Why does your camera see things differently than you? - Digital Photography School
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Why does your camera see things differently than you?

Do you ever see a beautiful scene, take out your camera, take the shot and then wonder what went wrong? Why doesn’t the display on the LCD screen look at all like the scene in front of you?

Do you ever stand next to another photographer and wonder how they made an image that is better than the scene you see with your own eyes?

Understanding how the camera “sees” is the key to figuring out why this happens and what you need to do to take charge of your camera and make the images you envision.

If you’re already dreading the mathematical calculations, don’t worry! I’m not going to start measuring my eyeballs and pupils and trying to figure out what kind of lens my eyes are equivalent to in focal length, f/stops, and ISO, or how many megapixels my eyes see. That’s not what this is about.

It’s just about understanding how a camera works differently than our eyes.

When the camera’s “eye” is better than our own

Sometimes the best images show the very thing that we cannot see with our own eyes.

Low Light Levels

At low light levels our eyes are less sensitive to colour than normal. Camera sensors, on the other hand, always have the same sensitivity. That’s why photographs taken in low light appear to have more colour than what we remember.

The Legislature in Victoria, British Columbia

When I made this image of the Legislature in Victoria, British Columbia, the sky was much darker and less blue to my eye.

Long Exposures

The longer the shutter remains open the more light can enter the camera and hit the sensor. Therefore long exposures can bring out objects that are faint in the sky whereas our eyes will perceive no extra detail by looking at something longer.

Starry Night at Joshua Tree National Park, California

The 30 second exposure in this image, made at Joshua Tree National Park in California, picked up more stars than I could see with the naked eye.

Long exposures also allow us to see the passing of time in a way we cannot with our eyes.

Star Trails in Guadalupe National Park, Texas

In Guadalupe National Park, Texas, I was able to capture the movement of the stars around Polaris, the north star, by leaving the shutter open for 30 minutes.

Fallingwater Cascades along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia.

At Fallingwater Cascades along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, the movement of the water caused the maple leaves to swirl around in a circle. By using a 15 second exposure I was able to capture the movement of the leaves.

Short Exposures

On the other end of the scale, high speed photography can freeze motion and allow us to see something that would otherwise pass by too fast for our eyes to retain any detail.

Egret at Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, Florida.

By using a shutter speed of 1/5000 second, I was able to freeze the water droplets as they swirled around the egret’s beak as he caught a fish.

Depth of Field

One thing that is somewhat similar between a camera and a human eye is aperture, but only if you hold it steady. For example, if you stare at one word in the middle of the this sentence and do not move your eyes, you can perceive that the other words are there but they are not clear. The part that is in focus is only the centre portion of your field of view.

That is the same as a camera with a small aperture. The difference is that you can’t actually look at the out-of-focus part. As soon as your eye moves to the out-of-focus words they instantly become in-focus.

Whereas if you are looking at a print or an image on your screen you can look at the out-of-focus part which is something we cannot do with our eyes. That’s why shallow depth of field images are so interesting to us.

Dandelion Seed

Colour

Most of us see in colour. Others see limited colours. But either way we are stuck with what we have. Maybe that’s why some people like or dislike black and white photography. For a long time colour was considered a limitation in photography and the human eye was obviously better. But now photographs give us the option of viewing things in a different way.

Rocks on the beach at Rebecca Spit, Quadra Island, British Columbia.

Rocks on the beach at Rebecca Spit, Quadra Island, British Columbia.

When the human eye (or brain) is better

Dynamic Range

One thing to keep in mind is that when we see something with our eyes, our brain is involved too. Think of optical illusions where you perceive something that isn’t actually there.

As we look around a scene our eyes quickly adjust to changing light. Take a scene with dark shadows and bright highlights for example. As your eye moves from one area to another it quickly adjusts so our eyes take in the right amount of light and we see detail in all parts of the scene. When we look at a scene it is like our brain takes numerous snapshots and what we perceive is the combination of those snapshots.

Your camera cannot do that. It simply records the light that hits the sensor at one aperture setting. It can only have one exposure for the whole scene.

That is where exposure blending, or high-dynamic-range (HDR) photography, can sometimes make a scene look more like what we perceived at the time.

On the other hand, depending on how you blend your images, HDR photographs can show us a lot more detail than what our eyes saw and then they don’t look realistic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! It depends on whether you want your images to be realistic or not.

Grapevine Hills HDR Brackets

The image above represents the same scene taken at three different exposures. One exposure is for the shadows, another for the mid-tones and the other for the highlights.

Grapevine Hills, Big Bend National Park, Texas.

Grapevine Hills, Big Bend National Park, Texas.

I can blend those images together in photoshop and end up with an image like this. Our brain does that all by itself!! This more closely represents the image I remember in my mind.

Conclusion

The kinds of images that are considered good differ from person to person. It’s subjective.

Some people like images that are just like what their eyes saw or are capable of seeing — the realistic images.

Other people prefer images that show them what they cannot see such as black and white, long exposures, or HDR with tons of detail.

Either way, understanding why the camera “sees” things differently than you will put you well on your way to creating the kind of images you want to make.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

  • http://photoblog.2zars.com Wayne

    I think this is probably one of the more difficult concepts to comprehend. Nice article, thank you.

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    I liked your putting together three images side by side for shadows, mid tone and highlight. On the other hand I am for keeping things close to reality.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Jay

    Brilliant! Especially the use of analogies and the B&W issue. Thank you.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/69714842@N06/ Barry E. Warren

    Nice article, That’s the difference between creating a photo and just taking a picture.

  • http://www.jluaphotography.com Jeannie

    Great article – very informative. I learned a lot.

  • Don

    Can you explain the process of blending the bracketed pictures together in photoshop? The result you post is spectacular. Also this is a great article.

