It All Starts with Seeing

There is a saying that “some people see more in a walk around the block than others see in a trip around the world”. This is a reminder that for the most part we see only what we expect to see. That is why it’s so easy to hide something in plain view.

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 a fresh vision. Anybody can see, one might point out, but the fact is, it requires more than merely taking in the world through the eyes to see beyond the obvious, to become observant and consciously register what is going on in front of your eyes. Yes, most of us “see” equally well if you talk about the physiological process—more or less that is, of course. However, seeing with the intention of really seeing is not merely a physiological process and not something most people do, no matter how sharp their eyes might be. Seeing—in the finest and broadest sense—means using all 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, even when it has become habitually mundane.

There is a whole process of internalized steps behind capturing a photograph. It all springs out of you as a person. You bring yourself, and whatever you are, into the visual world. Your whole previous life experience and personal development becomes part of the equation. Being who you are, you see the world differently than any other person, simply because you are who you are. Perception is shaped by values, upbringing, and culture. No two persons see the same way. Your way of experiencing the world is unique. However, most of what you see goes unnoticed by your conscious mind. Then suddenly something triggers you, visually and emotionally. There is what could be called a momentary encounter between you and the world. It might be anything from a strong colour splash or an odd object to extraordinarily beautiful light or some human interaction. This initial flash of perception sparks a desire to take a photograph and finally results in your camera registering a photo when you push the shutter button. Somewhat simplified the process can be described this way:

Personality → Perception → Picture

Who you are is nobody’s business but yours, and not something you necessarily need to work on or improve, not to become a photographer at least. I certainly have no say in who you are or ought to be, but let me just point out that it does ardently affect the way your photography will manifest itself. In the end, that is what makes your photographs different from any others.

Personality aside, for a photographer, seeing is where it all really 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, as indicated above, 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 as 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.

This is an excerpt from my soon to be released eBook “See Better, See Deeper”, a book about seeing with the intention to take photographs. It’s an in depth study into all aspects of seeing and learning to see better. I will get back with more information when it’s ready.

59 thoughts on “It All Starts with Seeing

  1. there are so many ways to see and so many perspectives, it is important to stay aware and see everything you can – wonderful post, otto

  2. Otto, do you ever feel that you want to experience the moment, without photographing it? You’re really looking, recognizing and enjoying interesting patterns, beautiful colors and shadows, etc. but perhaps also enjoying the music you’re hearing, or just the ambient sounds of the place, and, say, the sensation of walking through a field of grasses, or a woods, and feeling the sun and a breeze. And so you do that, really absorb it, and do not stop to take a photograph. Maybe that’s a silly question, and simply a matter of whether someone is primarily visually-attuned, or more inclined toward the auditory, or the tactile/ kinesthetic learning. I suppose it’s simply a question of whether someone is really a photographer at heart, or not! An interesting and stimulating post, thank you and have a great weekend.

    1. It’s a very important question and one that Susan Sontag addresses in her book On Photography. If perceptual awareness is all about taking photos, we lose a lot of experiences. Seeing is not – or ought not to be – a means to taking photos only, even for a photographer.

      1. Ah, very true, Otto. I have a friend who chides me for taking the camera, when he thinks I should just be enjoying the scene, the sights, the sounds, the scents, the beauty. And he has a point

      2. Annie Dillard addresses this, too — including in this very interesting passage from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut.”

  3. I still want to enhance the skill of “seeing” because it does take practice ,and I think some comes naturally. Either way it so delights me. I so enjoy opening the world to others who do not see the way I do, but appreciate being shown and probably look a little more carefully the next time they go out. It is a life-enriching habit. I look forward to your e-book.

