see2think

thinking with pictures


Leave a comment

Taking your camera for a walk versus walking with camera

photo of author on bike reflected in shop window

sunny spring glass, shadow,and light

Getting into the habit of carrying some form of camera often brings rewards – either a rare play of light to capture, or an attempt that sharpens your eye and reflexes in order to catch something similar the next time. Or simply knowing that you *could* stop and compose a shot sometimes is enough to lift your awareness of the lines, colors, and textures around you, urging you to compose a picture in your mind’s eye. Yet there is something fundamentally different between setting off to make one or more pictures, on the one hand, and setting off to see what there is to see and letting the camera be secondary to the excursion itself.

In the first case there is a certain deperateness that amplifies the scenes that present themselves and your mind may miss the larger context in the effort to seize a moment or to frame a picture. In the second case, letting the excursion be the main purpose and the camera be secondary, there is more score for wandering and contemplating, being open to the meanings that come into one’s mind.

In the first case it seems to be the camera and goal of releasing the shutter that shapes the overall experience and determines what sorts of compositions meet the threshold of one’s sense of what is worth capturing; what is or is not significant and meets the minimum standard for making a picture. Of course the power to point-and-shoot, compared to the days of glass plates and heavy wooden equipment, means less expense and effort is needed to release the shutter nowadays. But in the second case, by contrast, whether any picture is taken or not, the excursion itself provides a pretext or purpose to venture out into the environment, social or natural, and see what there is to see.

For a person with a new camera to learn, it makes sense to create exercises and reasons to take enough shots in enough different conditions to become familiar or even adept at the tools available when making a picture. But other than mastering the gadget and becoming fluent in the skills needed to capture what appears in one’s mind’s eye, to dwell only on settings and results, and not to pay attention to the subject and its context is a distraction or possibly an obstacle to engaging fully in the space and time of the photography process. The same is true in the wider space of living and the longer arc of one’s lifetime: to dwell on the technical details is a distraction or obstacle to engaging, experiencing, embracing the setting and meanings of the place and time.

So next time you set out to make some pictures, be careful to ask yourself –is this trip for the camera, or for me and my chase of the light?

Advertisements


Leave a comment

You are what you carry – size matters

Attending a young friend’s funeral, I offered to snap some overall scenes for the mother to keep with her memories. I chose my shirt-pocket-sized Canon s110 rather than an APS-C camera, both for the silent shutter release and for the palm-size form factor. Others have written of the (intended or unintended) consequences of carrying a professional-looking kit: others label you, impose expectations, fears, assumptions, and so on. But a (high-end or simple Point-and-Shoot) small camera raises few eyebrows. And in the age of selfies (and over sharing) to rely on a phone’s camera of your own, or one you borrow, even fewer people may notice or feel intrusion, obstruction, imposition of the lens onto the event.
So while lens surely shapes the compositions that one forms in mind and perhaps executes, the camera’s form factor (space it occupies, weight, name brand -if not blackened out, and recording technology -wet plate vs. dry vs. roll film small, medium, or large vs. digital) may be equally important in affecting one’s visual horizons; if not the actual creation of a photographic result, then in determining one’s engagement with the social environment, cultural landscape, and physical conditions where one is shooting. Consider how streamlined one can move through an event with a small point-and-shoot camera vs. Polaroid instant color camera vs. something mounted on tripod that involved film holders and chemical post-processing.

camera choice alters what seems worthy to shoot

camera choice alters what seems worthy to shoot

There are circumstances that call for one camera instead of another; or indeed of carrying a few different photographic recording devices simultaneously. The image of a worker’s toolbox comes to mind: with just a hammer, all jobs look like opportunities for pounding. But with a full set of tools, the available responses for solving a problem or overcoming a challenge is much wider, carefully considered, and artfully produced in the end. Supposing that “you are what you carry,” the question to ask of yourself is: who are you? Do you traverse the visual landscape in a vehicle that is massive, micro, stylish, or non-descript? Perhaps all of them will carry you across the ground you wish to cover, but some can also go places the others cannot because they are too light-weight, or the contrary, they are too heavy for the surface.


