On the edge of the twentieth and our centuries, there was not only a rapid development of computers, soft and digital photographic equipment but also one more important process: all mentioned technologies were becoming more and more affordable to the widest range of people. Simply put, hardware was becoming faster, soft – more powerful, digital cameras – more perfect and, at the same time, all this were becoming easier and cheaper for a customer. If in the early nineties photography was a laborious and difficult process for the chosen enthusiasts, now, after a little bit more than twenty years, almost every person has a camera (I can even say “every person” if include cameras in smartphones). Moreover, from a purely technical point of view, our modern cameras can take higher quality images comparing to the best photos of the film era.
So why the world is not filled with photographic masterpieces? Why photos we bring from the most picturesque places visited during vacation do not arouse our friends the same overflowing enthusiasm as we do?
The answer is very simple and I can put it in just five words: Because of photography, brain and eye. I am sure you didn’t understand what it means. But this is only because I deliberately turned my answer in Suprematism in order to intrigue you. 🙂 And now, when you are really interested in it, I will make myself clear with pleasure.
1. Reality and photography
What photography is? You say the portraying of a three-dimensional world on a plane. Absolutely right. And what the beautiful landscape photography is? Certainly, most will converge on that it is a harmonious combination of elements of a captivating place. I agree again. And what is this captivating place in reality? Perhaps all that can be captured in a photo. But not only. When you are in some beautiful place, say, on the seashore at sunset, you’re not only seeing a sea, a beach, rocks, sky and almost red Sun. You’re also hearing gulls and the sound of the surf. You’re feeling a light breeze and warm sunshine on your skin. Finally, you’re feeling the sea and plants odours and maybe even the coming from the nearby cafe smell of freshly prepared fish, baked-on coals of fruit trees. And how can you portray all these things in a photo? That’s right: you can’t.
And when back home you show your photos on the screen to your friends you unconsciously remember all the gamut of emotions which you experienced at the moment. The gamut caused by a view, sounds, aromas and tactile sensations. And if there was also your dear soulmate, you should add the romantic notes. But you can’t transfer all this to your friends. The maximum you can is to emotionally comment on every image. But you see “it is better to see once than hear a hundred times”.
And that’s why your friends will see just not very colourful yellow-pink sky with clouds even of beautiful shape but the too dark beach and almost black rocks.
2. Reality and how our brain perceives it
The twentieth century was characterized by not only rapid technological progress. Various science researches improved no less rapidly. The same trend continued in our century. Among others, we are very advanced in the study and understanding of the human brain – how it works and why.
According to recent research, for example, it became known that we, humans, live not in the real world but in some kind of virtual reality created by our brain. Reality close enough to the real world that we don’t bump into objects or confuse a sandwich with a notepad. But still, “this reality is made up, for the most part, of some sort of video clips simulated by our brain”. (1) Much of what we see “around” is created “inside”. “Only a small part of what goes into our brain comes directly from the outside world; the rest comes from a memory and structures involved in semantic processing of the perceived information”. (2)
So, even if we could cut off the effect of smells, sounds and tactile sensations on our senses (in fact, we can’t do it but let us imagine), the picture we can see by our eyes (more precisely would say “perceive by our brain”) is still quite far from the real world. A digital camera, on the other hand, just transmits the image as close as possible to it.
And here appears the question: what is more important – the reality as it is or our impressions, emotions and feelings caused by it? I would say if you are doing reportage or documentary photography, the reality is more important and any editing will be a distortion. But if you seek to convey your feelings from what you saw, the only way to lose as little as possible in the course of transmission from you to a viewer is to make your photo beautiful.
3. A human eye and a digital camera
It’s not a secret that the human eye is still more perfect than any other tool of receiving visual information that we have. (Of course, we rather talk about a system “eye-brain” because our eyes are useless without a tool for perceiving and processing the information). For instance, when we look over a very contrasting scene (say, we stand almost on the edge of the forest at sunny midday and we see not only a brightly lit outskirt but also the dark trees around us) we do not even notice how quickly our eyes adapt to the different brightness. All the details of this scene are clearly visible to us: dark grass at the foot of the trees, bright flowers in the meadow and a very light sky with white clouds at the top. But try to photograph such a landscape and you will get a clearly visible forest, bright meadow and completely white sky or vice versa – a bright sky, clearly visible glade and almost black forest. Photographers call it “low dynamic range”.
Roughly the same thing with the focus. If we look at the tree standing under it close to the lowest branches then, however, all its branches until the uppermost are seen in focus for us. But if you photograph the same scene, you’ll get the image with focus only at one branch. The rest will be out of focus. In fact, in this case, the eye works approximately the same as the camera lens. The difference is that the eye is changing its focus much faster than the camera and the brain, meanwhile, is building a coherent picture of the individual pieces. So, it seems to us that all the tree branches we see clearly.
And if the depth of field photographers have long been used as an artistic device, as for the image details with different brightness – chasing the eye continues and still very far from completion.
The result is that we have to process digital photographs to maximum accurately convey our emotions from the imaged scene. And if photographing with the compact camera in JPG format you get a bit embellished picture of reality (however, it’s still far from what you perceive), shooting with the DSLR in RAW format initially involves post-processing.
And here appears another, much more complex question: how to understand how you need to embellish the photo processing it on the computer and at which point you need to stop? The answer is simpler than it was in the previous case – a sense of proportion. 🙂 And that’s why the world is not filled with photographic masterpieces although it’s elementary to take a photo.
1 – Hanson R., Mendius R., 2011 – “The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom”. p.62
2 – Raichle M., 2006 – “The Brain’s Dark Energy”. Science 314: p.1249-1250.
Text (except signed quotes) and photos by Denis Churin, © 2016