The Camera Sees Differently – Ten Photographic Manipulations

The Camera has an uncanny way of capturing what the eye sees.  Its influence has changed our world.  The camera can capture in a fraction of a second what an artist would spend days trying to portray.  The accuracy and detail surpasses human efforts.  The first cameras were set up to replicate exactly whet the eye saw.  I recall being told that the human eye is equivalent to a 50mm lens on a standard SLR camera. (or 35mm with APC sensor like my Nikon D7000).

However the camera is not an eye – it sees differently.  Even these early cameras were different to an eye and saw things differently.  They were monochrome.  The film was sensitive to ultraviolet light (unlike our eye).  And the exposure times were long, meaning that the image of a busy street was rendered devoid of people and moving objects, like a ghost town.

Initially these were all seen as deficiencies of cameras, that needed to be corrected or compensated.  Interestingly photographers have chosen over time to exploit these differences to create interesting and different images.  For instance a waterfall can be shown to be a myriad of tiny droplets or a blurred mist of water.


picture source

Neither of these correspond to the impression we get when we look at a waterfall.  Why do  these images have such impact?  Is it because the image is different to what the eye sees?  They must have been truely startling images when first seen.  However these images no longer surprise us.   They have become part of the vernacular of photography.

Perhaps it is worth re looking at what manipulations the camera makes when it takes a photograph.  It might be an interesting way to understand what we inadvertently do to our images.  Perhaps we can explore these manipulations to create impact.  I have made a brief list.

1. Fast shutter speed – frozen action


Nobody knew exactly how a cat was able to turn in mid air.  If held upside down and released it would always land on its feet.  That was until the advent of high speed photography. picture source

2. Slow shutter speed – motion blur

Efffect of shutter speed

As we slow the shutter speed the image is distorted by motion blur.  Picture source.  How does the eye really perceive the spinning disc?  It depends how fast it is moving.  Certainly an airplane propellor is seen by the eye as a blurred disc and not seperate blades.  By adjusting the shutter speed you can see it differently.  The camera can create motion blur that we just can’t see with our eyes.  Take for instance the movement of this flock of sheep taken by Peter Eastway.  Picture source I am sure that is nothing like what the eye sees.  The motion blur tells a story.  The sheep at the back move up to the front, while the sheep in the middle stay where they are.


3. Compression – telephoto lens

big ole house and big ole moon

picture scource

The house and the moon look like they are next to each other.  In fact the moon is 384,400kms away from the house.  Is the house as large as the moon?  Well the moon has a diameter of 3474kms.  We have a close object and a far object juxtaposed creating an illusion of proximity and a change in scale.  This illusion is created because of angles.  A telephoto lens  brings distant objects closer together and brings perspective lines closer to parallel.  This is not how our eye sees things. It is a manipulation and is called compression.  It refers to the reduction of perspective as a cue to indicate depth.  A wide angle lens has the opposite effect and will exagerate perspective.



Tiernamin square.  A famous example of telephoto compression.  Are those tanks all the same size?  Are the lines on the street parallel?  Perspective would dictate that the lines converge and that the tanks get smaller in size as they recede.

4. Magnification- telephoto or macro lens


Sports photography has a heightened sense of drama and immediacy.  picture source  I have been to a football game and the action never looks as spectacular in real life as the photographs taken of it.  It doesn’t even look that good when you are  playing the game.  The photographers standing on the sidelines have powerful telephoto lenses.  The drama is carefully crafted by means of a fast shutter speed but also the magnification offered by the lens and good timing by the photographer.


picture source

Magnification is the key to sports photography but also most wildlife photography and  macro photography.  These subjects are transformed by the camera because it shows what the natural eye cannot see.

