Can You Photograph Reality?

Can You Photograph Reality?

Do you believe that your images are objective representations of reality? You might be mistaken. Here are a few arguments why.

Subjectivity and Objectivity

In public debate, objectivity is a highly discussed virtue. Funded research, manipulated images, and the worldwide appearance of fake news are highly debated topics all around the globe. In its essence, the demand for neutral coverage is a demand for objectivity: People want to see reality instead of the opinion of an author, director, or photographer.

To make it quick: it simply isn’t possible. Not in journalism, not in social research, and not in photography. You, as a photographer, can’t produce neutral images. Everything that you create is influenced by your personal taste, feelings, or opinions. In fact, that’s exactly how the online dictionary Lexico defines “subjectivity”:


NOUN (subjectivities)

[mass noun]

1 The quality of being based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.

You can try to evaluate different approaches and give your audience a selection of opposing perspectives. Still, these efforts cannot eliminate your own involvement in the creation of an image. Not in wedding photography, not in photojournalism, and not in landscape photography. The good news is: that’s fine.

Subject and Perspective

The first step in creating a photograph is selecting a subject. An arch in Utah, a freckled model, or the floating markets are subjects selected by you. The selection of a certain subject for photography is already non-objective. When you choose one subject, you neglect others and put your personal perspective into your photography.

This image includes the boy and the fire, but I decided to remove the open door on the left from the frame.

Even more will that happen when you decide how to take an image of your subject. In the case of landscape images, you will decide about the right time and location. You will decide about what is visible in the foreground, what you will find in the background, and how you prefer the lighting. Some decisions will be conscious, some subconscious, and others will happen arbitrarily or by accident. Thus, everything is a result of your approach to photography.

Perspective on a Topic

Subjectivity is most visible when we photograph humans. Humans interact with each other, and your presence in a scene will alter everything. When you shoot a portrait, the person in front of the lens will react to you. She or he will collaborate with you. Your images reflect the relation between you and your model. Landscapes don’t react, though. But two pictures of a lake will never look the same. If you tell people “this is how the Pangong Tso looks,” you're actually lying a little bit. The highest salt water lake looked like that when you took the image from your perspective with your gear. It surely doesn’t look like it right now.

The Panong Lake in May 2015.

Covering a broader topic like a portrait of a local market demonstrates subjectivity more clearly. When you are at one spot, you can’t be at another. While you are focusing on the beautiful flower, you will miss the old lady buying cheese. There will be so many things that you can’t cover due to your specific position and point of view. Photographers in areas of war and conflict have to deal with this issue all the time. Ideally, they weigh many different perspectives to create an overall holistic image. Still, whatever is important to their story is a subjective decision. While a holistic image is what we should aim at, each of its little parts will be a unique image from a certain point of view. That’s normal and unavoidable.

Development of a Photograph

“I get everything right in camera” and “I edit the images in a way that they look like what I felt when I was there” seem to be a discussion about objectivity and subjectivity. Actually, both of them are subjective decisions. Getting everything right in camera means that we accept the perspective and development of our gear. Still, we chose the specific camera, the specific lens, and the composition according to our taste. We included what we assumed was relevant and then trusted the camera. The choice of how we process the image will also be a decision, influenced by our opinion. As our camera is limited to capture a certain field of view and a limited dynamic range, it produces a selected part of reality, not reality as a whole.

Some people use HDR to increase the information of an image, some people use black and white to emphasize structure instead of colors. Dodge and burn may add to the aesthetics, and the stamp tool removes parts of the image that don’t add to the story. You might be a friend of some of the tools and reject others. Your way of developing an image is an individual decision.

That's definitley not how I saw this scene. I simply like the image.

The Presentation Is Your Choice

If you haven’t been convinced about the inescapability of subjectivity, here comes my strongest argument. The selection of your images and the way you will present them is a subjective decision. Why did you choose to show picture A and not B? That’s a decision based on your own opinion. To present an objective image, you need to present all possible variations of a subject at once. That’s impossible.

The mode of presentation is also a personal decision. Why on Instagram, why printed? An image can never copy reality, because it needs a medium to be presented. The medium will not show reality, but an image. Your audience will eventually see this image through their own eyes. Reception is subjective as well.

The monochrome image emphasizes the structure of the rocks.

