The habit of setting off each day with some form of camera close to hand is the kind of exercise that builds a habit of seeing. Eventually, once this habit is well-formed, the physical camera becomes less important and the exercise can proceed even without “writing with light.” Although one’s mental lens does not produce something to share directly with others in print or electronic form, sometimes a person can “paint pictures with words” that approximate the visual experience that first drew the person’s eye.
What happens in the mind of someone well-practiced in the habit of making pictures; and by extension, adept at speaking metaphorically? Is there a similar sequence of steps that takes place in one’s mind when capturing an idea, expressing an impression, or exploring one’s imagination? Looking at the camera in hand, the first thing that happens is the spark of recognition: a-ha, here is a scene or subject that attracts my attention. For a point-and-shoot photographer, there is little more to do than releasing the shutter, although some might know from experience that greater rewards can result from delaying the release and first considering the alternatives – moving closer or moving to a different standpoint, choosing the best moment of release, or time of day that supplies the most effective lighting conditions. And there is the delicate art of precisely framing the scene to include some things and exclude others; and to foreground certain parts while placing other parts in middle or background.
With cameras other than a point-and-shoot model, there are more decisions to make before capturing a subject on film or electronic sensor. But a similar sequence in involved. First the person must become aware of a potential subject and the context available to frame it. With the scene composed, then the question of focus comes into consideration. Determining the main subject in the starting point for focus, but if there is plenty of light, then the lens aperture can be closed small enough to produce very great Depth of Field so that the zone of focus extends far past the central subject point of focus, and also far in front of the subject; perhaps the entire scene will be recorded fully in focus in that case. At other time the opposite effect may advance the photographer’s intended expression of the subject: very shallow zone of focus with all other elements blurred. As for moving subjects, the photographer may deliberately freeze, or blur slightly or greatly, that motion by selecting a correspondingly fast or slow shutter speed.
Besides framing, focus, and freezing or blurring of moving elements, the matter of exposure lies within the control of the photographer. The human eye has been estimated capable of absorbing a greater range of light values than current electronic sensors, or indeed film stock. Some reports say most digital camera can accommodate 10-12 f-stops from darkest shadow detail to brightest highlight detail before all else is rendered indistinguishable black or white. Healthy human eyes, in comparison, can handle 14 f-stops of dynamic range in light values. Therefore, along with the framing, focus depth, freezing or blurring of moving subjects, the photographer can decide to give priority to the brightest part of the scene or the deepest shadows of the scene, but not to both. Of course, an evenly lit scene that is uniformly bright or dark or somewhere in-between will not have to sacrifice part of the dynamic range, since all of it fits well within the sensor’s limitations. But for situations with a very great range in light values, then the photographer’s decision can average things out, losing a bit of the dark extreme and of the bright extreme; or the person can prioritize the brightest elements (while sacrificing some of the dark parts); or the reverse, the person can prioritize the darkest elements (while sacrificing some of the bright parts).
Now for the figurative jump from cameras to compositions of the mind: there seems to be a similar three-step process. Walking along, once an idea enters a person’s mind, then the first step is to frame it (mentally in one’s mind’s eye) by drawing boundaries to include some things and exclude other things, foregrounding some things while leaving other things in the middle or background. The second step is to choose the main subject to focus upon, also determining whether to produce shallow, medium, or deep focus by controlling the Depth of Field. And the last step is to consider the exposure level of light and moment of shutter release. For someone who is in the habit of mentally composing a picture, these decisions come one after another with little effort, almost automatically. The result of cameraless composition practice with one’s eye is to produce better photography when an actual camera is to hand. The key is to resist the quick-trigger impulse to spot something attractive, then point-and-shoot before quickly putting away the camera and moving on to the next visual feast. Instead, there is great worth is separating the sequence of events between spotting an opportunity and then finally capturing the subject. Each of the three stages that leads to finally committing to a frozen moment of time captured on sensor or film will increasingly narrow down the field of possible decisions until at the end the solution to the compositional problem is solved and the shutter can at last be released.
A promising subject to look at arises, then the first narrowing down comes from framing it with big or small boundaries and a standpoint that puts certain elements into foreground or background to the main subject. The next narrowing down comes from decisions on how much should be focused, and where that plane of focus should be centered. The final narrowing down comes at the point of exposure: which part of the illumination shall be captured well and which part, possibly, to sacrifice (as being too bright or too dark in relation to the main subject), in addition to deciding on the Decisive Moment as Cartier-Bresson called the optimum moment of releasing the shutter for the composed scene. These same increasingly refined stages occur not only in the lens of camera or mind’s eye, but also more generally in the manner of encountering a new idea, then framing, then selectively focusing, and finally committing to a final grasp of the thing.
As one’s habits become more firmly established and one’s mind also becomes more supple and nimble, then compositions that are “written with light” or understandings that are captured in one’s mind can be ever more beautiful, subtle, and sophisticated as a result.