The camera never lies. Or does it? Does the camera give a more accurate view of ourselves than a mirror does? Or is the image we see in the mirror a truer reflection of what we really look like? Does the image we have of ourselves match the way other people see us? We assume that the camera records exactly what our eyes see, but the truth is that, although there are some similarities, the camera and the eyes "see" differently. Both the camera and the human eye process light and record images, but the brain interprets and makes sense of what is seen.


Human Eye vs Camera

As with a camera, light enters the eye through the front part of the eye, the cornea, is focused by the lens, and passes through the eye until it reaches the retina at the back of the eye. The pupil and the iris act like the aperture in a camera lens, opening and closing depending on the amount of light reaching the eye and the amount of clarity needed. The retina contains two types of light-sensitive receptors, rods and cones. Rods perceive light while cones are sensitive to colour. Once the eye captures an image, it is sent via the optic nerve to the brain, where the processing happens. Unlike the camera, which snaps a picture and that's it, our eyes receive a continuous flow of images, which the brain later processes into what we actually see.

The eyes "look" while the brain "sees". The brain uses the image from the retina and other stimuli to create an image of which only a small percentage is based on actual eyesight. The rest is generated from the environment, our previous knowledge, past experiences, and expectations. Essentially, our eyesight is a dynamic complex process in which the brain uses a combination of stimuli and information from different sources to finally generate what we see and to make sense of the world around us. While the camera records what is out there, the eye selects the object of greatest interest, often not even registering other objects nearby.

Basically, the camera works very much like the human eye. It uses the lens to focus light onto the sensor, where it is transformed into electrical impulses which are later processed and translated into usable images. Unlike the eye, which is capable of perceiving millions of colours, the camera is not sensitive to colour. In order to be able to produce colour images, the sensor needs a filter array on top of it which will filter out the wavelengths of certain colours. The camera is simply a tool for capturing images, as it lacks the processing power and ability of the brain.

The eyes have a limited spectrum of light that they can capture from a given light source. The camera, which is capable of doing longer exposures, can gather much more light and pack it into one picture, representing the scene much more clearly and brightly than our eyes could. This is especially noticeable when photographing the stars since the human eye would never be able to capture the colours and contrasts as the camera is able to do.


Trust the Mirror

The general belief may be that the camera never lies, but in fact the mirror is more reliable than the camera. By its nature, the camera has to transform a 3D real life image into a 2D photograph, and consequently distorts the image by altering the proportions to some extent. This has a role to play in the fact that some people are more photogenic than others; the angles, features and proportions determine that certain faces photograph better than others.

When looking in the mirror we are seeing a face in motion rather than a static image reflected in a photograph. The still image makes small flaws more noticeable and seem more prominent than they would if one was looking at a face in a natural dynamic way.

A mirror image is literally an image in reverse. A camera picks up the opposite of the image we see when looking in the mirror. No face is perfectly symmetrical, and we get so used to seeing a mirrored version of ourselves that when we see a photograph which is even slightly different from what we are used to we subconsciously notice the tiny differences and think we don't look right. Most people prefer the image of themselves in the mirror to the one in a photograph.

With a mirror, all you can see is you, so you can ‘pose' or change your expression so that you look your best in your own opinion. With a photo, you're sometimes caught in poses that may not suit you, or, if there are other people in the photo, you may compare yourself with them, and that will alter your view of how good you think you look.

The truth is that we don't really know what we look like. The image we have of ourselves is not exactly how other people see us, or of how the camera captures us. Most importantly, in the wise words of well-known author Dr Seuss: