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 dangerous 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, this is what we 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 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 a photographer, 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.

46 thoughts on “Photographically Seeing

  1. Dear Otto,
    I became aware of the different ways of seeing during an expedition to Northern Greenland. I was travelling with the lady who did the drawings for the expedition, I wrote the ship’s log. We were amazed at how different we saw this frozen seascape that was surrounding us. F.e. she saw much more colours than I did whereas I was much more interested in shapes. Of course, on one hand, that’s a classical difference between the female and male mode of seeing. But it was much more than this, I became aware of how sloppy I was seeing what was in front of my eyes. The dimension of the objects I saw was historical or one of physics and geology for her it was the different shades of white and light and shadow.
    On this expedition, we talked a lot about perception (there were two expedition draftsman on board). At least for me, it was important to talk about our perception first to become aware of how I perceive before I could partly change my perception.
    Wishing you a creative week
    Klausbernd 🙂

    1. Your experience goes to the core of seeing and learning to develop the perception. In addition to the female/male difference between the two of you during the expedition, it’s also struck as showing different interests. You see what you are interested in. Thanks for the creative well wishing. Same to both of you.

  2. Sometimes I think I see everything as a potential photograph. Little things along a trail, big wide open landscapes, the angles in a city scene. And people. It makes my husband crazy. I took the dog out yesterday evening to do her thing and while I was waiting on her I was watching the way the late afternoon light was playing around the edges of the new leaves of a tree we were standing under. After she was finished I hurried her inside and grabbed the camera and went back out. Of course the light had shifted and it wasn’t quite the same, but still, I was pleased with what I got. Good images are everywhere.

      1. I know! I have been so disappointed so many times when I’ve seen something spectacular and had no camera with me. You’d think I’d learn,

  3. Like Dawn, I am at the point where I am picturing pretty much everything I look at as a potential photograph. Taking a walk with me can be painful for the other one who wants to simply get from point A to point B… I’m too busy enjoying the light’s effect on this or that!

  4. Great article! It takes time to learn how to see things in order to take pictures.. I think it also takes time before you can snap a picture. That could be a draw back.

  5. And learning to see photographically is one of the benefit of photography. In one of the drawing classes I took the assignment was to draw (try!) to copy from reality two white vases in front of a white background.
    Incredible, guided by the teacher, how many things we learned to see: lights, shadows, shades, reflections….

  6. Yes again, you’re right in many ways. Ability to make right decision makes you. Or, brakes you. Which is why only fraction of people are successful in photography and life.

  7. “Cameras on the other hand capture light.” I love that line. The photos that I most enjoy browsing are those where the light is uniquely captured. Photography is a beautiful art.

  8. i developed that seeing way back in the 70s when i shot with film, and we couldn’t just shoot willy nilly at everything in front of us… but since digital, i would say that my photography sense has gotten dull
    i just migrated my site again, and lost your comment from a couple of days ago 😦

      1. I do things a little differently with my dimmed view… now i take a lot of pictures and judge from their thumbnail in my photo roll which one is the best, it’s not that i have lost it

  9. Adoro leggere le tue considerazione, che poi alla fine sono ottimi consigli.
    Ho notato che quando usavo la vecchia macchina fotografica stavo molto più attenta, invece da quando uso la digitale penso proprio di aver perso il senso giusto del “vedere”. Dovrò recuperare nella mia mente il “vedere” che ho accantonato.
    Un grande saluto. Grazie, Pat

    1. Penso che ciò che hai sperimentato sia comune tra coloro che sono passati dalla pellicola alla cattura digitale. Semplicemente diventiamo più pigri con la nostra percezione. Grazie mille per il commento, Patrizia.

  10. Great ideas Otto. You are right. It’s hard for the average person to really see and take great photographs. I’ve been dabbling in photography for 45 years but still feel like I need a lot of experience to get it right. Thanks for sharing.

  11. One thing you say ,Otto, about taking more time for what we really want to do, convinces me absolutely! It”s like when you are reading a captivating thriller, one frequently just runs through the book to know, who commited the crime, without understanding all the relationships between the people, which led to the crime! Many thanks for your interesting post.

  12. I understand that people take casual photographs as a record of what was, whether that means places or other people. What I’ve never understood is why the people who take those photographs-as-records rarely pay any attention at all to the position from which they take the pictures or the background behind their subjects—both of which can often be greatly improved with only a little bit of effort.

      1. Maybe so. On the other hand, I had an interesting experience in Canada a few years ago when we spent a few days with the daughter of one of my wife’s good friends. As we went around, I took some pictures of the two of them using my iPhone, and she kept commenting how good my pictures looked compared to the ones she’d taken. I explained to her the importance of choosing a good vantage point and a good background. She clearly recognized and appreciated the difference that made. Maybe no one had ever pointed it out to her. Whether she cared enough to pay attention to those things after our visit, I don’t know.

        1. Thanks for sharing your experience. I think it’s describing how it works for many. One needs to know about vantage point and so on to make captivating images. If you are so lucky that someone explains to you, you have the choice whether to follow up or not.

  13. Thoroughly enjoyed this post, Otto, since it is the crux of being a successful photographer. To be able to see past “things” and see light, shape, contrasts and lines and then form a composition to tell your story is the challenge of making a good image. And I agree with many thoughts shared, there are different kinds of photographs and those that record moments in time for the memory may be very different than a well thought out image, yet both can be rewarding and pleasing for different reasons. As Brenda Tharp reminds us- there’s much to be photographed in the “extraordinary everyday”.

  14. grat post with all of your seasoned insight –
    and it is quite individual as to what we see and amazes me how we need this diversity to make the world better

  15. I have a hard time turning off ‘seeing as a photographer’ when I am out in the landscape. I think it might possibly be annoying when with my husband, who puts up with me pointing out various scenes while we are out. I’m constantly analyzing what attracts my attention … how I might frame it, what lens I might use, what would be a good time of day, will it make a good photograph, and if not ideal at the time, when can I come back! Passionate about landscape photography, it’s just how I am. On the flip side, I think some viewers don’t see very deeply when looking at photography either. To them, a mountain photo is a mountain photo, a rainbow photo is a great no matter how it is composed, etc. I don’t know how many times people have said, I have a shot just like that, and in reality, to the trained eye, they are not the same at all!

    1. Oh, yes, I have experienced that plenty of times. And of course, it comes down to understanding what makes a good photo. It’s less about the subject matter, and more how we interpret it. Thanks for sharing your experience in seeing. You are fortunate in that you cannot turn off seeing (but maybe not your husband).

  16. Sometimes it’s really hard to capture an image of what we are seeing. I have often heard someone say (myself included), “The photo doesn’t do it justice.” Perhaps that’s it, we have to pay more attention to the light and the part it plays in what we are seeing. There are days when the world seems alive with photos. I would stop every five minutes on my way to work to capture something I see. Other days it seems I notice nothing. My guess is the light in me is off on those days.

    1. I could definitely be the light. But it could also be that your are more perceptible some days, more inspired or more open to the world. That goes hand in hand, when it comes to photography, the inner and the outer word. 🙂

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