Photography article

The Camera Always Lies

Photography articleThe camera always lies. The skill in photography is successfully telling the lie you wish to tell. But wait – I thought the camera never lies?! Well I don’t believe so, and I shall now explain why.

What we are really asking is “does a photograph accurately convey reality”? In other words “does an image produced by a camera equal what we see naturally with our eyes”? The answer, in short, is no.

Firstly, a photograph is bounded and constrained by clearly defined edges. This has significant implications on the way we perceive an image. You know the feeling. You see that gorgeous view, but it never ‘feels’ the same when you see the photo you took of it. For this reason, a photographer always needs to consider how a scene relates to the imposition of borders; how the elements sit within them.

Secondly, unless you are shooting at 50mm – the same focal length as your eyes – your lens choice will either compress or expand the perspective within a photograph, providing a view impossible to see with the naked eye. I’ve explored the relationship between focal length and the feel of a shot in a previous post.

Dungeness Sunset BoatThirdly, we have the issue of dynamic range. Without significant help from post-processing, a camera cannot pick up the same breadth of dark to light tones as the human eye. Hence e.g. a beautiful sunset may look washed out in a photograph, with foreground elements too dark, and the sun itself burnt out to blank white.

There are also a multitude of other issues – indeed entire books have been written on them – which influence the way the mind perceives a photograph in comparison to a real world view. All conspire to the ultimate fact that a photographer must consider what he or she wishes to convey, and how best to achieve that, and not to expect a photograph to simply replicate a scene.

So, going back to my original quote, a photographer needs first to understand that his/her images are ‘representations’ rather than reality, and then to decide what sort of representation to try and create. Trying to replicate something that looks and feels nearly as it did in reality is a common but extremely challenging goal, and I shall talk more about than in a future post.