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,




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