thinking with pictures

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Many layers for reading an image; for making a picture

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye” – So says the fox to the Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Xupery c.1943), context of chapter

what you see partly depends on who you are; or at least imagine yourself to be

What you see partly depends on who you are; or at least imagine yourself to be: memory care facility in 2015 showing cable TV of 1970s sitcom, “Gilligan’s Island,” featuring Mr. & Mrs. Thurston Howell the third. Residents now ages 75-90 would have been 35-50 when the episodes newly aired.

Just as religious practitioners strive to see with the heart and not the eye; or to walk by faith and not by visual cues, so too of photographers and other visual authors. Seeing one’s subject, one’s setting, and the art of the possible by converting a vision of the mind into a picture on paper or screen takes practice and it calls for exercising muscles not necessarily well developed or well toned. Here are some of the layers of seeing:

  • Visual language of lighting (source angle and intensity and dynamic range, temperature), composition, shutter speeds, apertures, focal length, color arrangements.
  • Social science language of psychology (point of view, developmental placement, cognitive function, emotional response, etc), sociology (institutions that intersect a given moment and personal path; normative and deviation from expected ranges), economics (source of support, distribution of assets, ways of prioritizing needs and communicating same), political science (conflict resolution, accountability, decision making locus, authority and counterbalancing powers), anthropology (comparative organizational cultures, language and cognition, material culture, longitudinal changes, individual and society).
  • Natural science and technical language of engineering, established codes for construction and electrical goods, performance of heating, air and water circulation, systems of supply and waste water, control of perimeter – who may enter and exit, who has access to subsets of information of health, finance, and so on.
  • Commercial or business language of promotion, rights and entitlements, markets and distribution, engagement with segments of audiences defined by demographic sets, competitors and alternative outlets of people’s attention, caring, and money.

Taking this unedited snapshot as one instance of a subject that can be interpreted with these many lenses, the VISUAL language offers little originality or expressiveness; it is a grab shot with TV screen centered and seems to carry no momentous message, timing, or display of technical prowess. It does not catch the eye for its location or for its quality of light, for instance.

Turning next to the SOCIAL SCIENCE language, the scene is a much more promising springboard for discussion: there is a rerun of a once popular sitcom which unto itself is worth of analysis (castaways of diverse social standing forced to interact for mutual survival and frequently bumping against the social conventions of the day for such mutually exclusive social-types). There is the programmers choice of what appears in the lunch hour timeslot on this particular themed cable TV channel. There is the material culture of the common living area for the dementia care residents, such as the person in the special wheeled activity chair+table. There is the US flag prominently displayed and the congeries of historical and present-day meanings that carries for workers, visitors and the generation of residents currently living there. There is the artificial tree-like large plant at the left of the scene which indicates a token presence of the natural world even in this climate controlled, medically supervised space for assisted living needs to be met gently and expertly. Needless to say the economic dimension, the political science aspect, and the resident-by-resident cognitive histories provide much space for further discussion, too; all within the small frame of this grab shot.

There are is the NATURAL SCIENCE and PROFESSIONAL language of engineers, researchers of biological and chemical and physical conditions, as well as those qualified in medical, financial, and legal fields of practice. The photo includes audio-visual technology (leaving aside the production of the sitcom and the running of a cable TV service to subscribers) that was engineered and distributed in retail networks. There is the engineered design of the specialized day-bed/table/chair of the resident on the left. There are the conditions of temperature, humidity and lighting appropriate for daytime and nighttime at the facility, along with all the infrastructure in the building and connected to the municipality (electric, water, gas, telecommunications, road, emergency services and protocols). No live plants are in the common spaces, although some residents’ rooms have plants requiring watering. Still the likeness of an indoor tree somehow humanizes or softens the man-made interior space.

