“Photography’s gift isn’t the ability to reproduce your reality, it’s the ability to expand it.”
(The first installment of my series on photographic reality.)
When I hear a photographer say “That’s exactly what I saw when I was there,” I cringe. Not only is capturing human reality in a photograph impossible (really), attempting to do so is so limiting. I’m a strong advocate of “honest” photography, photography that depicts a natural truth without digital deception, but photographic truth isn’t the same as human truth, a fact photographers should celebrate, not deny. Embracing your camera’s reality opens the door to revealing nature in ways humans can’t.
Leveraging your camera’s reality starts with understanding that “reality” is in fact a moving target defined by the medium experiencing it. The human eye’s version of reality is experienced within its narrow confines on the electromagnetic spectrum, limited to only those wavelengths between (about) 400 and 750 nanometers (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter—i.e., really, really small). An x-ray machine’s reality is .01 to 10 nanometers. But if you’ve ever seen an infrared image, you saw another version of reality, this time in the 3,000-14,000 nanometer range. Even your smartphone and microwave oven stake out their own reality turf on the very same electromagnetic spectrum.
My point isn’t to overwhelm you with scientific minutia (this won’t be on the test), it’s to jar you from your human-centric view of the universe. While a camera records light (more or less) within the same range of the electromagnetic spectrum registered by your eyes, a camera’s sensor responds to those wavelength’s a little differently, and it doesn’t benefit from the stereoscopic vision and cerebral processor that conveys depth and motion and adjusts in real time as light and focus needs dictate. And a camera’s sensor can’t handle the same range of light our eyes can, In other words, it’s impossible for a camera to record the world exactly like being there. Thank goodness.
Understanding and controlling the way your camera “sees” allows you to tap its unique vision and emphasize overlooked, unappreciated aspects of the natural world. On the other hand, photographers who see the world only with their own eyes, who use Photoshop or other digital tools to bludgeon their images into something closer to their own reality (or worse, into a manufactured digital reality), rarely add to their viewers’ perception of nature.
The camera’s vision differs from yours in many ways. In upcoming posts I’ll cover confining borders, dynamic range, motion, time, and depth. But because I need to start somewhere, I thought I’d begin with an often unappreciated difference: focus. Not only do your eyes have a very wide focus range, they adjust focus (virtually) instantly, responding to a command from your brain in ways your not even conscious of to give you the impression that your entire scene is in crisp focus throughout. The camera, on the other hand, captures the current focus in a static instant. And the reciprocity of shutter speed and aperture make for sometimes impossible choices when trying maximize depth of field in limited light.
Photographers jump through lots of hoops to overcome limited depth of field and more closely approximate their own experience of world. Tiny apertures, tilt-shift lenses, and blended images will do it, albeit with trade-offs. And when all else fails, we’ll bump our ISO into the noisy stratosphere. All that is well and good, but let’s not forget that there’s no rule that says your capture must mimic your experience. Sometimes we can use our camera’s ability to severely limit depth of field to our advantage by eliminating distractions and turning uninteresting backgrounds into a complementary canvas of color and shape.
Photographing near the Pohono Bridge in Yosemite, my eyes were treated to an overwhelming variety of input: countless dogwood blooms floating in dappled light; the swollen Merced River, deep and green or fast and frothing; oblivious cars and focused photographers; all this beneath a boring, pale blue sky. (Not to mention the sounds and smells of outdoors.) All of this input demanded attention, but I just wanted to convey the dogwood’s elegant grace in the context of its simple, verdant setting—everything else was superfluous.
While my human senses took in everything with razor sharpness, focusing close with a telephoto lens and large aperture allowed me isolate a single flower, reducing the rest of the visual world to a soft canvas of variegated green. Careful positioning and framing juxtaposed other blurred, complementary elements to provide location context. And using my camera’s inability to capture the range of light my eyes saw, I exposed for the brightly lit dogwood, turning everything in shade into a background ranging from dark green to nearly black.
This is image nothing like what my eyes saw, but it is what my camera saw (minimal Lightroom/Photoshop processing). Using my camera’s vision, I was able to eliminate distractions and isolate only the aspects of the scene I wanted to share. In my next few blog posts I’ll write more about leveraging your camera’s vision to reveal nature’s beauty in ways that are different, but no less real, than being there.
Up next, Framing infinity.