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Friday, September 4, 2015

Eye & Camera

When I was in grade school, I once did a science fair project comparing the way the eye works to the way a camera works. I made side-by-side displays of how the light enters each and what each does with it. There were similarities and of course vast differences.

But it isn’t the technical similarities and differences that I want to talk about now. Instead, let’s discuss the way each “device” sees.

This is so important because before we take a photo, we see the photo with our eyes. Well, we think we see the photo. Many of us — undoubtedly all of us at least a dozen or so times — have disappointingly looked at a photo we took and said, “Well, that’s not the way it looked.”

So, if we can’t successfully translate what our eyes see to what our camera sees, then we will continue to be disappointed, frustrated, and all that.

Let’s take for an example the ever-popular photo subject — the sunset. People takes loads of pictures of sunsets, and often are disappointed with the results. Why?

Dynamic Range

A technical term, alas, but worth remembering. It pertains to the range of bright areas to dark areas in a scene that can be displayed — in this case by the eye or the camera. Our eyes are able to capture a much wider dynamic range than any camera (yes, there are ways to increase the camera’s range, but that’s another story). So when we look at a sunset — with it’s bright areas (the golden sun) and the shadowed areas on the land — we envision a beautiful photo. But what we get instead often is a big white dot (the sun) above a solid black landscape.

Well, of course that’s an exaggeration, perhaps, but you get my point. So how do we get around this dynamic range problem if we want to continue to take pictures of sunsets? Fortunately today’s digital cameras have a much greater dynamic range than the old film cameras, so that’s a start. And the software we use to edit the photos can bring out more range (if you haven’t already, read my blog post about Google Photos). And if you really want to get even more range, you can learn about “HDR” photography — “High Dynamic Range.” Google it — there’s a lot online about it.

But to summarize — when looking at a contrasty scene and wanting to photograph it, keep in mind that you are seeing things that the camera can’t — sort of like a dog hearing things that we can’t. Remember that before you snap the shutter. Perhaps shoot from a different angle or compose the photo differently.


Which brings us to the second big difference between the eye and the camera: the eye has an infinite field of vision — seamless with no borders. The camera sees only a rectangle. So — back to the sunset — we see this splendid vista — a wide expanse of golden sky along a never ending horizon and upward to the stars. The camera? A golden rectangle. Doesn’t have quite the drama, even though it might be pretty, it’s hard to capture the awesomeness.

There’s not much we can do about this. No one has yet invented an endless photo. If you’re as rich as Trump, you could buy your own Imax system, but even it has boundaries. But a photo’s boundaries are I think a plus — they give us an object, not just a scene. The boundaries focus us on the subject, and provide us with something to hang our composition on.

So before you shoot the photo, when you are seeing it with your eyes, train yourself to see the boundaries.


With our eyes, everything is always in focus. Yes, I know we need glasses to help us sometimes, but when we look at a scene we intend to photograph, the foreground is in focus, and the background is in focus — everything.

Of course it really isn’t, but our eyes are so quick at adjusting focus as we look at the foreground, then the background, that it appears that everything is in focus. Not so with the camera; it has a limited area that is in focus. There are ways to extend that range — the “depth of field” (and you can Google that) — but the bottom line is that some areas of your photo will most likely be out of focus. This is not a bad thing; if you work with it, it can enhance the photo by “focusing” on what’s “in focus.”

Portrait and wedding photographers are particularly fond of (and good at) placing their subject in front of a dreamy out-of-focus background. Of course the eye sees every twig and blade of grass behind the bride, but not the camera, especially in the hands of a knowledgeable photographer.

Which brings us to the last big difference between the eye and the camera:


Not dictionary definition #1 that relates to prejudice, but rather #2: “recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another.”

The eye discriminates; the camera does not. We look at a scene and see more value in one element than another; most likely it’s a family member that has more value than the electric cables strung along the road. But the camera gives equal value to the cables. We must train ourselves to see as a camera sees — non-discriminatory vision. Then we can move our family member or ourselves so the cables won’t be in the photo.

So take some photos this weekend, and keep these four things in mind when you are seeing the photo with your eyes before you click the shutter.

  • Dynamic Range
  • Boundaries
  • Focus
  • Discrimination