5. Depth of field – shallow

You will notice that the magnified images (above) also have a very narrow depth of field.  The background blurs very quickly compared to what you will find with the normal eye.  A lot has been said about apperture and depth of field.  The smaller the apperturte the greater the greater the depth of field.  Personally I find magnification usually has a greater effect.  (Compare a 28mm macro lens with a 90mm macro lens.)


picture source   Creative use of depth of field creates strong  and often emotional impact.  However at the end of the day the camera lens is capturing an image the eye cannot see.  It is also a manipulation.

Clark Dry Lake

picture source The same is true of greatly increased depth of field.

6. Wide angle distortion focal-lengths1

picture source   Ever noticed how people’s faces change shape as you use different focal length lenses.  Wide angle lenses seem to create a fish face shape.


Standard Wide angle lens

picture source  The  stretching of lines and creating vast skies are two reasons why these lenses are sought after for landscape and architectural photography.  Actually you may not be aware that there is an inbuilt distortion in these lenses.  The natural (eye) perspective would result in curved lines at these focal lengths (as in a fish eye lens). (see below)  The wide angle lenses on the other hand are designed to have rectilinear distortion in order to keep the lines straight.  This diagram below indicates the type of distortion these lenses employ.


It is worth noting that in both instances the distortion is most noticeable for objects placed in the corners of the picture.  (Note:Be careful to avoid putting your subject in the corner when you use a wide angle lens.)  Regardless these wideangle lenses  still convey a sense of curvature.


Fish Eye Lens

picture source

7. Polariser


picture source

I am often impressed by the quality of the landscapes when I wear polarized sunglasses.  I stop to take a photo, remove the sunglasses and feel disappointed that the scene returns to ordinary. The sunglasses filter the light coming to your eye to reduce reflected light.  This will allow you to see objects below the surface of the water, you will see true surface colour of leaves and rocks without the bluish reflection of the sky.  This will increase the saturation of colours.  The polarizer will darken the sky.  It is worth noting that this effect varies depending upon the angle from the sun.  Some birds, insects and cuttlefish have the ability to filter polarized light.  It is not feature of the human eye, unless you wear sunglasses.  This effect can be used in photography by using a polarizing filter.

8. Night photography – see in the dark  / Infrared and Ultraviolet photography


Picture Source

Have you ever done night photography?  It’s pitch black.  Normally my camera does not perform well in the dark.  The pictures are blurred. However in this instance you set up your tripod and camera in the glow of your headlamp.  Turn off the torch open the shutter, sit on a stool for however many minutes watching your camera until the shutter closes and then pack up.  The pictures tell a different story.  It’s sharp, it’s like daylight, bright coulourful and saturated.  The camera can see what I could not see.

9. Flash


picture source

Getting an exposure that is correct for a model in adverse lighting conditions can be difficult.  However the flash and the use of artificial lighting can change all of that.  You can  create a sharp well lit person in a moody environment.  If you don’t think of this as manipulation – you should try it.  It takes a lot of work to get it right.

10. Juxtaposition


Picture source

The trick is obvious.  However it is only a trick because of properties of the camera.  In this instance the photographer has used a bland salt lake and photographic compression to reduce cues to perspective. The people are juxtaposed on the mans hand.  In real life this only works if you close one eye.  Real vision is stereoscopic and the brain is not fooled so easily.  Cinematographers have used this trick to create giants and dwarfs since the birth of photography.

Actually if you think about it the whole concept of composition and framing is an extension of this principle.  We arrange objects in our picture to create impact.  In real life the world does not have a frame, it is continuous and seamless.  Well at least that is how the brain construes it.

There are other differences that I have thought of while I wrote this article.  For instance the nature of bokeh that relies on shallow depth of field and the  shape of the diaphragm, or colour cast and white balance.

Take home message:

Manipulation is not just something you do in Photoshop.  It is an innate property of the camera with which you take the picture.  Don’t be afraid of it.  Explore it’s possibilities to maximize the impact of you images.

This article uses images from the internet – I acknowledge and am grateful for the photographers that made these images available to the public.

Previous                                      Back                                     Next