I mentioned the other day that I now use the iPhone a lot for "note taking." This is a good example of a note-taking kind of photograph.
I've always wondered about mankind's ability to judge change over time. We're very good within "human scale" time periods—say, a few seconds to the duration of one or one-and-a-half lifetimes—and sometimes a much narrower range than that. We're not good at judging change outside of human scale—we can't detect the speed of a bullet, or the changes in a mountain range over five millennia.
The way I used to express this idea was by asking: how do we know that eggs taste the same now as they did in, say, the year 1500?
What this picture shows is the difference between a "free range" or "cage free" egg purchased from the supermarket and an egg from a real free range* hen. The egg with the darker orange yolk came from a local Old Order Mennonite farm, where the hens live outdoors on a large pasture and roost in a hen house at night, and eat what they want to eat. My local farmer has a flock of 200 hens which he considers very large. An industrial egg-production facility usually has 10,000 hens per barn** and may have multiple barns. I don't know the age of these particular eggs, but typically the Mennonite-farmed eggs I buy are usually no more than a few days old at most whereas grocery store eggs can be up to several weeks old.
Just as we're not good at detecting change over time periods that are outside of human scale, most people are poor at judging absolute illuminance across a field, even a limited one. For instance, in this picture, the amount of illumination variation between the inner wall of the bowl at the top and the inner wall of the bowl at the bottom. Many laypeople's eye/brains would read it as being fairly evenly illuminated when they were just looking at it. Their brains know the bowl is white so that's how they see it. The illumination difference is trivial and that information is downplayed or discarded. (Of course you, as a photographer, probably also noticed, approximately at least, the color of the outside of the bowl—you saw it as a color-cast on the side of the bowl toward the light.)
It's easier to compare the color differences between these yolks when they're next to each other like this. I'm not good at tasting or smelling, so I'm worse than average at detecting the flavor differences. It's a lot easier for most people (including me) to detect the differences in flavor between farm-fresh eggs and eggs from the supermarket if you eat them one after the other. But I'm much better than the average person at detecting illumination change or color differences. That just comes from years of practice, mostly from making and looking at photographs.
As a species we're essentially blind when it comes to gradual changes in the look of the world. Ansel Adams spoke at the end of his life about the change in the clarity of the air around San Francisco Bay during his lifetime. He said that the air in the 1970s was almost never as clear as it frequently was in the 1930s. He was one of the few people in a position to detect such a thing. He started out with a more acute eye than most people and then he honed his seeing skills by practicing photography. Or consider that the Milky Way is now invisible to about 80% of the population of North America, masked by light pollution. A visitor from 1700 would find many things to distract and amaze him, but he might be startled as well by the differences in the sky and the atmosphere.
Human knowledge of gradual change and of subtle differences is frail, if you ask me.
*The real term is "pasture raised" or "pastured." Thanks to Scott for this.
**I don't actually know the correct term for the building where they keep all the laying hens.
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Featured Comments from:
Dave Van de Mark: "That dark orange colored yolk from the 'real' free range chicken is just so beautiful and is exactly like some eggs I can get from a neighbor who has a few chickens running around her yard. I'll be totally honest in saying that, after uniting the egg to a slice of buttered toast with crispy bacon on the side, I'm not ready to describe a taste difference between it and a 'quality' organic one. But I'll take that dark orange yolk over the yellow one anytime, thank you!"
Moose: "Re '...Most people are poor at judging absolute illuminance across a field, even a limited one': One of the points in the movie 'Tim's Vermeer' that helped convince me that he is correct that Vermeer used an apparatus and technique very like what Tim devised was accuracy of subtle illumination differences across large areas of (close to) the same color illuminated by the same source. That seems to be one important reason that so many people say of Vermeer's work that it seems 'photographic.' There's a statement in the movie similar to yours, without the 'most people' caveat, and some good examples from other Old Masters."
robert e: "For those concerned about the source of their eggs and who don't have convenient access to a farm they trust, the Cornucopia Institute maintains a database of egg brands, rated according to numerous farming and business practices. And the 'Certified Humane' program's website lets you look up participating retailers and producers. I don't know much about either organization, but I'm impressed by the thoroughness, transparency and ease of use of Cornucopia's list."