How Does the Camera See?

Everybody getting into photography eventually struggles with this. Let me give you a scenario…

You’re on a hike in your favorite place outdoors and it’s absolutely beautiful! It looks like a majestic photo you’ve seen on the cover of books or magazines and you have the opportunity to capture it for yourself! So you hold the camera up and take your shot.
It’s…not what you pictured in your mind. More bafflingly though, it’s not what you see right in front of you.

What happened? Well, the cameras eye is much different than your own. There are some similarities, but overall, you’ll see much differently than the camera. Let’s look at a few and then how to help compensate a bit!


Your eye sees in an almost-HDR way. At least, it does to your brain. When you look at a bright spot and there’s a lot of light entering your eye, your pupil will constrict, effectively lowering the brightness and allowing you to see detail in the highlights, as long as it’s not too bright. Hmm, sounds suspiciously like closing the aperture of a camera, doesn’t it?
Personally, as my own eyesight is less than perfect, I’ve noticed something else about this. During the day, with my contact lenses in, I can see in pretty much 20/20 vision. Everything is sharp and in focus to me. At night, however, I’ve noticed that the details that are usually crisp to me while driving during the day are much more difficult to see and are distinctively more blurry. That’s because there’s not as much light and my eyes have opened their pupil. What happens when you open up your aperture? Yup, a lower depth-of-field.
Your eyes will do this to compensate for the dark spots too. So while you’re looking at a grandiose scene with highlights and low lights, your brain puts this together in such a way that it’s almost like a perfectly constructed HDR photo, even if that isn’t what you’re technically seeing all at once.

Like your eyes, your camera has only a limited range it can see in and show you at once. There are a number of ways to help compensate for this in your final image. The first one, as I hinted at in the first sentence, is to expose for HDR (taking multiple images at different exposures) and process it to show detail in the highlights and lowlights and then add some extra pop, in post, if you want. This can work extremely well if you have the proper programs for HDR and the skill to use them just the right amount so as to not over-process the image (I have strong feelings about over-processed HDR images).
The second would be to take one image of moderate exposure and adjust the levels to dim the highlights, brighten the shadows, and play with color and contrast to make it look more like what you saw with your eyes. This won’t work if the shadows are too dark or the light spots are too bright. Shooting in RAW can help you immensely, but even that isn’t all-powerful.

Angle of View

While looking at a scene, you get an almost cinematic or panoramic view. This has to do with your own peripheral vision and (as before) your brain processing it in such a way as to give you a more spectacular mental image.

Your camera will always give you a rectangle. Well, that’s how photographs are (unless you cut the print into a shape, but that’s going about it the wrong way). If you were to crop the scene to a wider and shorter aspect ratio, even though you’re losing chunks of the image, you’ll notice that it usually becomes more pleasing to the eye (as long as we’re keeping the scenario of landscape photography), depending on exactly what you’re looking at. However, you’ll usually want more in the image as outdoor photos depend on showing more of the area than specific details. So let’s look at ways we can show more without losing chunks to make it *look* like a panorama.

Well the most obvious way is to actually create a panorama! Again, this usually depends on software and post-processing. Some cameras can do this with their internal software, but most can’t and this offers you less flexibility, so I’m going with he software angle. You’ll just have to take multiple images while moving the camera across the scene, overlapping the exposures by about a 3rd of a frame (tutorial post next Tuesday). This way, once you process it, you’ll have an extremely high-quality image that’s wide enough to show you the whole scene!

Maybe you’re not into that much post work. If so, consider a wide-angle lens. Not so wide-angle as to be considered fisheye (extremely wide), but wide enough to see the whole scene you’re looking at. You might end up cropping the top and bottom a little, but these lenses are almost MEANT to be used to capture these scenes! Additionally, in Photoshop (as well as most other competent image processing software), you should be able to use the lens profile and adjust the distortion if it’s a problem in the image. For example, in landscape photography, you typically want to use the rule of thirds to align the horizon on the top or bottom third. However, when using a wide-angle lens, the horizon will not be completely straight unless it’s in the exact center.

In Conclusion

The camera sees things differently than you do. Know what you’re going into before you head out to take your images, or overcompensate just incase something crops up that you didn’t expect!

For lenses, make sure you have the appropriate ones for your situation. Plan on what you’re going to do to the image after the fact. Software, post-processing, all of that. Remember your environment and what you’ll have available. All of this can help you to create the image you’re dreaming about!


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