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When The All Seeing Eye Met The Listening Ear

When The All Seeing Eye met The Listening Ear
Sunday 11th February 2018 12:17pm
Aged 13, standing in the semi-dark and sliding a stiff piece of glossy blank paper into a chemical bath would arouse in me an anticipation like nothing I had felt under any other circumstances. For me, watching the latent image I had exposed into the silver-halide doped gel of a sheet of Multigrade IV was a form of magic. It was the number one thing that hooked me on photography.

There’s nothing in the digital domain that is quite the same.

Fortunately I was hooked well before digital cameras became main-stream at the turn of the century, so I didn’t miss out on the magic of the darkroom. (The first digital image was produced in 1920 and the first digital camera in 1975 – but like most of us I knew nothing of such things in the dark ages of the nineteen-eighties).

But there is another aspect of photography that is magical, and which remains a part of the magic even in this digitized cyber world in which we now live – The All Seeing Eye…

The camera of course isn’t really an All Seeing Eye, it suffers practical limitations as all things must; but the camera sees differently to the human eye and so sees things that the eye either cannot or does not or else chooses not to see. As a result, sometimes, a photograph can take your breath away – especially when new techniques emerge such as HDR, focus stacking or simply ultra-high pixel resolutions. Of course these stunning ‘hyper-real’ digital imaging techniques, whilst initially spectacular, can readily become tired clichés; but they demonstrate the point that the camera’s unique visual capabilities create for us an alternate view of reality, one which we cannot construct unaided.

And yes, this does feel like magic to me – exploiting the power to control time, to see the invisible, to stretch or compact space, to look into the dark … These are the kinds of powers of Hollywood movie blockbuster super heroes all in the palm of your hand without the need to suffer an insect bite! Consider:

  • Controlling Time: A camera exposure effectively compresses time. While the shutter is open everything that happens gets recorded as a single image, potentially giving rise to the nuisance of camera shake in the resulting photograph. However, recording over a period of time (rather than attempting to freeze time) provides a unique perspective of the world. Cameras can readily condense seconds of time into a single frozen image (typically up to 30s, often longer with an external trigger) – providing the light can be controlled so that the sensor isn’t saturated. With something like a Super Stopper an everyday exposure time of, say, 1/60th of a second would become more than 8 minutes. 8 minutes of real world action all compressed into a single frame. Suddenly we can see how people flow through a street, how the surface of water undulates, how clouds roll and drift through the sky – things we can imagine for ourselves, but not truly appreciate visually by dint of our own eyes.
  • Seeing the invisible The retina retains an image even after the light has stopped falling on it, and the brain needs time to process what has been seen which means we humans suffer from a Persistence of Vision – or, we just don’t get to see everything that moves (like bullets, you never see them coming…). It’s probably fair to say (in a really loose, not totally scientific way) we can see at around 250fps, events faster than 1/250s are likely to be missed entirely. Modern cameras have very fast shutter speeds, up to around 1/8000s – and so are quite capable of effectively freezing time for us.
  • Some things are invisible not by virtue of their speed, but rather due to their size. The best the eye can do is to clearly distinguish (or resolve) a thing of at least 0.04mm (like a hair maybe). Anything smaller cannot in itself be so distinguished by the unaided eye. A 24Mp full-frame sensor has a maximum resolving power of about 0.006mm, about 6x that of the eye. Furthermore a camera lens can quite readily achieve significantly greater magnification than the eye can, perhaps up to 4x in-the-field with extension rings and close-up filters, much more in a studio or lab setting.
  • Warping space our stereoscopic vision and brain-powered processing allows us to perceive the world in 3 spatial dimensions; even when looking at a flat photographic or TV image we understand the 3D nature of what is presented. Cameras of course are creating a 2D projection, and we can control exactly how that projection is achieved – which means we can control how the works are then interpreted. If we use a standard 50mm lens at eye-height then the 2D projection the camera makes will allow a viewer to appreciate the 3D nature of the image as it ‘was’ (as it would have been perceived by the eys of the viewer if they had been there). But if we switch to a wider focal length and step closer we create an exaggerated perspective in the 2D projection, which causes an exaggerated 3D appreciation for the viewer. With differing focal lengths, points of view, shift&tilt lenses we can create a variety of distortions in the 2D projection the camera makes, utterly warping our undertsnading of the shape of the world.
  • Seeing in the dark Unsurprisingly, there is a great emphasis on light in photography. To the extent that many (especially landscape) photographers are slaves to it; rising unnaturally before dawn in order to capture the ‘golden hour’. If you have the luxury of time (and access to places) then waiting passively for the world to provide you with a scene that meets your definition of beauty is all well and good – and certainly works for many. Personally though, I often find that life constrains me so that my choice is to photograph in sub-optimal lighting or not to photograph at all; which is no choice.

    When I visited Romney Marsh’s Listening Ears it was an ad-hoc opportunity, we happened to be passing while on holiday so we called by. It wasn’t planned, it was the worst time of day lighting wise and we had no permission nor access to select a favoured viewpoint. In fact, looking at the out-of-camera shot it seemed like a pretty futile subject, despite the unique and historic nature of the constructs. But I relied upon the camera’s ability to record shadow detail and then in post-processing I massively expanded a small slice of the tonal range, creating an image with details it was impossible to have appreciated in the moment.
Even in these days of PhotoShop there is an expectation that photographs speak the truth. The very suspicion of ‘PhotoShoppery’ can utterly discredit an image, and its maker. This is especially true in photojournalism (see Reuters’ Guide to Standards), documentary and street genres – and there is a massive PhotoShop backlash when it comes to advertising, fashion and portraiture. People believe the camera never lies, and feel the betrayal keenly when it is shown to have done so.

And in deed the camera doesn’t lie – but it sees the truth (the world) very differently to humans, if we allow it to. It can give us a different point of view upon the truth, whilst remaining honest. It is so much more than a record, a document, a substitute for seeing. It expands our vision and shows us not just the unseen, but oft times, the un-see-able.

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