The Camera Never Lies. Or Does It?

The Camera Never Lies. Or Does It?

The camera never lies — it doesn't, it can't, because it's an entirely quantitative device. It counts photons, collecting, recording the number that arrive at the sensor. And for the digital camera, this is an entirely electronic process that is digital end-to-end, producing a number as the final result. It's at that point that we convert it back to analogue (as brightness) for our eyes to interpret. The camera never lies.

Back in 2000 Norway, in their first UEFA European Championship Group Stage, were playing Slovenia. It was a tense game as if Norway drew they were likely to go through to the knockout stages, while Slovenia had to win. At the start of the second half a goal mouth scramble led to a shot that was blocked by one of the Norwegian defenders – the Slovenian forward claimed a handball and penalty (48 mins), but the referee played on. The pundits on TV replayed the move — the angle was obscured, but it strongly suggested the ball hit the chest of the player. They managed to switch to two different angles — again the chest. It was not until the following day that another European network channel offered an alternative angle that clearly showed a handball; it was a penalty that would have given Slovenia the lead.

Roll forward 17 years and the Irish TV channel RTÉ was showing a live draw for the national lottery. The announcer read out "38", yet by the time the fourth ball rattled into the tube it had clearly changed to "33". Viewers tweeted and phoned in, crying foul.

What is striking about these two examples is that they show different sides of the same coin. In the case of the penalty that wasn't, multiple camera angles were partially obscured by the melee of bodies all vying for position at the goalmouth. They showed the movement of the ball toward the defender and an implied chest down, before clearance. It was only one camera, from one angle and only discovered the following day, that showed a clear handball. It was the verification of something that appeared not to have happened.

In stark contrast, the national lottery balls had a camera permanently trained on them, there was no one in the way and, as it was picked out of the machine and rattled down the out tube, the number was clearly and unequivocally displayed for all to see. Except it wasn't — the angle of the ball, its glossy surface and a reflection from the studio lights caused a bright spot that made the "3" appear as a "8".

Yet in both cases the camera didn't lie — the cameras at Euro 2000 depicted exactly the view they were trained on — the problem was that it was a 2D view of a 3D scene and our implied understanding of the scene allowed us to reconstruct it in our minds and suggest that there was no handball. Yet according to physical laws there was no other possibility. Similarly, for the lotto ball, the camera rendered exactly the scene it was viewing, except in this case the brightness of the reflection obliterated part of the "8" and our eyes immediately interpreted it as a "3".

The takeaway is that the camera doesn't lie, but our interpretation can lead to profound misunderstandings. The image is unequivocal, but our mind can take multiple meanings from the starting point of a single image. This actually brings us back to John Berger and his idea of the "quotation" of a photo. These scenarios have very short quotations — they tell us very little about the past and present, and so don't really inform us about the future. Just take a look at some of the Editor's Picks and see what you think about the stories some of the pictures tell; some will be product shots or fine art and while exquisitely produced, have limited breadth. Others though will be rich in possible pasts and futures, to marry to the as-seen present, something I touched upon in using images as starters for photo stores.

Image courtesy of 494640 via Pixabay

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Don Fadel's picture

Lens choice affects what is captured by the camera. It doesn't lie, but it does distort (or can) ...

Mike Smith's picture

Never do a selfie with a 24mm lens.... Learnt that the hard way!