The Limits of Photo Cameras
We live in an age of amazing technological advancements in the visual technology fields. Photo camera models renew themselves each year with the promise of more mega-pixels and new features. And yet, if we think about it for a moment, the photo that comes out of each of our digital camera models most times has strengths and weaknesses that persist through all the successive models that go through our hands.
Digital Cameras and in general all photographic cameras are, despite all of the marketing buzz, still very limited machines. For example, they register our world with sensors that can only capture a fraction of the tonal range that our eyes can perceive.
Imagine yourself on a sunny day in front of a beautiful landscape.
Below you, around your feet, you can see the rich lush green vegetation; above you, the bright blue skies. As we contemplate this scene, our eyes are able to perceive all its richness, the details in both the shadows and the bright clouds above. The dynamic range that our eyes can process, which goes from the darkest to the brightest areas, is enough to contain most of the rich detail in that scene.
Now take your photo camera and snap a shot from your position including both the vegetation and the sky. The result is very telling. Depending on the parameters that either the camera or you choose, some detail of the scene will be gone from the result. Either parts of the vegetation will blend to black and lose all detail or parts of the sky will blend to white and lose all detail.
In summary, the retina of the camera, its digital sensor, which captures the light of the scene, is not capable of dealing with a tonal range as large as our eyes can. It can only capture the full detail in a small range that can be positioned at different levels of brightness by the camera itself or us. Because of that, in a scene like the one described above that has a very large contrast, it ends up capturing the detail only at the highlights and mid-tones, or mainly at the mid-tones, or mainly at the shadows and mid-tones. It simply cannot capture simultaneously the full detail of the scene from the darkest to the brightest areas.
This is of course a simplification of an scenario that we could describe in much more detail. But the conclusion is still the same. When we look at the final photo, we realize that what we remember seeing with our eyes is not what the photo shows. That richness of detail everywhere is gone. And this is just one of the limitations that all Photo cameras share. We could go on to describe many others related to color precision and other areas where cameras simply cannot cope with the depth and richness of the world around us.
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