If the bulk of what is written and read is considered, one would have to think having just the right, even the best, camera and lenses is the secret to making good photographs. But although some of the mail I receive from my Digital Help column does involve shooting hardware, most of it is spread over other issues like printers, scanners, and software, as well as a bit about computers used for photo processing. However, the stumbling block that gets in the way for many trying to find a way to make better photographs are limitations of perceptual experience and understanding.
It is not a problem of vision. Even with today’s science there is really little understanding if two people are looking at the same subject, standing side by side, are the visions in their minds the same, even similar. In other words what our eyes see and our brain perceives can be very different. I became aware of how profound this difference can be many years go when I read about a US Information service trying to help Africans fight against mosquito born illnesses like malaria. The US agency produced a film using native environments and players to demonstrate what needs to be done to reduce the mosquito population. To make the story short the film didn’t work. Many of the Africans thought it was about a chicken, because a chicken was in one corner of the opening scene of the film. The Africans not having experienced film before had never learned where to focus their vision and perceptual attention to see a story as told on a movie screen. Nearly all modern, western people have all kinds of early experiences and learn how to see and perceive all kinds of media presentation before they even have any school experience. But native peoples all around the world who have not become part of our modern world do not. Many in the world don’t get the same perceptual education our children acquire in their first years of life.
From a similar perspective how can an aspiring photographer learn how to make fine quality prints if that photographer has never seen an Ansel Adams original, the prints of Edward Weston or the images of W. Eugene Smith. I would guess most Americans have never had an opportunity to see any original samples of the great photography that has been made in the last century. My first opportunity to see good photography was in the 50’s when The Family Of Man exhibit toured the country. But it wasn’t until I was a photography school student several years after that and began doing photography seriously, that I made a trip to Carmel, California and saw original prints made by Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and other fine photographers. Then I began to realize and understand a little of what a good photograph looks like. Thereafter I visited museums and galleries to see the best in photography whenever it was a possibility. It wasn’t frequent, I had no desire to follow in anyone’s footsteps, but it was encouraging to know how I needed to improve my skills and techniques, to understand what a good photograph should look like and realize when my own fell short.
For many of you this may seem like preaching to the choir. Everyone, when they begin making photographs, learns the range of what the eyes see doesn’t fit the much smaller range of sensitivity a camera records without adjustment, even though today a lot of that is automatic, a built-in adjustment by the camera’s designer and manufacturer. But anyone serious about photography has a long historical access to how the differences between the human eye and what a camera can record can be understood and controlled. There have been popular techniques that have been learned, whether it is the 9-around, over-under exposed, over-under developed to reproduce a comparison to see what works best; or it was the more advanced Zone System of exposure and development control.
But the really big challenge today with digital photography is not the difference between reality and what exposure the camera records and the eye adjusts for naturally, but differences in color that the human brain accommodates to provide a mental perception of what is seen. This color perception and what the individual's mind actually experiences perceptually, is really not recognized and understood popularly. What you think you see with your eyes is not what the eye senses but something different influenced by perceptual adjustments based on memory and mental habit. Think of it: if we had to pay conscious attention to everything our eyes see, the detail would overwhelm us and we couldn’t get much else done to be driven mad by billions of perceptual thoughts. Much of what we see and have seen before is ignored by our perceptual consciousness; we know what it is and at the moment, if it has no importance, no conscious attention is given to it. And, of course some things remind us of bad experiences we would not like to be reminded of, so we may not perceive these sights at all in our daily experience.
For instance a gray box seen by the eye is compensated for in its objective brightness by the eye's self-adjusting pupil for brightness, but the light cold be warm at dawn or sunset, or bluish at noon, however to our perception it is recognized as a gray box regardless what color the light cast it in, as seen by your eye. Your perception sees “things” the same based on what your mind remembers and knows it should look like. Things look the same unless they are seen in different ways at the same time, in comparison, like the warm light of incandescent electric bulbs in a window of a house on a foggy, bluish gray day.
Another example is if you are driving on a sunny day and you left the car’s headlights on, you cannot see the warm tungsten light they are shining out in front of you, the colder light of the sun on the street is much brighter. If time instantly changed to night, you would see the street in front of you clearly because your eyes would adjust immediately to this much lower level of illumination and the street would look much like it did in daylight; but your headlights are much warmer colored than the sun, but with no comparison, the light from your headlights looks white, not the yellow-red of tungsten illumination. In other words your eyes accommodate great differences in brightness, and your mind's perception accommodate great differences in color.
This was made relative to the ongoing conversation I have had with many readers about LCD displays for their computer a few days ago. About a year ago I purchased one of the best home-office LCD displays made by one of the largest manufacturers in hopes it might work for a color managed digital photography system. It didn’t, so I put it in a corner of my lab, where it sat unused until I decided to install it next to my Eizo Flexscan S2242W on my Mac Pro. I wanted it to provide extra screen space for dialogue windows, utilities, etc. So I adjusted, calibrated and profiled this home office display separately and individually to a brightness I knew it could handle. the result is a direct comparison of a new home-office LCD display beside one that reproduces over 95% of Adobe RGB color. Although this home-office LCD is better than many, it reproduces only a little more than an sRGB color range, and with the two displays set to show the same screen image, and Adobe RGB photo open in Photoshop, when side by side WHAT A DIFFERENCE! Just that comparative view could save me hundreds, thousands of typed e-mail words trying to explain, of you have Adobe RGB images displayed by an sRGB LCD display you cannot even see all of the color in your image file, so how can you visually control and adjust that image accurately if you are blind to 1/3 of its color content?