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

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Why context matters – the wide view

photo subject plucked from its context, September 2018

Whether novelist, journalist, historian, or ethnographic observer making documentary records, the importance of putting a subject in its frame makes sense – not only what is physically adjacent, but also what comes before and after in chronology, and also relationally – what the main subject is connected to closely and more distantly.

panorama grayed except for one piece of the scene
central focus, ignoring immediate context (click for full-size view)

Failing to include surrounding conditions in the picture that is conjured or captured not only excludes rich detail, but also the meanings that touch on the subject being featured or spotlighted will be out of sight. Looking again at the same scene taken in wider view reveals a lot more of the day and the moment of shutter release.

September 2018 pow-wow at Riverside Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan


One of the magical things about using software to stitch 2 or 3 frames together is seeing the composite being generated; reminiscent of darkroom experiences watching the image appear on the photo paper emulsion. But the main source of amazement is the finished scene. It is a similar visual experience to the almost 180 degree field of view that a person with two eyes is familiar with. See this handful of slides to illustrate this similarity in more detail, A main subject fits naturally into its surrounding context of shape, color, meaning, and relationship. And so, while there are lots of appealing subjects that can be fragmented from the larger scene, only the wide views can give a full visual feast. By extension from the world of lens, composition, and exposure to the world of social and cultural interaction in one’s lifetime, perhaps the same thing is true; that the wide perspective helps to show the significance of a subject being considered.


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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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Limits on your best shot – will you hit a wall?

late afternoon box elder tree, December 19

Many subjects and moments cry out to be composed and captured in a fraction of a second to share, to document, for future reference, to commemorate, or for purely aesthetic delight. All along the learning curve, from first-timers with point-and-shoot device to grizzled old veterans of many cameras and compositions, people make an effort to consider their standpoint and the moment of shutter release. Sometimes the photographer is lucky and creates an image that is more than was expected, a happy coincidence of light, intersection of multiple moving subjects, and an exposure setting that faithfully represents the scene. Other times the conditions are very complicated and so only a photographer with deep and wide experience can translate onto the film or camera sensor what appears before the eyes or in the imagination. A person without sufficient technical mastery and experience of the translating process from live scene to captured composition is not able to make a picture in such cases.

Thinking of the very best possible result for a photograph –not its timeliness, dramatic emotional response, or the price that the marketplace will bear — what is the most that potentially can be photographed of a portrait or a landscape, for instance? The resulting image is a combination of a couple of factors: the person’s eye or imagination; that is, the recognition of a potential subject and composition to make. There is the artistic flair to arrange foreground, middle, and background effectively and to make a decision about angle of view (lens size) and depth of field (focus area). Finally, there is the technical mastery of the camera and the post-processing and factors in final presentation (in print settings versus on-screen or as part of sequence used in multi-media or visual essay).

For the sake of this thought experiment, suppose the photographer is blessed with the maximum powers capable in 2018 technology (gear and software), as well as artistic sense, and awareness to respond to subject matter potentially usable in composition: how well-made a photo can be expected from this extreme degree of masterfulness? Is the gold standard to compare the photo to the original scene; in other words, is verisimilitude the best that can be aspired to – a close match to the original subject in its setting? Or can the skill of a photographer go beyond the physical facts of the moment of shutter release and communicate to the viewer something above and beyond what is present in its raw, unmediated form?

Of course, when the goal is unmoored from sensory reality, then a person can be limited only by imagination when introducing post-processing artifacts and miracles of Photoshop inventions. Clearly the result is more than the sum of the raw materials in that case. But when something free of post-processing enhancement and amplification or suppression of original subject matter is the purpose, then again the question remains: will the very best version merely attain an immersive, true to life effect; or will it go beyond what is present on the surface and reveal (or suggest) something more; something that a less careful or less reflective observer perhaps would not notice without the photographer foregrounding something by light, depth of field, or choice of lens focal length, for example?

Thinking of images that make a deep or lasting impression, it is fair to say that the very best photographs (and by extension, also photographers) do produce value-added meaning to the scenes they compose and communicate to others. So there does seem to be an answer to the question about limitations being imitation of the original place and time. A skilled eye and hand makes something better than the raw material begun with: emphasizing certain things while downplaying or minimizing other things that diminish the artistic statement or question being expressed.

