Visual “Truth” is relative
Without getting too philosophical, it’s important to understand that, like your camera, your view of the universe is both limited and interpreted. In other words, there is no absolute visual truth. Instead, we (you, me, our cameras) each have a unique vision of the world that’s based on the way we receive it. Our definition of “real” is biased toward the three-dimensional, 360 degree, continuous-motion way our eye/brain system processes our universe, but it’s wrong to contend that the camera’s perspective is any less real than yours or mine.
The visible spectrum
Before lamenting your camera’s limitations, pause to consider that, in the grand scheme of perpetual electromagnetic energy surrounding us, what you and I see is incredibly limited as well. The visible (to the human eye) portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is an insignificant fraction of the infinite continuum of electromagnetic wavelengths permeating the Universe. For example, X-ray machines peer into the world of electromagnetic waves in the one nanometer (one billionth of a meter); TVs and radios “see” waves that are measured in centimeters; humans, on the other hand, see only waves in the very narrow band between (about) 400 and 750 nanometers.
With tools that target specific wavelengths, doctors reveal subcutaneous secrets, astronomers explore our galaxy and beyond, law enforcement and the military use “invisible” (to us) infrared radiation (heat) to see people and objects in complete darkness. In other words, in the grand scheme of things, there’s no single absolute visual standard—it’s all relative to your frame of reference.
The camera has its own frame of reference. While it’s sensitive to more or less the same visible spectrum our eyes see, the camera is oblivious to an entire dimension (depth). Not only that (since we’re not talking about movies here), a camera only returns a snap of a single instant. But a camera has advantages—its narrow perspective (compared to the human experience) allows photographers to hide distractions outside the frame, and that “instant” reflected in a photo can actually be an accumulation of infinite number of instants.
Despite these differences, photographers often go to great lengths attempting to force their cameras to record the world the way their eyes see it—not necessarily bad, but extremely limiting. Not only is duplicating human vision with a camera impossible, doing so sacrifices the camera’s ability to reveal things the eye/brain misses.
Every photograph must be processed (interpreted) in some way before it can be viewed. The processing can happen in a lab (remember those days?), the camera, and/or in a computer. But human visual input is also interpreted before we perceive it. Visual processing happens in the brain, which adjusts for things like color temperature, perspective, motion, and so on.
Of course human vision is a lot more complex than that, and while the eye/brain relationship might not be a perfect analog for the camera/computer paradigm, suffice to say, whether you’re looking at Yosemite in a digital print, on a computer screen, or through your own two eyes, the scene has been interpreted. And with interpretation comes bias.
In many ways, the eye’s ability to capture light exceeds that of even the best cameras, effortlessly pulling detail out of deep shadows and bright highlights. But savvy photographers know how to use their cameras’ limited dynamic range to hide distractions, emphasize the scene’s most important elements, and reveal washed out color.
In the image above, captured on the Big Island of Hawaii last September, I used my camera’s (relatively) narrow dynamic range to simplify a sunrise to its essential color and shape. I could have blended multiple exposures to bring the detail in this scene closer to what my eyes saw, but it wasn’t the scene’s detail that moved me. Instead, underexposing the shadows minimized detail in the trees and rocks and allowed me to reveal color that had been washed out by the rising sun. I was able to simplify an originally complex scene to the elements that I found most compelling: the very tropical outline of swaying palms, the
tenacious strength of rugged sea stacks, and the vivid color of a Hawaii sunrise, all mirrored in an abstract foreground reflection.
Instead, using my camera’s “limited” dynamic range, I blackened the superfluous detail that would have distracted from the qualities of the scene that I most wanted to convey.
In the poppy image on the right, the scene’s dynamic range was again impossible to capture with a camera—everything you see as white was blue sky or brilliant sunlight to my eyes. I chose to properly expose the poppy and let the sky blow out. The result was this beautifully backlit poppy isolated against a white background that was nothing like my view of the scene—but it was exactly what my camera saw.
Open your mind
So the next time you feel like labeling “real” or “not real,” or insisting that your camera do things it’s not very good at (just to satisfy your own perception of reality), remember that real is relative and far broader than your narrow perspective.
(Or saw far differently)
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