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The terms “realistic” and “realistic-looking” are often used by the public to refer to photographs that portray the subject as well as a photograph can (it is usually used as a sign of approval).

Note that viewers’ use of the term “realistic” does not imply that they think they are seeing the actual scene itself — i.e., that they think they are viewing an exact equivalent of reality — or that they are unaware of the limitations of the photographic medium.

Most viewers are aware, for example, that what they call a “realistic” photograph of a large rock is neither actual-sized, nor heavy, nor lumpy and bumpy the way the actual rock is.

In other words, viewers’ use of the phrase “realistic” to describe a photograph should not be interpreted to mean that the viewer believes that the photograph is somehow equal to — or indistinguishable from — whatever three-dimensional scene the photograph depicts.

Even small children know that no photograph can ever be an exact substitute for the three-dimensional subject that it depicts. A child will usually opt for an ice-cream cone over even the most “realistic” photograph of an ice-cream cone.

The same is true for adults, most of whom would choose a 20-dollar/euro/pound piece of currency over even the most “realistic” photograph of the same amount of money (unless the photo had been taken by a famous photographer and thus was worth more than the piece of currency it depicted).

To use the term “realistic-looking” when describing a photograph is not to say that photographs of things are equal to the actual (“real”) things themselves.

More on the term “realistic”