The plurality of the real

By | December 29, 2013

There is some weird cult on a photo site I visit where people post uncropped “unaltered” images from their cameras, insisting that what their cameras captured is “how it really looked.”

There is no “how it really looked.” It does not exist. I cannot stress this enough. The how it really looked does not exist. It cannot.The belief that it does demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of cameras, physics, physiology, human nature, color perception, human memory and basic optics.

First of all, a camera captures both a subset and a superset of what your eyes can see. Your eyes have a far, far higher dynamic contrast ratio than any camera. For most people, it’s somewhere on the order of 1/2,000. The best widely-used camera extant right now has a contrast ratio in the realm of 1/20. (This means that you can discern detail in both a bright and a dark area, the bright area being 2,000 times brighter than the dark area.) In other words, the average human can in this particular way see a hundred times better than any camera.

At the same time, though, a camera can capture a bit farther into the infrared and the UV than any human eye (if you don’t believe this, it’s quite easy to demonstrate).

That’s barely even the start of it. A human eye works fundamentally differently than any camera ever made. Going into the details of this would make the post 10,000 words long but to better my photography I extensively studied how the human eye works and how my camera works. And trust me, they are as different as a submarine and an albacore tuna.

All of that isn’t even 20% of the difference, though.

The rest of the inapplicability of the straight-from-the-camera approach has to do with the human mind, the covering of which even in relation to photography only would make the post infinitely long.

As much as I hate to defend those who inflict Instagram filtering to their photos, their approach is more accurate and closer to the full spectrum of human perception than the “how it really looked” contingent. I object to it only because as used by most it is artless and thoughtless rather than any other reason.

The human mind perceives a constantly-updated stitched-together totality; the camera sees one thing only and freezes it forevermore. The mind builds a gestalt that include all that happened before, during and after a memory was made; the camera knows only what was in front of it, and only captures some small part of that. The human mind perceives color relatively, and the camera does as well, but in completely different ways that are by necessity at odds.

I could go on. This post could be so very long, but I’ll wrap this up.

If you see someone claim that some photo is “unaltered” or “how it really looked,” realize how little this means. There isn’t such a thing as how it really looked. No camera captures this. They can’t. No mind captures this either. To recurse the metaphor, there are only snapshots, brief glimpses of some truer reality only the edges and surfaces of which we perceive differently with each different tool: our eyes; the camera; a drawing; a memory.

None of these depictions are true, and none of them are how it really looked, or how it really was — nor can they ever be.