Photographically Seeing

Jenny Pastore i sitt hjem

For a photographer seeing is where it all starts. If you don’t see anything that interests you, you won’t be able to take any interesting photos. Obviously. However, there is a big difference between seeing in general and seeing with the intention of taking a photograph. In many ways we have to unlearn the regular way of seeing. If you «only» see like you do when you walk down the street without a camera or when you are socializing with your friends or whatever you do when you are not photographing, you will miss out on the interesting and captivating photos.

For many people – photographers and viewers alike – a photograph is simply a record of what was in front of the camera. There is really no thought given to interpretation, or the fact that the camera sees quite differently than human beings do. You want to capture a nice moments with you friends? You raise the camera or the cell phone, and capture a photo without much more thought to it. But for those of us who pursue photography as a creative, artistic and/or personal expressive endeavour, we learn to see like the camera, we learn to recognize what has a potential to become a captivating photo and we learn that the scene in front of the camera is only a starting point for the photographic journey.

It’s easy to look at things. We do it constantly without giving it much thought. It gets us through the day. But how often do you stop to really see what you are looking at? By this I mean seeing something in depth, looking at it long enough and intently enough that you are not only seeing that it’s there, but you actually study it and learn something about it.

Most of the time, that is not how we see. Our mind is simply not set up to spend a lot of time contemplating about things we see. To be able to survive – and this has been developed over the course of human existence – our eyes constantly scan the scenery and interpret on the fly whatever is. We want to detect anything dangerously as quickly as possible, we want to be able to get things done without having to process the smallest of visual clues. In this process of learning to see, already as babies we start to categorize things. When you see a book for the first time, you spend time figuring out what it is. You study it intently and in depth. But then when you see the book for the fifth, the tenth or the fiftieth time, you slowly start to recognize what it is without having to put you full attention to it. After a while your mind makes a mental picture, characterizes it and labels it «BOOK». You no longer see a book when you encounter one although your unconscious mind has recorded it. Consciously you may vaguely register the book, or you may not at all. Our mind objectifies everything to make it easier for us to understand and evaluate what we see. If you do see a book, you don’t see it as a unique book, but as the object «BOOK».

This is one reason why learning to see with the intention to photograph requires experience. By nature we are only geared to see objects, as I just wrote, this is what we by nature have been trained to do since we were born. A baby learns to see mommy, daddy and other things of importance as he or she grows. Cameras on the other hand capture light. Of course the human eye registers light too, but when the baby grows up it doesn’t really see mommy or anything else as a set of light levels. However, that’s exactly how the camera «sees». Because a camera records only light, the photographer has to learn to see light, and understand how light brings out or destroys the lines, forms, tonality, colours, dimensionality and all other aspects of a scene.

Seeing as a photographer is further complicated because we as human beings register the world differently than a camera. As you peruse a scene with your eyes, your irises open up a bit to let in more light from the darkest parts of the scene and close down a bit to moderate the intensity of the brightest parts of the scene. This happens continuously and automatically as your eyes shift around in scene. As a result you are able to distinguish details both in shadows and highlights and you don’t even notice the eyes’ adaptation to the different light levels. The camera on the other hand, captures one single moment with only one size of the aperture – the camera’s iris. Thus, what with your eyes you can see quite well in harsh sunlight, the camera will only be able to capture partly, either the brighter parts or the darker parts with the other part being respectively clogged down or burned out.

Furthermore, when the eyes shift around to take in a scene, they not only adapt to various light levels, but also refocus the lenses so whatever you look at is sharp. Again, because this happens continuously and automatically – and the brain maps it all – you seem to see a scene that is focused from close up to infinity. The camera, though, can only focus on one point at the moment of capture. In some cases it makes the scene look completely different from how you recalled it – if you are not aware of how the camera captures the scene.

Complicating this issue even more is the fact that a camera has a single lens, while your eyes see every scene with binocular vision. Your left and your right eye combine to see a scene in a three-dimensional way. They recognize depth, which the camera cannot. Just try to look at a complex scene with one eye closed and you’ll see that the scene tends to lose a large degree of depth. If you want to convey a sense of depth in a photograph, you will have to learn what will help bring out that feeling of depth.

