thinking with pictures – metaphors that let you see the subject from new angles

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Moving vs. Still imagery – which most truly represents life?

One analogy that comes to mind for answering this question about capturing a place or time in its essence is the classroom. In a college lecture many people are accustomed to taking notes, cherry-picking particular phrases, copying visual details from chalkboard or projector screen, or paraphrasing the general point being made. But other people don’t trust their own alertness or ability to follow the thread of the discussion and so they opt to audio record the entire period. There is momentary satisfaction in knowing it is possible to replay a particular passage,  or indeed the whole thing. But practically speaking, having to sit through the lecture twice is a time-cost that many people cannot afford. The notetaker versus the audio recorder approach is one way to compare a still photographer’s record of a subject with the way that a videographer/editor might capture the same subject.

freeze-frame from video clip of outdoor glass table in the rain

rain portrayed in a still photo

It is true that each medium does things that the other does not: a still image allows close and careful scrutiny of a moment frozen artificially in time, while moving images playback the individual frames rapidly to create the sensation of live activity; a timeline instead of a fixed point in time. There is also the audio track – the original ambient sounds and voices, or the added voice of narrator or background music can produce a feeling of immersion or presence at the occasion. NLE (non-linear editing) makes it possible to create a chronological story, even when the segments are not recorded in time order; or to take a series of chronologically recorded clips and rearrange them for the purpose of increasing the dramatic intensity, for example.

But to return to the original question: is lived experience more like a movie in which self or another subject is protagonist, or is this experience a series of snapshots – moments etched into memory and guiding one’s view of the world and decisions learned by experience? Certainly the short-term and long-term memory takes in a lot of detail and winnows it by holding onto particular pieces while letting go of others. The expression “too much information” (TMI) seems to correspond to video recording: so much information captured, while still photography seems to correspond to selected moments composed and held onto. And yet, as a shorthand for very complicated and still not fully understand psychological processes, life does include a narrative or time-flow dimension which video simulates and still photos can only hint at – for example, by allowing a bit of motion blur based on shutter speed close to the speed needed to freeze the subject, while still recording a little blur around the edges.

In conclusion, lived experience does seem to be comprised of sets of vignettes or snapshots, rather than unprocessed total recall of everything that passes in front of one’s waking mind. And yet, there is a strong awareness of things changing over time, including one’s own changes relative to background conditions, too. So maybe the analogy of “freeze-frames” is the best approximation: full motion video from which individual frames are pulled out and kept in memory for ready reference even after the full-motion fades away or is displaced by other experiences. Another analogy might be the “video snapshot” in which a composed scene is recorded as video clip rather than single shutter release. At first glance it seems to be a still photo, except that there is ambient sound and sometimes a slight bit of motion of the subject (eye-blink, bending grass blown by wind) or movement in the background.


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Why DO we take snapshots?

The ubiquity of cellphone cameras makes snapshooting almost frictionless. There is practically no expense once the original outlay for device and telecomm provider have been paid. The camera is almost always within reach. And picture-takers are mostly permitted photographs in a very wide range of settings. And yet, as commonly seen or taken-for-granted that casual digital photography is now today, it is still worth examining the reasons that may cause a person to reach for a phone, tablet, or camera to point and shoot a picture. By understanding the itch that a photographer is scratching, the larger meaning and methods for satisfying those motivations can be seen.

screenshot of 28 thumbnail images taken on holiday

These 28 photos come from a weekend holiday, showing a range of triggers leading to shutter release.

This grid of thumbnail images is more or less in chronological order, including photos from several locations visited. So the numbers added here are not organized into thematic set of pictures taken by reason of a common trigger. Nevertheless, for convenience, it is easiest to comment on reasons (in hindsight now) to frame a scene and capture it.

