Averted Vision


Sometimes shooting a subject straightforward simply gives the best representation of the subject in combination with the photographer’s intent behind the photograph. In many ways that’s often the journalistic approach, although increasingly we see more personal interpretations also in traditional journalistic media.

Shooting something head-on will often be the first thought for most photographers. Besides being an obvious—and unfortunately sometimes also a lazy—approach, it suggests the obvious significance of some discrete thing to be shown in the photograph, something that would be self-evident in a clear, straightforward rendering. The most extreme of this would be as evidence in a photographed taken at a crime scene.

But then again, sometimes, a more playful, less obvious and straightforward approach might produce a more interesting and captivating photo. As a photographer it means taking your time when approaching the subject. Maybe shoot the straightforward photo, but then ask yourself how you can shoot it differently, how can you bring an element of surprise into the narrative of the photograph? «Tell the truth, but tell it slant,» wrote Emily Dickinson, the nineteenth century American poet. Emily had a brother who had a mistress. The astronomer husband of the mistress would have known that looking directly at a faint object, is not the best way to see it. The reason lies in the fact that the centre of the retina is not the part most sensitive to light; there is actually a blind spot right there. So instead of seeing straight onto a star far away in the night sky the astronomer would be using a technique caller averted vision, looking a little off to the side. This technique will make it possible to see a faint object better.

If we transfer this into a photographic understanding it would mean to look anew at the subject. Frame it differently. Focus differently. Find another viewpoint that isn’t that obvious. Move around. As I just wrote; trying to find the unexpected approach. Take the photograph above. I was doing a story about the booming economy in Ethiopia (right now, by the way, there is a massive hunger catastrophe on its way to the Eastern parts of Ethiopia, affecting all countries on the Horn of Africa). In Addis Ababa this was evident everywhere in the newer parts of the capital. Modern office buildings and high rising constructions were popping up almost all over place. I went around shooting the construction sites and buildings in steel and glass, but at some point I looked for a more averted approach. I went inside a shopping centre and started to shoot out through the windows and got quite a different perspective. I waited for people to pass by in front of the windows to create some life and not only showing architecture and cars. The picture made as one of the main photos in the story.

Do you deliberately think of using averted vision when you shoot (even if you don’t use the expression)? If you do, let us know how you use it. I think it’s always interesting to learn different approaches how different photographers see the world.

Facts about the photo: It was taken with a Lumix LX-7 with the equivalent of a 24 mm lens and the aspect ration of the frames set to panorama (16:9). The photo was processed first in Lightroom and then in Snapseed for a heighten boost. Captured at 1/1250 of a second and f/2.8.

56 thoughts on “Averted Vision

  1. Excellent shot, I like how it seems to “frame the frame” in two parts and makes an in interesting geometric area where the man is placed.
    Yes, we need to learn to see, to observe and try without fear to fail…

  2. >> So instead of seeing straight onto a star far away in the night sky the astronomer would be using a technique caller averted vision, looking a little off to the side. This technique will make it possible to see a faint object better.

    >> If we transfer this into a photographic understanding it would mean to look anew at the subject. Frame it differently.

    >> ….although increasingly we see more personal interpretations also in traditional journalistic media.


    Take care
    Regards to you Otto.

  3. I remember my father telling me that early sailors used this vision technique to stay on course during the daylight hours. They were trained to see the constellations and key markers for navigation within the blue daytime sky by using it. I often use it when viewing the night sky, especially to look at the Pleiades, which is much clearer when you use averted vision.
    Great post, great information. Thanks ~

  4. How true! I think we sometimes too focused on the act of taking picture and forget other elements of picture that needs visual representation (your previous post mentioned).

    By the way, you have an excellent photo and it is a great example of this post. That is simple and ordinary but that is the key as it is the realistic view that everyone can immediately relates to (they too see that too but never thought as to capture it in the picture).

  5. I’m not sure how to answer this question… do i sometimes take off center pictures? yes, is that because i’m not looking at the center? i honestly don’t know… i think i may be too tired lol i’ve got a new puppy. however i was shooting pictures of her today from odd angles… might post one tomorrow for you.

    1. We all have our way of seeing off centre, don’t we—but not always consciously aware of it. 🙂 Congratulations with the new puppy. I look forward to seeing photos of her.

  6. Fascinating article, thank you. To answer your question, yes I do believe I use averted vision but not as much as straight on, which I do by default. In other words, a fresh perspective is in order. Thanks for the reminder to keep looking, keep thinking while looking for that shot.

  7. Otto, I absolutely agree. The exercise is what I refer to as circular thinking, moving entirely around and through an idea. Then you can see from all vantage points, which applies to any of the arts. In photography we do not always have time to respond that way. But when we do, it can open up entire vistas that we do not see in the usual seeing.

  8. I like Dickinson, and that line of hers about “telling it slant” is one of my favorites.

    To this point, I’ve photographed primarily for my blog, and certain constraints tbecause of that have kept my composition straightforward. But I am finding that, especially in nature, I’m increasingly looking for diagonal lines, ways to shoot against the sky, and so on. Here, I purposely tried to “mirror” the berries as well as setting them diagonally. I wasn’t very good about focusing when I took this, but at least, compositionally, it’s more interesting than a straight-on shot would be.

  9. Part of the pleasure I get from photography is seeing the world from different perspectives, looking for an alternative viewpoint; an added bonus is that the resulting images tend to have more impact due to the very fact that they differ from the norm.
    Coincidentally, my latest post shows how a different point of view can dramatically change an image. It was a good exercise in trying different techniques and compositions.

  10. An enjoyable post and you’re so right that shooting photos straight on is often the lazy approach to a photo…and I use it too often. Bearing in mind what you’ve said I’m going to try and frame it differently!

  11. What a great shot, Otto. I really enjoy staring at it and looking at the detail. I haven’t specifically considered “averted vision” as the creative option for a unique photo opportunity. I will be thinking about that and challenging myself.

  12. Otto, your photo immediately made me think of a photographer that I have come to admire and appreciate. The late Saul Leiter used his version of averted vision in many of his photographs. In viewing his work, it doesn’t take long to see how he used a somewhat “indirect” approach in framing, composition, and finally taking the photograph. Of course, his work didn’t use those techniques exclusively, but when he did employ those methods, a special magic to the scene appeared. Part of that seems to result from something like a “stream of consciousness” in his shooting (although that may be part of his technique, I’m sure that there was an undoubtedly deliberate quality to his work). Averted vision/seeing is expansive, yet it also has focus and an intended subject. Learning to see is critical; learning to see in new ways opens our eyes (pun intended) to greater creativity and freedom.

    1. What can I say; besides I totally agree with you. Learning to see takes some willingness to step out of the comfort zone and let go of our regular habits. And the result is indeed greater freedom and creativity. And, yes, Saul Leiter did use averted vision to make some extraordinary photos.Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the subject. Phil.

  13. I do. A lot of times I’m interested in what’s going on in the background of some subject that is far more obvious to to the attention in the foreground. So, I try to frame and focus on distant, hard to reach subjects in ways that make them more relevant to the observer.

    I have moderate success with this.

  14. Love reading you, Otto. And it’s a beautiful photograph that you have made. It takes an artist to show the everyday in newer, refreshing ways. For a photographer, perspective and point of view go a long way in achieving it.

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