Seeing as a camera and with the intention to take photographs comes with learning and experience. When I teach workshops a lot of attention goes to seeing and translate what you see with you eyes into something the camera can transform into a captivating photo. As with any other skill, in the end, the more you do it the better you become. Practise makes perfect. And when you learn to see as the camera you will also start to register interesting subjects to be photographed more often and more clearly. Remember my post Seeing before Seeing, in which I asked what triggers you to push the button? The fact is that the better you become in seeing as the camera «sees», the more clear you will become about what has a potential as a photograph, the more often something will trigger you to photograph, which again will lead you to take better and more captivating photos.

64 thoughts on “Photographically Seeing

  1. Great post. I have far to go on this, as I am still learning. But I am trying to see the world a little bit different, from maybe a better angle.

  2. You are so right. Our seeing is completely different when seeing for the purpose of taking a picture through camera lens. Many decision points come to play. The goal (outcome) are not for survival driven by mostly reflex but rather to catch certain message and for others including yourself to see at the later time. The normal seeing habit no longer applies …

  3. I definitely see the world around me through different eyes now I’ve taken up Photography as a hobby, but then, having studied art & design 40 years ago, my eye always did appreciate a beautiful scene, flower or other subject anyway.

    Seeing (with the intention of sharing what I saw) is more my intent now.

    After 5 years practice behind the camera lens, I feel as though my vision has improved (for that purpose). But you can never stop learning.

    When you stop learning, you stop living (as far as I’m concerned) and this applies to all facets of life, not just Photography or the creative arts.

  4. you ever have those moments that are doomed to be emblazoned in your mind FOREVER because you see something, the most beautiful photograph in the world, you pass by in your car, WITHOUT YOUR DAMNED CAMERA!!!!!! i have enough regrets to last me a life time when you are ‘cursed’ with photographic seeing hahahaha

  5. Dear Otto, this is wonderful writing and point. I have been learning too… But with camera, as if I started to see much more, camera or photography is giving a dept of your life observation… that you haven’t had before… Then you become almost a camera even without a camera….. Is it good I don’t know but with camera of course should be good. Thank you dear Otto, love, nia

  6. Reblogged this on and commented:
    I saw this on an intestesting blog I follow; In Flow ( It creator, Otto von Munchow, who is based in Norway, often inspires and challenges my thinking about what I do. I thought you might finding it inspiring and thought-provoking as well. Please have a look at his blog and thank you Otto for your ideas presented in your latest post.

  7. Very thoughtful post Otto – thank you! It made me think of people who say that travelling with a camera means that one misses a lot, whereas I think it is the opposite. The camera helps one focus on what we observe and appreciate what may otherwise be missed.

  8. I’m still mulling this one over, but you have made some good points here. Perhaps when we better understand the capabilities and limitations of what we shoot, we will be more satisfied with the results!

  9. Yes, the camera certainly sees light! A few days ago I ventured down to my small dock with the intention of taking some more photos of the lily pads there and maybe get something interesting enough to paint. The sky was cloudy, with a great white/gray contrast in the cloud formations. The water reflected the clouds but not in full detail. When I shot a few photos I discovered that it looked like the lily pads and leaves were floating in the clouds. I couldn’t have been happier with the results even though I had not actively intended to shoot for that particular effect! Once I discovered it I changed position several times to get different intensities of cloud illusion. Now on to experiment with paint.

  10. This is a fascinating perspective on the human eye vs the artist’s eye. And the anthropological reason that we process information the way we do. Thank you!

  11. i see such a difference in the photographs that are taken from the “camera’s eye” as opposed from to simply chronicling an event or capturing a quick moment. I do so much of the latter and rarely take the time to think from more artistic perspective. I would really like to be more intentional in this area, and as you remind me, patience is required. I really find inspiration from you, Otto. You give me much to think about and an opportunity to learn!

  12. There is a lot to what you say: seeing photographically versus seeing in general. It takes me back to times where I’ve been in the field and the lighting is fantastic, several great subjects to shoot yet I come away with nothing because I could not see in a photographic sense. A very frustrating period. As I gained more experience shooting and also able to get myself in the right mood, letting my photographic eye take control and roam around to shoot has become much easier. Sometimes, even when I am walking around a scene with no camera, my eye thinks photographically and seeing things differently I also gain more appreciation. Great post Otto.

    1. Thank you for the lovely feedback, Randall. And, yes, it does become easier with experience to see in a photographic sense. It’s like learning to walk or learning to speak. It won’t happen the same day. 🙂

  13. I remember learning this in high school photography class so long ago now. It took a long time for me to really grasp what my teacher, Mr. Leach, was trying to get across. I practiced for years afterward before really beginning to understand what was going on.

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