April 26, 2022

On Photography and Brains

Nothing more than photography jolts me into remembering that my eyes are not cameras and my brain is responsible for everything I perceive. This happens most often when I’m taking a picture through something - a window, or a screen. I’ll be at the zoo, trying to take a picture of a monkey doing something really cute, but when I look at the resulting photo on my phone, I’ll see instead all of the reflections off of the window, and barely the monkey at all: the foreground and background have been flipped. Most often, I won’t have even noticed the reflections; my brain will have just edited them out. The same thing happens when taking a picture through a window screen, or of a TV paused at a funny freezeframe.

The other place this shows up is with perspective - I’ll be standing on my street, admiring how beautiful the trees are. I’ll go to take a photo, but when I look, the sky - an irrelevant part of the thing I’m trying to capture, will take up two thirds of the screen, and my beautiful street only one third. “How could that be?” I’ll think - I’m looking at the street, and the sky should be just a thin strip at the top. But when I glance up from the phone at reality again, I’ll be forced to admit that oh, yes, that sky thing is rather large, I guess it makes sense that it’s taking up that much room proportionally. Even worse is when I try to correct by tilting the phone down, only to then find to my dismay that now it is the asphalt directly in front of me (rather than the lovely trees further along the block) that is taking up the majority of the space.

I’m aware that there are camera settings that more advanced photographers can use to adjust things like focus and frame depth. But that is exactly my point: the camera requires explicit intervention to make the result align with the reality the photographer’s brain sees. And yet when looking with my eyes, I require no manual adjustments to see what I want to see; quite the opposite, in fact - it’s hard to readjust and see anything else on purpose. A fun trick to demonstrate this is to hold something like a bobby pin or a strand of hair up to your eye about six inches away, close the other eye, and really try to focus on the thing you’re holding, and then on the background. With enough practice, you can build the skill of adjusting your focus on purpose, but it feels unnatural and is merely a reminder of the massive amount of processing our eyes and brain do on the visual inputs we receive before “we” “see” them in our consciousness at all.