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

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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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The eye of the beholder – composing in LCD vs lens

composing by LCD screen separates eye from frame



The transition from film camera and TTL (through the lens) composing was disorienting at first. Rather than planting your eye close to the viewfinder, it was necessary to hold the camera away from your face to frame the shot, level the horizon, then release the shutter – if relying on focus and exposure according to the camera’s calculation. Going from a time when shutterbugs with quick reflexes would pull a camera up to the face and snap a shot to the seemingly ubiquitous cellphone today, at first it seemed clumsy and slightly comical to see a photographer composing by waving the device to a suitable angle and height, perhaps using one hand to shade the view screen from glare or shading the lens itself from distracting light. But now it seems normal, non-threatening, and sometimes expected that someone will stick out their arms this way and snap a picture to share or possibly to print.

There are a few things that cause a sense of losing creative control when abandoning film and committing to digital. One is being able to rotate the lens barrel to pin-point the focus. Another is the velvety black space of the viewfinder that makes the scene and frame so vivid. To a lesser extent, the mechanical control of exposure by manually adjusting f-stop ring or shutter speed dial is also a transition to make when interacting with camera via touchscreen. The handy depth of field marks on the lens barrel (hyperfocal distance guidance) of film cameras can be worked around with some digital cameras, but on others this functionality is lost for the most part.

composing with viewfinder presents a dramatic space, free of clutter

There are some control settings on cellphones and even the consumer and pro-sumer levels of digital camera. Touchscreen for main point of focus; exposure compensation over/under; sometimes optical zoom to change the focal length. Even more film-like is the experience with a d-SLR since the viewfinder presents a very similar composition space. The manual exposure and manual focusing selection makes the overall experience most film-like of all.

In his 2012 book, Photogaffes [photographs that turn out to be social or cultural gaffes], Richard M. Chalfen collects personal instances from many contributors from the recent era of transition from film to digital camera to cellphone photography. Each form has its high and low points and the people who have contributed visual moments from their lives to the book present a very wide spectrum of way that camera use is affected by the changing technology and the changing society, too.

Why does it matter if composing by viewfinder instead of LCD screen at arm’s length? One difference seems to be peripheral vision: the screen composer is aware of the surrounding scene and perhaps may consider stitching 2 or more frames into a panorama, immersive scene. By contrast the deep black space of viewfinder composition imposes a kind of tunnel vision that blocks out distractions and encourages single-minded focus on a central subject. Another difference is the role of camera in social interaction. When shots are taken from arm’s length, it is easy to reverse the camera to make a selfie. Those were infrequent in the film camera days, although self-timers and tripods did make it possible for a photographer to squeeze into a picture. The range of subjects that are suitable to capture and sometimes to share has grown wider with digital (low cost, Internet connected) and LCD screen (arm’s length but still within the scope of one’s own personal space) photography, compared with TTL shooting on film or on memory card.

What philosophical lessons can be squeezed from this essential change to photography composition and, by extension, change to seeing the world? First is the difference between arm’s length composition and the camera viewfinder that separates the photographer from the scene; a mediated experience that cuts out distractions from the viewfinder and thus from the finished composition. The picture taker who relies on the LCD screen to adjust focus, exposure, frame, and release of shutter remains much more aware of the context of the picture-taking experience; somehow the act of making a picture is more publicly present and (potentially) responsive to the people who are there.

Then there is the expanded vision of a person composing on the fly and positioning the camera at various points before releasing the shutter. Since the peripheral awareness is inescapable at arm’s length, the photographer perhaps is more amenable to panorama pictures to convey the widest experiential space. On the other hand, the viewfinder composer considers each shutter release to be a finished work; a complete statement, rather than something immersed in a wider place and moment.

Finally there is scope of what constitutes a photographable subject. People who are accustomed to the controlled and soothing space of a viewfinder will be accustomed to well-defined subjects that can be framed and captured as a distinct statement. By contrast, more casual point-and-shoot photographers may be less concerned and less readily able to access the controls over their picture’s exposure, depth-of-field, and shutter speed. Instead of a well-defined subject, the more casual shooter may be interested in conveying a memento of an experience of a place and time; the purpose is to bring back memories rather than to communicate to viewers in a carefully composed way.

By reversing roles, so to speak, and putting (d)SLR into hands of casual shooter and then putting point-and-shoot cellphone camera or digital camera in the hands of an enthusiast or professional photographer, perhaps each will still be able to make the kinds of pictures that they are fond of. But the design of the viewfinder does tend to focus the mind and encourage careful composition, while the LCD screen does tend to encourage more casual composition and shutter release. So while the technology does not always cause some types of composition, at least it does make certain habits easier than others to practice. And so the lesson is that form-factor does play a part in coloring one’s experience of composing pictures. By extending lens to brain, perhaps it is possible to say that form-factor of one’s lived environment (architect F.L. Wright’s quote, “a house is a machine for living”) also affects daily and lifetime habits; the kinds of activities, ideas, ambitions, problems defined and solutions suggested that a person contends with. Going further with the camera & life metaphor, the difference between capturing a set of well-focused, carefully composed scenes versus a more casual collection of mementos of less controlled composition could be interpreted with regard to camera and also with regard to life trajectories: well-defined complete subjects versus more casual and incidental experiences that range widely.

