark colors. If this image were resaved again, it will have even lower (darker) ELA values.
The resaved image was digitally modified: books were copied and a toy dinosaur was added. ELA clearly shows the modified areas as having higher ELA values.
It is important to recognize that high frequency areas, such as edges along objects, will usually have higher ELA values than the rest of the picture. For example, the text on the books stands out because the light/dark contrast creates a high frequency edge. In general, you should compare edges with edges and surfaces with surfaces. If all surfaces except one have similar ELA values, then the outlier should be suspect.
Rather than saving colors by their red, green, and blue components, JPEG separates colors into luminance and chrominance channels. The luminance is effectively the gray-scale intensitity of the image. The chrominance-red and chrominance-blue components identify the amount of coloring, independent of the full color's intensity.
With ELA and resaved images, there may be a visible separation between the luminance and chrominance channels as a blue/purple/red coloring called rainbowing. Drawing tools such as Photoshop can introduce a distinct rainbowing pattern surfaces that have near-uniform coloring.
Computer-generated hands. ("NMRIH Hands", Matthew Fagan, 2009). The ELA shows red and blue rainbowing as background stripes. In other pictures, rainbowing may appear as large patches.
In general, Photoshop and other Adobe products generate a large amount of rainbowing. However, rainbowing is not an exclusive artifact to Adobe products. For example, the open source GIMP program generates little rainbowing and some high-quality camera photos may also include rainbowing along uniform-colored surfaces, such as white walls or blue skies. Some drawing tools, such as Microsoft's Paint, do not generate rainbowing.
The strong presence of rainbowing only suggests that an Adobe product, like Photoshop or Lightroom, was used to save the image. It does not identify intentional modifications.
Some digital cameras can produce rainbowing. However, there is an easy way to distinguish a camera's rainbowing from Photoshop. With a digital camera, the rainbowing is not restricted to the JPEG grid. The edges of a camera's rainbowing area will appear to have smooth contours. With Photoshop and other graphics applications, rainbowing is stictly limited to the JPEG grid. If the edges of the rainbowing area appear blocky in 8x8 or 16x16 chunks, then the rainbowing is likely caused by a graphics program such as Photoshop.
The results from ELA are directly dependent on the image quality. You may want to know if something was added, but if the picture is a copy of a copy of a copy, then ELA may only detect the resaves. Try to find the best quality version of the picture.
For example, many pictures are hosted at Flickr. Flickr provides small, medium, large, and original images. The small, medium, and large are derivative images (resaves) created by Flickr. The "original" is whatever the user sent to Flickr, so the original will be the best quality. Similarly, pictures on news sites are usually resaved. If they have a tagline like "Source: AP Images", then go to the source and use that picture instead. News sites typically recolor, resize, and crop images before saving them at a very low quality. Go for the original source (or get as close as you can to the original source) to improve the image's quality and the ELA results.
Two easy ways to tell that the image is not an original are to look at the image size and attributions. In general, digital cameras do not generate small pictures. Pictures that are sized for the web are likely resized from other pictures, and even those may not be camera-original. Also, many web sites add their logo or URL to a corner of the picture. That means the base picture was resaved and the last modification was likely the addition of the attribution.
For best results, try to find the source picture. If you don't know where to start, then try TinEye. Many pictures on the web are resaved as they pass from user to user. TinEye doesn't know every picture on the web, but it knows many pictures. If the picture is being passed around, then TinEye can help find the source (or at least a better copy of the image). In general, the biggest image is usually the best quality. (But some sites do scale images larger...)
With training and practice, ELA users can also learn to identify image scaling, quality, cropping, and resave transformations. For example, if a non-JPEG image contains visible grid lines (1-pixel wide in 8x8 squares), then it means the picture started as a JPEG and was converted to the non-JPEG (e.g., PNG) format. If some areas of the picture lack grid lines or the grid lines shift, then it denotes a splice or drawn portion in the non-JPEG image.
As another example, PNG files are a lossless file format. If a picture is an original PNG, then ELA should produce very high values for edges and textures. However, if ELA generates weak results (dark or black coloring) along edges and textures, then the PNG was likely created from a JPEG. This is because the conversion process from JPEG to PNG is lossless and will retain JPEG artifacts.
When combined with other algorithms, ELA becomes a very powerful evaluation tool.
While ELA is an excellent tool for detecting modifications, there are a number of caveats:
A single pixel change, or minor color adjustment, may not generate a noticeable change in the ELA.
Since JPEG operates on a grid, a change to any part of the grid will likely impact the entire grid square. You may not be able to identify exactly which pixel in the grid was modified.
JPEG uses the YUV color space. High contrast colors in the same grid, such as black and white, orange and blue, or green and purple (opposite ends of the YUV color space), will usually generate higher ELA values than similar colors in the same grid.
ELA only identifies what regions have different compression levels. It does not identify sources. If a lower quality image is spliced into a higher quality picture, then the lower quality image may appear as a darker region.
Scaling, recoloring, or adding noise to an image will modify the entire image, creating a higher error level potential.
If an image is resaved multiple times, then it may be entirely at a minimum error level, where more resaves do not alter the image. In this case, the ELA will return a black image and no modifications can be identified using this algorithm.
With Photoshop, the simple act of saving the picture can auto-sharpen textures and edges, creating a higher error level potential. This artifact does not identify intentional modification; it identifies that an Adobe product was used. (Remember: if someone needs to download a picture from their camera or resize a picture for the web, they are just as likely to reach for Photoshop as they are to use any other tool.) Technically, ELA detects a modification because Adobe automatically performed a modification, but the modification was not necessarily intentional by the user.
As mentioned above, rainbowing is not exclusive to Photoshop. The open source GIMP drawing program may introduce a little rainbowing and some high quality photos may contain rainbowing.
ELA is only one algorithm. The interpretation of results may be inconclusive. It is important to validate findings with other analysis techniques and algorithms.
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