Plato Knew It All Along

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato already thought about representations of reality. In his Allegory of the Cave, he argued that every individual’s perception of the world is incomplete. We can only perceive things according to our senses, which are limited. We can’t sense everything. Plato assumed that we perceive just a little part of reality, and only by thinking (i.e. practicing philosophy) can we widen that image of reality. In his opinion, arts could thus just be an image of an image of reality. It is a work created from your subjective perception and will be read by others, who also have a different perception.

Is that a problem? No. It’s simply something that we have to deal with. Taking care that we know what we present how and why is a step towards the best possible representation. The knowledge about the impossibility of reproducing an objective reality doesn’t mean that art is senseless. It’s in fact these subjective images that start to make us think about a situation and understand it through different perspectives. If you consciously try to misinform your audience by creating an image that you don’t believe in, you did a bad job. If you have a good reason for putting your stories and images out there, you helped others understanding the world. After all, art triggers the philosophers in us.

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Alex Yakimov's picture

Another interesting one, Nils. In other words, we are inescapably subjective. Is it possible to build an audience via creating images in bad faith (not believing in ‘em)? It would be an interesting experiment in behavioral economics: to try to value images in good vs bad faith and test their impactness upon an audience.

Simon Patterson's picture

This article speaks the truth, even though:

1. It contains a very selective subject
2. It takes a very specific perspective
3. It has been drafted and developed before publishing
4. Of all the places it could have been published, it was published here.

None of the above stop the article from being truthful.

Photography can work the same way. It depends on the claims photographers make about their images.

Mark Sawyer's picture

Subjective/objective have nothing to do with "reality". They have to do with one's viewpoint of reality, i.e., one's perspective. Film, plates, and sensors record photons. Unless the author is suggesting those photons come from an alternative reality, he's just playing with words...

Mark Russell's picture

I suppose the author has never heard of forensic photography.

Ed Di's picture

Like Baudrillard's hyperreality concept?

Timothy Gasper's picture

"Everything that you create....." If you take a photo of mountains, trees, sky and a lake or river, as is, on film, no haven't created anything. You have just recorded on film what you saw in front of you. The scene itself is objective. It only gives rise to subjectivity through individuals who view it, but the scene itself is objective. So....have you then photographed reality? Yes....since we as individuals cause it to become does not change the fact that the scene itself is objective.

honderd woorden's picture

“The scene itself” has no optical aberrations, no out of focus parts, no grain, etc., the photo however does.
Lens, aperture, iso, shutter speed, white balance, etc. do have an effect on the result.
One could say the camera (system) created the result, but the photographer set the camera in a way to get the result he/she wanted.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Sorry but cameras and photographers do not 'create' any scene. The camera records an image a photographer points it at. If you're thinking about a final image via manipulation or dark room editing....then that would be creation. Has nothing to do with a scene being real. The scene is real by itself....outside of any "influence".

honderd woorden's picture

I’m not talking about final image manipulation or dark room editing.
Optical aberrations are caused by the lens and the lens can be changed. Aperture, iso and shutter speed are all set in camera.
Change these settings and the image recorded by the camera will look different. Just take a low light landscape picture on a windy and cloudy day at f/1.4 iso 100 and 1/30 second and compare it to one at f/22 iso 100 and 8 seconds.
It has nothing to do with “the scene itself”. The scene has at least three dimensions, four if you include time (a factor you need to consider with long shutter speeds). A two-dimensional distorted representation of the scene (that is what a camera records) is not even close to the reality of the scene.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Yes....yet lenses which have aberrations still record, to some degree, what it is pointed at. Reality itself is what it is. If aperatures, focusing, shutter speed, filters, etc are used to change the view of the actual still can never change the reality of the scene as it was originally viewed. I think we're talking the same things here.

Ben Coyte's picture

A really good article. Coming from a tv news background, it resonates. In journalism you should be constantly asking the question of whether what you are doing is "real". Nil's article suggests that it is impossible. I would agree in so much as the overall goal is to not tell the wrong story. Even shooting interviews of people offering opposing positions, has to be done carefully in terms of neutral lighting (not creating different moods) and camera position. Shoot up on one person and down on the other and you have made one subconsciously more important than the other. At the other end of the spectrum, the club photographer has no boundaries other than his own. Their goal is simply to make a pleasing image with what ever tools they have to hand. It's not the photography that is under scrutiny, but what they proclaim the image to be to the viewer.

Simon Gentleman's picture

Excellent article, you can't have too much philosophy. In order to know if you can photograph reality, you need to know what reality is. That's one of the big questions.

