What is Reality?

The cornerstone question of modern photography: Is it ok to use Photoshop for photography or just how much is it ok to use? The actual question though is whether photography supposed to document reality or it is an art and just any art it is free to express whatever artist wants to express?

That is quite broad question. If we accept that photography is documenting reality then we need to define what reality is.

From my childhood I remember a popular science program with one of episodes fully dedicated to human vision. One of the interesting aspects of human vision is chromatic adaptation, where human brain tries to “color balance” what it sees. Except it does not color balance based on average color, it color balances based on familiar objects. If it sees an object of the known color it will “color balance” scene to show that color correctly. If there is no familiar objects, all bets are off. In a room lit with red, a human can say that an object of white color (under sunlight) is red or white depending on whether there are familiar objects in the room or not. Now if two people visit such room and one sees the object as white and the other sees it as red, who is right? What is reality?

Human vision consists of many layers of processing. There are many illusions to trick various layers. (You can read about it here for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_vision.) My point though is that different people see differently and not necessarily the same way the camera does. When we get into memory of something, things get even trickier. Our memory tends to keep images scenes, events, people differently from the way we see it first time. Which brings us back to the question: What is real?

Let’s try to approach this differently. Let’s say that camera is an ultimate tool to capture reality. Let me ask what camera settings the reality is at? Should saturation be at +2, 0 or –2? Which value the contrast should be at? How come one camera at saturation level –2 produces more saturated images than another camera at +2? Does that mean that camera manufacture have an opportunity to decide what reality is? Or do they just pick the closest image to people’s perception within a given market segment? I recently learnt that modern cameras have a database of scenes and they adjust settings based on whether scene looks like sunset or a portrait, with backlight or front line, full body shot or a face only. In some sense cameras try to get closer to human perception.

Let’s not fool ourselves thinking that the problem is introduced with digital photography. I still cannot get with digital such deeply saturated blue and green as Velvia film was producing. And what about black and white photography? For most people black and white is not the way we see the world around us. The amount of post-processing that film photographers do, can easily rival that with digital photography.

There is one question that keeps bugging me as I think about this. With all the sophisticated tools we have why are we so desperate to capture the world around us the way those tools see rather than the way we see it? I don’t what camera to decide for me how I see the world around. For me camera is a tool which can create a basis – all settings on neutral. Later during post-processing I try to make a photograph look the way I saw it. Cameras are not just that smart to replace a human yet.

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