Ten things your camera can see that your eyes can’t

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Often in photography, the problem we feel we have is that the photos we take don't match what we saw at the time. The way the camera works is quite different from the human eye. While there is nothing wrong with trying to capture what you saw, have you ever thought about using your camera to capture what you can't see?

In this article I'll cover 10 things that your camera can see but you can't, with an added bonus point at the end. Capturing photos that don't exactly match what you see with your eyes can often give stronger images than just an exact record of reality.

Ten things your camera can see that your eyes can't

Freeze action

Although the human eye is able to observe fast events as they happen, it is not able to focus on a single point of time. We cannot freeze motion with our eyes. With a camera, however, so long as there is enough light, we can freeze motion. We can even record events that happen too fast for the human eye to see them.

High speed photograph of a balloon bursting
Water Baloon Burst by Sunil Soundarapandian on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Generally, recording fast action is mainly used in Sports photography. The idea is usually to record the moment of 'peak action', just as the ball is hit or about to be caught, the athlete reaches the top of their jump, or the winner crosses the finish line. The camera can capture 'the moment', while your eye cannot.

2013 US Open (Tennis) - Daniela Hantuchova, about to hit the ball
2013 US Open (Tennis) - Daniela Hantuchova by Steven Pisano on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Combining flash with high speed photography allows capture of events that happen too fast for the eye to perceive. Things like the bursting of a water-filled balloon, or a light-bulb smashing on concrete.

Blur movement

Our eyes can see a small amount of blur when fast motion is involved (e.g. try waving your hand quickly in front of your face). However, a camera can record blur from movement over much longer periods of time. For example, a long exposure of blurred clouds moving across the sky, or blurred waves along a seafront.

Cairngorm Sunrise - a long exposure was used, causing the moving clouds to be blurred in the captured image
Cairngorm Sunrise by Graham Norrie on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-ND)

A camera can also record blur from movement by being moved itself. As long as the exposure time is not too short, then moving the camera will create blur. This can be used creatively in a couple of ways.

One technique is to pan with a moving subject. You move the camera with the subject, keeping the subject at the same point in the frame as they move. This blurs the static background behind the subject, while keeping the subject sharp.

Family on a moving motorbike - the camera was panned with the motorbike, keeping it sharp while the rest of the image blurred
Family Panning by Rakib Hasan Sumon on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Another technique is to just move the camera to create blur across the whole image. This will often create a very soft, abstract, and often painterly photograph.

Aspen Pan - moving the camera up / down in line with the tree trunks creates an abstract painterly image
Aspen Pan by Steve Corey on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-ND)

Achieve a shallow depth of field

It is possible to achieve a shallow depth of field with your eyes, but only by focusing on something very close. For example, hold your finger up in front of you, focus on it, and the background will blur. But you can't look at a person standing a few meters away and blur the background behind them like you can with a camera.

Portrait taken at night and using a shallow depth of field
First Use Video Gel by Mac Vincente | ® © on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Achieving a very shallow depth of field with a camera does depend partially on what camera and lens you're using. If you're using a phone for your photography, you'll probably find it difficult to achieve a shallow depth of field.

The larger the camera's image sensor, and the larger the maximum aperture of the camera's lens, the shallower the depth of field you'll be able to achieve. Most interchangeable lens cameras have fairly large image sensors, and have at least one 'fast' (e.g. f/1.8) lens available, which can help you achieve a much shallower depth of field than the human eye. This allows you to blur out the background behind your subject, drawing more attention to your subject.

See very faint light

In one sense, our eyes are better at seeing faint light than cameras. Stand under the stars on a clear night, and wait for your eyes to adjust to the dark. Then quickly look around at the sky, and you can see many stars.

Use a camera to take a quick single frame of those stars, and you are likely to only capture the very brightest ones. However, with the latest camera sensors high ISO capabilities we are getting quite close to matching the sensitivity of the human eye.

What a camera can do that the eye can't, is to collect light over a long period, and then use this to form a single image. By using a long shutter speed, we can capture very faint stars that the eye can't even see. Or the brightness of the light reflected from the moon can be built up over a long exposure to create an image that looks like it was shot in the daytime.

Altar of the Milky Way
Altar of the Milky Way by Bala Sivakumar on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Use a very narrow field of view

Use of a telephoto lens with a digital camera gives you a very narrow field of view. This allows you to capture 'close' images of subjects that are some distance away. The human eye can't do this.

