The Camera: Not As Good As The Human Eye (Your Camera is a Liar)

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Technology is incredible.  To see how far we’ve come in the past several years – especially in the photography world – is astounding.  Digital cameras seem to be capable of nearly anything, especially if money is not a limited resource.  But for every technological feat that we’ve accomplished, there is still one very incredible image sensor that is unmatched:  The human eye.

All across the web, there are hundreds of debates about the capabilities of the human eye.  How many frames per second (fps) can the human eye see?  What’s the maximum resolution (a debate made no more clear by Apple’s so-called “Retina Display” on their latest iPhone)?  What’s the ISO equivalent of the human eye?  These things are much debated because we’re comparing apples to oranges, and that’s not quite fair.  But until there’s truly a way to measure the human eye’s capabilities in a way that is comparable to your camera sensor, the debates will continue.

What really matters is that no camera has yet exceeded the capabilities of the human eye with respect to focusing speed, color range, depth of field or it’s ability to see wide ranges of light levels.  In photography, this matters because your camera will not be able to see things the same way your eye does.  Your camera is always hiding something – just like a shifty con-artist.

In many regards, this is a restriction.  In a scene like the one above, the human eye would be able to see the details and colors of the shirts of the people in the photo.  It would see the leaves on the trees, and the light wouldn’t appear to taper off nearly as fast at the edges of the light throw.  But the camera cannot support such a wide dynamic range.  You need to expose for the light, or you need to expose for the darker areas.  You can’t have it both ways with a single image.  High Dynamic Range imaging is designed to augment the camera’s limitations in this regard, but that requires multiple exposures – so it’s not truly a fix, just an exploit.

On the other hand, such a restriction can also be a tool.  Take this shot – “Leaves Before Dark” (shot with ISO 200 film) – for example.  Had the film truly been capable of the eye’s dynamic range, this shot would not have been possible.  The contrast would not have been so great, and you might even be able to make out some of the details on the leaves themselves.  Had the lens been capable of the eye’s depth of field, the trees in the background would have been in tack-sharp focus, despite the fact that they are easily 200 yards off.  The clouds would not have been silky smooth and every single branch would have been tack sharp.  In short, if my camera were able to duplicate the human eye’s abilities, this would be a flat, boring photo without much artistic interest.  And this is just a simple photo.  What if we were striving to create some dramatic lighting?  It’s fairly simple to do with a single strobe, thanks to your camera’s limitations.  But many of the widely practiced lighting techniques would not be possible if the camera could see what the human eye could see.

Takeaway #1: The first thing I hoped you learned from this article is that you need to be fully aware of your camera’s limitations.  You need to be able to understand the differences between what you see and what your camera sees.  Adjusting for your camera’s limitations should become second nature.

Takeaway #2: This is most important:  I hope that you have developed an appreciation for your camera’s flaws.  Learn to love your camera for not being as great as your eyes.  It is these so-called flaws that allow you to perform your art in the first place.  Think about it: The artistic styling of your photographs are almost always exploitative of your camera’s design flaws.  Am I right?  Now what if you had to give up all these flaws?  The art would dissolve into a sea of sameness.

The truth is that the camera does lie.  Lying is what your camera does best.  As a photographer, your job is to exploit that fact to weave a story with your photographs.

Happy storytelling.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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