see2think

thinking with pictures


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Metaphorically – see then frame; then focus; then capture… an idea

stick figure to illustrate photographer with camera

composing a picture with camera; without camera

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.

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When the light speaks to you

Never mind ‘chasing the light’ or ‘writing with light’ (graphos+foto), instead listen for when the light calls your name and you respond by a double-take to look with renewed care at the scene as it presents itself, or as you foresee that it will come to be after a few minutes or hours or days.

street photo with dark clouds leaving a band of brightness on the horizon

When the light is low and the dark is high–an inversion of normal, it calls out to one’s eye.

Consider the case of music – some tunes and lyrics may speak to you, while others do not. Worse, some combinations of rhythm and chord sequences may actually irritate or contradict your own sense of harmony and consonance. The same could be said for other sensory experiences like the way food is arranged on a plate, the way that people dress, or the emotional response to things in the landscape (cityscape, or social landscape) you inhabit: certain features and patterns can be a calming source of continuity that meets the expectations you have about the way things should look and when and how things should arise there.

Turing back to the illumination in day or at night that stimulates the receptors inside one’s eyes, there is a kind of language or patterned sequences of meaning that speak to people. Some have an “ear” for the voice or music of the light falling on the surfaces of places where they may go. Others barely respond when the light declares something in a quiet voice, or shouts at full volume. And still others develop a habit to keep a picture-taking device within easy reach to respond effortlessly whenever the light utters a word or invites a response.

Raising the lens and framing the subject, you can quote verbatim what the light is saying. Then you can share this with others, or add to your album of moments written with light. Even before cameras became commonplace, there were a few people with sketchpad and pencil or pen to capture compositions that they stumbled upon, searched out, tracked down, or synthesized from their own imaginations. But now that digital cameras, phones, and tablets are so wide-spread, the opportunities have improved to sharpen your focus and improve your ear to hear when the light is speaking in its own language. Hopefully, the ability to understand what it is that the light is saying also is improving.


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the urge for a satisfying, ‘perfect’ picture

close-up photo of lens face pointed at mirror

‘perfect’ photos are in the mind of the beholder

Browsing a few years of photos and the collection of my personal “favorites” marked at flickr, there seem to be a few patterns among the pictures that speak most clearly and eloquently to my mind’s eye. Setting off to make compositions like that tends to be the most satisfying experience. And even to daydream about a prospective photo walk can satisfy some of that same urge for a perfect photo, as defined by the sort of shot that brings me back again and again to grasp more of, understand with more depth, or embrace more vividly.

Subjects tend to be landscapes, or other static scenes of the present (or imagined of the past or future at the spot), but compositions are most delicious that convey motion by pattern of line, texture, color, or light; often with field of focus extending from an arm’s length or two all the way to the horizon. Beyond the abstractions of composition, though, the moment of shutter release should capture something of human (cultural, social, personal) significance, or equally meaningful, something of non-human (animal, botanical, marine, geological, or seasonal or weather related) consequence. In summary the craving for taking a ‘perfect’ photo includes motion and a moment that communicates some of the context for interpretation to tell a viewer that something of meaning is being witnessed, if only one pauses to reflect on it.

As a thought experiment, given a budget for modest travel for 6 weeks or 6 months, what sort of itinerary or day to day routine could present opportunities to compose and capture ‘perfect’ photos as described here? One approach is the Walden Pond way: within a walking-distance radius, observe the small events hour by hour and season  by season, either far from human society, or the reverse, in the thick of people’s lives and patterns swirling around one’s lens. Another approach is the trekker or seeker approach, always venturing over to the next hill or around the next bend in the road to seek another horizon. Travelers, guidebooks, or wikivoyage offer lists of scenic spots, sort of like the Victorians rambling in search of spacious or historical views. And the photo-sharing sites sometimes show clusters of photo spots that have attracted camera enthusiasts and professionals during the 5 or 10 years that the sharing services have operated.

Lists of historical matters can be sorted by theme (battle sites, natural disaster locations, places of literary or scientific or political significance) to form a “bucket list.” Even if the trekker model produces few ‘perfect’ photos, the effort of travel will produce various insights, reflections, reactions, and unexpected good and bad occasions. Attention span may be preoccupied with logistics, safety, and direction finding, so that relatively little energy remains for creative expression, writing and reflection, or depth of observation.

A similar mix of positive and negatives comes from the Walden Pond way: some days feeling little motivation, having no external demand to move on, or lacking a contrasting difference to spur a reaction or reflection. And yet, there will be a few rare moments when conditions are right to produce some depth of understanding or insight or wondering because all creative energies are available and not diffused by the effort of travel and unfamiliarity. One’s deepening familiarity with the surrounding scenes allows for even very small variations or developments to be perceptible; something that a “just passing by” sort of observer would wholly miss.