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Surplus capacity – of gear; of eye; of mind

photo of wine glass with water

half-filled or half-empty, space is available in any case

For some people the first thought when hearing the word “surplus capacity” is Karl Marx and his insight into capitalism uses for labor and machinery to squeeze the fullest use from all inputs so that final cost is minimized and everything captured beyond that will be taken in profits. Others think of the flash of genius in the airlines when they realized that routes and schedules are flown by each company no matter how many seats go unsold. They came up with “rewards points” to that loyalty program flyers could claim seats, if they were otherwise going to be unused. The airlines also developed “code sharing” so that one company would carry the ticket holders of another company, thus filling almost all seats. Now this same way of seeing the world in terms of under-utilized capacities can also apply to sophisticated consumer or professional photography equipment.

Looking at the owner’s manual there are myriad features and special settings that can be used in particular situations, such as the “snow or bright beach background” in which the automatic exposure control usually errs in reducing the light reaching the film or sensor to achieve an average exposure for the entire scene, while frequently producing very dark images of people’s face. By using that special setting, the camera is forced to increase the exposure by 1 or 1.5 f-stops from the normal automatic exposure setting. Experimenters or creative photographers could also use the setting in ways unintended originally and try picture-taking in contrasty night locations, at indoor venues, or even for ordinary day-light subjects to create a deliberate aberration.

For most people, though, the owner’s manual gives too much information. So they learn enough to begin and then only return to the manual as needed. As a result, there will be many tools, filters, effects, procedures, and possibilities that never are explored or perhaps never are known about. These unused or under-used capabilities of a camera can be seen as “surplus capacity.” Equally of one’s eye for detail, for light, and for composition, there is a kind of surplus capacity; or a seldom used way of seeing things. For a person who responds to shadow, those instances will drawn one’s eye. For a person who responds to bold composition of lines and light and texture, perhaps an uncluttered and contrasty scene will spark interest and attention. For a person who is more journalistic or sociologically inclined, the moment’s significance will be defined along those lines instead of the visual composition itself.

Finally, moving from capitalism’s way of operating to camera gear to awareness of photo opportunities, there is still another application of this idea. Beyond the under-used power of one’s eyes and awareness, there is also a kind of surplus capacity that pertains to one’s mind and waking hours. That is to say, while a mind and one’s day to day thoughts could be filled with just about anything from the frivolous to what may be life-changing, usually the routines from waking until falling asleep will shape the pathways that one’s mind takes. Preoccupations and worries and hopes might take up one part of one’s attention and energy to care. Routine tasks might take up another part of one’s attention. Occasionally an epiphany or novel experience might cause some new responses. Or an external jolt from personal or spectated risk-taking could stir new feelings. And a few people may feed an active or over-active imagination, as well. But surely the fullest range of uses for one’s mind is seldom exercised. In sum, there is much surplus capacity in the world; not only when a camera is at hand, but even when no photography is involved.

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Entropy dissolves things while cameras focus things

Great minds have pointed out the way that structure, order, and creative forces compete with the opposite — entropy, the break up of environment and its components, and the dissolving of shape and definition into a sameness of ever smaller parts. Thinking about what happens when your eye is attracted to a subject or event and then you frame a picture, there seems to be a countervailing defense against this entropy; a neg-entropy.


Much of the world is confusing, out-of-focus, and working in diametric opposition, but lenses sharpen and freeze all the motion into a moment of clarity to express structure.

On the one hand a camera brings to bear the harmony between seeing a subject (the visual sensory experience) and knowing that subject (intellectual comprehension; acknowledgement and understanding its setting and significance). To see is to know. The unknown becomes known to a certain extent by shining light on it, focusing and framing it, then capturing on film, glass plate, or digital sensor.

But on the other hand a camera’s optical physics also creates order from disorder, pattern from randomness, focus from haziness, certainty from ignorance. To take a picture is to freeze the day’s flow of events and meanings, if only for a fraction of a second. At least in that moment everything within the frame and in focus can be accounted for, measured, related to each of the elements, and so on. In other words, when you engage with your daily experience and the wider world with the help of a camera’s lens, then the feeling of control, order, and certainty comes with it.

