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“What the camera saw”

This is simply an allusion to the camera as an “eye,” imagining what a human eye would have seen had it been in exactly the same place as the camera.

In the past, “what the camera recorded” was a useful term.

However, 21st-century computational technologies have greatly expanded both the nature and the amount of information that cameras record to a degree that conventional assumptions about what a camera records are not applicable in the ways they used to be.

Thus the phrase “what the camera saw” is now more helpful when discussing differences between the final image vs. the real-world scene it depicts.

As with the word “scene,” the phrase “what the camera saw” relates not just to place but also to time.

In other words, the phrase “What the camera saw” describes not only what was in the camera’s view but also what was in the camera’s view during the exposure(s) and not a moment before or after that time period.

See also Should TCQ photographs reflect “what the photographer saw” or “what the camera recorded”?