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

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Holding a hammer, you see the world’s nails…

clipart of 9 different types of camera

Each lens and camera-type will shape the photographer’s eye and hand. (credit – clipart)

The observation about one’s tools affecting one’s vision or standpoint applies to hand tools, power tools, earth moving equipment, one’s means of transportation and style of life more generally. But it also could refer to the camera one takes on a photo walk, or the one that is nearest to hand when a subject arises unexpectedly and the photographer hears the light speaking and wishes to respond by composing, capturing, then communicating the image to others. “Form factor” is a related concept: when comparing two cameras of similar capabilities, often it is the weight, shape, or configuration of the one over the other that determines which tool becomes one’s camera of choice.

Returning to the title and the adage about just having one tool in one’s toolbox, perhaps the case of cameras can usefully be compared. Video versus still image-making is a fundamental split, although many people start with one and branch into the other so as to become bi-lingual, so to speak. Then within each of these there are important levels of complexity and quality, from consumer (casual, point-and-shoot) to prosumer (enthusiast) to professional. And finally, looking at just one camera, each lens presents a different tool for engaging the world (zoom lenses, of course, are a sort-of Swiss Army knife with so many focal lengths rolled into a single attachment to the camera body).

Take, for example, the 20mm lens that I got for my APS-C mirrorless camera. Expressed in film camera terms the field of view (crop factor of 1.5x) equates to about 30mm, just a little narrower than an off-the-shelf 28mm lens. After using a 35mm equivalent focal length for most of my shooting on another camera, this new lens seemed a little too wide at first. Later, though, I began to practice composing a scene at idle moments while walking or driving. I have now learned to visualize the frame and determined my best shots have something of interest in the near to middle distance, within the length of one or two cars from the lens. In contrast to this lens that never leaves the mirrorless camera body, a similar mental exercise for seeing the world in terms of a slightly telephoto lens (85 or 105mm equivalent) brings different subjects and approaches into mind.

Clearly the lens affects the subjects that come most naturally into your compositions, either the mental ones or the camera viewfinder ones. But the camera configuration, size, ease of carrying and use habits also affect the subjects that come most naturally into your compositions. Similarly the choice of moving or still image capture, or combination of both, also affects the subject that comes most naturally into your compositions.

So the next time you think about going on a photo walk, pack up for an assignments, or just casually reach into a coat pocket to capture a spontaneous memory, consider both sides of this coin. Ask how your particular camera seems to guide you to compose and capture certain subjects in certain ways, according to your working habits and the constraints of the particular technology. But ask the other question, too: ask how your particular camera seems NOT to take certain subjects and NOT to use certain ways of composing and capturing your subjects. In other words, develop a stronger awareness about how your gear and your mind work together best (for good results) and worst (restricting or adding friction to the process of shooting some subjects, compared to other ones). After all, when you only have a hammer in your toolbox, then you see only the nails in the world all around you.


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When the light speaks to you

Never mind ‘chasing the light’ or ‘writing with light’ (graphos+foto), instead listen for when the light calls your name and you respond by a double-take to look with renewed care at the scene as it presents itself, or as you foresee that it will come to be after a few minutes or hours or days.

street photo with dark clouds leaving a band of brightness on the horizon

When the light is low and the dark is high–an inversion of normal, it calls out to one’s eye.

Consider the case of music – some tunes and lyrics may speak to you, while others do not. Worse, some combinations of rhythm and chord sequences may actually irritate or contradict your own sense of harmony and consonance. The same could be said for other sensory experiences like the way food is arranged on a plate, the way that people dress, or the emotional response to things in the landscape (cityscape, or social landscape) you inhabit: certain features and patterns can be a calming source of continuity that meets the expectations you have about the way things should look and when and how things should arise there.