Between these extremes of “staying put” and “trekking far” is a happy and productive middle way: keeping the routines and modest scope of movement to form a dense foundation for creative work, but now and then venturing far away, if for no other reason than to derive the joy of “going home,” the sense of familiarity and comfort that comes after dealing with unfamiliar faces, languages, and outlooks. Finding this balance will depend on the person and the point in life they occupy, of course, but here are one or two examples of splitting time between “local depth” and “distant vision.” The second one fits the expression “don’t just sit there; do something” and the first one is the inverse, “don’t just do something; sit there.” The second one takes creative spark from external excitement, unfamiliarity, exoticness, outsider perspective, and novelty/newness. The first one takes creative spark from an internal frame of reference: conditions that are not unfamiliar, point of view of an insider, and lack of novelty. In other words, the scene is not changing much, but the eye of the observer is shifting to discover things that were buried in plain sight until finally embraced with deeper vision.

A world map makes a good starting place. The planet is the widest field from which a few destinations can be plucked and prioritized. One’s own national boundaries and neighboring countries can shorten the list of possible destinations. Then a day’s drive from one’s home can reduce the universe of possible destinations still more. Finally there is the circumference of bicycle or travel by foot to define an even closer world of subject matter, with the views of changing light and skyscapes from one’s doorstep as the smallest circle of all. The model in each case is to strike a workable and productive balance between sameness and routine (familiarity) on the one hand, and novelty on the other – serendipity is an enlivening element in both cases, surprising one’s routines or adding excitement or easy solution to a problem far from home. For example, on the planetary scale of things, an adventure of 3 weeks to a single hub (urban center than can be transected on foot within 1-2 hours or less) or set of 2 or 3 hubs (sea, city, highland) should have some structure as well as latitude for spontaneity to chase the light, the shifting composition, or the events at hand. The same model fits things within a day-trip by car from your home base hub: begin with some structure, but leave room for spontaneity. Again this model works for places far from home but within your national borders or neighboring countries: hub locations for routine and refreshment of creative forces, with some structures and routines, but then leaving room to follow one’s eyes and the light or the subjects that emerge.

In summary, the urge for a ‘perfect’ picture is a craving that can be satisfied as conditions permit, either from one’s doorstep with keen observation of a small world, or far from home in unfamiliar worlds. Planning and daydreaming can be the first course in a feast for the eyes and mind. But of course, so much of what gives meaning and value is in the eye of the beholder; the one who puts in the effort and lays a foundation to appreciate what finally comes to pass. Pictures from the photo walk or expedition are a pale likeness of the full, sensory experience of the place, the composition decisions, and the circumstances leading up to the shutter release. For a person coming across your ‘perfect’ photo, it may look like a postcard view or a curious trick of the light. And without knowing the things contained in the frame, the effort required to bring one’s eye and mind into focus at that moment, the full depth of the vision will escape the casual looker. That ‘perfect’ photo will be treasure that hides in plain sight and perhaps only a few will savor the result.


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Light of limbo; time traveler

early evening photo of waterway and group of ducks

ducks at dusk near Funaoka shrine, Echizen-city, Fukui-ken, Japan (click image for full view)

Dusk is such a mysterious time The shadows and luminosity change perceptibly; and within just 45 minutes full daylight turns to semi-darkness. So one’s sense of time is challenged: no longer is there a feeling of ‘eternal present’ and the ordinariness of normality. Instead it becomes effortless to blur the boundary in one’s waking consciousness that usually so sharply separates present from past and future. This scene could easily be 2015 or 1950 or 1815, apart from the paved road and utility poles and wires.

Perhaps something similar happens in language learning. Once the fundamentals are mastered and one can interact with little effort in the new language, then a bit of blurring begins in the line that used to separate “us” and “them,” or “foreign” and “familiar.” It may become hard to remember whether a given conversation or source of  an idea was conducted in one’s first or second language as the two become more porous in one’s mind.

And again, from a different field for analogies, perhaps something similar happens in rising levels of proficiency and fluency in a sport, hobby, or other skill-based form of expression. As one picks up momentum, eventually the static parts begin to blend and produce a certain rhythm and pace which one can effortlessly transpose or move across and within. A dialog begins between oneself and the particular medium one is working in. In all these cases a similar blurring effect happens – blurring of chronological moment (orienting one’s place in the flow of time), blurring of self-perception in first and second languages, or the power of mastery that results in “flow” or effortless fluidity in the particular field of actions.


