An eagle’s eye

Any article about eagles usually contains some description of how amazing their eyesight is compared to we mere humans.  The science of their visual system is pretty straightforward, the result of evolution leading to sharp-eyed survivors over the millennium.  What is not so easy to grasp is what it’s like to live in such a world.  What if you could read newspapers at a mile away?  How would that influence your relationship with reality all around  you?

I was watching a webinar today about panoramic landscape techniques and the instructor was showing off his digital medium format camera, one of the benefits being more information collected that can become greater resolving power in the image.  As an example he used a photograph he’d made at Yellowstone, a version of which I made as well (along with hundreds of other people since Artist’s Point is one of the most popular spots after Old Faithful).

To show off the resolving power of his camera he zoomed in on the top of the waterfall to show there are people standing at another overlook.  It was impressive for those of us who are wow-ed by resolving power.  But it got me to thinking – when I made the above image I didn’t notice that overlook or any people there.  Did I miss something while standing there?  The above image is from a 4×5″ slide I made with my view camera so I put the film back into my scanner, highlighted the area around the falls and scanned at 6400ppi.  And I found this.

How about that – there are people there all the time as well.  I would have never noticed that.  It’s a little grainy but keep in mind this is an enlargement of about 1% of an image taken from 1/2 mile away.  I really need to stop worrying about focus on my view camera….

The point of this is not to show off my Yellowstone photo or impress with the resolving power of the lens, but rather to think about the kind of world an eagle lives in.  In their world the people standing on this overlook 1/2 mile away are very apparent.  As is every detail between the overlook by the falls and Artist’s Point.  All the rocks, pine needles, waves in the water – everything is apparent.  Sure, their visual system is impressive for resolving power but think about what their mind has to do in order to sort through all those details to identify the few truly important ones – fish surfacing in the stream, deer carcass in the next valley over, mate sitting in nest in a distant tree or outcropping.  That’s pretty impressive.

And that’s for a predator.  Our evolutionary relatives were probably more in the prey category, benefiting from our binocular vision to tell not necessarily what something in the distance could be but rather which way is it going – toward me or away from me.  The eagle needs sharp eyesight to find specific food; we apparently only need to be able to gauge how far away.

What would our lives be like to have an eagle’s perception?  We think multi-tasking makes life complicated at times with all the different inputs to be sorted and dealt with but what if we had to process every little detail?  Would that be a blessing or a curse?  Or just an episode of the Twilight Zone?

Would it affect our personal relationships if we picked up every little tic of people around us?  Would highway accidents decrease if we could see problems that far ahead of us?  Would we finally be able to see the trees instead of the forest?

The adjustment from regular to HD TV has been interesting as consumers now get movie quality pictures in their homes.  And one comment I’ve read about the new iPad3 screen is the resolution is so much greater that pictures formerly looking pretty good are now rather not-sharp.  So, technology may be answering my question as we continue to enhance our ability to see more around us.  Certainly the history of such changes reveals as more is provided, more will be demanded.  But at what point will our brains cry “enough!” as the visual stimulus builds?


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