Why the camera lies…

‘The old saying “The camera cannot lie”, is wrong of course. Photography is not objective. Firstly, every photograph is an abstract, a transformation of colour values into the grey-scale. already here there are endless possibilities of subjective representation. Secondly, only a small tone-scale is at our disposal in which to express the infinite wealth of tone values which we find in nature, from gleaming white down to the deepest black; it comprises only the thousandth even ten-thousandth, part of the original tone-scale. Thus we have not only to find an analogy to colour, we have also to transpose the entire graduation of light intensity. Thus consideration of style, of composition, play an important role in “objective” photography in addition to technical considerations, and, most of all, the personal conception of nature and ability to re-create. The photographic problem goes, therefore, much deeper than the mere depiction of something seen in the world of phenomena.’

Helmut Gernsheim in New Photo Vision, Fountain Press, 1942.

The camera does lie – a paradox of sorts

The greatest misconception about photography is that the camera is “all seeing”. But as we previously explored the camera does lie. The majority of photographs are lies because they don’t have any basis in fact. First and foremost, photographs are 2D representations of 3D scenes, so do not capture the world as it truly is. Black and white photographs are monochromatic representations of a coloured reality, and “frozen” stills represent moving objects. Yet every photograph is a true rendition of a subject/object/scene at one particular moment in time. This is something of a paradox – everything visible in the cameras field of view is authentic, but it lacks the intricate qualities of the real scene. You can take a picture of a sunrise on a beach, but there will be missing the factors that make it a memorable scene – the wind blowing (sure video can capture this), the smell of the sea, the warmth of the first rays of the sun, the feel of the sand on the beach. The camera then produces a lie, in so much as it only tells a portion of a story, or distorts it in some manner.  A difference exists between a photograph, and the subject/scene it depicts. It is a snapshot in time, nothing more.

Conversely, the camera allows us to capture things the human eye cannot perceive. It allows differences in viewing angles – a fisheye lens can see 180° in extremes, and although the human eyes can perceive 120° individually, dual eye overlap is only about 120°, and of that the central angle of view is only about 40-60°. Our peripheral vision is only good enough for sensing motion, and huge objects. Camera’s are also capable of stopping motion – human eyes can’t, we have no ability to slow down a video, or “freeze” motion. Therefore the cameras ability to lie can be beneficial, producing images that are more effectual than the actual experience.

Examples include far-away scenes that the human eye is incapable of perceiving, yet a telephoto lens can show quite distinctly. Another is high speed photography of an egg being dropped on a hard surface, where each frame represents milliseconds in time, yet clearly depicts each facet of the egg hitting the surface with clarity the human eye is incapable of. Or, an image where blur and unsharpness (or bokeh), have been used with great effect to isolate a quality of a particular subject/object (human eyes don’t actively perceive the unsharp regions of our vision). In all these cases the subject/object is shown in a way different to how the eye would perceive them, and in many cases the photograph contains information that is lost to the human eye. Of course a photograph can also hide information. A photograph of a small village in a valley may veil the fact that a large expressway lies behind the photographer – the viewer of the photograph sees only a secluded village.

For good or bad, cameras do lie.

The camera does not lie

There is an old phrase, “the camera does not lie“, which can be interpreted as both true and false. In historic photos where there was little done in the way of manipulation, the photograph often did hold the truth of what appeared in the scene. In modern photographs that are “enhanced” this is often not the case. But there is another perspective. The phrase is true because the camera objectively captures everything in the scene within its field of view. But it is also false, because the human eye, is not all seeing, perceiving the world in a highly subjective manner – focusing on the object (or person) of interest. Most photographs tend to contain far too much information, visual “flotsam” that is selectively discarded by the human visual system. The rendition of colours can also appear “unnatural” in photographs because of issues with white balance, film types (in analog cameras), and sensors (digital cameras). 

What the human eye sees (left) versus the camera (right)

A good example of how the human eye and camera lens perceive things differently is shown in the two photos above. The photograph on the right contains photographic perspective distortion (keystoning), where the tall buildings tend to “fall” or “lean” within the picture. The human eye (simulated on the left) on the other hand, corrects for this issue, and so does not perceive it.  To photograph a tall building, the camera is often tilted upward, and in position the vertical lines of the building converge toward the top of the picture. The convergence of vertical lines is a natural manifestation of perspective which we find acceptable in the horizontal plane (e.g. the convergence of railway tracks in the distance), but which seems unnatural in the vertical plane.

There are many other factors that influence the outcome of a picture. Some are associated with the physical abilities of a camera and its associated lenses, others the environment. For example the colour of ambient light (e.g. a colour cast created by the sun setting), perspective (the wider a lens the more distortion introduced), or contrast (e.g. B&W images becoming “flat”). While the camera does not lie, it rarely exactly reproduces the world as we see it. Or maybe we don’t perceive the world around us as it truly is.