  1. Record for posterity; report to distant family and friends; respond to the low, warm wavelengths of evening light. Upon arriving at the weekend vacation site of annual visits for the past 50 years, taking a look at the lake’s condition and the shoreline appearance is routine or habit. Now in middle May the water level is maybe 12 or 14 inches higher than normal. So that fact seemed somehow important to record and later to share with others.

2. Respond to the quality of light (RQL). The sun was more than an hour from the horizon and shone into the living room, creating a wide range in light values and drawing my attention to its beauty, causing me to respond by “capturing” the moment as framed here.

3. RQL (ditto, above). From dark shadow to bright horizon, the dynamic range of this warm light caused me to pay attention and notice its beauty.

4. RQL (ditto, above). Looking to the west where the bright sun of late spring was reflecting off the vast lake beyond the beach, the golden light called out for a photo in recognition of the abundant luminosity and strong shadows.

5. RQL (ditto, above). Here looking south as the early evening light to the west lit up the marram grass, the occasion seemed out of the ordinary and warranted a photo, not so much for sharing or documenting, but rather as simple call (of the beauty) and response (from the photographer).

6. Recording the waterline; a data point. Looking north the high water of Lake Michigan can be seen as the single steel stake marks last year’s protective fencing to help hold the sand from eroding and migrating away from the dune. Before 2019 the waterline had been lower, leaving more space between steel stake and the waves of the waterline.

7. Wondering at the curious blue-gray of the surf-polished stone disk. The strong light showed this smooth surface to good advantage, inviting me to pick it up to admire and what is more, to take a photo to celebrate the small joy at finding this token of the glaciers long-ago and the lake of today.

8. Artistic tableau, found not made. The significance that called out to be noticed was the intersection of bird foot, dog foot, human foot all lit by the low angle of the evening sun near the horizon and reflecting off the sky overhead as well as the undulating lake that extended to the horizon.

9. Simple visual pleasure: glistening beach stones, moving surf on the sand, majestic view to the horizon.

10. Storyteller: neat pile of shovels recently put to use to dig a channel in the sand to allow the water in view from the small lake to reach the big lake that is out of view. The composition was meant to lend itself to illustrating the periodic work of opening the channel to regulate the small lake’s level.

11. Immersive view: by combing the adjacent view of shovels with this overlapping view of the big lake, the stitched panorama will give a wider viewing experience to tell the story of the channel digging task.

12. Reportage: absent family can see a familiar place of summer, but now with the conditions of springtime, before the trees are clothed in dense leaves.

13. RQL: the last of the sunset paints the sky dramatically.

14. RQL (ditto, above). At this moment the sun’s rays light up the marram grass in the foreground for a brief period.

15. Technical play: experimenting with exposure setting to give truer-to-life colors.

16. Memento: quick record to share with family and friends from a morning walk.

17. RQL (ditto, above). The setting sun reflects nicely in the imperfect surface of the window panes.

18. RQL (ditto, above). The last of the sun glazes some of the branches and leaves in this view.

19. RQL (ditto, above). After the sunset comes the blue hour (here) and then deep black.

20. Hobby-project. Online request list for Wikimedia Commons to gather local photos around the world with the contributions of volunteers: parks, public buildings, historical markers, former movie theaters, and so on. See this overview,

21. RQL: the play of dark and light, texture and distance to lens attracted my eye.

22. Memento: proof of having arrived at viewing platform pinnacle, record of the view from that elevation.

23. Error correction (confusing text of this marker): by capturing the unclear sentence structures and sending email to the hosting organization, it may be possible to produce better English there one day.

24. Guide to study later: identification posters of wildflowers; also, elsewhere, of wild birds along the hiking trail in various times of the yearly cycle of seasons.

25. Technical play: intending partial blur of rain drops.

26. Technical play: intending partial blur of blowing branches.

27. Writing prompt: occasional blog filled with social observations will reflect upon the use of this parking lot orientation board to inform hikers of the nearby trails.

