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.
Photo Retouching comes to the rescue
Here is where photo retouching enters the scene. So what really is photo retouching and what is it useful for? We can approach this question from two angles and both are related to each other:
Bringing the Photo closer to what we remember
1) On the one hand, photo retouching is the art of taking that initial photo and working on it by various means to bring it closer to what our eyes saw when we were in front of that beautiful scene.
Photo retouching applied to the scenario described above is, for example, the art of manipulating the image we captured and making more visible some of the details that almost disappeared due to the limitations of our photo camera. It enables us as well to enhance the color of the picture and bring it closer to what our eyes enjoyed. In short, retouching allows us to take the photo and compensate for the limitations of our camera. It gives us the possibility to try and bring the final result as close as possible to what we remember.
Two key points here:
a) First, retouching is not synonymous with Photoshop. Photoshop is the most popular of the tools used in our digital age to retouch photographs. But retouching can be done in numerous ways, either with the many software products available on the market or by processing the digital outputs in other ways (such as printing and scanning the photo successive times including physical interventions in the middle to alter different properties of the image).
b) The second point is that when we talk about – what we remember from the scene – we have to take into account the psychological implications of that statement. It has been shown that often when we remember a beautiful nature landscape, we remember it greener and more saturated in color than it really was.
Therefore, when we retouch that photo, should we manipulate the output to approach what we remember from the scene, or what the scene truly looks like when we stand in front of it?
But no one can possibly say what the scene truly looks like. For each of us, the experience of looking at something will be completely different. Furthermore, what we remember from our visual connection with the scene will also be different for each of us as vision is truly relative. (let’s remember the example of the person who is enclosed in a room painted completely red and with nothing else inside to compare that color to. The person will be unable to see that red color until we introduce something with which he can compare it).
So, if we are retouching a picture for ourselves, we will attempt to bring that image closer to what we remember photo retouching services based on our own personal experience. If we are retouching it for somebody else, we may either bring that scene closer to what generally is accepted as attractive for such a scenario or we may ask the client whose photo we are retouching the details of his/her perception of that scene and then manipulate the result towards that direction.
Moving Beyond what we see
2) On the other hand, retouching allows us to go beyond the first point and enhance reality in infinite directions. As we mentioned previously, vision is very relative. We all remember the same scene in different ways. That lush green vegetation will be remembered by some of us as more saturated in color than by others, some will remember it more yellow and others greener. Some will remember the vegetation to be brighter and others darker; some will even remember it larger and others smaller. This is all a consequence both of the biology of our eyes and of the continuous filtering that our brain performs on our perception of the world around us.