Is That What Your Camera Saw?

July 24th, 2014
by doinlight

Occasionally at art festivals a visitor to my booth will point to one of my photographs and ask, “Is that what your camera saw?”  This question points out a common misunderstanding about the physics and art of photography.

Those of us who are serious about our photography capture our digital images in RAW file format.  That’s a format that does a minimal amount of processing on the image before it saves it to the memory card.  It is more like what the camera sees.

The other format is  JPEG and is not what the camera sees but rather a highly processed image that is controlled to a large extent by the settings the photographer sets in the camera – settings like sharpness, contrast and saturation.  So if the photographer likes saturation he just has to up the saturation setting in the camera.

JPEG is much closer to the photographs that were captured in the wonderful days of film.  Each different type of file had its own unique way of responding to the scene.  Kodachrome film was great for reds while Ektachrome was perfect for blues.  Fujichrome was prized for its treatment of greens and its high contrast.

So what did the film camera see?  The question is really, “What did the film see?”  Was it a faithful documentation of reality?  Not in the least.  The same can be said for JPEG digital files.  They are no more a faithful documentation of reality than film was.

The fact is, RAW files are closer to what the camera saw than film or JPEG files ever were or will be.  And, as one workshop participant put it to me, “I don’t like shooting in RAW because the photographs are so plain and uninteresting.”  There you go.  What the camera sees, exactly what the camera sees, is often plain and uninteresting.

So the physics of digital images captured in RAW format is that the images are the closest to what the camera sees.  But from an artistic point of view, these images generally do not speak to us.  These are documentation but that’s not art; art is interpretation.

Now, a RAW file is the perfect starting point from which to create art.  It is neutral, unbiased and open to the artist to express what she saw, what she experienced that inspired her to set up the camera and compose the image, that led to the decisive moment that the shutter was pressed.

In the days of film we relied on our selection of the type of film that would do the best job of rendering particular situations.  In the digital era we have much more powerful tools that we ever had with film – Lightroom, Photoshop, Photomatix and all the wonderful software that we have access to that allows us to express our vision, our interpretation of reality.

So, are my photographs what the camera saw?  Not at all.  They are what I saw.

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Posted in Journal | Comments (6)

  • Alison says:

    Hi again. Ralph – if the newsletter is mainly about workshops etc, I’ll stay off as distance precludes me from ever participating, but otherwise, yes, add me please. I can always opt out if it is not of interest. Thanks.

    • doinlight says:

      Hi Alison,
      I cover a lot of photography-related topics in my emails, not just workshops. I like to include something for everyone. I hope you find them useful.

  • Alison says:

    Hi Ralph.
    I am having a bit of a catch-up on various photographically orientated blogs and your post caught my eye. My camera hardly ever sees what I see, which is a fortunate thing, as it gives me the opportunity to (try to) show the world how/what my inner eye sees. Not that I have a lot to show as yet, but that may change in the future.
    I believe that we are incredibly fortunate to live in the digital age and to have access to ever-evolving software that lets us get ever closer to disclosing our views. The other fortunate thing is that photography, enhanced/altered or plain vanilla, is becoming a more accepted form of “Art”, whatever that is. I often stamp my feet over these topics.
    All the best from the bottom end of the Planet.

    • doinlight says:

      Hi Alison, thanks for your comment. Art is exactly what you’re saying. It’s about interpreting the world, showing our viewers our own unique, personal vision of the world. It’s not about documenting the world. Back in the middle of the 1800s when photography was in its infancy, a huge debate raged about whether a photograph could be art or simply documentation. A group of photographers set out to show that photographs could be art and the Pictorialist movement was launched. In the US, Alfred Stieglitz was its chief proponent and Ansel Adams even had his Pictorialist period. And in many, the question is still open. They want to believe that the photograph is a faithful representation of a moment in time, not an interpretation of the moment. I recall explaining Ansel Adams’ darkroom technique to a friend of this persuasion and his response was, “That’s more than I wanted to know.” So keep up the journey. If you’d like to receive my email newsletter let me know and I’ll add you to the list.

  • Harold Hall says:

    I am glad to see you addressing this issue many photographers avoid. ALL images, including those of Ansel Adams were manipulated by film paper used, lens, aperture, contrast adjustments. Ansel even removed objects from his prints. All of this has gone on since film was invented. It just became easier and more widely known with digital.

    • doinlight says:

      Hi Harold. What wonders of the globe are you exploring now?

      Thanks for your comment. I couldn’t agree with you more and feel a need to climb up on my soapbox and stomp my feet and rant every once in a while. In the end if people prefer photographs that truly show what the camera saw, fine. But I prefer the work you and I do. And I insist on the right to pursue my own artistic vision in my own way, just as you do. It shows loud and clear in your work.

      Always good to hear from you.


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