Finally there is the layer of BUSINESS (achieving a net positive cash-flow of an ongoing concern) and COMMERCIAL language (striving for success in engaging and keeping good relationships with the fickle minds of consumers in a capital, free-market economy where bigger and cheaper often beat smaller and more personalized products and services). Regarding this image through the lens of business and commerce, it expresses how mainstream, national programming reaches down to the subscriber level (sitcom on TV). And the well-cared for facility indicates that the business model balances cost with level of care with the result that rooms are occupied, staff work for multiple years, and the connected families to the long-term residents are satisfied (all these observations come from repeated visits; not extracted purely from the pixels in this digital image).

In conclusion, all these languages for reading a scene and then going about capturing it so as to communicate some of the perceptions with others takes practice, persistence, and continuous checking to discover what does or does not successfully come across in the effort. Like the fox said to the Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly,” not just with the eyeballs and point-and-shoot or megapixel dSLR.


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Learning curve – end points, acceleration, pausing

When it comes to exercising one’s eye for pictures, there are many elements to become conversant in: light values (source, indirect – reflected, surfaces, angles and qualities of light per season and latitude), composition (timing and shutter speed of capture, aperture and depth-of-field, focal length of lens/angle of view, alone and in conjunction, lines, proportion, positioning, fore – mid- background, shadow and light), and subject treatment (alone, in context, in contrasting setting, applying filters – lighting – hdr or other influences); not to mention post-processing options and advisability to enhance and clarify versus over-do and separate viewer from intended subjects. Typically of a new photographer’s mind and eye there is a sequence of steps on the road to maturity and developing one’s “voice” –to use a writer or musician expression for the confident walk that a person is able to take once having mastered conventional elements and rules in order to express one’s original compositing, pastiche, or indeed expression and message.

search string, Learning curve, gives visual representation of the idea of expanding mastery

search string, Learning curve, gives visual representation of the idea of expanding mastery

A beginner in the digital camera age has the advantage over the film learner because result of experimenting are instantaneous and the easy and low cost of sharing or producing various printed versions is relatively easy to learn and do singly or in multiples. Thus the cycle of trial and error is sped up thanks to digital cameras, including the ubiquity of cellphone lens and sensors and apps to alter or improve what the phone sees in order approximate what the human eye perceived in a place or time worthy of capture and communication to others. Some of familiar milestones on the road to greater photo experience of seeing, thinking and capturing/producing images include these: cliche shots (well worn compositions from family, work, or community events: blowing out candles of birthday cake, first day of school, sunset at vacation spot, etc), self aware or ironic shots (self in mirror, or reflected in windows; pictures of others taking pictures), visual puns or jokes (antenna that appear to come from one’s head or the shot of a hand that seems to hold a cloud in it), verbal jokes (bumper stickers, posters, public service messages framed against a subject that supports or else contradicts the message; example, “no smoking” but a hand holding lit cigar is foregrounded).

Little by little one’s ability to overcome challenging lighting (mixed, less than ideal, harsh, artificial color temperature), inconvenient shooting environment (rain, windchill, storm conditions, extended effort to get into position, miscellaneous adversity of natural, linguistic, or cultural factors) and the experience to translate what one conceives visually into the limitations of one’s equipment and sensor grows stronger and stronger. One’s sensitivity to the language of light, color, texture and so forth increases; both the ability to “read” and understand these matters, and the ability to “speak” or express oneself in these terms.

The photo sharing sites, and before that the pre-Internet practice of building up visual vocabulary by browsing shelves of library books in the TR 680 classification (Library of Congress system of numbering books) or 770s (Dewey Decimal system), is one way to expand and deepen one’s awareness of locations and qualities of light that others have conveyed already. In so doing daily, one’s learning curve and fluency in the language of lens and light accelerates. The complementary part of seeing other’s work is to be responsive to photo opportunities of interesting location and captivating light qualities in one’s own daily routines. Carrying some form of camera in a holster for quick draw shooting of fleeting scenes is one way to make visual notes during one’s day and year. Some people go further and share their work in a daily blog, 365 or Photo-a-Day, project. Both sides of the exercise –becoming responsive to certain features and qualities from other’s work, becoming responsive to subjects in one’s own photography— work together to move one along the learning curve. Marking “favorite” in the photo sharing sites builds up a collection of images that allow some reflection and searching for the common elements that speak to one’s own eye. The same is true in periodically reviewing one’s own captures to discover what seems to be the connecting thread in one’s shots.

