Why Not Just Use a Camera?

Cameras are just one way of translating information onto a 2D surface, but not the only way. And definitively not always the best way.

Hasselblad 500 C/M with Zeiss lens Courtesy of Wikipedia

There is a misguided belief that all realism is photography, and that all realism looks the same as photography (photorealism). But this simply isn’t true.

Cameras and artists both take in massive amounts of 3D information with the challenge of translating it into only 2 dimensions. Yet cameras do it in a completely different way yielding completely different results than artists.

Editing Out

When taking a photograph, the default situation is that everything included in the viewfinder when snapping the picture will be in the final photograph. In order to change anything in the scene, the photographer must either remove it before pressing the shutter button, or afterwards eliminate it using computer software or manipulating it in the development stages.

The default in painting is that nothing is included. Anything a painter adds to a scene is done thoughtfully and with purpose. An artist rarely paints everything seen in a scene simply because it is there.

If a painter adds a plate to a dinner scene, it is done with an absolute purpose. This might be to assist the story-telling of the picture or to enhance its composition.

Because painting requires so much focus and effort for each object portrayed, no matter how large or small, painters per force must be judicious about what to include in their paintings and why they are including it.

 “Take..the scene around the bedside of a dying woman, for example; seize and render the entire scene in a photograph, if such a thing is possible – it will be spoiled in a thousand ways. The reason is that according to the liveliness of your imagination you will find the subject more or less beautiful; you will be more or less the poet in that scene where you are also an actor; you see only what is interesting, whereas the camera records everything.”

– Eugene Delacroix Journals

Photography as the Only Realism

There is a contemporary and deeply ingrained cultural belief that the only accurate way of picture-making is photography. Because other artists throughout he 20th century largely ignored realism as a language, photography created a monopoly on “truth” in realistic imagery.

This monopoly on human perceptions of reality is ubiquitous, yet a photograph is no more “real” than flying pigs. After all, photographs are just pigment on paper or light on a screen. And yet photography has become the standard to which anything “real” is compared.

What We Don’t See Hurts Us

I had the privilege of visiting the Borghese galleries in Florence, Italy several summers ago and was absolutely horrified by the picture-taking behavior of the majority of visitors.

I overheard one gentleman communicate to his wife, with a smug air in his countenance, that he was so clever as he had quickly gone around the gallery and photographed the artwork so he could look at it later without the crowds.

What a shame it is to allow a machine to do your seeing for you!  To let it eliminate massive amounts of visual information that may have otherwise interested you had you looked at the real subject with your real eyes, which function much differently than a camera lens.

Do Cameras Have Feelings?

A camera lens, as a non-human and inanimate object, does not have human emotions. It does not make value judgements for you about what it beautiful, or ugly, or beautifully ugly.

It may eliminate what you find most interesting about the scene before you – perhaps the color intensity of a sunset on the beach, or the undulating focus of the tree branches in the forest. (How many of us have tried to capture a sunset with our cameras and come within even 3 standard deviations of what we were visually after?)

The camera will average all that it sees and weigh them as emotional equivalents. Even when tinkering with the settings there are only so many choices a camera can make compared to the human imagination.

It’s true that additional manipulation can occur in the editing phases of photography, but even still the information of the three dimensional world has already been distilled by a machine and can never be taken back to the way a human eye first discovered it. Because atelier training is so rare today, most people aren’t even aware that there are more choices than those made by cameras because we no longer practice seeing realistic imagery in ways beyond photography. 

Comparing Oranges to Oranges


Consider this painting of oranges on the left by William McCloskey. He has transformed the fruits into whisical and charming playmates. Compare this image to a photograph of oranges on the right (courtesy of Wikipedia). It is a very accurate portrayal of oranges, and if that is the intent it certainly succeeds. However, they are not the same. Yet they are both illusions of “real” oranges.

End the Camera’s Monopoly on Realism

The absolutist, evangelical extremism and adherence to photography as the only true realism is absurd. This devotion to just one very narrow way to organize 3D information onto a 2D space is truly astonishing, especially considering how many other perfectly valid, and often more informative, ways there are to visually describe the world around us.

Although the camera lens is just one of an infinite number of ways to translate 3D information into a 2D form, it is by far the most ubiquitous, and the sheer mass of photographs have trained our eyes that the camera’s interpretation, and only the camera’s interpretation, can be realism.

Realism is so much greater and broader and more interesting and more informative than that. Let’s cheat ourselves no longer of the visual feast before us, and broaden our conceptions of realism beyond photography’s narrow stranglehold.

The best place to start? By learning how to draw.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

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  1. I think we need to be careful about the arguments that we put forward in an effort to demonstrate the value of a particular art form. If we are not careful, a problematic argument “for” can quickly be deployed as an effective argument “against”. (e.g., the camera cannot both “include everything” and “average all that it sees”, while a camera does not have emotion—neither does a canvas, paintbrush, or paint, while we can define photographs as JUST pigments on paper—paintings are just pigments on another substrate, etc.) Simply speaking, representational painting does have its own merits that are not effectively illuminated by problematic comparisons with imaging technologies.

    This reminds me of a similar issue that was raised in 2007 by Project Zero in the New York Times regarding the arguments for art education: They wrote: “We feel we need to change the conversation about the arts in this country,” said Ms. Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College and a senior research associate at Project Zero. “These instrumental arguments are going to doom the arts to failure, because any superintendent is going to say, ‘If the only reason I’m having art is to improve math, let’s just have more math.’ Do we want to therefore say, ‘No singing,’ because singing didn’t lead to spatial improvement?” Ms. Winner added. “You get yourself in a bind there. The arts need to be valued for their own intrinsic reasons. (2007 NY Times article regarding Project Zero.)

    1. Hi Anthony, thank you for your thoughtful reply to this article. I am in the process of rewriting it to better reflect my intentions. Thank you for taking the time to give such thorough commentary. Kindly, Mandy

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