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Beckoning light – chase, capture, or admire?

photo of noon light on low table at Nepali restaurant in west Japan

gleam on restaurant tabletop at lunch (click image for full size)

Light calls one’s name from time to time in unexpected places, such as this restaurant table flooded by lunchtime light of a glorious fall day. The gleam of the sun on the chrome table service bell is particularly eye-catching, but the foreground subdued patches of light have a mellow charm, too. Soon after my eye landed on the strong shadows and pattern of light on the table almost immediately the impulse I felt was to go closer and soak up the splendor; but almost at the same time as I felt drawn to the brightness, I also reached from my cellphone camera, thinking to make an effort to frame the central subject with some care and without alarming the restaurant owners working in the adjacent kitchen.

 

On second thought, though, I realized that not all light beckons for the purpose of chase or capture. There are times when the light only calls out to be admired; not confined to a composition or shutter release, but instead simply to be studied and enjoyed as it tickles the light sensors at the back of one’s eyes before being communicated to the brain’s visual cortex for interpretation in pictorial sense. And so I settled on a quick grab shot to serve as a visual prompt for this brief epiphany: light beckons day and night, but does not always require a photographic response. Nor is it always technically possible, socially or culturally convenient to transpose a mental composition into a photograph; although as a thought exercise, there may be merit is thinking through the settings and considerations to take into account if one actually were to commit a moment in time into photographic form. So when you next hear the light calling out to you, consider if the subject is meant to be photographed, or simply scrutinized with eyes trained in seeing pictures and enjoyed as a passing moment amid the hurly-burly of one’s waking hours.


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Bird in the distance gives me a flight of fancy

big heron looking for breakfast in the Hino River, Fukui-prefecture, Japan

This morning while I walked across the bridge for early morning exercise I saw a great blue heron in the shallows of the river with morning light shining off the surface and giving partial silhouette, while not completely blotting the color and detail of the bird’s body. Something about the light or the large bird’s slow, deliberate movements attracted my eye caused me to wonder what sorts of triggers were in this tranquil scene to captivate me. Several elements came to mind, step by step as I mulled over the image in my mind and walked on. The volume of the bird just taking up space on the blank canvas of the lit up water surface is one thing; that is a visual appeal. The mass of the bird; the pull of gravity between the bird and the Earth and theoretically between the bird and my own mass is another sensory layer that stirs in me – feeling or imaging the bulk of the living creatures as it breaths in and out while I stand by to observe. Besides the visual contours and the physical presence of the bird, its behavior or seemingly intentional search for food, awareness of fellow herons, and lookout for possible threats in the sky or on the ground (or in the river), all these things seem to animate the tall animal. Merely watching it turn this way and that, later to crouch and bring the big wings into play and then lift into the air, this, too, is a magnet to my eyes.

When we talk of passing the time before a flight or some event by “people watching” perhaps that means a mix of entertainment or info-tainment. One part of the appeal of looking at fellow people is to benchmark or compare to ourselves and those we love and respect: are these strangers conforming to the range of normal and expected ways of walking, sitting, talking, dressing, eating, and so on? By extension, any behaviors that fall at the margins of our own definition and experience of “normal” become tacit challenges – is this difference a threat or rebuke to our own “normal”; or the novelty may be a source of delight, stimulation, or insight. And anything that goes past these outer boundaries of what is known, expected, allowed, or (culturally) normal becomes a fascination to watch because it is alien; an outlier, or outlandish in a literal sense of “not from around here.” So there is people watching that interests us much like TV or movies or novels (even non-fiction, perhaps). It is this endless appetite for comparison and reminding ourselves about what is normal, desired, trusted, worthy of respect or aspiration, and so on.

But as with the great blue heron turning his glance this way and that way in the cool still September morning, also with people watching there is interest in observing intentionality play out. We watch to see if we can grasp what the others are doing, are about to do, or meant to do. In other words, we like to supply captions to the images that present themselves before our eyes. There is comfort in knowing (or telling ourselves that we know) what is happening in a given scene. On familiar ground and among one’s own cohort probably the accuracy for interpreting what is going on will be very high. But among strangers in a strange context, the chances of understanding the meaning or purpose may be very mistaken, particularly when there is a different language or society involved.

