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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Misinformation: Camera Objectivity

Myth: A camera sees the world objectively

MisinformationThe phrase “the camera never lies” has been around a very long time; but the idea that a camera lies also has been around a long time. Back in the '60s, Pete Turner did an essay about how color lies, and even before that, the Life photographer Andreas Feininger wrote on how the camera lied.

This isn't about illustrative advertising photography. Wonderful and fanciful visuals often are created with no intimations of reality. They “lie” only in the fact that they're fiction and are never intended to be anything else.

We'll start with something basic: what a camera and its sensor do. The sensor reacts to light in a scene as it's focused by a lens, and with the camera's help, creates an image to be filed on the memory card. That sounds objective—after all, either there's light or there isn't.

It isn't that simple. That's why camera and sensor engineers have jobs. They need to answer how that sensor will react to the light. Will the sensor see all light equally or will it be biased toward certain tonalities? How about colors? Will all colors be recorded in the correct relationship to others in all light? The latter question represents a huge engineering challenge.

The answer to these questions ultimately comes down to interpretation. Every sensor and camera engineer must decide how his or her technology will interpret the world because a sensor and camera aren't the same as an eye and a brain. All sensors have tonal and color biases that have to be dealt with.

Still, cameras are consistent. You don't see images that look wildly different from one model to another. However, if you've covered an assignment with two different camera models, you know the problems that come from images that aren't exactly the same.

Sometimes the camera totally blows a scene. Colors or tonalities can be off enough that the underlying reality as most people see it becomes skewed. This creates a false impression of what was actually in front of the camera. If this bias can be corrected in Photoshop, I believe that it should be in order to make the image more truthful.

And that brings us to modernism and post-modernism philosophies. If you're a former philosophy major, forgive my oversimplification of these ideas. Modernism is based in part on the idea that science and technology will help people discover and confirm truth. This and related ideas exploded during the first half of the 20th century, a time when photography became an integral part of our world, too. The implication for photography is clear—the science and technology of imaging can capture a truth independent of individual biases.

Postmodernism rebels against modernism. An essential idea is that any meaning is subjective and that for anything to pretend full objectivity is deceptive and even dangerous. This has been a cultural trend for many years for developed countries. Postmodernism also embraces the idea that the world is a complex place, full of ambiguity and contradictions that make a single truth impossible.

Many people who want to believe in the camera as an objective arbiter of truth are really going back to the ideas of modernism, embracing ideas that science and technology can be used to do that. I fit in the postmodern generation because I think modernism can be dangerous. There's a real problem in arbitrarily assigning “truth” to a science or technology. Though we do know many truths from science and technology, one truth we know for sure is that people are involved and as soon as that happens, bias and interpretations automatically are engaged.

I'm not willing to allow a group of engineers, no matter how talented they are, to define reality for me through their camera and sensor designs. I believe we all see the world slightly differently and that those differences, or interpretations, are extremely important to truthful photography. For these reasons, I reject the idea that a camera sees the world objectively. For me, a camera's images must always be interpreted by an intelligent photographer with integrity (something a camera simply doesn't have).


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