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

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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.

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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,

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 desperateness 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?