These things, then, seem to be what was speaking to me as I walked across the morning bridge over the Hino River this morning before cars filled the road. There is the visual presence of the bird occupying the space of the bright surface of the water. There is the physical mass of the bird as a fellow creature with beating heart and lungfuls of air. There is the purposeful movements and pauses that comprise the bird’s minutes there in the water before setting off for another location upstream 100 meters. But unlike “people watching” this bird is not a peer reference group (nor do I know enough herons to watch this one as point of comparison to those others to judge if this one is ‘normal’ or an outlier). However, just about the same was watching people, I did look at the sequence of movements and try to imagine some realistic interpretations to tell myself “I know what the bird is trying to do; what the bird’s goal is.”

Having distilled some of the layers of interest in the scene that caught my attention this morning, I will look at other times when I am drawn to the light or shadows filled indirectly by skylight or other sources and ask myself analytically what sorts of things tug at my heartstrings and cause me to pause and frame the subject just so before releasing the shutter.


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Light values (dynamic range) vs. slight values (preoccupations)

In summer the early morning is a good time of day for walking around the town –cars are few, light is warm, air is cool, and thoughts are clear. Moving along the sidewalk the angled light casts long shadows and touches the surfaces of things in a glittering way. Even without looking through a camera lens the familiar elements of composition come to mind as I mentally form some scenes in passing. The colors of store fronts, the texture of weathered wooden walls and rusted metal sheathing, the warm tone of the first hour of daylight, the line of one subject in foreground and another in background to give shape to the composition, and the play of shadow and light values brightest to darkest all come to mind in the morning walk as one subject after another comes into view.

bright sunlight on streetscape surfaces

looking at line, light, texture, color, juxtaposition

For a person of school age there will be other concerns and interest to fill their minds than the light talking to the streetscape. So, too, of a parent taking care of a household with people of younger and older generations. For a retired person there will be still other interests and preoccupations. Perhaps only someone in a contemplative, reflective, or philosophical frame of mind will pass these shops and houses along the street and think about the composition of light values, textures, colors, and lines of foreground and background. Instead the young or old will be too busy paying attention to costs, time, safely crossing the street, making sure not to forget to return a phone call or avoiding peer criticism for overlooking one’s obligations. In other words, more attention goes into safely crossing the road than in pausing to really see the road: its color, texture, line, and lighting. Most people are too busy with actively playing the game of life to be able to stop their forward motion long enough to look around and see exactly how things look and the way that light abundantly touches most everything directly, or indirectly, or how it is suggested by its absence (shadow). We readily emphasize the BUSINESS of living instead of the business of LIVING.

Perhaps the recent attention on “mindfulness” associated with Buddhism and specifically the writings and recordings of Thich Nhat Hanh when one is walking, eating, meeting others, and so on can also be applied to this situation of walking early in the morning and really seeing, touching, smelling the passing views from one minute to the next. Too often in a conversation the listener is not hearing the meanings but instead is dwelling on the next question to ask, the reply to the speaker’s point, and so on. Too often in walking through one’s day, similarly, the person is too busy dwelling on what comes next rather than to abide in the present moment and to see all there is to see of a place. “Wherever you are, BE there,” is one form that the mindfulness instruction takes. Notice the shapes, color, light, and light. Hear the summer morning sounds of cicadas. Smell the breakfast cooking, the wisp of tobacco smoke in passing, or the river smell as you walk its bank.

So there is a basic tension between looking that just skims the surface in search of familiar cues and landmarks in one’s hurried routines, but does not deeply look at what is there –on the one hand; and the inverse: looking past the surface and seeing the complete context with the sort of augmented* reality of an experienced archaeologist excavating, a forensic specialist reading clues, or a hunter tracking the signs of what happened earlier at a location. In the typical mindset, much in a rush to accomplish the day’s plans, there is usually little extended reflection on the flow of events, since the biggest consideration is instrumental or functional; getting something done, paying debts, meeting the deadline, avoiding liability, putting food on the table. In the inverse, the task accomplishment is secondary, while the reflecting about the way things are takes priority. One extreme is to be a walking canvas, sensitive to the visual details and meanings, in and of themselves of value and interest. The other extreme is to be blind to these visual values and instead be preoccupied with “things to do,” including places to go, people to meet, money to spend. Surely somewhere in the middle is best: busy with normal life, but also filled with the beauty and feeling of awe from the wonder of light all around you. Go forth with list of errands in one hand, but with camera in the other hand to make a record of what you see and think along the way.

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* Augmented by seeing history, past circumstances, and individual aspirations, as well as futures circumstances that may be probable in a location; seeing whole generations expressed in material forms; visualizing social networks and burdens of ownership in caring for property, businesses, or fields and forests; imagining dreams achieved but also plans gone awry; envisioning cultural expectations and ideas that shift sometimes in a single generation.