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.