  4. Thank you for seeing what many photographers see and what others people may not see easily. How you thought about seeing God knows. Wonderful iam going to share on other platforms

  5. I find it interesting—and frustrating!—that two people can look at a set of facts and yet “see” them so differently. And of course sometimes even the same person sees things differently. In my nature photography I sometimes return from a place along the same path I followed to get there. More than once I’ve had the experience of noticing something on the return that I’d walked right past but didn’t see on the outward-bound part of my journey.

    I’ve heard a proposed explanation for why our physical senses are limited: if we could tune in to everything that’s going on around us, we’d be overwhelmed.

    I searched a little but couldn’t find any clues about who first said “some people see more in a walk around the block than others see in a trip around the world.”

    You mentioned personalities. I’ve recently read two books about genetics written by scientists: Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, and Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are. Both make the case that the kind of person we end up being depends more on our genetic nature than on factors that might be called environmental.

    1. I think it’s great that each of us see the world differently – and even the same person from one moment to the next. It means there is always something to learn or wonder about.

      And you are right, if we were to process all perceptual stimuli consciously, we would not get through the day.

      What you write at the end, is up for much discussion. Today’s idea of brain plasticity indicates that environmental impact is significant.

  6. An excellent post. Far too little attention is given to the art and skill of looking and seeing. There is an assumption that because we have eyes we can see, but HOW to see is as important as how to read or perform mathematical functions.

  7. It is so true that the eye tends to see what it expects to see. My husband and I marvel at this all the time. Just a couple of days ago, as we were driving along slowly, I spotted a fox standing next to a stone wall. No matter how much I pointed he couldn’t see it, although I’m sure his eyes were mainly focused on the road. It wasn’t until the fox started moving and crossed the road behind us that he finally saw it in the rearview mirror.

    When we take walks together we always see different things. Some of my best photos are of things he has spotted and pointed out to me and I surely would have missed. Looking forward to reading your eBook!

    1. When we have to focus our attention to something specific, such as driving, it’s hard to notice anything else. It’s simply a survival skill developed through the existence of human kind.

  8. As you say, Otto “Seeing—in the finest and broadest sense—means using all your senses, your intellect, and your emotions”…..indeed it does, and I think the intellect and the emotions should not be underestimated.

  9. You have a friend in Georgia O’Keeffe, whose life was dedicated to the art of seeing and the cultivation of interest in the world to a rare degree. I quoted her words about the primacy of interest in my current post: a photograph of a feather I was able to truly ‘see’ in the way you describe here. It was one of those “momentary encounters’ you’ve written about here.

  10. A great analysis the process of seeing for unintentionally and intentionally for the purpose taking pictures. These happen automatically in your mind and uniquely yours!!!

  11. What you say is true, Otto. I have never seen the same since the first time I peeked through my mother’s brand new Canon AE1, which she’d bought for a trip to Africa. From that day on, I began looking at the world with a resizable frame directing my gaze. And she highlighted that experience by presenting me with the exact same model the following Christmas.

  12. Seeing…”means encountering your subject matter with your whole being.” Yes! Your remarks about perception and what we each bring to our subjects are also very cogent. It sounds like this is going to be a good book. 🙂

  13. Often, when driving to work or just existing in every day life I see something that takes my breath away. It’s like the visual wraps itself around me and makes me feel it. I will always try to capture this with a photo but I never seem to do it justice. I can go for long periods without “seeing” in that way, but when it returns it takes my breath away just like the very first time.

  14. I so agree with the concepts you’ve described here Otto. I walk the same bush paths and rural roads nearly every day yet something different always captures my eye to photograph. How right you are when you say it all comes down to the use of all our senses. A wonderful post. Thank you.

  15. Yes! Love this post! Self-expression is certainly about the way you see, no matter what your niché is. I can’t help but think about the person who uses my portfolio as a checklist of ‘shots to get’. They are cheating themselves of the rewards of discovery and true creativity.

  16. I wish you al the best for your book, Otto. I’m really looking forward to reading it.

    I still have Joel Meyerowitz’s book “On Seeing” on the table:
    The moment of seeing is like waking up.

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