Visual “Truth” is more relative than real
“Is that the way it really looked?” What photographer hasn’t heard that question by skeptical viewers? For years I used to feel slightly defensive when answering, as if my honesty was in question. Now I simply try to educate the skeptic.
Without getting too philosophical, it’s important to understand that, like the camera’s, the human view of the universe is both limited and interpreted. In other words, there’s no such thing as absolute visual truth. Instead, we (you, me, and our cameras) each have our own view of the world that’s based on many factors, some we can control, others we can’t. When you look through a viewfinder, the more you turn off your visual biases and understand your camera’s, the more successful your photography will be.
Complaining about the camera’s limitations—its dynamic range, low-light sensitivity, distorted perspectives—is a popular pastime among photographers who feel obligated to reproduce the world as “it really looks.” But before wasting too much time lamenting your camera’s limitations, pause to consider that what you and I see is incredibly limited as well. And while the camera can’t do some things our eyes can, it can do other things our eyes can’t.
Every square inch of the Universe is continuously bathed in an infinite range of electromagnetic frequencies. We humans, and our cameras, are completely oblivious to the vast majority of this radiation. For example, X-ray machines “see” waves in the one nanometer (one billionth of a meter) range, far too small for our eyes to register; TVs and radios “see” waves that are measured in centimeters—much too long for our eyes; we humans (and our cameras) can only see electromagnetic waves that fall between (about) 400 and 750 nanometers.
Knowledge of these “missing” wavelengths enables astronomers to peer into space using tools designed to see objects at wave lengths invisible to us, doctors to harness X-rays to view bones hidden beneath opaque skin, and military and law enforcement to see in the dark by detecting infrared radiation (heat). 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.
Recording more or less the same visible spectrum our eyes do, the camera is sometimes mistakenly assumed to duplicate human vision. But the camera has its own view of the world. For starters, it’s missing an entire dimension. And not only does it not record depth, a still camera only returns a frozen snap of a single instant. And we all know about our camera’s limited dynamic range and depth of field. Yet despite these differences, photographers often go to great lengths to force their camera to record what their eyes see. Not only is this impossible, it ignores camera’s potential to see things in ways we don’t.
About this image
Several things about this Columbia River Gorge wildflower image are different from what my eyes saw. First, this scene was a little brighter to my eyes than what I captured—I chose to slightly underexpose the majority of the scene to avoid completely overexposing the extremely bright sun and sky, and to keep the color from washing out. Another benefit of underexposure in this case is the way the nearly black shadows enhance the scene’s rich color.
I couldn’t see the sunstar, which (in the simplest possible terms) is caused when light passing through a small opening is bent and separated. Of course the scene’s extreme depth of field required a small aperture anyway, wanting to give the left side of my frame visual weight to balance Mt. Adams on the right, in this case I’d have opted for a small aperture anyway.
And finally, going with an extremely wide focal length exaggerated the size of the flowers that were just inches away, and significantly diminished the size of the distant Mt. Adams.
What is real?
Is this image real? While it’s not what I saw, it is a very accurate rendering of my camera’s reality. Understanding how my camera’s vision differs from mine, and how to leverage that difference by controlling the available focal length, exposure, and compositional options enables me to create a perspective that expands my limited vision and transcends human reality. Pretty cool.