Cameras are interpreters

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In an article on Digital Photography School the author says

The camera is an instrument that records exactly what is there, without judgment or interpretation.

I must respectfully disagree, because a camera always interprets – alters – what is “sees”. There are many factors involved in this interpretation including shutter speed, aperture, lens (extreme example: fisheye lens), focal length, film (think about black and white), sensor, and processor (the computer in a digital camera which processes the data coming from the sensor). Just as an interpretation of language never captures the full nuances of the original speech with all its cultural connotations and subtleties of meaning that a native speaker would pick up, so does a camera never provide a true and full rendering of a scene that matches what we would see when viewing the same scene with naked eyes. If you put on rose tinted spectacles they will interpret or alter what you see, just as viewing a photo puts an interpreter/camera between you and a scene.

Consider these two examples (clicking on a photo will enlarge it):

Click to enlarge

This photo is close to what came out of the camera, but it looks nothing like what I saw at the time, because when we look at a scene we think that everything is in focus. I controlled the camera's interpretation of the scene by selecting a particular focal length and aperture (focal length is the "measurement" of a lens in mm. The same focal length and aperture would give a different result when used with a camera which had a sensor smaller or larger than the one in my camera, but I don't want to get too technical here).



Click to enlarge

This photo is close to what came out of the camera, but it looks nothing like what I saw at the time due to the shutter speed I chose and the fact that I moved the camera while the shutter was open.



The great thing about photography is that we can control the interpreter – the camera – and make it produce a pleasing interpretation of a scene: that is the skill and the art of photography. This where previsualisation is invaluable, i.e. knowing what you want the final result to look like before you pick up your camera/interpreter. When you know what the destination is you can guide the interpreter accordingly. When I was watching the people that you see below I visualised a photo with silhouettes, lots of motion blur, drama, and a strong sense of movement. In closing, this is the final interpretation of that scene, which looks completely different to what I saw at the time*:

Click to enlarge


* The great thing about digital photography is that it is easy to continue the interpretation process on a computer, as I did in this case when I converted to monochrome (black and white). Apart from that what you see in this photo is essentially what came out of the camera.


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10 Responses to “ Cameras are interpreters

  1. Yung Says:

    Excellent article. TY. I learned a lot and your article has given me lots to think about. I tend to agree with you on these points. I do, however, like the book review – being meditative, reflective and learning to see thru the lens with a fresh perspective. As far as interpretations go, I’m with you on that one. Love your photos!!!

    Cheers,
    Yung

  2. Christi Nielsen Says:

    You are absolutely correct. What you choose to include/exclude can completely alter the scene.

  3. Kim Manley Ort (@kimmanleyort) Says:

    Jachin, Thank you so much for starting this conversation about what a camera sees, because it gives me a chance to try to explain what I learned about contemplative photography and how it is almost the polar opposite of what we normally do.

    You are exactly right, that we, as photographers, use the camera as a tool, to express what we see or want to convey. The camera itself creates an image based on the settings we have used.

    The purpose of contemplative photography is to see reality exactly as it is, and then photograph what we saw without adding our own judgment, interpretation or manipulation. We want to act fairly quickly, because our minds very quickly start to conceptualize. We use settings that will not distort or manipulate what is actually there. In the book, they suggest the following:

    - frame the image to match the dimensions of your initial perception
    - better to use a close to normal focal length so as not to distort the perception
    - in most cases, choose a depth of field so that the image is as sharp as possible
    - exposure should reflect actual perception
    - choose white balance to match perception

    So, your goal is to have the least amount of manipulation as possible. I think you will find when you get the book from the library that the images strikingly lack any manipulation or interpretation. Would love to know what you think afterwards.

    • Jachin | MandenoMoments.com Says:

      Kim: in your article you say that the authors are coming from a Buddhist perspective. I’m interested to know whether or not they are using photography as a religious exercise because, based on your description, it sounds like this may be the case. One of the exercises of Buddhism is attempting to bypass one’s conscious mind and what you describe sounds similar.

      The purpose of contemplative photography is to see reality exactly as it is, and then photograph what we saw without adding our own judgment, interpretation or manipulation.
      I believe that it is impossible to photograph reality “exactly as we see it” because, as Christi hints at, merely framing an image makes it differ from reality and is a form of judgement.

      I have three interlinked reasons for taking photos: to serve God, to serve others, and to create art. If creating a photo that is as close to reality as possible serves those purposes I will go for that. If significantly altering reality serves those purposes I will do that. E.g., I believe that the three photos in this post would have been very dull if I had attempted to create an image that was as close to reality as possible, and doing so would have defeated the purposes I had in mind when shooting.

      There is a valid artistic purpose is using normal/standard lenses. As I said in my article on the subject [a] photo taken with a standard lens can be very relaxing and natural because things look ‘normal’. Photos taken with a wide angle lens tend to be very active and pull the viewer into the photo, while photos taken with telephoto lenses tend to feel a bit sterile: because photos taken with standard lenses don’t have these effects the viewer goes straight to interacting with what’s in the picture. Wide angle and telephoto lenses place an optical effect between the viewer and subject, while a standard lens ‘gets out of the way’.
      From http://www.digital-photography-school.com/the-joy-of-standard-lenses

      I would like to make it perfectly clear that I am not criticising the authors’ approach, and if it works for them that’s great. However, it does sound like they’re trying to achieve the impossible. I can’t say anything more concrete than that until I’ve read the book.

      • Yung Says:

        @Jachin: I believe that it is impossible to photograph reality “exactly as we see it” because, as Christi hints at, merely framing an image makes it differ from reality and is a form of judgement.

        Two reasons why it’s impossible. 1. Limitations of the equipment. A camera will never be able to pick up all the nuances the eye sees. 2. Quantum theory: by the very fact that we are observing something, it alters it.

        But we capture the moment as best we can and then share our unique perspective and emotion of the moment as eloquently and artfully as we can within the limitations of our equipment. In the end, whatever the philosophy is – the question remains – does the shot I’ve taken stir one’s heart and ultimately enrich someone else’s experience in life.

        Your photos, Jachin, do that for me. It also makes me want to become a better photographer so I, too, can take photos that stir other peoples hearts and enrich their life.

  4. Kim Manley Ort (@kimmanleyort) Says:

    Jachin, you are right that it is impossible to photograph reality exactly as we see it.

    And no, I didn’t think you were criticizing the authors’ approach. I sure don’t think that this contemplative method is the only way to photograph. My speculation is that the authors see this as a Buddhist practice of noticing those flashes of perception and attempting to capture what they saw.

    • Jachin | MandenoMoments.com Says:

      Kim: what you describe sounds similar to the technique of noticing what first caught your eye in a scene and capturing that. This technique needs to be applied with discernment, because not everything that looks pleasing to the eye makes a photo that is pleasing to the eye.


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