Learning to See – Again

En blå himmel over Oscarsborg festning

It’s quite obvious that being able to see is an indispensable quality for any photographer who wants to create engaging images and surprise the viewer with startling visions. Anybody can see, you might object, but fact is it takes more than merely observing to see beyond the obvious. Seeing – in the finest and broadest sense – means using your senses, your intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you.

Usually we don’t really see the world as it truly is. Instead we switch our mind to automatic mode, let our subconscious take over and impose previous learned concepts of the world onto the world actually surrounding us. We don’t see anymore, but make abstractions of what our eyes have registered. In most cases our seeing is hindered by a range of mental barriers. One of them is not being able to let go of self. Preoccupation with self is probably the greatest barrier to seeing, and the hardest one to break. You may be worrying about your job, or kids, or other responsibilities, or you may be uneasy about your ability to handle a new lens or to calculate exposure. There always seems to be something standing in the way of fully and consciously seeing. Too much self-concern blocks direct experience of things outside yourself.

Another barrier to seeing is the mass of stimuli surrounding us. We are so bombarded with visual and other stimuli that we must block out most of them in order to cope. We develop a tunnel vision, which gives us a clear view of the rut ahead of us, but prevents us from seeing the world around us. A third major sight barrier is the labelling that results from familiarity. We have become accustomed to catalogue everything we see. We rule out visual exploration and seldom discover the myriad of facets of each object we encounter in our daily. It’s a survival mechanism in order for our brains not having to deal with every sensory input as if it was a first encounter. It makes us stop seeing the familiar. And a photographer, who wants to make engaging images, must recognize the value of the familiar.

Even the camera itself can be a barrier to seeing, in at least two ways. Susan Sontag, in On Photography, describes the first one: «A way of certifying experience, taking photographs, is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.» What she is saying is that making pictures can be a substitute for seeing and participating. Finally the camera is also a sight barrier because it doesn’t see as the human eye does. When we look at a landscape, we observe and remember only a few dominant features – enough to give us an impression of the landscape, which is often all that we need. But since a camera has no experience, it cannot select, so it records everything in its field of view.

How then can we train ourselves to start seeing again – seeing the world as it really is, not only as we think it is? The first step is simply to slow down. Slowing ourselves and our minds down allows us to observe the world more deeply, and to shift our brains to examine more clearly those depths. It makes us see really what it is we’re trying to photograph. Our lives are normally so busy and so packed that we don’t have time to see anymore. I certainly find myself too often running from one place to another to get to a meeting or an appointment on time, or to catch a train or bus. I bet most of us do. By literally speeding up our lives, we don’t take the time to see the deeper levels of things and so, without meaning to, we become shallower thinkers and observers. It’s really not a beneficial state of mind if you want to capture meaningful photos. Photographs are moments, pieces of time that are captured to look at again and again. In order for you to capture these moments, you must learn to slow down and see them. Freeman Paterson calls it «relaxed attentiveness», the ability to shed all of the other things that are competing for your attention and focus on a single object or event. By doing this, you begin to see photographs and not just subjects. You give yourself time to observe and consider the photograph you want to make in order to show the rest of us what it is that you see – perhaps showing us things we’ve never seen ourselves.

In addition to slowing yourself down enough to begin to observe your world more closely, you must begin to look at it a little differently than you have before. One part of this is recognizing the difference between conceptual seeing vs. perceptual seeing. Put simply, it’s seeing the photograph that is there, rather than the photograph you think ought to be there. In short it means breaking the before mentioned third sight barrier. Conceptual seeing means seeing objects not as they are, but as you have previously catalogued them. Your conceptions about an object can lead you to photograph it in a certain way because that’s the way you’ve seen it photographed before or that’s the way you think it ought to be photographed, rather than focusing on what that subject represents to you. Just identifying an object by its name will lead you to think you need to make a photograph of it in a certain way. Perceptual seeing, on the other hand, simply observes things as they are. You start to look at an object without labelling it, but seeing its forms, its colours, its shapes, its beauty or its structures, not how you think it is, but how it actually is. Part of encouraging perceptual seeing is to empty your mind beforehand. Focus on the object you want to photograph and let go of everything else in your mind. Stay with it and just look and try to discover it as if it was the first time. Empty yourself of any preconceptions. One cannot fill a cup that is already full. Right?

Maybe it’s time to discover how to see again? By taking the time to truly focus on what it is you see you’ll be able to create more engaging photos. Rediscover what it is you really see, and you will probably find that your photos will change dramatically. Good seeing doesn’t ensure good photography, though, but good photographic expression is impossible without it.