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Verisimilitude, really. (reality tastes like…)

famous young lady at 100-200-400% of source jpg displayed - does coarse or fine display affect meaning

young lady at 100-200-400% of source jpg displayed – does coarse or fine display affect meaning

Facsimile to being there in person; that is one way to define verisimilitude or simulacrum. Striving to express one’s vision or experience in ever more vivid, authentic, persuasive ways has driven the steady march of tools and methods onward. For example, production quality of movies has improved from silent black and white films at 10 or 15 frames per second to the recent options for tickets to Peter Jackson’s direction of the Hobbit: 24 or 48 frames per second (for more fluid motion sequences), 2-D or 3-D, normal screen size or Imax (size of a barn side, 70 mm film stock instead of 35 mm in its diagonal dimension), perhaps there was also the choice of audio in Dolby surround sound 7.1 (sounds emitted from above, below, behind, all sides in addition to front/normal stereo). But with each increase in vividness and data required to convey the sensory details, was there any effect in the story line or composition or lighting or acting?

Likewise for still photos, the shift from pinhole to simple lens, to sophisticated optics and coatings for glare or color accuracy; and the shift from recording medium Daguerreotype and other bulky wet-plates to film of higher performance qualities and sizes to digital sensors of increasing accuracy and scale has affected “form factor” (how much functionality can be packed into how small or flexible or durable a camera). In this transition the tools of the trade allow higher production quality, but the same distinction with the movie example, above is true: changes in physical, technical, quantitative details do add up to magnitudes of difference (qualitative effect). However, the “eye” of the artist or author for composition, plot, tension, subject handling, and mastery of the craft also are important and perhaps are equally or even more important than the tools in hand. Pianist and landscape photographer Ansel Adams is said to have led workshops in seeing, capturing, and producing (darkroom and chemicals) pictures in which he relied on point and shoot camera, while students used large format or at least SLR cameras. In the end all pictures were displayed and even the point and shoot drew praise; not so much for rich detail and high resolution or dynamic range expressed, but for the response to light and composition and moment of shutter release.

The same rise in production values can be traced for music technology for recording and playback. Ever improved state of the art and tools allow closer and closer approximation to reality lived at moment of capture; and functionalities along with handier form-factor have permitted artists and authors to express thins that bulkier or low-fidelity gear could not do justice to. And yet some of the earliest recording media (wax cylinder or paper rolls or wire recording devices) can still communicate something across the decades to us.

Then there is the field of live musical performance: compare the melody line for something like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture played on a tin whistle, mouth harp or simply hummed or whistled on lips to the version performed by middle school band, college orchestra, or multimedia production enhancements (cannon, smoke, lights) to a major city’s symphony performance of the same sheet music annotations given by the composer so many generations ago.
In each instance, audio, images, moving pictures, or indeed in the degree of elaboration and vocal mimicry of telling a given tale by one person (the journalist version; the raconteur version; the kiddie version; the professorial version) there seems to be an assumption that more is better; more detail, high resolution and dynamic range, bigger dimension of source files is unequivocally better, despite the limits of display, playback and indeed human neurological capabilities to discern differences (who can really distinguish digital audio recorded and played back at 196 kbps versus twice the sample rate or sample size; between “FM quality” and “CD quality” perhaps, but above that resolution?)