28. Reporting: to share with absent family and friends.

Taking an overall view of this set of pictures from a weekend holiday, there are distinct motivators at work to produce the framing and shutter release. Naturally, each photographer’s mix of motivators will differ in this age of ubiquitous cameras and wireless telecommunication among a large part of people alive today, but perhaps there are some general categories that can be traced. (1) Social connections with absent family and friends can be reaffirmed by sending a snapshot of a person or experience to others. (2) Practical applications like recording a parking location, a product seen while window-shopping, the condition of a property to report or repair, or to contribute to a collaborative project for gathering a specific subject matter or happening. (3) Mementos to punctuate one’s experience or to give to others present at the time (different to [1], above, in which significant others only glimpse vicariously the matter). (4) Pure aesthetic pleasure to capture something at the point of discovering delightful about texture, color patterns, light quality, irony or incongruity, and so on. (5) Experimenting or extending one’s abilities in using the full capabilities and knowing the limitations of one’s gear.

Analytically compartmentalizing the motivators that lead to drawing a lens to one’s eye and then framing and recording a moment might seem a silly exercise. But yet it does shine a light on many of the things that spur actions and reactions. Perhaps full-time professionals and some enthusiasts will stop to reflect on reasons why they do or do not respond to certain conditions and subjects. But for the majority of people who freely take photos, there probably is not a lot of meaning derived from asking why to take or to refrain from taking a photo. Instead it comes as pure impulse to ratify a moment as photo-worthy, something of significance, beauty, rarity, strangeness, or otherwise valuable to remember and/or show to others.

At the end of the exercise it is fair to ask about the use of reflecting upon photo habits. One reason is to see patterns in one’s own motivators. Another reason is the complementary pattern – to discover patterns for the things that do NOT stir the impulse to compose and then release the shutter. By knowing one’s own motivators, it may be possible to refine one’s own habits, eye for recognizing significant subjects and compositions, and to look at others’ work with added care in the knowledge of one’s own photograph-receptors; those things that make one respond by pointing a lens and recording a picture.

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Eye of the beholder vs. hand of the beholder

About 100 years ago a movement among serious photographers took the painter’s method of composing a scene artfully, rather than to take the circumstances as discovered as the basis for the composition. Pictorialism is the name given to this way of preparing the subject in the frame to form a pleasing and often painterly scene. This approach of using one’s hand to arrange a photograph differs from the manipulations post-processing in a darkroom or by using digital software. Both involve the photographer inserting him or herself into the composition to produce something close to what is in the mind’s eye of the person, bringing the eventual picture in line with the envisioned one.

In contrast to this creation of the space before releasing the shutter, the other approach is to capture the scene as it is discovered by framing it artfully to best advantage by choice of lens (focal length; field of view) and depth of focus, frame, and standpoint to include helpful foreground, line, light, or texture; and to exclude distracting elements. In other words, while the photographer can freely move around the scene and determine the lens settings, the elements of the scene themselves have not been excised, injected, or otherwise altered. In contrast to Pictorialism, this “as is” approach could be called Modernism or Realism, for example. Sometimes the photographer’s aim is to make the viewing experience as transparent and immersive as possible, thus transporting the viewer to the moment. To the extent that the picture succeeds in simulating direct visual experience, unmediated by time or equipment, then the goal is achieved.

cluttered garage interior lit by windows

Scene as found, not arranged into an artful view

For the purpose of this commentary, though, the key distinction is between observing (and recording) a place, on the one hand, and expressing something formed by combination of the artist’s imagination plus the physical space and subjects in front of the lens, on the other hand. As one traverses the day and the social landscape, some will be more inclined to engage with the world “as is,” while others will produce meaning and navigate themselves by engaging the world by foregrounding their own vision or imagined world view; that is, Self is protagonist and all else is background canvas for expressing oneself. Most likely, just about everybody does see and think in a combination of these two approaches, the Pictorialist and the Modernist. Beauty is therefore a combination: in the eye of the beholder, but also in the hand of the beholder.