In my post Seeing Beyond Seeing I write a little more about the idea of perceptual seeing vs. conceptual seeing. If you really want to learn to see the world as it is again, I can strongly recommend the book The Practice of Contemplative Photography by Andy Karr and Michael Wood. You may find a review of the book in my post Different Perspective.

79 thoughts on “Learning to See – Again

  1. That was great. I try to slow down and look at life, particularly nature, from a different angle. We have all seen photos of flowers, or sunsets. I want to bring them to people in a different and beautiful way.

  2. A very interesting article Otto. I was out photographing for an ongoing project I have mentioned before that has taken me a long way out of my landscape comfort zone. I have been presented with machinery and objects that I don’t understand used in processes I have only a vague concept of. I can’t therefore look at these objects in a conceptual way, I haven’t seen them before. Instead my seeing has been perceptual, expecially on this last trip out and I think the photographs I have come up with are different and interesting as a result. I certainly hope so. Thank you for another very intersting and very useful article.

    1. You experience only shows how important it is to venture out into new areas – photographically speaking. It forces you to apply a more perceptual seeing. Thank you for the very nice comment, Adrian.

  3. I often notice how in awe I feel over even small details when I am somewhere new. Yet at home, in one of the most beautiful places in the world with Pikes Peak towering over daily life, I forget how awe-inspiring the ordinary is! Thank you for reminding me to look at the familiar anew.

  4. Bringing in another art medium, when you draw with your accustomed hand you draw what you think you ought to draw or what the past has given you in knowledge. When you draw with your unaccustomed hand you see the forms, color, structure etc.Whenever I do this exercise the one done with the unaccustomed hand always captures the essence of the person place or thing more than the other. The picture may be sort of weird looking or not like your other work but it is a much better picture.

  5. Otto, this is one of the best blog posts I’ve ever seen on photography, anywhere. Thank you — it’s as if you wrote it specifically for me. I’m going to print it out to keep as a reminder of what I always need to remember.

  6. Reblogged this on Nancy de Flon's Photo Blog and commented:
    This is one of the best blog posts on photography I’ve ever read. Especially in this day when so many photographers are practicing their art on a part-time basis and thus may feel rushed when we’re out there with our cameras, we need to keep these words of wisdom in mind.

  7. You hit the nail on the head. I takes time to see. It takes time to perceive and experience. This is not only true for taking photographs, but also for viewing images. Most first world folks are bombarded with data, text, audio, and visual. How much time do we spend looking at an image? How much time do we invest looking at the real world with open eyes and an open mind?
    I think, the scope of your article is larger than just “Learning to see – again” in the context of taking photographs. It pertains to viewing photographs, art, and life in general.
    Thank you for thoughts.

  8. Great post … excellent written. I’m just happy amateur and it all depends on the moment- sometimes I can put so much time into getting one object – to get it right … sometime I just rush through life and … the camera too.
    And sometimes I’m so tired of the beauty in our nature … understand me right – so I look for the beauty in the roughness and the not so attractive – but then I have to give myself time. And at times I just put the camera on anything I see …

    1. I think the way you describe your photographic approach is similar for many of us. Sometimes we do it one way and then we do it another way. Sometimes we enjoy capturing beauty and sometimes it’s boring. Thanks for sharing your experience, Thea Maria.

      1. I really like when you use Thea Maria, only one person has done that before … one of our company doctors and in those days was I so embraced. Not anymore. *smile … Thanks, Otto.

          1. My … first name is Viveka – but living in UK I was called Wivi!!! *smile
            I was named after Thea, my aunt … Maria, my grandma and Viveka Lindfors, Swedish actress living in US:

  9. Un post molto molto interessante, che fa capire come il vedere non deve essere limitato, ma più ampio. Guardare non con gli occhi ma anche con la mente, se ho ben capito. Andare oltre a quello che è la semplice visione delle cose. Grazie Otto per tutte queste informazioni.
    Un caro saluto, Patrizia

  10. What you wrote is so true. If someone mentions a rose or a tulip, I think I know what that looks like I don’t need to see it. But once I stop and really look at the flower I realize each rose is different and has unique characteristics. Sometimes I miss the wonder that exists in all living things, when I think I’ve seen it before. Great post.

  11. Wow, I completely agreed with the “Empty yourself of any preconceptions” – basically unlocked yourself and just go… Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  12. I’m struck by your ideas here, Otto: Letting go, emptying the mind, seeing things as they actually are. Sounds Zen inspired to me — and I can truly identify with that…

  13. Another fine post… Your 5th paragraph hit at the point for me. Photography has improved the way I see the world, and enjoy the world. At dawn and sunset, my eyes are more active looking at how beautiful things look around me at that time, and I look places I would never have “seen” before…and losing myself in these times. Photography has made my mind sharper as well…more active, while enjoying the sights around me ~ I see them all at different angles. It has become a habit, and not sure if that is good or bad as some friends would prefer I just kick back with them instead (which I still can easily do). Cheers!