A camera can be a therapeutic device to impose meaning on circumstances that sometimes seem to lack meaning, pattern, structure, relationships, or focus. The work of Tony Vaccaro during his 272 days of WWII combat on the march from Normandy to Berlin with a trusty 35mm rangefinder is a prominent example of mediating the fluid, confusing days of mortal danger. The 2016 HBO documentary, Underfire, presents some of Vaccaro’s humanity at the time, during the several years of healing from that experience, and in the decades of hindsight that followed.

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Poaching pictures, plucked from places

A photowalk with a wide-angle lens lends itself to compositions that feature a main subject in its surroundings, rather than isolating the subject or a small fragment of a larger scene. On the other hand, going about with a telephoto lens, whether moderate or superzoom, lends itself to sniping of far-away subjects, or framing small pieces of a larger whole, abstracting the lines or shapes of just one bit of something bigger.

This photo shows the way that a small detail from a larger scene can be isolated for aesthetic interest, teaching purposes, or visual delight.

cropped view of cactus scene to show a small fragment of the whole

cactus close-up in bloom at Meijer Gardens 1/2019

The next photo shows the wider scene of the cactus plantings from which the flowering detail was plucked and placed in a frame of its own, disconnected from the larger relationships and surrounding context in which the subject lives.

view of new red spines and yellow flowers on greenhouse cactuses
wider cactus scene in bloom at Meijer Gardens 1/2019

Using this insight about close-detail versus wider frame to portray a subject, something similar can be said about social experiences and learning the cultural literacy needed to read the surrounding stream of human life at work, home, or in public places and events. The long-view of a telephoto lens can simplify surrounding distractions, compress the sense of space that separates things in daily experience, and focus the person’s attention on details in a myopic or aesthetic way – perhaps causing delight or thrill, but also ignoring the larger setting and significance of the subject that sustains it where it can be found out in the world of lived experience. In other words, there are times where a telephoto view of the world is a great help in showing things that might be unknown or underappreciated. But this perspective also leaves out much that is vital to know about a subject and its setting.

In summary, the many lenses to look at one’s world have different uses. But in the end, knowing the subject together with its context is what matters most for decision making, engaging, and governing a subject and all the other subjects that may depend on it subsequently. No matter what results come from the other focal lengths, in the end it is the wide-angle lens that should be used as fundamental frame for a subject.

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When the focus is too sharp or too weak, illusion follows

photo of houseplant with leaves in focus and background blurred

A well-focused picture draws in the viewer

The history of lens grinding and mathematical design for engineered glass has led to ever sharper representations of a scene on the recording medium of the time, whether glass plates or electrically charged silicon sensors. And while amateurs, avid enthusiasts, and professionals seem to want ever sharper and even 3-dimensional photographs, it comes at a psychologial cost.

Because of the conflation of “see” with “know,” there is a feeling that the sharpest focus gives the best understanding of a subject. That may be true in documenting shades of reflected light, color tones, texture, and so on, but to interpret a subject in its surroundings, both its physical and its historical context, there are more important things than resolving power for a particular lens. Paradoxically, the pricier the lens and the higher the user’s expectation for sharp focus, the more likely it is for the photographer to be preoccupied with the subject’s surfaces that are expressed so crisply with the pricier lens. As a result of this sharp focus on the image itself, the larger meaning, purpose, or significance of the subject may be overlooked or obscured.

The opposite case, where focus is very poor, also leads to preoccupation with the image qualities rather than the subject being recorded. And so, it seems, the best photo for communicating a subject together with its context or wider meaning is a picture that is well focused, but not so sharp that the viewer becomes fascinated with the tangible, life-like quality of the thing.

After so many generations grown used to photographic illustrations, advertising, documenting and instructional guides, there are high expectations for text or audio to come with images, still or moving. In the current generation the scale of image making has mushroomed by the creation of digital pictures and the exchange wirelessly by phone and computer. And software manipulation of photos has become difficult to detect with one’s eye alone, unaided by forensic tools of digital scrutiny. But despite knowing of trickery, people today still seem to cling to the idea that “a photo never lies; it must be true, just as it appears on the surface.” So the old equivalency between “I see” and “I know” is stronger than ever.

As the focus becomes even sharper than before, perhaps the people of the future will only take that old equivalency and regard it impossible to think otherwise than the appearance of what one’s eyes seem to know. When that state of affairs comes to pass, then it will be time to recall what The Little Prince (Antoine de St. Exupery) learned in his story, that “only with the heart can one truly see.” In other words, the full meaning or significance of a subject is not found in the descriptive lines that capture its surface character, but rather between the lines where the true character resides. Thus there is a parallel between lenses that focus well, but not too well –on the one hand, and knowledge that is comprehensive with granular precision, but also leaves room for ways of knowing that are not restricted to surface characteristics: in both cases the excessive focus on external qualities paradoxically can produce an illusion of certainty of knowledge that will blind the person to possible deeper or wider significance.

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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.