Our human senses enable us to experience external factors and, therefore, interpret the world around us. First of all, we can label things by seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting them. For instance, our taste allows us to determine if something is sweet or salty. Likewise, our hearing enables us to tell if something is loud or soft, high or low, et cetera. And the same applies to our seeing as well. It enables us to say if what we see is bright or dark, colourful or dull. But all examples so far show that our senses allow us to register. The next step, therefore, is to interpret what our senses have registrered. For this interpretation another part of our body is needed: our brain. Interpretation of the data we have registered allows to say, for instance, if we find something good or bad, beautiful or ugly, tasty or disgusting. We can conclude that the process of sensing something, in fact, involves 2 steps: 1) registration and 2) interpretation.
For centuries people have been wondering if experiences are equal across different persons. If this were true, our senses would have to be sort of calibrated to the same standard. Of course, this is not the case. When you test the various senses between 2 different persons, you can easily demonstrate that they differ when they taste or smell the same substances.
What do all these observations mean to photography? Well, a number of things. First of all, photography allows us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. When someone places a camera in front of his/her eyes, an external (calibrated) sensor is being used: the lens. Just like our own human eyes, the camera lens merely registers whatever it’s “seeing”. And again similar to our human example, the registered data is transported for further processing and storage. This stored image can optionally be further processed outside the camera. The result can be an image that exactly matches the situation as the photographer saw it at the time when he took the picture. If the photographer makes sure that the end-result contains exactly the same colours, contrasts and brightness as he/she originally saw it, others can basically see the world through his/her eyes.
Secondly, the photographer can influence the end-result by making use of a number of technical features the camera has to offer. For example, a specific aperture or shutter speed can be used to create a more or less special effect. Manipulating an image during post-processing takes this even a step further. You can use familiar dodge and burn techniques to emphasize certain parts of the image, but at the same time tools like Photoshop offer a plethora of options to inluence the expression or meaning of the image. This way, photography not only allows to have others see the world through our eyes, but through our brains as well. It allows the photographer say “Look, this is how I saw it”, but also say “Look, this is how I experienced it”.
So, if photography gives us the tools to register and, to a certain extent, the options to interpret, what is the added value of us humans? Probably too much to mention, but obviously, a camera or tool will never be able to determine if a picture is good or bad, beautiful or ugly. This will always remain a personal observation. Our human prerogative.