    1. The camera certainly has the capacity to sharpen our visual senses, if we open up to our surroundings and not only look for the perfect photo. It’s for me a part of photography I have really appreciated. I become much more aware. Thanks for sharing your experience, Randall.

  14. You are so spot on here, Otto. We tend to be in such a hurry all the time. Slowing down is the key to really “seeing” what we are photographing. There is a scene in an old Meg Ryan movie from 1995, “French Kiss” that has always stayed with me. She has travelled to Paris in search of a cheating boyfriend. Kevin Cline is trying to get her to slow down and see the beauty she is surrounded by. We are treated to some of the most beautiful shots of Paris and Meg stands there and pivots round while she says things like, “Beautiful, wonderful, breathtaking, stunning!” and then, “Done. Ok, let’s go”. She really hasn’t seen anything. For some reason this scene from this movie has always stuck with me and it often pops into my head reminding me to slow down and really look at what is in front of me.

    1. I do remember the movie, and its moral is quite appropriate regarding what I write about in this post as you eloquently point out. Another image from the real world: I see travellers «doing» Europe in one week; I wonder how much they actually see. Thanks again for a poignant comment, Michelle.

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  16. HELP !!!
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  17. This was good….”preoccupation with self is probably the greatest barrier to seeing….” (or perhaps the greatest barrier to everything).
    This was a good read 🙂

  18. Every time you return to this topic, you find a new way to explore it, Otto. I particularly like the idea of ‘relaxed attentivenes’ and the concept of ‘pre-occupation with self’. It’s time you wrote a book on this topic – your articles are full of insightful thinking that I don’t find expressed so well elsewhere.

  19. Great post again Otto – thank you. I try to set aside a day/half day for photographs so that I can allow myself to be fully absorbed by the moment;trying to squeeze in a quick hour or so just doesn’t work 😦

  20. I agree, I deeply appreciate your time that you take out to post such informative and interesting articles, something that resonated with me was the mention of “Tunnel Vision”, I’m still processing this post, and reading over it, there’s so much to digest, all wonderful of course.

  21. Wonderfully explained, Otto. It’s all about showing people things they have seen but never really observed. I love how you’ve explained perceptual and conceptual ways of seeing. Thank you for sharing!

  22. This so speaks to me in where I need to make some changes sometimes. I often go out trying to get a shot I may have gotten before not seeing that something new is presenting itself in a different way and should be captured. Trying to loose yourself so that you allow yourself many different ideas or visuals you can capture and just not one. Like going out to capture the sun glinting behind a tree and totalling not seeing a deer that hides behind the tree. It all has to be taken it and observed from different angles and mind thoughts. You always get me thinking more with your blogs.

    1. It’s not always easy to see things as they are, like missing a dear because your attention is all devoted to the sun behind a tree – as you say. I am happy the post is speaking to you. Thank you for the nice words, Carrie.

  23. American painter Georgia O’Keeffe said it in a way I can never forget: “Still – in a way – nobody sees a flower really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”
    Here is a post I did featuring her wonderful poppies, and equally wonderful words:
    This was a marvelous post, Otto. I for one can’t be reminded enough.

  24. Hej Otto, alltid lika intressant och lärorikt att läsa dina artiklar och jag hoppas verkligen att det blir en bok framöver. Dena gång fängslas jag mycket av orden ” Bilder är ögonblick, bitar av tid som fångats för att ses om och om igen”. Precis så tycker jag att det känns när en bild berör. Kan inte låta bli att fundera över om det skulle kunna uttryckas som om fotografen lyckats “stanna tiden” vid fotograferandet och betraktaren vid betraktandet. Någon form av här och nu upplevelse.
    Bästa hälsningar

  25. i was talking with debbie and ron (retired/rewired in nicaragua) last week, and i said that sometimes the ‘artist’s eye’ is almost a curse.. it’s always working, either breaking down every image in front of me into the basic math of drawing it.. or connecting colors.. someone wearing an orange shirt will make me instantly connect all other colors of orange in sight… or i’ll note light and shadow (while drawing it in my head)… sometimes i wish i could just look through normal eyes, but there’s always an auto update that works faster than ‘just seeing.

    of course i am grateful to have ‘honed’ that gift.

    of course, i am also grateful to read this post and appreciate that others see through similar lenses!


    1. I understand what you say. Sometimes it would indeed be nice to be able to see with a novice’s eyes. At other times is almost irritating to see the perfect picture – when I can’t capture it. But eventually I believe I see more than the novice simply because I have trained my eyes to see – just like you. Thank you again, Lisa.

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