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Another camera; another viewpoint – GoPro

As new combinations of features and functions for photography and videography emerge for sale, there is an urge to upgrade or add to one’s collection of gear; the so-called “Gear Acquisition Syndrome” (G.A.S.). Skillful traders will know when to sell the older gear to make room for the newer thing. However, more often the trusted and familiar old gear works well, so the photographer holds on to it. The result is more and more pieces of equipment cluttering one’s life. Even if the old piece is functional, having too many devices is redundant. On the other hand, at some point there is no resale value; and to discard during the annual “electronic waste” collection seems a terrible crime, too.

line drawing of camera capturing wireless audio from a person's mic
Form factor of video recorders (top left) for audio with external mic.

Bearing in mind the G.A.S. tendency, and the above lifecycle of camera technology, I began my search for something capable of recording video by using an external mic. While the built-in ones work well enough in controlled conditions (little noise, no wind, source nearby), in order to boost the viewer’s audio experience and thus simulate the immersive presence of a subject that is possible with high quality sound, I began to look at devices that can capture sound through an external microphone. Wired ones are cheaper than the wireless ones, in most cases. And since my habits are for light-weight and low-maintenance simplicity, and my ambitions are for short video stories or vignettes of 10 minutes of shorter, a major criterion was form-factor; something compact but still able to use an external mic and record HD video. Inexpensive is another consideration that fits into a limited spending appetite.

Eventhough the pocket camcorder I have will record HD (720 pixels), there is no external mic option. Just about equally as portable are the action cameras from GoPro (since 2002) and more recently from the drone maker, DJI. Among the stock of GoPros is the model from 2016, relatively cheap now that newer versions are sold. With an adapter sold separately the Hero5 will allow wired or wireless mics to provide the audio track. So that satisfies the original motivation for buying still another camera. But by the way this tiny, ruggedized, and water-resistant wonder comes with many magical powers that set it apart from the other cameras that I rotate between (very often snapshots on cellphone, occasional photowalks with APS-C mirrorless camera, or enthusiast pocket-sized camera). In no particular order, this GoPro can do: time-lapse (and night timelapse), slow-motion (8x frame rate for 30 fps x8 = 240 fps), underwater (10 meters), voice-commands for things like switch modes (photo, video, timelapse) and shoot or record or start/stop. The ability to mount the diminutive device onto wrist, helmet, hood of car, handlebar, surfboard, dog’s back, and so on will particularly differentiate it from ordinary camera; hence the “action camera” category or “point of view lens.” But even for less exciting interview or documentary work, in well-lit and typical recording spaces the gadget should do well.

Whether it is a new car, some nifty kitchen gadget, or workshop power tool, there is a honeymoon time when the new owner is charmed and tries all of the possible applications of the thing that come to mind. Later it might languish as the next new thing comes along. But at least in the beginning it is possible to think of things to try outside of the previous habits and range of subjects. The same is true of this video (and photo and timelapse) camera: having a new device makes it possible to consider one’s world with new eyes, imagining ways to put the thing to use and looking for subjects to express that were not possible before: it is a solution in search of a problem. In this way the connection of seeing and thinking is directly connected.

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Source window light versus same light outdoors

2 photos of same light - one via the window, the other outside

Looking north the morning light in the east window gives precious glow; the same look outdoors, though, glows not

Painters knew it long ago: keeping the subject near the light from a (north-facing*) window is the sweetest, most flattering kind of illumination. By why should this be so? One reason is the fact that the sun travels from a point low on the south horizon in winter solstice until the summer solstice, where it reaches high above the south horizon, but always shines onto the northern sky. So a north-facing window has little or no sun directly admitted. Instead the light from the north window comes reflected from the blue dome of sky. It is indirect, diffused, and cooler in color wavelength when contrasted to the window light from the non-north windows.

