Digital Realism

In a previous post I discussed how we may be conditioned to seeing digitally processed photos. However, I would also argue that we are conditioned to see photos as how the camera captures them and not how our eye sees them.

Digital Capture

As I have mentioned before, the camera does capture images as our eye sees them. Our eyes respond differently to varying levels of light meaning that if we view something with strong luminance contrasts, our eyes adjust to provide a more balanced exposure. Sensors on digital cameras do not respond in this way and perform something called Linear Capture of light, meaning that each part of the sensor responds equally to light regardless of its luminance. This makes images taken on digital cameras exhibit far more contrast than our eye would see it.

Above are a couple of images which hopefully may help to illustrate this. There is strong contrast between the sky and the landscape objects within the images. These scenes appeared far more balanced to the my eye when I was there. Obviously, you cant see what my eyes saw, but if you picture a similar scene which you have viewed, do you remember it being so contrasty.

Is it really what we want to see?

People often don’t do a huge amount of processing on their images. It mostly entails slapping a gnarly filter on it from Instagram or suchlike, or making minor changes to the overall colour or tonality. What it doesn’t usually involve is trying to balance the exposure contrasts of the various elements to provide something more akin to what the eye sees.

As such, a huge amount of the photos we view will have this exaggerated contrast seen in a digital capture. The question is, is this actually what we want to see because we have become conditioned to it?

The above photos seem to be visually acceptable to me although they are actually a significant distortion from what the eye sees. Why do I think they are acceptable? Probably because I am so conditioned to seeing similar such images.

I think most people suffer from this digital conditioning. However, the images above really are too contrasty and that spoils their composition in my opinion. It may be better to have images which mirror more of how the eye sees it.

Making a more balanced exposure

This isn’t as easy to do as you would think. Cameras have built in HDR functions and there is dedicated HDR software which tries to make this process simple. However, the results are often poor, resulting in images which often look like wild distortions, or the effect is so subtle, it’s no real improvement.

This software is getting better though and some mobile phone have quite good HDR functions.

However, the best way to do it is to manually blend exposures which can be a tricky and time consuming process. But the results are worth it. Here are a few examples below.

In the above examples the left hand image is the capture from the camera, and the right hand image has had the exposure balanced to make it similar to what the eye would see. I would say I prefer the images on the right, but the images on the left appear more realistic.

Although the exposures are more balanced on the right hand images, and more akin to how the eye would see it, they appear unrealistic compared to the left hand images although these are a distortion of reality brought about through the digital capture. Is this perception of realism due to being conditioned to see this?

Which way to go?

So if what I am saying is true, and that is subject to debate, what is the best thing to do with your photos? Its really up to you. If you want to strive for what we see as realistic then is maybe best to stay away from HDR and exposure blending. If you want something that is more akin to what your eye sees then you will have to process the your photos accordingly.

Suffice to say though, I think we have become conditioned to seeing photos as the camera captures them rather than as our eyes would view the scene. And with digital editing software becoming more powerful and easier to use who knows what we will be conditioned to see in the future.

Thanks for Reading,




2 thoughts on “Digital Realism

Add yours

  1. So many interesting photos and thoughts since my last visit, I’m glad i sometimes open my bookmarks! I’ve been busy and went head first into other projects and left my own blog aside, and I’m happy you keep pushing your adventures in the photographic world as long as it makes you happy, it’s a pleasant and interesting take on life.

    Paradoxically I see HDR as a more realistic outcome if you don’t overly flatten the contrasts, but it’s still a subjective matter. When we take a casual shot with few considerations, even if we don’t partake in photography, we often say “It didn’t turn out well. It was pretty on the spot though.” This happened especially with film cameras, where we would see the result after a week or three, or with digital cameras when we thought we tweaked enough settings and see the result on the computer. And our eyes were not deceiving us, the camera is not up par to our eye’s capabilities. Partly because it’s a 2D image, and often because light and colors don’t behave the same. Even between “normal” people, color vision is widely differing, making things even more complicated.

    HDR is a step in the right direction to me even if the result don’t appear quite natural, and widely depends on how you process the images. It can be far from the way HDR is typically seen (with strange colours a bit like rotoscoping). For one I only ever tried it with three exposures, and I already like the results (it also compensates for the small dynamic range of my old bridge). An example here, far from perfect with a stump for tripod
    I think cameras will keep leaning closer to the human eye perception in the future.


    1. Thanks for posting. I’m glad you find my new photos interesting to view. Unfortunately, I haven’t had any time recently to put up many full written posts, mostly because I can never seem to get away from work.

      I find HDR can give really mixed results. When I first started using it, I was using packages like Photomatix and I found the results to often be quite poor. I think it was often due to my unrealistic expectations of what it could do. I would take multiple exposures shooting into strong light and hoped it would come out amazing, which it mostly didn’t. Even when it did come out ok, it was still marred by that characteristic, contrasty HDR look which I have grown to loathe over the years. Very, very rarely did it produce a great image. Nowadays, I don’t use automated HDR software and do the image blending myself in Photoshop as I find the results to be more pleasing and I can guard against those contrast issues that seem to crop regularly in software like Photomatix.

      I am also more pragmatic about what I shoot. I don’t shoot directly into the sun and hope to pull out a good, well exposed shot by using HDR. I see HDR now as a way to balance subtle luminosity differences between the sky and foreground. There is still a slight unnatural appearance about them but that may be due to my lack of artistic skill, or it may be due to the fact that we don’t actually expect a photo to appear as out eyes see the scene, as we have become so conditioned to overly contrasty digital images.

      I certainly agree that as technology progresses, cameras will come closer to the human eye perception. My current mobile phone is a Huawei P20 Pro and the results using the camera app’s HDR function are unbelievably good. The effect if subtle and it only works when their isn’t a huge contrast in the image but the results are amazingly natural. I was recently on holiday and took most of my photos on my mobile instead of my DSLR just because it was so compact and could produce such amazing results with little processing. The future certainy looks good for amateur photography.

      Liked by 1 person

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