Photography is a Loss of Dimension, Senses, and Fidelity

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The world we live in is largely four dimensional. There are the three spatial dimensions (X, Y, Z) and there is one time dimension (T). We use our five senses to experience the world through these dimensions. It is our natural state to experience the world in this way. Even though we may not truly "see" all three dimensions, we have a pair of eyes which capture simplified stereoscopic two dimensional versions (X, Y) where we can then extrapolate the missing information and infer depth. Currently there is no device which can easily allow us to experience four dimensional media encompassing all five senses. For that reason we're stuck with crude representations of the real world.

Videography is a way to let us experience the world in three dimensions: two spatial (X, Y) and time (T). Video generally allows us to experience this using two senses: sight and sound. Taking a situation that we encounter in four dimensions and all five senses and then compressing it down to three dimensions and two senses is difficult. How does one convey smell in a video? A character can comment on it, a flower may appear in the moving pictures, but it surely isn't the same. Camera movement and depth of field can help convey visual depth (Z) in a scene.

Photography only allows us to experience the world in two dimensions: two spatial (X, Y). And photography entirely happens with a single sense: sight. In other words, the 3d spatial world (X, Y, Z) is compressed to 2d (X, Y) and a mere snapshot in time (T) is captured. There is no motion, no before or after. In video, a camera can pan around to show the backside of a wall, giving more context than can be easily provided in one frame. With a photo this is much more difficult. As we simplify the media and reduce the senses, a given work is made more abstract. The audience must fill in the blanks. What happened before and what is to come? More interpretation is required. It is inherently a more interactive process. It requires intuition. It is unnatural.

Furthermore, not only do we compress media by way of dimensions and senses, but we also do so by way of fidelity. For example, a two dimensional image can almost be thought of as having two dimensions for every single point on the image, with one dimension being brightness and another being color (it could also be thought of as three dimensions for Red, Green, Blue). For a black and white image (or video for that matter) we have further reduced the fidelity in that color is not represented (or, Red Green and Blue are each equal). Lower resolution and compressed audio are also reductions of fidelity. Poor image quality due to capturing light via imperfect lenses, the grain of film, and the noise of a digital sensor similarly reduce fidelity. The less fidelity involved the more interpretation required by the audience. The early video game consoles are about as low fidelity and abstract as one can get.

Ultimately, any piece of media is telling a story. With all this loss of dimension, squandered senses, and loss of fidelity, it becomes more important to tell this story through careful composition. Being physically present on the safari, observing a lion hunt a gazelle, truly provides the best experience. It's hot, the air is arid, the chase is exciting, birds can be seen in the far distance, and there are people behind you. Capturing this experience with video might encompass the entire chase and kill, with low resolution losing the birds and camera angle missing the people. Capturing the experience with a single photo is truly a challenge. Does one capture only the chase? The audience won't know if the gazelle lived. Does one capture the kill? The audience won't know if the gazelle was caught resting. The moment of capture? This would allow the audience to extrapolate the before and the after with a varying degree of accuracy—how long was the chase? Most stories cannot be told in a single frame. As story tellers we're then forced to tell a different story: Instead of "the lion hunted down and killed the gazelle" the story becomes "the lion killed the gazelle".

Thomas Hunter II Avatar

Thomas has contributed to dozens of enterprise Node.js services and has worked for a company dedicated to securing Node.js. He has spoken at several conferences on Node.js and JavaScript and is an O'Reilly published author.