Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The mind of the camera

There are two approaches to photography. The first (which we will ignore) is the artistic approach. Calendars abound with artistic photography, in which priority is given to the beauty of the image. The second approach is informational. That’s for us. In it, we want to present information to the audience.
In taking photos, there are a number of principles to keep in mind. Let’s run through them briefly.
The camera is a box with a lens. Doesn’t sound earthshaking, but it’s important to remember that. If you are not taking good photos, it’s not your camera’s fault. A piddly phone camera with a 1.3 megapixel resolution can still take great photos, and a 13 megapixel Canon can take lousy ones. Ansel Adams had what would be considered today a laughable camera. And he didn’t have PhotoShop.
The camera sees everything; edits nothing. Let’s say you’re looking at a nice street scene and think it would make a good photo. So, you snap a shot. When you download it and look at it on your computer, you notice that there are power lines running right across the top of the photo. You edited them out as you looked at the scene, but the camera didn’t. There are two correlates to this fact:
1: You need to see the scene the way the camera will see it. This means you have to notice the things that you would normally edit out.
2: You need to be aware that much of what appears in a photograph is “noise,” or non-information. Noise is our enemy because it subtracts from the information in a photo (For a really good discussion of noise, read chapter I of Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man, or simply google “information theory”).
The camera isn’t aware of what you consider important. It’s true that a camera will have, in many cases, a weighted focus pattern, but it will still make your subject too dark if you have backlighting. You need to be aware of the tendencies of cameras generally and your camera in particular. You also need to be aware of your camera’s functions as far as adjusting for conditions such as backlighting. You can take good pictures with point-and-shoot, but often you need more control.


  1. Your comments remind me of a story I heard a few months ago. A talented photographer was enjoying a meal at a lady's home, and in complimenting his photos, she observed he must have a good camera. He, in turn, commented that she cooked a delicious meal -- so she must have a nice set of pans.