Cardinal having a snack - good luck getting close enough to a bird with just your eyes to get view this close
Cardinal having a snack by Todd Ryburn on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Telephoto compression is an effect of a narrow field of view. This describes the way that the background behind the subject is enlarged when using a telephoto lens, compared to shooting with a normal or wide lens. Again, another effect the human eye cannot achieve.

Row of signs appearing to be close together caused by the perspective compression of a telephoto lens
Let your heart be fun - Shijo by Takashi Hososhima on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)

Use a very wide field of view

Carrying on from the previous point, the human eye cannot achieve a very wide field of view either. Using a wide angle lens can give you images that you just cannot see with the naked eye.

A wide angle lens has the opposite effect to a telephoto lens. Instead of items behind the subject appearing larger (and so, closer) to the subject, they appear smaller, and with more distance between them. This can be very useful to exaggerate perspective.

Man walking down a tunnel - a wide angle lens exaggarates the perspective, creating strong converging lines
The Walker by halfrain on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)

Get a wide and distorted view

A fisheye lens gives you an extremely wide field of view. Some even offer over 180° degrees of vision, meaning they can see behind themselves! The view is also distorted, so items in the center of the frame appear larger than those near the edge. If you place a straight line (such as the horizon) anywhere in the frame other than dead centered vertically or horizontally, the line will become bent due to the lens' distortion.

Photograph of plants with colorful leaves, taken with a fisheye lens, getting lots in the image and giving a curved horizon line
867 by Sergey Norin on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

With our eyes we have neither such a large field of view, or such strong distortion. Fisheyes are very good for giving a view of the world quite different to what we see. Note that because of the wide field of view, you need to get quite close to your subject for maximum effect.

Fisheye portrait photo
marc_tokina by Aitor Escauriaza on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

View very small details

Our eyes are actually very good at discerning fine details. However, they can't focus close enough to see as much detail as a camera with a macro lens can. A macro photo can capture tiny details of plants and insects, opening up an alien world that you can't see with your eyes.

Lycosidae spider macro photograph
Lycosidae o Araña Lobo by Ramón Portellano on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Even everyday objects can look very different when captured at the macro level, opening up image opportunities you never would have considered before.

Doorbell button macro photo
Button by Alejandro Erickson on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

See tone but not color

Black and White photography is still extremely popular today, despite the invention of color photography over 100 years ago. Our eyes always see in color (unless you suffer from total color blindness), reducing an image to shades of gray is not something we are able to do.

Sand Dunes B&W
Sand Dunes B&W by Zach Dischner on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Black and white photography is able to better emphasize differences in tone, and de-emphasize differences in color where tone is similar. Shape, form, and line also become much more apparent where the image is lacking the distractions of color.

Modify the color

You can't change the way your eye perceives color - a blue sky will always look blue. You can, however, change the way that a camera sees color. The easiest way to do this is by simply using an incorrect white balance setting.

If you're shooting in daylight, using a tungsten white balance setting will give a very cool (blue) image. Using a fluorescent white balance will give you a magenta tinged image. And using the shade white balance setting will give you a warm (orange) image.

Hong Kong Magic Panorama - A fluorescent white balance was used to give the image a magenta tint
Hong Kong Magic Panorama by Dennis Wong on Flickr (licensed CC-BY) - taken using a fluorescent white balance

As well as in-camera modification of color through the white balance, you can also modify colors in image editing software. You can shift the hue of an image to give a red sky and blue grass. You selectively modify the hues of certain colors, or swap colors, the possibilities are endless.

Photo of wispy smoke, with hue shifted to a yellow-green color
Incense vortex: end of a world by Philippe Teuwen on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)

View the world from cramped or dangerous places

I'm including this one as a bonus eleventh point. You can put your camera in cramped locations, such as inside a box. You can take photos from the floor level, or hold it up above your head. You can put it in the path of a herd of stampeding animals and trigger it remotely.

little big planet - looking up at dandelion clocks
little big planet by Chrishna on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

You could technically put yourself in all these positions to get the same view with your eyes, but it would not be easy or safe. The relatively small size of a camera, and modern benefits such as tilting screens and remote control through your phone mean you can easily take photos from positions that you wouldn't normally be able to get into.

So try capturing some things your camera can see but you can't. Because you can't 'see' the image you're trying to capture you may well find it gets you thinking more creatively, and you end up with better pictures.

2 Responses to “Ten things your camera can see that your eyes can’t”

  1. Juanita Robinett says:

    Most helpful! I’m going to try the ‘changing white balance’; that sounds exciting!

  2. Ank Arya says:

    …and that seeing remote’s infrared light only from a camera, at least the ones we get in mobiles and some cameras.

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