Leave a comment

driven to distraction; or, the medium and the message

M. McLuhan shone the spotlight on the importance of a communication medium that shapes or at least colors the message being expressed. When it comes to the daily browsing of flickr.com/explore and persistently being distracted by technical reasons, rather than to enjoy the subject matter or the composition, several elements stand out, again and again. Doing a simple search for “landscape” and then selecting the filter for licenses set to “no known copyright” brought up a pageful of images, mainly in color. It did not take long to spot 10 irritants that get in the way of my viewing engagement with a subject and what the photographer expresses through composition and moment of release.

click picture for full size view

click picture for full size view

(1) glaring element (color at edge of frame not cropped out or muted somehow)

(2) focal length falsely represents the corners, insinuating visual effect of distorted motion
(3) postprocessing (similar to overly HDR examples) makes color/dynamic range strange
(4) photoshop exercise in imagination: great for fiction, distracting for non-fiction (if lenswork can be bifurcated this way)
(5) hazy capture may be optically accurate, but probably is false when compared to human visual experience
(6) poster-like colors are attractive, but by drawing attention to itself little else can be expressed
(7) blurry foreground pulls the eye away from the larger composition
(8) horizon is tilted, thus taking a moment for the viewer to question what is wrong before solving the problem and finally seeing the scene itself
(9) artful blur of moving subject shouts for attention, thus distracting from the whole
(10) colors are rendered inaccurately, causing the viewer to react to this error before proceeding to the subject itself

Why do such distractions matter in the experience of visually communicating a place, time, or topic? That depends on the viewer expectations and purposes when searching through the images. In my case the pictures that speak most clearly, deeply, or with most insight and clarity of expression tend to express gorgeous light or interesting locations, contexts, moments or subjects well portrayed – not so much to show off the photographer’s talents or imagination, but instead to convey something about the subject itself. By this standard, the best pictures are technically transparent and least distract the viewer from seeing the subject itself. Things like focal lengths far outside the “normal” range (35mm film equivalent of 35mm to 65mm lens), tilted horizon, blurred subject, color distortion and the other complaints illustrated above all get in the way of engaging with a subject. The best pictures present fewest barriers to seeing the subject plainly. Accuracy and honesty are the watchwords, according to this way of seeing things. Better still, when the human eyes’ visual experience can be approximated by normal lens to stitch several frames into something like the 175 degrees (ground to sky) by 180 degrees (lefthand the righthand peripheral view), then I am most content of all. See this logic of making a facsimile to human vision in the slide set at http://bit.ly/seepano

Finally, since the language for understanding or comprehending plays on the language of seeing or vision, perhaps there is a useful extension to make from this discussion of the things that get in the way of plainly seeing and enjoying a scene. Just as there are a number of minor things that detract and distract from viewing a composition, so too in one’s waking consciousness there are a variety of things that singly or in  combination cause a person to dwell on incidental details and miss the big picture. Being driven to distraction can be financial constraints or loss avoidance, social status or relationships in distress, consumer dissipation, health preoccupations, unpredictable rule of law and social order, and so on. Drawing on the logic above and in an effort to minimize the distractions, it makes sense to strive for a simplified, streamlined life experience with relatively few moving parts and a least restrictive environment; one where the path from one’s dreams to reality has least friction and most supporting infrastructure ready to use.

The principle is the same, whether it is searching through sets of images at flickr, or seeking pathways to fruitful living in one’s waking experience: distractions are many and the things competing for your attention only seem to multiply. Acknowledging this situation is the first step to mindfully guarding against things that get in the way of fully and truly seeing.


Leave a comment

equipment and one’s eye

The truism that a workman’s tools determines how and what he interacts with in the world can be seen for camera work in a few ways. (1) One’s screen size alters the scale at which one can perceive detail. Having a digital camera with 5 cm LCD allows crude viewing compared to one that is 10 cm. And reviewing images on a tablet is more restrictive than a big-screen TV or large monitor, muchless the scale of a cinema projector. (2) The same change in vision of what one sees is also a function of sensor size. The smallest sensors of digital camera toys capture a crude likeness of a scene, whereas most of the low-end Point-and-Shoot cameras from the big makers can produce fine snapshots or even small enlargements when set to bigger capture (file) sizes. The pro-sumer and professional cameras have sensors many times the surface area of these other devices. The resulting range of light values and subtlety of color amplifies the vividness and tactile impression one can make on a viewer. By knowing one’s gear and its limitations, one frames the world of photo and video opportunities accordingly. (3) Lens of choice also shapes one’s vision, not only in terms of magnification, but also the relationship of foreground, middle and background. A standard or ‘normal’ lens approximates the relationships of the human eye, while a wide-angle exaggerates the space between near and middle foreground. A telephoto foreshortens the space between near and middle background. The “speed” of a given lens (how far open the aperture can go, thus permitting low-light photography at speeds faster than a lens without the same aperture) also figures into one’s vision of what could or could not be captured visually. In sum it is important to know one’s gear intimately so that response to a given situation is automatic and well practiced. And while the equipment does not ‘make’ a photo, it surely colors the vision of the person who ‘plays’ it.