What the Camera Sees

lighting, DOF, shutter speed considerations

One of the important things every photographer has to learn is to see what the camera sees. It is a different process from painting or other visual art. It is a technical process, not only of how the sensor works but the transform of a 3 dimensional world to a 2 dimensional representation. This is part of our art. We have to understand it and be able to predict the results.

Static image

Unless you are shooting video, the end result of the camera’s capture is a static image. That seems like a “duh” to most of us, but it is significant. The entire image is recorded “in one instant”. Yes, I’m ignoring moving shutter slit, HDR, panoramas, time exposures, and other exceptions that can bend the rules.

This “in one instant” is significant because our eyes work in a totally different way. We can only see a small spot at a time. We continually “scan” around a scene to “see” it all. Our brain stitches all these scans together marvelously to give us the impression of a complete scene. We are not aware of it happening.

What difference does it make? Well, there are subtleties. If something moves in real life, our eyes jump to the movement and study it. Movement has a higher priority in our brains than static things.

Our photograph no longer has that movement or flashing lights. It is a flat and static collection of pixels. We have to learn techniques to stimulate the viewer’s eye in other ways. We learn that the eye is drawn to the brightest or highest contrast areas. That informs how to capture the scene and process it to end up with results that help direct our viewer to the parts of the image we want to emphasize. It helps a lot to anticipate what we are going to want to do. This is part of learning how the camera sees.

Depth of field

The static image we create may or may not seem in sharp focus throughout. This is known as depth of field. It is referring to which parts of the scene are in “acceptable” focus. The aperture setting controls the range of this good focus area.

Remember that the 3 main things controlling the exposure of an image are the aperture, the shutter speed, and the ISO setting. The aperture controls the amount of light coming through the lens at any instant. How long the sensor is exposed to the light is the shutter speed. And the ISO setting is the sensitivity of the sensor to the light. A side effect of the aperture setting is the control of effective depth of field.

In real life we do not see limited depth of field. Our eyes focus on one small area at a time. Each spot we focus on is in sharp focus. The resulting image our brain paints is that everything is in focus. Try it. Look around where you are now. Then close your eyes and try to remember which parts were out of focus. Spoiler – there aren’t any. We remember it all in focus.

So this is a big disconnect between what we perceive of a live scene and what we record in a photograph. Some photographers see this as a problem if they cannot keep the entire scene in sharp focus. But intentionally making non-subject areas blurry can also be used for artistic effect. Since this is different from how our eyes see, this creates something that stands out. It can change our perception.

But like it or not, it is something that the camera sees differently and we need to learn how to handle it.

Shutter speed

To our eyes, things seem to be either frozen sharply or “just a blur” moving by. Things are usually only perceived as a blur if we are not paying attention to them.

But for the camera, the shutter is open for a certain amount of time and things are either sharp if they are still or blurred if they are moving. The camera does not understand the scene and it is not smart enough to know what should be sharp.

Let me give an example. Say you are standing beside a road watching a car go by. If we care about the car (wow, a new ______; that would be fun to drive) we are paying attention to it and we perceive it as sharp. To the camera, it is just something moving through the frame while the shutter is open. It has no name or value. The photographer has to determine how to treat this motion. What it should “mean”.

So the photographer may pan with the car to make it appear sharp while the rest of the image is blurred. Or the intent might be for the car to be a blurred streak in the frame. Either way, it is a design decision to be made because the camera records movement differently from us.

The lens

Unlike us, our cameras let us swap out a variety of “eyeballs” – the lens. We have a certain fixed field of view. That is why camera formats have a particular focal length designated as the “normal” lens. For a full frame 35mm camera like I use, the “normal” lens is in the range of 45-50mm, because for this size sensor this corresponds to the field of view we typically see.

But most of our cameras are not limited to that. We can use very wide angle lenses to take in a larger sweep of scene. Or we can use a telephoto lens to bring distant subjects close or to restrict our view to a narrow slice. Or we can use macro lenses to magnify small objects. All these things give us a new perspective on the world that would not be possible with our regular eyes. This is another way the camera sees that we need to learn to use.

Mapping to 2D

The world is 3D. Pictures are 2D. It seems obvious. Yet we must be aware of the transformation that is happening.

In the 3D space we move in, we are acutely aware of depth and movement in many axes – length, width, height, pitch, roll, yaw, and others. We use this information automatically to interpret the world. But it is lost when the scene is captured on our 2D sensor.

We sense depth. “In front of” or “behind” come automatically to us. Our camera is not as smart. The camera sensor records everything in front of it as a flat, static image. The scene is mapped through the particular perspective of the lens being used and onto the flat sensor.

An example to illustrate. This is a classic. You take a picture of your family downtown. The scene looks perfectly fine and normal to you, because you intuitively realize the depth and separation of things. It gives you selective attention. But when you look at the picture there is a very objectionable telephone pole poking out of Uncle Bob’s head. You did not pay attention to that at the time because you “knew” the pole was far behind him and you dismissed it. The camera doesn’t know to ignore it. All pixels are equal.


