Abstract The use of photographs as surrogates for field observations is common in studies of perception and judgment of the visual environment despite theoretically important differences between photographs and three-dimensional scenes. The few available empirical studies of the validity of photographs as representations of the visual environment have methodological weaknesses. We describe a method for investigating the representativeness of photographs that differs from previous approaches in three important respects. First, individual subjects rather than group averages are analyzed. Second, multiple judgments are obtained so that the relations among judgments of photographs can be compared with the environment. Third, a ‘lens model equation’ analysis is used to examine relations among systematic components of variation in judgments. An illustrative study of visual air quality judgments is presented. It was found that, in the case of judgments of visual air quality, photographs provide a good representation of the visual environment.