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The Original Isn’t Always Right – Perception and Memory

There is a common misconception among photographers that the colour and density of photographs they receive back from the lab is correct. Most folks are more concerned with whether the subject or scene pictured is rendered in line with the way they remembered it, than with a more objective observation of the print. So as long as ‘little Johnny’ is smiling, the result is pleasing and, therefore, the quality of the print is overlooked. But taking that file to six different labs will likely produce six quite different results, some better than others. The so-called ‘original’ print is simply the first one produced. Not necessarily correct nor the best possible print. This is as true for prints made from digital files as it is for prints from negatives.

If you were to have six different versions of the same image printed, which one would most accurately display the exposure, scene brightness range (contrast) and colour of the original scene? This question is somewhat confused by two quite different variables: the way the scene actually looked, the moment the shutter was clicked; and the way the photographer remembered that scene. It’s not uncommon for a viewer looking at a print of a great sunrise to say, “is that really what the color was like”. If the photographer is happy with the result they’d likely answer in the affirmative. The fact is every sunrise produces different colors, and those colors change from moment to moment. Most photographers simply can’t say, with any real authority, what the actual colors were. And I don’t mean to be smart when making this comment. The fact is that there are literally millions of colors in the natural world. Not only are there Red, Green and Blue but many, many variations in the brightness and purity of those colors. And let’s not forget all the new colors (e.g. duck egg blue, lollypop pink and in-vogue) caused my mixing two or more of the primary colors (R,G,B) together in varying degrees. To further clarify my statement I’d ask you to consider the following:



Leica M6 Camera with Leica 21mm Elmarit f2.8 lens and Kodak Ektachrome Professional E100VS film

Leica M6 Camera with Leica 21mm Elmarit f2.8 lens and Kodak Ektachrome Professional E100VS film




  •       Neither film nor digital provides a 100% accurate rendition of reality
  •       Eyesight varies dramatically from individual to individual

(Did you know that there is a significantly higher percentage of color blindness amongst men than is the case amongst the fairer sex)

  •       The way we ‘perceive’ the world around us varies from individual to individual
  •       The way we remember what we saw is flawed by our emotions (e.g. how we felt at the time we were making the picture). If you were to share a sunset with someone with whom you share a deep, romantic love there’s every chance that your feelings for each other would enhance the romance and beauty you felt at the time you experienced the sunset. Your memory of that sunset would also be affected by the somewhat altered state brought on by your bout of romantic love.
  •       But of course memory can change with time. From the way I tell my ‘Delhi Belly’ stories you might think I had a good time. Such was not the case, at least as far as those tales run.
  •       The way the image is viewed, as a 2 dimensional image on a computer monitor or piece of paper (large or small, matt or gloss, chemical or inkjet print), changes the way it looks and is nothing like ‘reality’.

Perhaps the next time someone asks, “is that what it really looked like” you might consider answering “yes, at least as far as I can remember”. Another option would be “well, I’m not so much concerned with the way it looked at the time, but with how I felt about how it looked. And I’m very pleased with the results I achieved”. That should get them thinking!

Please look out for my next few posting to continue exploring the notion that ‘The Original isn’t Always Right’.


© Copyright All Rights Reserved

Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography


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