see2think

thinking with pictures


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Omniscient lens? Your glass as your brain and heart (mind).

panorama, 2018 Grand Rapids, Michigan Pow Wow (click for full size)

Doubtless the love of well-made gear, the aesthetic of “form follows function” (functionalism), and the visual delight in capturing a moment in time against the flow of unrelenting change all feed into the Joy of Photography. Before images could be fixed onto sensitized paper, and later glass or film negatives, and then positives, one could only sketch impressionistically, and for some hands, the likeness could be almost photographic in precision and detail. But thinking at greater length, why does it give a person the sense of power and competence when pointing a lens toward a subject or scene that presents itself and clicking the shutter release?

 

Clues from (English) language give some ideas about the connection between camera and feelings of power (omnipotence) or knowledge (omniscience) in one’s hands: expressions like “I see (what you mean),” “the significance is crystal clear” (or muddy), “let’s focus on what matters,” “our insight tells us,” “can you picture this,” “we envision that,” “do they foresee complications,” “in hindsight we now know,” and “out of sight – out of mind.” In these phrases the act of visual processing and mental recognition or evaluation are joined together. And since a lens is a way to magnify (telephoto lens) or expand the field of view (wide-angle lens), and since a camera is a way to document a subject or a context, it only seems natural that this same experience of “seeing is knowing” should be applied to picture taking, whether by Point-and-Shoot cellphone camera or with tripod-mounted heavy equipment. In other words, a camera fits directly into the equation that seeing is believing, pictures never lie, and photographic memory is a blessing  and a curse.

 

In all these instances it is the lens that touches one’s mind’s eye, one’s awareness, one’s caring about a subject. And while English language uses one word for emotional response (‘in my heart’) and a different word for analytical response (‘in my mind’), a language like Japanese uses just one word to refer to one’s waking self that combines heart-mind (‘kokoro’). Seen from another angle, the English language combines knowing  a subject by personal experience (“I know that place well”) with knowing a subject descriptively by a set of facts (“I know the answer to this arithmetic problem”), but languages like Spanish or French use separate verbs to mean ‘know a fact’ versus ‘know a subject by personal connection or through one’s own experience’.

 

So to return to the question about reasons why shooting pictures can fill a person with feelings of power, potential, control (complexity is frozen in place, can be measured or studied), it seems that the psychological equation of “to see it is to know it” leads directly to the derivative logic, “to record what you see is to know it even better.” But, of course, photographers who have revisited earlier places or earlier images they have recorded will admit that many meanings have escaped their younger mind and their lens. In summary, fancy or simple gear may induce feelings of competence and documentary clarity, but the true and complete meaning only comes with interpretation and what is brought to the visual record.

 

The lens is just one step in producing knowledge for self and for others of this time and future generations, too. And as other photographers have said, taking pictures is a way to seek answers to what is on one’s own mind. In some instances it concerns what is behind the lens as much as it does what fills the composition in front of the lens.

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Holding a hammer, you look at the world seeking 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 20mm 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 grab 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 seem only the nails in the world all around you.


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The “Leica-look” and life outside the lens

screenshot of leica lens photo in low, contrasty light

example of leica-look 3 factors, flickr.com/photos/kintagogo/859173959

Relying on the search algorithms of Google to turn up some clues to the praise that many photographers have for the ancestor of most 35mm cameras of the 20th century, and now also a non-Asian contender among top digital cameras, I typed into the searchbox “leica-look” and found a handful of articles in the first screenful of results. One writer summed things up nicely and even identified particular legacy and currently produced lens with express these attributes: sometimes using a very shallow depth of field (setting the aperture wide-open for lenses built with f-stops bigger than average), higher than average micro-contrast that heightens the separation of subject to background, and glow produced in highlights due to the lens glass, polishing, and arrangements of the elements in the lens. Photos that have these hallmarks usually are what people’s emotional response comes from in certain photos, whether made on film or digital sensor.

In the spirit of this blog that blurs literal vision by camera and more philosophical vision by thinking, this “leica-look” seems to lend itself to the wider arena of lived experience. The times in one’s life when the above factors come into play seem to create a sort of magical perspective or look, too. For example, a shallow depth of field in a photo boosts the visual experience of the subject, since the context fades from focus, making the central subject feel hyper-sharply focused. By contrast, the same frame and subject with deeper or even total depth-of-field from foreground to background may present the central subject with the identical sharpness as before, however because everything in the frame now is clearly in focus, the central subject no longer stands out relatively speaking. And so of one’s lived experience, too, when an event is unfolding or when one revisits it in hindsight (or looks forward to some future event imaginatively), then it will become relatively more intense when one’s mind’s eye perceives with shallow depth of field.

Similarly of the next attribute of the “leica-look,” micro contrast, it can be said that small degrees of contrast around the edges of lived experience produce larger feelings of significance, purpose, or value by comparison to the same lived experience in which no extra emphasis is added to define the edges of the subject. I can’t understand the optical calculation or mathematical narrative for what happens to light as it enters a certain lens having this high micro contrast, but the eye can see relative differences between such lenses.

Finally of the “leica-look” there is a hint of diffuse brightness in the highlight areas of certain pictures, especially for contrasty or point-source lighting conditions, and especially for shallow depth of field (wide apertures). In lived experience, too, the times when something is glowing (light, emotion, ambient praises or auspicious circumstances) contributes to the resulting memory and mental image of the subject. In combination with the other factors found in the “leica-look,” the total effect of these factors is to make the subject recorded in 2-dimensions somehow gain volume or mass and feel almost 3-dimensional. And also of lived experience, when these factors are present alone, or in combination, then the result is to make ordinary experience somehow richer, or somehow to gain volume and mass, standing out from the surrounding conditions.


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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?


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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.


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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.


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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.