Turing back to the illumination in day or at night that stimulates the receptors inside one’s eyes, there is a kind of language or patterned sequences of meaning that speaks to people. Some have an “ear” for the voice or music of the light falling on the surfaces of places where they may go. Others barely respond when the light declares something in a quiet voice, or shouts at full volume. And still others develop a habit to keep a picture-taking device within easy reach to respond effortlessly whenever the light utters the slightest word or invites a response.

Raising the lens and framing the subject, you can quote verbatim what the light is saying. Then you can share this with others, or add to your album of moments written with light. Even before cameras became commonplace, there were a few people with sketchpad and pencil or pen to capture compositions that they stumbled upon, searched out, tracked down, or synthesized from their own imaginations. But now that digital cameras, phones, and tablets are so wide-spread, the opportunities have improved to sharpen your focus and improve your ear to hear when the light is speaking in its own language. Hopefully, the ability to understand what it is that the light is saying also is improving.

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The moment between past and future – what is present

The stream of commuters at the end of the work day stands for the wider course of one’s lifetime, flowing in one direction like a great river or like a parade of fellow travelers rising and falling on the contours and curves of the land, and passing landmarks along the way that stand out in one person’s mind for memories attached, hopes pinned, or for some thought triggered by the sight.

photo of cars on wet road at stop ligth

Cars pause at traffic signal [click for full image]; cf. visual experience of video clip, below,

But there is something curious that goes on in the minds of the people in their cars on the road of life, day by day, outbound at the start of work and returning at the end of work. It is the same for the rest of us outside the stream of cars, too. All of us feel that the present moment is wider than the fraction of a second captured by a photographer’s finger releasing the shutter. And yet, objectively speaking, there is less than a fraction of a second that occurs between what is yet to come (the future) and what just took place (the past). We occupy the present, but are immediately carried to the next moment, and then the next. Our minds show us that an hour is a very long time (when we are pre-school age), or slightly long (when we are school age), or not long (during young adult and middle-age years), or nothing at all (in later life). And yet, objectively speaking, the passage of an hour is the same in all decades of our lives.

Likewise our minds show us that we occupy an arena of present-tense possibilities –things within easy reach that we could potentially accomplish or act upon, as well as things that may be theoretically possible if only we had the social connections, money, will-power, opportunity or motive to act upon. We dwell in this comfortable space of potential; a world of what we could do¬†or who we could be, if we so desired to act upon what enters our minds. And yet, objectively speaking, during the time that we are psychologically occupying this world of possible actions, there is a continuous flow from what is yet to come into what has already passed. It would be truer to say that we live on the knife-edge of what could be (on one side of the blade) and what cannot be (on the other side of the blade) since circumstances have now passed.

The poet from Northern Ireland, Michael Longley, was interviewed in April 2018 by Krista Tippett for On Being,, and described poets as the historians of words who know their roots intimately. A poet uses the words with precision like living organs – only when all the right words are in the right place does the lyric come miraculously to life with all the organs working together. The poet makes ordinary things vivid and lively, making the familiar become strange, new, or exotic. Perhaps the same is true of photo walks and the habit of mind for framing scenes as the light, lines, and colors speak quietly to the photographer. By means of the lens, shutter, and exposure somebody who sees the world with this aid can develop more intense vision of the ordinary things all around. The routine things along the road of life become even more vivid than they already are. And so we can see the world in a grain of sand, or look at the line of commuters paused at the red light and imagine the illusory wide-open present possibilities that we all occupy, against all objective forces that limit the actionable present to the fraction of a second between that which is yet to come and that which has already passed by.

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Camera vision as slice of time or river of time

Whether the subject is creatures residing in a zoo, or an event in one’s own community of work or family or the wider society, the effect is very similar: during the time you are present, you selectively perceive the things in front of you and to a lesser degree the things in your peripheral view. Some people develop a habit to turn deliberately to view what is behind their field of vision, or to peer behind those things that occupy the space in front of them. But after departing the scene, new subjects occupy one’s visual field and fill one’s head with fresh preoccupations, relegating the earlier scene to a status of “suspended animation,” seemingly frozen in time until one returns and the experience of engaging is renewed. In sum, by habit or by physiology we see what is in front of us, but all else we imagine to be frozen in time – something that matters, offers opportunity, presents risk, or carries responsibility during the time that we personally are present in vision and in body. Why does this matter? A bigger, more mature and multi-sided understanding requires effort to overcome that habitual and false perspective on one’s world.