But there is another reason for the magical quality of window-sourced light. Looking at the two pictures, above, the sunlight and the lens direction is very similar, taken within 5 minutes of each other. And yet the light falling on the shower curtain is so delicate and finely graduated as it grows weaker in proportion to the distance from the window source. But the outdoor photo is filled with an equally spread field of light that seems much less remarkable. In other words, when the sunlight is transformed through the window panes to act like a point source of light, then the directionality and strength is smoothly translated onto the subject. But when flooded with the same sun’s light outdoors, directionality is multi-sided and the strength of the light does not vary, thus producing less pronounced presence or awareness of defined light of a finite and particular quality.

Perhaps something similar is at play in the world of ideas, reflection, and deduction. Here, too, perhaps the sweetest light is one that is funneled through a frame to act like a single source, instead of an all-surrounding sameness. In this way the degrees of brightness can be sensed with deliberate purpose and meaning, rather than to face a uniform brightness over all surfaces, no matter the distance from that source of light. For example, an idea that is illuminated with the same light as all other subjects will not stand out with clear definition. And by shining a point-source of light on the idea, each facet stands out from the others more clearly. In other words, in the same way that window borne sunlight is often superior to the same light from the sun encountered outdoors in the open air, so too of thoughts and ideas that can be shown in best light by giving them the equivalent to window-lighting, something that is directional and with distance away from the light that corresponds with weaker light, thus adding to the perception of surface, depth, and dimensionality.

Even without drawing a figurative parallel between seeing and thinking, though, the beauty of the window-sourced light can be enjoyed in strictly visual terms alone. It benefits not only artists, but also lookers who see only with their eyes, unaided by lens or drawing instruments.

*Privileging the north-facing windows presumes the northern hemisphere. Standing in the opposite hemisphere the privileged light would be reversed: southern hemisphere and south-facing windows.

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Layered decisions – for lens; for life

Thanks to the convenience of point and shoot, a person can leave the decisions about exposure and time to the camera and think only about the moment of shutter release for the subject that fills the center of the frame Matters of standpoint, angle of view in the lens (sometimes fixed, not adjustable), and carefully framing the composition can be overlooked in the rush to bring camera into operation and release the shutter. When there is less haste in the moment or if the person is more deliberate in making the photo resemble the image they hold in their mind’s eye, then perhaps everything slows down and there is time to explore the best position to stand, the most important element to fix the focus onto, and even to exert care in framing some parts in or excluding them from the final composition. And if lighting is complicated or defeats the automatic settings for exposure, then that person might exercise some manual control to add or subtract the exposure value (e/v, +/-). But whether it comes from thought and decision deliberated upon, or is left to chance and the automatic settings of the camera, each of these components affects the finished photograph.

Depending on the subject and locational factors, these decisions may shift in importance or sequence, but generally speaking it is safe to say that the following decisions go into the making of a photo; although the technology for “point and shoot” often makes the decisions automatically for the person holding the camera. In the case of a pleasing landscape that motivates a person to reach for a camera, the most basic decision that contributes to the eventual composition is standpoint or point of view. Sometimes the finest picture comes from adjusting the location of the camera an inch closer or further away, a little to the left, right, more elevation or less. In stopping at a particular point the various parts of the scene are set in relationship to each other with lines that touch, intersect, or remain apart. Shadows and reflective surfaces in their colors and textures are locked into the composition. Then there is the lens – wide, normal, or telephoto – to affect the angle of view and the relative sizes and perceptual depth between foreground, middle, and background. This contributes to the third layer of decision, the frame for the composition; what is inside the boundaries and what is excluded from view. Next comes the decision about field of focus, including the point of sharpest focus along with the adjacent space that falls into the particular depth of field created by a given aperture setting. Control of the exposure also affect the final composition and this decision can lead to photo that averages the brightest and darkest elements to arrive at a setting that captures a little of both, while possibly losing the extremes of brightest and darkest. Then comes the question of time (how fast or slow a shutter speed to decide upon) and timing (determining exactly when to make the picture.