This is fundamental to our cameras. There has to be a light source. The camera sees only light from a source or light that is reflected or transmitted by objects. But being humans, we interpret the real world as objects. They are “there”. They have mass and form and value and color. Not so to the camera. It doesn’t ascribe meaning to a scene. All a camera can record is light. Our fancy sensor doesn’t see a red ball. It detects, but doesn’t care, that there is a preponderance of light in the red band being recorded.

By its very definition – photo-graphy means writing with light – photography is dependent on light. Our modern sensors are marvelous products. We can shoot at very high ISO and make exposures in almost total darkness. But if any image was recorded, there was some actual light available.

Everything in every image we make is a record of light. More than almost any other art form, photography is dependent on light. Photographers must be intensely sensitive to the direction and quality and color of the light sources that are illuminating our scene. Likewise we must be very aware of the objects the light is falling on, their shape and texture and reflectivity and color.

Learning to see, again

Art in general, and photography in particular, is a lifelong learning. We learn to see creatively. We learn to see compositions and design. And we have to learn to see the way the camera sees. This is the way we capture the image we want.

Note, after writing this I found this good article by David duChemin. He is a great writer.

Indoor Time

Heavy Snowfall

During the times when going out to shoot is difficult or impossible, you can still use your indoor time to develop your creativity and refine some critical skills for your photography practice. Just being indoors should not mean we are shut down. We can claim this indoor time as a opportunity to build ourselves up.

Forced indoor time

A reality today is than many are locked indoors with few opportunities to get outside. What are you doing with this new found time? When this virus started nearly a year ago I bet most of us had all kinds of upbeat plans for self-improvement activities. We could make a significant dent on our reading list, learn a new language, catch up on years of photo filing, use that rusting exercise bike, etc. How’s that working out for you?

After we got bored and depression set in we have probably gained a few pounds, played too many hours of video games, and binged on Amazon Prime. Time to make a New Year resolution to take back control of our attitude and refocus on our art.

It’s not too late. The opportunities are still there. Get off the couch and start working that list again. Remember your earlier resolve. Just because you’re indoors doesn’t mean you brain is shut off.

Bad weather

Weather is another factor that shuts some of us indoors. I live in Colorado. Winters here can get rather cold and snowy. But that is cyclic. It happens every year. I plan it into my week. I may get out and walk less, but I get out. Maybe I don’t travel as much, but I still do some.

A reality for me is that bad weather creates opportunity for some of the types of images I really like. Things on the edge or extreme: the edge of a storm, a raging blizzard, ominous clouds. These are things most sane people do not go out to see. I do. What does that say?

It’s cold at times, but I can dress for it. There might be some pain, but that is life. If a certain amount of pain is a cost of getting images that please me. I’m willing. And I find that when I come back in, with my fingers aching and my beard covered over with ice, I am happy. I am proud that I made myself do it. I feel better about myself and invigorated. There is the satisfaction that I went out and tried instead of sitting at home telling myself the weather was too bad to get out.

Let me disclaim that I have many years of experience doing this, I get pretty good clothes for the climate, I have a good 4 wheel drive, and I carry proper emergency equipment. Don’t jump off a cliff without looking.

Seek ideas

OK, you’re stuck inside. How can you pursue your art? Maybe you can’t be making your images right now, but you can be getting ready to hit it strong when you can. Browse other artist’s sites. (Sorry, blatant plug.) Be amazed at their work and gather inspiration to weave into your style. Not to copy but to motivate new ideas.

Look, too, for interviews and discussions with artists. These are more prevalent these days because so many of us are feeling very isolated. Artists, among others, are are starting to reach out more to build community. Some are inspiring and motivating.

Seriously consider online training, like KelbyOne or Creative Live. It costs a few bucks, but really, less than a Netflix subscription. And they are more valuable to your career. Or there are many sources of free videos, such as B&H Explora. The Learn Photography section has an amazing amount of material. Their series on Understanding Exposure is very good.

And of course You Tube has more photography videos than you could watch in a lifetime. For free. There are valuable ones if you can find them. Your mileage may vary.

Focus on skill building

A specific suggestion is to focus on improving your post processing skills during this time. Most of us could use more depth in Lightroom or Photoshop or your tool of choice. This is a great opportunity.

“For photographers, Adobe Photoshop is still the gold standard of editing applications, and the one to which all others are compared. And even if you’re not a Photoshop user, its omnipresence almost acts like the foundation of a communal language from which to talk about editing photos in general.” – Bjorn Petersen

Yes, love them or hate them, Lightroom and Photoshop are the basis of a shared cultural experience for photographers worldwide. It is useful to know whether or not you use it.

The sources I mention above have a lot of good training for this. And you have extra time now for practice and experimentation. That is a great benefit. This new information should be used to build competence. A lot of repetition is necessary before they are ready to be incorporated into your workflow.

