Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Photographic unreality

click photo to enlarge
"The camera never lies" and "It's just like a photograph" are two of the most quoted sayings about cameras and photographs, and they state two popular misconceptions about the power of photography. The first quotation suggests that an image produced by a camera is a perfect representation of reality, and the second, that reality (say a landscape) is comparable to a photograph. The truth is that the camera always lies, and reality isn't like a photograph.

Technical illustrators have long understood the shortcomings of the photograph. Have a look at a manual from the 1960s or 1970s for a car or a camera. The chances are that the illustrations are drawings. Now you'd think that a camera manufacturer (in particular) would use their own products to illustrate their manuals. But no, they understood that if you want clarity you don't want "reality". So, for much of the second half of the twentieth century these (and other publications) used monochrome line drawings combined with airbrush work to give the clearest view of their wares. The shading was limited to the amount necessary for modelling the form of the object, and the lines were used to clearly show the parts that needed to be seen. These drawings exemplify another well-known saying - "a picture is worth a thousand words!"

Today's photograph of a steel and glass spiral staircase in a museum, with its over-all greyness and clear lines, reminded me of that type of drawing. The materials and the lighting reduced the depth of the shadows (necessary for health and safety reasons), and the emphasis given to the hand-rail and the step edges (for similar reasons) gave a linear quality. Converting the image to black and white completed the effect and triggered my reflections above. Incidentally, that type of illustration is still to be found in many of today's manuals, though often it's the digital pen, ink and airbrush of a computer programme such as Adobe Illustrator that accomplishes the work.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 11mm (22mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f6.3
Shutter Speed: 1/60
ISO: 400
Exposure Compensation: -1.7 EV
Image Stabilisation: On