  • Scottc

    I think the reason cameras pick up more blue in low light skies is due to the longer exposure and an often incorrect whte balance setting.

    Like this one:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4760605740/

  • http://lenstop.blogspot.com/ Arun

    well explained, thanks.

  • http://Www.wildlifeencounters.eu Steve

    I found taking shots in the Mediterranean a challenge on this theme. The azure blue skies make everything ultra blue to the camera.

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/France/G0000hue7p7WOhXs/I0000fL6L1Az1rnM

  • James

    Yet another superbly written article on a very interesting subject with great example images. I do like your work Anne, both written and photographed. Keep it up. I’m off to Cyprus next week and will be using your work as my inspiration in an effort to bring back some great images. I am already using the techniques outlined in Before the Shutter to prepare.

  • Norval Chan

    Great article, it provides an excellent description of why images sometimes look different than what you “saw.”

  • http://annemckinnell.com Anne McKinnell

    Thank you all for your very nice comments! I really appreciate it.

    @don There are a couple of ways to go about it. One method is to put each bracket on a layer in Photoshop and use layer masks and blending modes to combine the exposures. I do this sometimes, but more often than not I use a program called Photomatix to blend the exposures. It not only blends them, but then gives you lots of sliders to use to fine tune your image so it can be anything from subtle to surreal. It’s a great program.

    @scottc It’s the long exposure that allows more light to hit the sensor. I always use the “daylight” white balance setting and never change it in the field. If I need to, I can change it when I process the RAW image, but I rarely do.

    @steve I know what you mean! Even though the colours are real it can look fake in the image. I sometimes desaturate the blues a little when this happens.

    @james I’m so glad “Before The Shutter” is helping you prepare for your trip to Cyprus. That’s too far to go to leave your images to chance! Good luck and safe travels.

  • http://www.agirlwithcamera.wordpress.com Christina

    Great article! Lot’s of wonderful info. I will be sharing this on my blog so it can help more people with the same questions. Thank you so much!

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/cristiano007 cristiano007

    Great content, Anne. For me, light perception and dynamic range are the the most difficult to understand for begginer photographer. This is the reason I think you have to shoot a lot in a wide variety of situations when you are starting, and again when you buy new equipment. You need to understand how your tools work to be able to make them do what you want to do. Maybe the only thing missing here is the effect of different focal lenghts (view angles) but is a well know issue.

  • alami

    Very useful thank you!

  • Melanie Bucknall

    This was so helpful thanks.

Some older comments

  • cristiano007

    February 28, 2013 08:07 am

    Great content, Anne. For me, light perception and dynamic range are the the most difficult to understand for begginer photographer. This is the reason I think you have to shoot a lot in a wide variety of situations when you are starting, and again when you buy new equipment. You need to understand how your tools work to be able to make them do what you want to do. Maybe the only thing missing here is the effect of different focal lenghts (view angles) but is a well know issue.

  • Christina

    February 28, 2013 01:09 am

    Great article! Lot's of wonderful info. I will be sharing this on my blog so it can help more people with the same questions. Thank you so much!

  • Anne McKinnell

    February 27, 2013 03:26 am

    Thank you all for your very nice comments! I really appreciate it.

    @don There are a couple of ways to go about it. One method is to put each bracket on a layer in Photoshop and use layer masks and blending modes to combine the exposures. I do this sometimes, but more often than not I use a program called Photomatix to blend the exposures. It not only blends them, but then gives you lots of sliders to use to fine tune your image so it can be anything from subtle to surreal. It's a great program.

    @scottc It's the long exposure that allows more light to hit the sensor. I always use the "daylight" white balance setting and never change it in the field. If I need to, I can change it when I process the RAW image, but I rarely do.

    @steve I know what you mean! Even though the colours are real it can look fake in the image. I sometimes desaturate the blues a little when this happens.

    @james I'm so glad "Before The Shutter" is helping you prepare for your trip to Cyprus. That's too far to go to leave your images to chance! Good luck and safe travels.

  • Norval Chan

    February 25, 2013 04:19 am

    Great article, it provides an excellent description of why images sometimes look different than what you "saw."

  • James

    February 24, 2013 08:12 pm

    Yet another superbly written article on a very interesting subject with great example images. I do like your work Anne, both written and photographed. Keep it up. I'm off to Cyprus next week and will be using your work as my inspiration in an effort to bring back some great images. I am already using the techniques outlined in Before the Shutter to prepare.

  • Steve

    February 24, 2013 07:27 pm

    I found taking shots in the Mediterranean a challenge on this theme. The azure blue skies make everything ultra blue to the camera.

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/France/G0000hue7p7WOhXs/I0000fL6L1Az1rnM

  • Arun

    February 24, 2013 04:16 pm

    well explained, thanks.

  • Scottc

    February 24, 2013 10:27 am

    I think the reason cameras pick up more blue in low light skies is due to the longer exposure and an often incorrect whte balance setting.

    Like this one:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4760605740/

  • Don

    February 24, 2013 09:34 am

    Can you explain the process of blending the bracketed pictures together in photoshop? The result you post is spectacular. Also this is a great article.

  • Jeannie

    February 24, 2013 05:48 am

    Great article - very informative. I learned a lot.

  • Barry E. Warren

    February 24, 2013 04:44 am

    Nice article, That's the difference between creating a photo and just taking a picture.

  • Jay

    February 24, 2013 03:47 am

    Brilliant! Especially the use of analogies and the B&W issue. Thank you.

  • Mridula

    February 24, 2013 02:42 am

    I liked your putting together three images side by side for shadows, mid tone and highlight. On the other hand I am for keeping things close to reality.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Wayne

    February 24, 2013 02:10 am

    I think this is probably one of the more difficult concepts to comprehend. Nice article, thank you.

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