It is not a skill until you can actually do it. The more familiar and experienced you are with your craft, the easier and more fun it becomes. It can be a valuable goal to decide to come out of this with an improved workflow and ability to better craft your art.


Opportunity is there. It is always there. My glass has been half empty for too long. I am trying to re-frame my viewpoint. I’m done with the “poor me” attitude.

The same opportunities are still there. Turn off the TV and Facebook and remember what your creativity is pushing you to do. Start with one little thing. Something you would enjoy and can do in an hour or less. Do it. Now you have accomplished something. Celebrate! Use that to build momentum. Keep going.

This indoor time is too valuable to waste. Use it wisely.

Some photographers who inspire me (in random order):

Cole Thompson

Fran Forman

John Paul Caponigro

Julieanne Kost


John Shaw

Ben Willmore (Ben is also a master Photoshop and Lightroom trainer)

Lorri Freedman

Karen Hutton

Jay Maisel

Practice, Practice, Practice

Girl and Chandeliere

How do you get good at anything? Practice. Does it apply to art? Yes, practice. When? Now.

Seemingly it is a very simple thing, but constant practice trains your muscles and your brain. It refines your skill and makes your decisions automatic. It improves your concentration and your vision.

The 10,000 hour rule

You can learn to do many things pretty well with about 40 hours of work. Yet it is said that to become great at something takes 10,000 hours of practice. Now realistically, few people will put in 10,000 hours on anything (except maybe watching TV). That is 5 years of doing nothing else except practicing your craft for 40 hours a week. This is the level of effort required to become the level of a Michael Jordon or Tiger Woods. But isn’t that the level we aspire to as artists? I do.

That seems an unrealistically high standard. But in most unrealistic situations, you do what you can. Putting in the time consistently is key. A good discipline is to make yourself get out with your camera every day. Having it in your hand makes it comfortable. It teaches you to see more, observe. You will not make a great image every day. That is not the point. The point is to improve.

“The discipline of practice every day is essential. When I skip a day, I notice a difference in my playing. After two days, the critics notice, and after three days, so does the audience.”

Jascha Heifetz, renowned violinist

One of my exercises is to practice street photography a few times a week. I touched on this in my article on hunting images. It gives great practice in consciousness, fast reflexes, anticipation, using your camera with little thought. Most of my work is not street photography, but this is great skill development for everything else I do.

Carry a camera

It is hard to practice if you don’t have your tools. Not impossible, just hard. Going to the trouble of having your camera with you provides an important discipline. It is intentional. You have consciously committed to making images. It gives you permission (in your mind) to look for and take pictures. It makes you aware and on the prowl.

The great Wayne Gretzsky famously said “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” This is true of photography, not just hockey. When you are carrying your camera, make yourself stop and capture interesting scenes when you see them. As I noted in a another post, it won’t be there tomorrow.

Examine, improve

The purpose of doing this practice is to improve. It has been said that in 20 years, some people get 20 years of experience and some people have 1 year of experience repeated 20 times. Doing the same thing over and over without improving is very sad.

Unless you have someone you trust to critique your work frequently, you have to learn to do it yourself. Be honest with yourself. And brutal. Did that work? Was it what you wanted? Is it technically perfect? Was the composition effective? And one of the hardest to judge objectively: is it actually a great picture?

I used the 10,000 hour rule to give a sense of how long it takes to become an expert, but it is well known that the so called rule is flawed. People often practice for 10,000 hours or more but remain mediocre. Why? They are not learning from their mistakes! They get 1 year of experience 20 times. Don’t make the mistake of not learning from your mistakes.

Be brutal on yourself. Better you than other people. The reality is most of your shots will not be very good. Most of mine are not. That’s OK. You have to get a lot of bad shots out of your system before you can start making better ones consistently. Be honest with yourself. When a frame just doesn’t work, examine it carefully. Understand why. What can you learn from it? A bad shot may lead you to a new understanding and be more valuable than a good shot that doesn’t teach you anything.

The few, the proud

The legendary Ansel Adams said “A photographer does well to get a dozen first-quality shots a year.” Technology has changed a lot and it doesn’t take much time or cost to shoot a lot of digital frames. But how many of yours are really great? Quantity is not quality.

I’ll be candid, looking at my digital collection only, less than 2% of my shots are “gallery quality”. Two out of 100. Is that discouraging? No, in a weird way it is empowering. Based on Adam’s experience I am encouraged to be getting that many. Or I could be delusional. Of course I keep a lot more than that for various reasons. And since I like to do collages I have a lot that are not stand alone but would be excellent material for constructing new composites.

Not the outcome

This leads to the final point for this post. When I am practicing, I need to concentrate on process, not outcome. I am learning, doing repetitions, trying experiments, getting more familiar with my equipment. This improves me over time and sharpens my eye. If I get a “keeper” during practice that is just a happy accident.

Practice daily and plan to throw almost all of it away. It is worth it.

Do you have a regular practice regime? Has it helped? Let me know!