Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Seeing the way a camera sees, Part 1:

For better or (usually) worse, it sees everything

How many times have you stumbled across what seemed to be a picture-perfect scene, raised your camera and clicked away, only to be disappointed in the results? Where did those huge black areas come from? Why are the highlights blown out, and how did that lovely grove of trees become a big jangle of haphazard branches? Why are the faces so dark? They looked just fine in the viewfinder!

The simple explanation is that the camera does not “see” a scene the same way the human eye does. It captures the scene on its own terms, not necessarily yours. Once you learn the limitations of the camera, you can begin to use those characteristics to your advantage, and you’ll find yourself becoming victimized less and less.

Cameras differ from human vision in two main ways (there are others, but for the beginner, overcoming these two will keep one plenty busy). The first way is that the camera sees absolutely everything that is placed before it, where humans have a tendency toward selective vision – seeing what we want to see and disregarding the rest. You see your lovely children posed on the beach. The camera sees the distant post growing out of your child’s head, the tangle of kelp in the corner of the picture and the seagull flying at the odd angle in the background as if to attack your subject.

When setting up your shot, purposely take a few seconds to scan the entire frame and force yourself to look for potential distractions, then remove them or reposition yourself to eliminate them. The handler of the great horned owl at the right was quite patient as I spent a couple of minutes shifting myself around in an effort to eliminate as many distracting background elements as I could. I moved in closer, zoomed in with my lens and used aperture priority with a low f-stop to throw the background out of focus – three things you can do to help defeat the camera’s tendency to be brutally honest. (And by the way, when shooting closeups of people or animals, try to focus on the eyes.)

Photograph © 2006 James Jordan. Click on picture to enlarge.

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