When Your Eyes Lie to You: A Great View Doesn't Always Make a Great Photograph

I'm not normally one of those people who audibly expresses my approval or disapproval of whatever movie or YouTube video I'm watching while it's still playing, but this one had me yelling, "yes, thank you!" This superb video makes a point that I think needs to be made much more often.

Coming to you from Thomas Heaton, this video brings up a topic I wish we talked about much more often: the natural eye vs. the photographic eye. When I was first starting out, I had the same experience over and over: I would head out with my camera, see lots of interesting and beautiful things, and come home with mediocre shots. It took me a long time of puzzling over settings, composition, and the like to realize that the answer was something simple yet subtle: great views do not always translate to great photographs. As Heaton talks about atop a breathtaking cliff, the view is certainly spectacular, but the resultant image just isn't quite there for him, which I agree with. This can happen for any number of reasons: it could be that we're excited by some sort of fast action, but the composition of a photo of it would be too busy. It could be that our eyes are astounded by the sheer physical magnitude and beauty of something, but when you reduce that to a small two-dimensional image, it needs something else to bolster it (in Heaton's case, likely a bit more interesting light). Either way, it's tremendously important to constantly distinguish our natural eye for our photographic eye.

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I haven't watched the video yet but the biggest differences are that our eyes deliver much better resolution, much better dynamic range and have much better lenses. Our perception of a scene is also greatly affected by a constant wide field of view, and with essentially no distortion, that is always changing, even if just by a few degrees. What it boils down to is a lot more information. That means that even in the most obvious example of the unencumbered view of a landscape that appears boring in a photograph, it can still be impressive to our eyes when experienced firsthand. No camera can compete with that, at least not yet.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Good input Bob, also it's about how you feel in the moment too that makes a scene prettier :))

I've heard, and have found it to be true, our brains filter out the detritus, add bits and pieces of our other senses to the scene (sounds, smells, tastes) and add our current emotional state to the "image" we see at the time. These influences just don't exist when viewing the resulting photo. That's why it's good practice to analyze how a scene makes you feel and which elements attracted your interest so you can go about finding ways to replicate, and enhance, that in your photo.

This dovetails with a previous post about the three elements that make up a great landscape photo.

Don't need to watch the video myself. When you are on a cliff, you're standing on the edge, looking down or far and you are overwhelmed... when you're in a forest next to a river or next to Niagara falls there's this sound of leaves, the river, the magnificence of the falls and the noise it makes, maybe even splashing your face if you're close... If you smell something that reminded you of your childhood...

The reason isn't the difference between the normal and the photographer's eye, it's that you need to separate the eye from the other senses in order to only view the picture. You can't translate smell, sound or whatever else you're experiencing onto the image.

Only then there is thought that something may not translate well to a photograph because it's too colourful, busy, wrong angle, etc.

I don't know...sometimes you can translate a memory of your other senses to an image. A picture of red-ripe strawberries with water droplets on them can make your mouth water. A field of newly mown hay can remind you of smells from your past. A photo of a bird, it's bill slightly parted can fill your head with its song.

It's great when a photograph can evoke emotion in someone, but it rarely translates what the photographer was feeling. It could be two different things. And most of the time, the photographs that evoke emotions are those that translated well into an image. The strawberries you're mentioning are very often posed and droplets added by a spray can like it's used for window cleaning.
But I can agree that there are exceptions to the rule, there always are some, just not many.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Good post, so very true. I've taken so many sunset images that will just sit on a hard drive forever and ever lol