Timothy Gasper's picture

I've heard some people say that 'in order to photograph reality you must know what reality is'. We live in a REAL world...not some fantasyland or surreal dimension. What you see, hear, taste, touch, etc is real. If you think otherwise...maybe you need reexamine your own existence.

honderd woorden's picture

Your senses interpret “reality”. We can only see a small part of the spectrum (visible light) but reality contains so much more.
We are also limited on scale, we can see a tree, but we don’t see the individual molecules that form the tree or the atoms that form the molecules or the subatomic particles that form the atoms.
Understanding reality and/or defining reality is not as simple as you might think.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Well....for those parts that our senses can interpret as real....then those things are real. Anything that our senses can not interpret....well, what about it? Can't say it's real or not if there's nothing to interpret it. So what's the big deal? As for seeing individual molecules of trees, etc.....yes we can see them through the miracle of science (microscopes). All other things which may or may not exist outside our sensory I can it be proven that they exist or not? If our senses can' t detect it....then there you go. What are you left with? Just questions.

honderd woorden's picture

If you stand next to a blind man and you look at a tree, the tree is real.
The blind man can’t see the tree, so his senses can’t interpret the tree as real?
Now is the tree real or not?
Reality in my opinion is not limited by what our senses can interpret.

Timothy Gasper's picture

That's why I said....things that we can sense. Sight is just one of our senses. Reality is....that which is. Whether we can sen sense it or not.

Timothy Gasper's picture

One thing of interest (a void) does exist but how can we see it or touch it etc. We've been told of its existence and so accept it as so. I believe this is the only thing which can not be quantified or measured yet we all accept that it exists. But is just a void which has nothing to measure it. So then....does it exist? No need to answer. We all understand it.

honderd woorden's picture

A lack of matter doesn’t mean a void is empty. There is something like cosmic microwave background which fills all space and can be measured, so space is not empty.
And there is distance. I can see the moon but I can’t touch it because it’s too far away. We can measure the distance between earth and the moon and other planets, stars and galaxies.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Well thats just my point. There are things which can't be quantified or measured (leave out distance) that we have come to understand that they exist. But you actually photograph a mile....just the distance it represtents.

Errick Jackson's picture

I've been saying this for a while in response to people who view editing photos as cheating somehow. SOOC photos are interpreted by the camera/RAW processor you're working with and even what you see is processed through your own brain, which can be a rather varied experience from person to person. I think the ultra purist approach to photography that many have (when they push it as the only 'proper' way of shooting) is just a cover for people's insecurities toward different ways to shoot.

Reality and objective truth certainly exist. But our ability to view it is immediately eliminated by the requirement of information to be processed through the senses. Our perception is thus inherently subjective.

Robert Molan's picture

The problem with greek philosophy and Plato in general is the concept of archetypical forms and absolute reality. if we go millennia forward to Descartes we have the concept that there is no true reality as the only experience of the external is through our mind, our consciousness creates our reality. Modern physics suggests that there is no absolute reality, it is emergent from a quantum foam. In a practical sense it is my belief that any photo is a poor representation of reality is a selective look at an instant and a view from a particular point in time space. It is edited by our choices of lens, aperture shutter speed, our framing. What we leave out of an image may well be a better representation of reality than what we incorporate in the image.
By and large I agree, I have never been hung up on representing reality but more about my reaction to it.

Aaron Kostko's picture

I appreciate the topic of the article, as I think both philosophy and photography can learn from one another, but I'm not sure I agree with the author's conclusion. Pointing out that there are numerous subjective features throughout the photographic process doesn't entail that photography fails to depict reality, or at least to capture a mark or trace of reality. Scientists make all sorts of "subjective" decisions about which parts of nature to study, which methodologies to use to study them, which data analysis techniques to use, and, in the end, how to present the data. However, I'd be reluctant to accept that their observations aren't about or of reality.
I was just recently thinking about this issue in regards to the discovery of Pluto. Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto 89 years ago yesterday, made subjective decisions about which aspects of nature he was interested in studying, which parts he wanted to use to build a telescope, which emulsion plates he wanted to use to capture distant light, and which techniques he wanted to use to compare the emulsion plates. Nonetheless, I'm inclined to think that the resulting images captured reality, or at least traces of reality, and that that's perfectly compatible with the existence of various subjective features being involved in the process along the way.