Your eye is not a camera

Garry Winogrand famously said “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed”. He took zillions of photographs, so you’d think he’d have figured it out. But he wasn’t just being clever.

A few months ago, Michael Reichmann of Luminous Landscape posted a little rant about the shortcomings of electronic viewfinders in cameras.

I don’t really hate electronic viewfinders. That’s hyperbole. But I really dislike them a lot of the time. The reason why is that they are at best tiny TV sets, and as such have very low contrast ratios compared to the ability of the naked eye or a good optical or large DSLR viewfinder. In bright situations, where there is also deep shade, it can make visibility into the shadows when shooting highly compromised.

He describes a shot with the subject in bright sunlight and background detail in shadow that flummoxed the electronic viewfinder on his Sony NEX–7. Then, he points out that a Fuji X-Pro1 with an “old-fashioned” optical finder would have been easier to work with because he could have better seen into the shadows with his own eyes.

He’s right on that point, and I also have no issue with his desire for better electronic viewfinders. Bring ’em on.

That said, it’s worth remembering that your own eyes are terrible at guessing how a photograph will look. 

Your eye is not a camera.

Your eye can only keep a tiny area in focus; a camera can capture entire vistas with crisp detail. Your eye darts about randomly in all directions thousands of times per minute; a camera needs your clumsy mitts to point it somewhere. Your eye glosses over mixed light sources; a camera can barely guess what gray looks like. Your eye sees only fragments of now; a camera compresses everything for as long as the shutter is open into a single then.

With practice you get better at predicting how the camera will “see” – no doubt Mr. Reichmann is quite good at it, and I’m really not picking on him – but a photograph cannot and never will be the same as the view in front of you.

(UPDATE 26 November 2014: I just found this nice article “Your Eyes are a Miracle, Your Camera is a Machine” that talks a little more about this.)

Anyway, I bring this up because I got hilariously burned by my eyes a few months ago and I wanted to share.

I was at an air show with my wife and in-laws. Because I believe in applying a certain additional degree of difficulty to my life, the only camera I had was my rangefinder with a 35mm (moderately wide-angle) lens.

I should preface this by saying that I’m not clueless, and I wasn’t intending on shooting planes in flight with a wide-angle lens. That said, anyone who’s photographed birds or critters or sports knows what I’m about to talk about.

So here’s another difference between the eye and the camera: the eye can mentally ‘zoom’ in and keep your attention on a small detail in a scene in front of you, ignoring everything else. The camera won’t do that; a bummer moment for every photographer is when something that looked huge in your mind ends up occupying a tiny portion of the full photograph.

Back to the air show: we were watching a stunt plane climb in a tight spiral with billowing smoke. Pretty cool stuff, so I decided to snap a picture.

In my memory, it looked something like this:

a sketch of a stunt plane in the air billowing smoke
click to embiggen
Fuzzy drawing of a fuzzy concept

I knew it would’t turn out that way – again, not entirely a moron – but I still laughed when I developed the film and saw the complete frame:

Here’s the relevant zoomed-in portion of the scan:

I guess you're always learning.

This is such a monument to my own stupidity that it’s almost beautiful. I might have it framed.

Am I doing it wrong?

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