In the end the matter comes down to balance: yes it is good to have high enough quality that the viewer or listener or reader is not distracted or encumbered by the medium. The expression should transparently and effortlessly come to the person. To go over that threshold and add more and more depth and dimension will not necessarily lead to a more convincing virtual experience (so that live and reproduced/recorded are nearly identical). At the heart of the matter the author or artist will concentrate on mastery of the medium to achieve fluency, confidence and competence. But then the creative part comes from what lies beyond those tools and methods. That is where the story lies and the energies should focus. Sure, the advances in capture and display/playback will lead to smaller devices or greater capacity and thus form-factors as well as brute facts of added functionality may open up creative expression that so far was not yet been imagined. But the central message of communicating delight, consequence, context and contemplation, wonder and beauty will forever beckon.

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experimenting with virtual presence

Smell, taste, and touch (temperature, texture, humidity) exceed the technology for now, but there are a few ways to add the immediacy and vividness of audio to one’s still image or by use of a video snapshot to cause a viewer to feel momentarily transported to the place and time of capture. The Web project from the early 2000s by Aaron Ximm in the San Francisco Bay Area, “One Minute Vacations” demonstrates the power of audio to take you to a specific time and place,

Here are some combinations to try with a view to discovering best workflow and user experience.

  1. Panorama: Stitch a set of 4 to 6 vertical (portrait orientation) frames to form a panorama with added “head room.” Then capture the location sound (field recording with audio gear and fancy mic, or use the camera’s own video capture and later use computer to extract the audio track from the clip). Display the resulting “portrait of place” by using Quicktime PRO (or iMovie with MOV output) so that the full sized image plus sound track can be contained in a single file for playback. Second best solution, use the free Microsoft PhotoStory3 to add audio to the image, but since frame display is not full-size, but rather 640×480 pixels, then use the pan tool to move the view across the scene (so-called Ken Burns effect, which iMovie or at least FinalCutPro and other full feature video editors include). Third best solution would be to shrink panorama into a PowerPoint slide and add the audio track; a similar process might work with MS-Word (embedding the audio for the person to click for playback manually). Likewise the full-feature (not free) version of PDF editor, Adobe Acrobat, allows audio files to embed with the page file for manual playback, too.
  2. Video snapshot: use tripod or fixed anchor point (wall or furniture surface for instance; in a pinch create tripod from your body: left foot, right foot, rear-end seated or back leaned on solid surface) then frame and focus the scene and press the video record button for a short period of 10-30 seconds, for example. It is most effective when the scene is mostly static but then one or more elements move or emit sound. Caution for conditions with noise or wind that causes mic to pick up distracting audio. When done well for an interesting subject or context, the viewer has the sensation of being there, looking on and being surrounded by the sound (even silent places have a signature sound). However, unlike the stitched panorama the field of view is not a facsimile to human eyesight, so the leap of imagination to transport oneself to the site of capture is a bigger effort than when both visual cues and audio cues lead to the feeling of being there.
  3. Moving video: use bicycle, wheelchair or dolly to move the recording through the subject scene/landscape to give viewer a borrowed feeling of flying along. Again the use of location sound is what makes the experience living rather than canned. High definition audio and video increase the effectiveness of the sensations and cues to the viewers’ minds.

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what’s your aspect?

What part does aspect ratio play when composing, capturing and then displaying an image? Since the frame is what determines inclusion versus exclusion from the image, surely the choice for one’s aspect ratio in the settings menu affects what is in or out of the frame. But which visual experience more closely approximates the angle of view in stereoscopic human eyesight? The vertical field of coverage is about 170 degrees and the horizontal is almost 180 degrees. So that would seem to vouch for the 1:1, square, aspect ratio. But TV engineers concluded 4:3 was best. However, by using a ‘normal’ lens, no matter what aspect ratio is selected, the resulting image is only a fraction of the whole, wide visual experience of the unaided pair of eyes. And so, while not mathematically identical, to give a facsimile of human vision, the best solution seems to be for a ‘normal’ lens (equivalent to 36 to 60mm lens on a 35mm film camera or Full Frame dSLR) shooting in vertical (portrait) orientation and stitching 4-5 overlapping frames to form a large, wide and tall finished picture. See this logic in more detail and with illustrations at