How do the layered decisions of a composed photograph correspond to the landscape of a life well lived? If the basis for all the other decisions comes from a standpoint or location, that seems to be equally true of a photograph that is composed or a life that is carried out. Where you are affects what is within the range of eyesight and therefore the subjects you can or must respond to. Your “lens” on life or worldview also shapes the kinds of subjects that are appealing or the opposite, ones that hold little interest or ability to encompass (e.g being too wide or narrow for one’s field of view). Micro-adjustments of one’s view also can include or exclude certain elements at the edge of the frame, too.

As for one’s main focus, that is a direct analog for camera or life. And the depth-of-field created by exposure decision about choosing a preferred combination of aperture and shutter speed (and ISO) might have an analog between camera and life, too. After all, the greater one’s knowledge and experience of life (perhaps also tolerance, respect, curiosity, or degree of open/closed-mindedness) then perhaps also the greater one’s “depth” of focus; the greater one is able to hold bigger and bigger spaces in focus at the same time. Stated in the reverse way, lack of knowledge and life experience may correspond with narrower field of focus (depth of field), like the photos with a wafer-thin plane of focus and all else “bokeh” blurred.

What about timing of shutter release for a photographic capture? Perhaps this is similar to life’s experience in that certain shutter speeds create a “frozen moment” while others create an awareness of motion and the passage of time. In other words, some people view their life as a series of sharply focused and unchanging moments, while others have a blurrier understanding of time’s passing and the processes they find themselves to be a part of. Taking all of these dimensions of a composition together helps to understand the many sides of a finished photograph. Likewise of a life that can be lived – sometimes a person relies on automatic settings or indecision to determine the course one takes, but other times the person carefully considers decisions that contribute to the overall view that makes up one’s life, whether these decisions lie unilaterally in one’s own hands and imagination, or instead come about in response to circumstances.

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A-ha moments in photo-walks, the thrill of serendipity

red maple leaves newly sprung

New red maple leaves at base of tree trunk [click to view in full]

The Persian story of Princess Serendeep is filled with Forrest Gump moments where surprising events occur, propelling the story forward. Serendipitous flashes of insight, realization, epiphany, or visual delight in the play of shadows, texture, line, and color seem to be a central source of satisfaction for Street Photography and ordinary photowalks in search of subjects to compose and capture, whether the arena is wide-open landscape, building interiors, the macro world, or unfolding live events on stage or in streams of consciousness during the course of ordinary life.

At late morning today the glossy luster of newly sprung maple leaves presented themselves during my walk. So I went back soon afterwards with a camera to capture this picture to serve as a writing prompt for the small thrill of discovery felt when being surprised at a great beauty spotted unexpectedly. A similar excitement can come in the world of ideas and learning a skill or a body of knowledge. Every so often seemingly unrelated pieces intersect and the resulting recognition of something significant fills one’s heart for a moment. Perhaps the thrill of the hunt for new understanding, unexpected beauty, or elegant solutions to a problem is one of the drivers that makes a person press on, looking for the next meaningful thing.

Two quotes come to mind with regard to seeking or mindfully noticing the things one is surrounded with. There is a saying among photographers to the effect that “amateurs talk about gear; professionals money; and artists light.” In other words the preoccupations that fill the person’s mind in each of these capacities can differ widely. The other quote appears in Kenneth Tunnell’s 2019 book, Seeing the Unseen, in which he quotes Ulrich,

screenshot of p.2 Seeing the Unseen

from page 2, Seeing the Unseen (click for full-size image file)

“…Taking delight in… embracing questions and discovery… fundamental qualities shared by both the artist and seeker” nicely describes those serendipitous moments when one stops to pay attention and says “ah – there now is a photo.”

So the same spark of excitement seems to reward the person who looks with care, with or without lens, and the person who thinks with care, with or without recording medium. Truly, seeing and thinking seem to run in parallel and sometimes are integral to one another.