Wise old eye

Photography is a powerful form of visual communication. In one way your lens is your third eye, it’s a magic eye that can share what you see with the rest of the world.  But how do you learn to see better and translate your visual skills to your camera? I understand ‘Vision’ similar to how many people understand ‘Wisdom’. A wise person has a lot of life experience and has learnt how to prepare for the rest of their lives and guide others along the path of wisdom.  You don’t become wise without mistakes or misfortune, and much of the learning is distinguishing between truth and lies, but you use your knowledge to try to avoid future mistakes and failures and to fine tune your lifestyle. An experienced photographer has made mistakes and learned to overcome challenges.  They are able to arrange a scene quickly because they can easily spot objects with visual interest and compose with other elements in the scene. Developing your vision is like becoming a wise old eye, it doesn’t happen overnight.

Good eyesight helps, although I know legally blind photographers who use photography to help them see more.  For example, a woman with severe tunnel vision took scenic photos with a wide angle, so that she could appreciate the whole scene via her playback screen.  Even normal sighted photographers do the same.  We capture a moment which we were, perhaps, unable to see at the time.  So, by taking photos you are seeing more because the photo allows us better time to appreciate the colours, details, textures etc that make a photo stunning.

Vattarnes Cliffs, East Iceland.

Intelligent systems

Understanding eyesight and the way the brain deals with visual information can help even more. Lenses are based on the design of our own eyes, while the sensor and intelligent camera have similar functions as our retina and brain.  It is remarkable how much the brain plays a part in adjusting what we see. Our brains will complete missing information based on our previous experiences and even our religious beliefs. Hallucinations can occur with tiredness, drugs, mental disorders or even bereavement. Understanding how much our brains can alter our perception can help you see the world in a less processed form, or at the RAW stage. Essentially, a regular camera and lens (before you open Photoshop) is showing you the scene before the brain makes it’s adjustments.

Pictorial Depth Cues

One of the main ways your brain will makes sense of a natural scene is to find information of depth.  Beyond the reach of your hand, the brain uses “Pictorial Depth Cues” to make sense of where the objects in a scene are.  Some really obvious Depth Cues are, height in the scene – closer objects appear lower in the picture – it is the opposite above the horizon.  Although this is usually the case, it is not an unbreakable rule. “Overlap” is a more powerful Depth Cue. Closer objects will overlap distant objects and this rule is very difficult to break.  Lines can often communicate depth especially if they are converging like railway tracks. Many photographers don’t realise that a good reflection can also communicate depth with the difference between the original and reflected object giving powerful depth information.  There are many resources out there to help you learn about the Pictorial depth cues.  Understanding these will help you see like a visual artist and you will start composing in a way that will help communicate depth in a scene.

Height in the scene, overlap and reflection help us understand the depth in the scene.

Eye Candy

What are you visually interested in? What catches your eye? If we saw in the same way, there would be little point in photography. Think about what catches your eye enough to want to share with others. Are you excited by colours, shapes or textures.

Start studying these things that catch your eye and ask;

  • does it change in the light?
  • is it low contrast, or high contrast?
  • what light makes it visually stunning?
  • which light makes it disappointing?
  • Study light to make a scene work better.

The Plastic Brain

Another psychological concept that can help you develop your eye is “brain plasticity”. The part of the brain that deals with vision is called the occipital lobe (or visual cortex). Brain plasticity means that if you exercise your vision, this part of the brain will grow in complexity, even in an adult human brain.  Although, what we experience in our early years will shape our brains the most.

The Author of “The rain forest people”, Colin Macmillan Turnbull described a Pygmy gentleman who he took outside his dense jungle environment into the plains.  Apparently, he thought that a herd of buffalo in the distance were swarming insects. In his natural environment he never naturally learned about size constancy.  Size constancy is another depth cue that we learn automatically in a non-jungle environment. For example, as we watch a car drive away from us, we know that the car is getting further away and not shrinking in size.  For someone whose visual environment doesn’t normally include objects disappearing into the distance, the shrinking buffalo would appear like witch-craft.

Change of scenery

What this implies is that your visual brain is only as good as the visual environment you have experienced. I was born into a concrete jungle in South England. The entire landscape was flat, except for right-angles and concrete. My environment contained other shapes, images, and TV. I interacted with woodland, beaches etc, so I wasn’t lacking any depth cues. If I wanted to develop my eye as a landscape photographer, a change of scenery was required.  A change in activity was also required. There are many ways we used to interact with a landscape in our ancient past. Our depth perception would have been finely tuned for hunting or archery. Reading the land would have been essential for establishing a safe home. I believe it is the way we interact physically with the landscape can contribute to our visual skills.
mountain northern lights reflection

Travel broadens the mind’s eye

The famous mind expanding benefits of travel will naturally have an effect on your visual brain.  Surviving in novel situations has many benefits. Do you remember your first time at an international airport? Or being under a Northern Lights display. Putting yourself in a strange environment will really make your visual senses work hard and above all activates the Right hemisphere. This side of your brain is creative and sees the situation holistically and deals with the new environment without thoughts.  You may experience a heightening of your senses in these novel situations because you are experiencing the RAW state of your senses. Compare a long sandy beach with a busy street in India and how these 2 environments will work your eyes and brain in different ways.

Other Photographers

As I said earlier, there is no point in photography if we all saw in the same way.  By meeting other photographers, it is possible to learn how they see or even what they are thinking when they take a photo.  Nowadays, you can do this online, by following inspiration photographers. By studying other photographers works, you can learn a great deal and even develop your eye.  Although it is even better if you can travel with like minded photographers, because you will be interacting with the environment together.

Take a deep breath

The Buddha noticed that if you sit still and become aware of the breath, your internal thoughts will reduce and you mind becomes calm. Breath awareness techniques strengthen the styles of Yoga and meditation which can raise your senses in a similar way to being in a completely novel environment. Kundalini Yoga uses the rapid breath of fire to raise awareness to a new level, which can guide your visual perception to an even Rawer form.  This is like being plunged into a Lord of the Rings dimension where objects become energy instead of solid matter.
If anything reduces your visual, it is likely to be the verbal chatter from your left brain. Being able to reduce this chatter or even silence it allows the more creative, right brain to take over. If Yoga and meditation are not your bag, then you could at least try to reduce the mathematics in your shooting by allowing the camera to do the work in the semi-automatic modes. Once you camera is set up (which does require thought) the photographer then has a more creative mind to compose the scene.
Glacier ice beach

Conclusions

I believe that you can use photography to help you see better. This in turn makes your photography better.  This is a natural learning process, with the potential for lots of valuable feedback after each photographic experience. But can also get you stuck on a plateau unless you keep challenging yourself with travel and photo techniques.  Explore with your lens as much as you do with your eyes.  Interacting with your subject will naturally develop your vision.