What is real?

Gary Hart Photography: Color Wheel, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Color Wheel, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

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, your dentist’s dog, and so on…) 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.

Before lamenting your camera’s limitations, pause to consider that what you and I see is incredibly limited as well. The visible (to the human eye) portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is a minuscule part of the infinite continuum of electromagnetic radiation bombarding each of us, every instant of every day. For example, X-ray machines “see” waves in the one nanometer (one billionth of a meter) range; TVs and radios “see” waves that are measured in centimeters; humans, on the other hand, only see waves between (about) 400 and 750  nanometers.

Using this knowledge, astronomers peer into space with tools designed to detect objects at wavelengths invisible to us. And X-rays allow doctors to view bones hidden beneath opaque skin, while night vision technology uses “invisible” (to us) infrared radiation (heat) to reveal 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 records more or less the same visible spectrum our eyes do, the camera is missing an entire dimension. Not only that (since we’re not talking about movies here), a camera only returns a snap of a single instant. And we all know about limited dynamic range and depth of field.

Despite these differences, photographers often go to great lengths to force their camera to record what their eyes see. Not only is their goal impossible, it ignores the camera’s ability to see things in ways we don’t, and the opportunity to provide a fresh perspective.

Our visual input is interpreted before we perceive it, in much the same way a camera’s input is processed before it’s output (to a monitor, printer, or whatever). Visual processing happens in our brain, which makes adjustments for things like color temperature, perspective, motion, and so on. Likewise, every photograph must be processed (interpreted) in some way before it can be viewed, either by the camera, or by the photographer, using Photoshop or some other processing software.


Capturing motion in a scene is the photographer’s creative choice. Still-photographers can’t capture water motion as we see it, but we can use shutter speed to blur or freeze the water to varying degrees. People who criticize blurred water images for being “false” because that’s not the way water is, completely miss the point. My question to them is, how would you choose to capture water? (It’s a trick question.) When they answer frozen sharp, I ask them how many times they’ve actually seen a wave or water droplet suspended in midair. (Crickets.) The point is, a still camera simply “sees” motion differently than we do. Rather than holding our images to an unattainable human standard, we should feel free to appreciate and convey our cameras’ unique perspective.

But despite its limitations, the camera’s view of motion can expose things missed by human vision. A waterfall frozen in place by a fast shutter speed reveals that what appears to be a mass of solid white water, is really a comprised of individual sparkling droplets. And a long shutter speed reveals patterns in the motion of flowing water.

For example, in the image at the top of this post, when I used a neutral density filter to allow a long shutter speed, a swirl too slow to register to the naked eye appeared. Also interesting to me is the lone stationary leaf, indicating a small patch of calm amidst the swirl.

What is real?

Is this image “real”? While it’s nothing like what I saw, it’s still a very accurate rendering of my camera’s reality. Understanding my camera’s vision, and knowing how to control my exposure variables, enabled me to share a perspective that expands my limited vision and transcends human reality. Pretty cool.

Not What I Saw

Click an image for a closer look and a slide show. 

What do you think?

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