Sabae-city zoo – Lesser Panda [2017 by author,]

Still photographs record the scene when the shutter is released to form an exposure of a fraction of a second normally. Video clips and “video snapshots” by contrast capture a few seconds of sound and image. But even here the playback experience tends to lead to the idea that the scene is forever unchanging; each time the moving picture plays, the same actions are repeated and the same sounds are expressed. So while video frees the subject from static representation, both still image and video clip lead the viewer to think that the scene is frozen in space and time, and that the subject is isolated from context by the boundary of the frame.

In this photo on a weekday afternoon, mostly middle-age and older people are looking with interest at the several resident Lesser Panda Bears, possibly for diverting 3-D movement and contrast to ordinary home or work scenes; or possibly to read the label text and improve one’s edification; or possibly as regular visitors who have something like a personal relationship to the individual creatures that spend the days and nights of their lives from youth to death in this place. But no matter what circumstances bring the visitors here on this day, and no matter what reason they may come, and no matter what they take away from the time spent indoors or peering at the outdoor enclosures, what is common to all of these people is their sense of time: while they are on site, then the lives of the resident bears are ongoing, unscripted, and filled with many possible activities. But after leaving all this behind, for some reason we set aside those dynamic lives and suspend them; putting them “on hold” until the next visit weeks or years later.

A truer understanding of the experience of visiting a place or person, a country or a company, is to resist the habit of putting “on hold” all the things falling outside one’s own, limited visual field and consciousness. Rather than to fill one’s mind with the subject at hand and in plain sight, but disregarding all else, it is worth training one’s mind (and one’s mind’s eye) to accept that all subjects – both in one’s sight and outside of one’s sight, intelligible to one’s own language and also those languages one does not know – are dynamic. All subjects can be protagonists in their own story, not limiting lived experience to placing oneself as the hero and all other living things and inanimate subjects as unmoving background elements to one’s own adventure story.

When looking at this zoo scene as a collection of protagonists, human and animal, going about their own lives, no matter if one’s eye falls upon the bears during visiting hours or not, then a richer experience comes to life: no longer is one’s personal vision all that narrowly matters. Instead, out in the world, there are diverse and conflicting, as well as supportive and serendipitous, intersections in the many lives of people on their own life course, animals with their own life stage purposes and individual expressiveness, and the rest of the living world of plants, insects, and all other life forms to complete the portrait of the world. Expanding on this multiplicity of subjects leading their own lives around the clock, not just when one’s own mind sees them in person, it is possible to rewind or fast-forward the flow of time and the rate of flow to comprehend these many lives not just in one slice of time like a single day or the fraction of time in a shutter release, but across generations or centuries.

Of course, going through one’s day in vision of this wide-angle perspective can be too much information when it comes to directing one’s own routines and decisions and making of plans. Pragmatically speaking, there is a reason why most waking consciousness restricts a person’s mind to just one protagonist, or with empathy perhaps more than one protagonist. But there are still benefits that come from confronting the limitations that result from disregarding all the other lives going on, and pretending they are frozen in time except for the moments one is present.

By periodically stopping to acknowledge one’s incomplete view, and developing a new habit of accepting the many lives that go on in parallel to one’s own, even when out of one’s sight, then one’s own life becomes richer; not confused by accepting multiple protagonists and diverse stories going on in real time, but instead seeing that one’s own place and trajectory is just one among many; not the only one, and probably not the most important one all alone or disconnected from those other places and those other subjects that are not visible at all times to one’s own mind.

Seeing the world framed and captured through a camera lens makes some of this vision clearer than before. This is one more reason to keep some sort of camera within hand’s reach at all times!