Slow Seeing

For a photographer being able to see is an indispensable quality. 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. The fact is that we lose our ability to see—in the finest and broadest sense—that is using all your senses, your intellect, and your emotions. As we grow from birth, we learn to objectify everything we see. The result is that we rather quickly stop being able to see with our conscious mind. When we have objectified or catalogued something, we stop seeing it—really seeing it—because we think we unconsciously know what we see.

This is a survival mechanism in order for our brains not having to deal with every sensory input as if it was a first encounter. It makes us stop seeing the familiar. However, as photographers, who want to make engaging images, we must recognize the value of the familiar.

This need to categorize, to understand the world, is an inherent part of being human. When I reach out and touch a cup, the moment my hands makes contact is pure touch, the sensation is unprocessed. But within milliseconds my mind needs to identify the object, and so the mind kicks into gear. Once we have identified the cup, the process of perception stops, and all other aspects of the cup is lost to us. We tacitly believe that when we have gotten a name for something, we know it. And once we know it, we stop noticing its qualities.

This objectification, categorization and intellectualisation is a very human approach. Animals have a much more direct way of perception. A spider for example, feels the universe through its legs, which touch the key strand of its web. It knows when it’s raining, or when food is available. It doesn’t think to itself, “that is not a fly on the web. That is rain.” Yet it knows. The spider doesn’t deliberate about what kind of fly it would like to eat or criticize the rain for trying to deceive it. A spider just does what it does, effortlessly and spontaneously.

How then can we train ourselves to start seeing again—seeing the world as it really is, not only as we think it is? It would be handy, wouldn’t it, if we were able take a red pill, as in the movie Matrix, and suddenly see the world as it is. Early on in the movie, the protagonist gets the choice between taking a red pill or a blue pill. If he chooses the blue pill, he will stay in the constructed world he has been deceived to believe in, but if he chooses the red pill, the deception will fall apart and he will see the world for what it really is.

Since we don’t have such a red pill, how can we start seeing beyond what our minds have made up for us? The first step to start seeing for real again is simply to slow down. Slowing ourselves and our minds down allow us to observe the world more deeply, and to shift our brains to examine more clearly those depths. It makes us see really, what it is we’re trying to photograph.

Our lives are normally so busy and so packed that we don’t have time to see anymore. I certainly find myself too often running from one place to another, to get to a meeting or an appointment on time, or to catch a train or bus. I bet most of us do. By literally speeding up our lives, we don’t take the time to see the deeper levels of things and so, without meaning to, we become shallower observers. This is not a beneficial state of mind if you want to capture meaningful photos.

I notice it in myself particularly when I do street photography. In the beginning of a session, I run around searching for something, anything that is worth capturing. I am afraid I might miss a moment, I believe maybe around the corner is a better vantage point with more activity on the street. I end up shooting a lot of photos, but nothing worth keeping. It’s when I take a deep breath, slow down and decide to stay in one place, wait and let things happen in their own time and pace, that I slowly start to get images that might be worth keeping.

When we want to see with the intention of creating photographs we need to start getting out of this automated way of seeing, this subconscious registering through which we have trained ourselves to look at the world. We need to de-learn objectifying everything and re-learn to see everything with a pure and uncontaminated vision, everything as something unique and particular, almost as the child when she first learns to see.

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Where and When

As a photographer, I totally rely on my camera. Without a camera (and this includes my cell phone whenever I shoot pictures with it), I won’t be able to capture any photographs. This is a fact for any photographer or anyone taking photos—and who is not these days?

No camera, no photos. As simple as that. Isn’t it then quite an intriguing thought that the two most important choices having maybe the biggest influence on the result have nothing to do with the camera at all? Yes, camera quality does have an impact on the final result. So does aperture and shutter speed. But two of the most important tools for crafting photos are not camera related whatsoever.

I am talking about where and when. If you have no where and no when you might just as well not take any photo. In fact, you cannot capture any without a where and when. You may be unconscious or unaware about them, but any photograph captured is a statement about its where and when.

Think about, even a timeless photo not giving away or depending on a location, will have to have been capture sometime and somewhere. As a photographer, you may choose to not give time and location a visual importance, because you want to give the image a timeless and open quality, but just as often, if not most of the times, both where and when is an important part of the story in a photograph.

Thus, you should be aware of both choices. Because it is yours to pick. In a way, it seems obvious, as you cannot take any photo without a where or a when. You go on a holiday. You shoot photos of the trip and anytime something special happens. It’s clearly about both when and where. However, being consciously aware of the two factors—and more importantly their visual impact—will guarantee to boost the pull of your photos. Because there is more to both where and when than what follows automatically just by shooting.

You want to shoot the Eiffel tower? Obviously the where is Paris. But where is more than just Paris. You can stand on this side of the Seine or on that side of the Seine. You can stand close to the Eiffel tower or you can try to capture it from afar. Or, take the photo above. It’s captured in Canyonlands National Park in Utah, USA and it shows the sandstone formations around the Druid Arch Canyon. However, the where is not only the national park and the specific canyon, but also where in the canyon, which side of it I stand and also at what part of the formations I point my camera. It’s all very conscious decisions on my part.

There is even more to the where. Yes, it’s about the location, it’s about your position as indicated, but it’s also about your point of view. Do you take a step to the right to include the wall there, do you bend down to include more of the foreground, do you step closer or away from details you either want to emphasize or diminish? As you can see, where has quite more to it.

The same goes for time. Let’s look at the above photo again. Time is not only arbitrarily whenever I took the photo. There is a season to it—summertime, to be more specifically—and there is time of the day, too—in this case afternoon. Both have a visual impact. If I had chosen to shoot in wintertime, snow may have covered the ground and the quality of light might have been different. Same with the time of day. I waited until the sun was partially going down beneath the rocks to the right. This brought out drama as well as a direction of the sunlight that emphasized the structural quality of the sandstone formations. Morning light would have created a very different expression.

Another time dimension is important, too, although not so much in this photo. It’s about capturing the highlight of an event or of something going on. This has to do with choosing the right fraction of a second that shows what it’s all about—what the deceased and renown photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called the decisive moment. An obvious example is the moment a high jumper reaches of the bar. Getting the decisive moment right can break and make a photo.

There is even a third aspect of time, which I will only mention slightly here, and which has to do with your choice of shutter speed. However, then we are back to the camera again and its controls, and this post was not about that. In other words, I have gone full circle here now. My advise is to be more aware of both where and when when you photograph—if you aren’t already. It could change the result dramatically.

On a different note: When you read this post, I will be travelling in Belize for two weeks. Thus, I will have to take a break from blogging, but I’ll see you again in a couple of weeks.

In the Wake of Winter





When I look out of my window right now, it’s not really very inspiring. It’s grey, drab and dark. It’s almost in the middle of the day, but it feels more like dusk. Dark clouds are gathering over me like doomsday is imminent. Rain is pouring out of the sky like a deluge. I do like winter, but I like the cold winter, with snow and crisp air. With a sun hanging low over a horizon as it does at this latitude this time of the year. But this? I don’t know…

So today I am going to let myself carry away on a dream about hot summer, sunshine, blue sky and sweet days. While waiting for the winter to show up for real… These pictures are taken during a hike into Canyonlands National Park in Utah, USA and up to Chesler Park. We did the hike earlier this year. Probably unnecessary to say, but I had a fun time photographing, even if I am not a nature photographer as such.