By Jacob Vrabel

We often think of our eyes as a pair of cameras. So why don’t they work like them?

Ninety-two million miles away, in the midst of boiling plasma, a photon shoots from the surface of the sun and careens toward Earth at 186,282 miles per hour. Eight minutes later, the photon slams into the atmosphere, plunges toward the surface, bounces off something and flies in another direction, slipping through a lens and colliding with a surface that triggers an electrical impulse, which is finally processed into an image.

This is true for both eyeballs, shaped by evolution since the beginning of life, and cameras, carefully crafted down to the finest detail to turn light into pictures. But analyzing the ways that they interpret and process this light aren’t like comparing apples and oranges, they’re like comparing an apple to its own seed. 

Both hardcore photographers and casual selfie-hunters have run into a scenario where a picture turns out completely different to what they were expecting. A notable example of this is pictures of the moon.

Contrary to some click-seeking news articles, the moon will orbit the Earth for all of the foreseeable future. Since most people take the moon’s place in the sky for granted, when something happens to it, for example, a lunar eclipse, it adds to the excitement. Anticipation grows over social media, and photos start to appear of a huge moon over a city, the skyline silhouetted dramatically over it. 

However, when people take pictures through their phone cameras, they get something much different.

Picture taken of a lunar eclipse over a city skyline
“Blood Moon Over Honolulu” by Jason Jacobs | CC BY 2.0

There is a notable difference in the size and quality of the moon in the pictures. One reason is perspective.

The picture on the left was most likely taken through a camera with a narrow angle. An angle (when applied to a camera) determines the field of view, which is how much will fit into the picture. A narrow angle lens would show more detail in the picture. A regular phone lens usually has a wider field of view than the human eye, which is why far-off objects look blurry to the camera but not to your vision. Unlike cameras, humans can narrow their own field of view and focus on certain objects, something cameras have not managed to do yet. To your phone, the object that may seem obvious to us is just another bunch of pixels in a grid.

Photographer Ross Taylor explained that while some photographers use phone cameras, many prefer special equipment.

“Phone cameras are used by some,” Taylor said. “But I would say that the majority of people I know are using DSLRs [digital single lens reflex] or mirrorless cameras for most of their work.”

A DSLR can have attachable lenses be added to it, allowing the field of view to be changed.

Another important aspect of photography is the distance between the camera and the object. This can again be applied to pictures of the moon behind a city.

 Picture taken of a lunar eclipse with an iPhone 8 camera.
Photo by Jacob Vrabel

There is a difference between zooming in with a camera and moving closer to an object. When you zoom in, it increases the relative size of both objects in the foreground and background. But when you move forward, only objects in the foreground seem to get bigger. 

This plays an important part in the first photograph of the moon. It was likely taken with a higher-performance camera from far away from the city, where the moon stayed about the same size where the city got smaller in contrast. This combined with a narrow-angle lens allowed for a large picture of the moon where a phone camera would register only a speck.

But what phone cameras may lack in certain areas, they make up for in others. Most people carry phones with them at all times, making photography more convenient and accessible, and options like bursts and photo editing can make photography easier for everyone.

“The beauty of the digital camera is that you don’t have to wait for that one perfect shot because you can take so many of them,” Instagram photographer Troy Carpenter said. “Nowadays you can take 30 pictures of somebody jumping over something and then you can look later and find which one is the best.”

MVHS photography teacher Brian Chow also spoke about the merits of phones. 

“Well, the thing about the phone cameras is that there are a lot of great opportunities with them,” Chow said. “I think it’s really helpful for people, especially if they are trying to capture a moment that they missed, that the phones can capture images for them.”

With the recent release of the iPhone 11, Samsung Galaxy A20 and other triple-camera phones, as well as the growing presence of social media, picture-taking and photography is becoming more and more prevalent in today’s society. And while people may never find a perfect way to take photos, they will never stop trying.

One thought on “Light at the End of the Tunnel

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