By analogy the same thing seems to occur when the ensemble effect of many musicians can produce something greater than one alone. In the case of harmony that is perfectly expressed there can be a ghost-like “overtone” added to the harmonic structure, a note that can be heard that none of the players or singers is making. And in the realm of cooking, too, there are examples of combinations of ingredients that express something that the component elements alone can do. A third analogy is the cultural or natural landscape: experts can “read” things there that may be invisible at first to inexperienced people. So, too, of photographers – by striving to reach one’s peak mastery, it is possible to make pictures that exceed the original subject at the point of shutter release.

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Virtual, vicarious, verisimilitude – observing versus participating

collage of spiderweb + HTML error message

clipart mashup – Web & “page lost” error 404 message

Watching, seeing, viewing, browsing, regarding – there are so many ways to stand outside of an experience or a subject to look at it. Anthropologists who study living societies combine observation (and documentary work) with participation in the mode called “participant-observation.” Whether one is an insider or outsider, by taking a middle position, with one foot in the event and one foot outside the event, there is a unique standpoint created that allows a person to use all their senses as a person on the field of play, but also equipped to put those experiences into words and images, too.

Now in the age of (over)sharing on the Internet and digital cameras (mostly on pocket-sized cellphones) there seems to be more and more spectating and recording of life; Selfie Existence as a master narrative. At the same time there seems to be less (unreflective, unmediated, undiluted) living. We see lots of words like “virtual reality” and “vicarious living” (watching strangers eat food, do farm work, deal with obstacles in “reality” TV programming or online streams and social media like Twitter or Facebook following of others). The more immersive the viewing experience (stereo or multi-channel sound, interactive User Interface, sensory goggles), the closer that the digital copy comes to facsimile to the original, actual subject. Verisimilitude or “truthiness” has become a kind of holy grail among engineers of ever quicker CPU computer chips and the software makers who strive for more and more persuasive, programmed and semi-structured but open-ended scripts.

In the beginning the novelty attracted interest, the challenges attracted talent, and the possibilities attracted imaginations. Now the ripples are flooding the great and the small with unintended consequences and soaking most people unexpectedly, ruining lives is some ways while also enriching lives in other ways. Now the world of virtual and vicarious is maturing and people are less easily smitten with novelty. More people are recognizing the fact of limited waking hours in a day and a fixed number of days in one’s lifetime, no matter how rich or how poor. So no matter how intoxicating, escapist, or infatuating the sound and flickering light of portable and wireless screens, at least there are some people who are ready to draw a line and no longer pay their attention into the bottomless ocean of information and data in search of knowledge or its distilled form: wisdom.

The sign of a fully developed feature of life experience and society is to learn the powers and the dangers of a particular tool so that it may be used well but not to the point of abuse. Hopefully the dissolution of social habits, structures, and compartments that “information wants to be free” has set in motion soon will mature among the young and the old. At that point there will be no fewer cameras capturing moments and sequences, but at least there will be mindful use of those rich records of days lived and lives undertaken. Knowing limits in not something that hobbles; rather it helps narrow down the range of motion and focus the intention and making of meaning.

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Just passing through vs. local roots

cloudscape over farmland in 4 different color filters from L. to R.
Levels of familiarity with a subject or topos form layers to one’s depth of vision. Photo by author.

Visiting a place for the first time, it is the prominent things that shape one’s impression or stir the imagination. Sometimes it is the absence of certain elements that are conspicuous (water and greenery in some desert types, for instance). This composite photo set at various color corrections illustrates the experience of seeing the same subject, event, or location through different eyes, lens, or set of expectations, aspirations, teachings, or memories. In effect the things look different according to level or familiarity; how well one knows the subject.

Suppose you have visited or even worked and lived in Japan as a foreign resident for many years, but now will visit the ancient capital of Nara for the first time. If the period of exposure were many months then the process of getting to know the cultural and ecological landscape would proceed from the surface level of major features to a deeper knowledge of how to navigate without the aid of map or software (phone) app. Locations, markers, and buildings would include names and possibly dates for historical events of significance associated with the place or structure. The seasonal patterns and inter-relationships of the many flora and fauna would become as familiar as old friends or kin. Eventually those initial impressions of the most prominent pieces of the scene would practically be invisible; no longer attracting one’s attention or interest as smaller details fill one’s mind, instead. And for a place that served as imperial capital in 710 of the Common Era, there are centuries of lives and events that layer the visible and remnant cultural landscape. But little of that subtlety is apparent until one is deeply familiar with the place and its stories.

By understanding how one’s level of familiarity changes the vision of a subject, event, or place, it is possible to look into the mirror and regard one’s own home ground, asking how well or how deep is one’s own vision there. And for those times one is passing through, or limited to “fly-over” country and glimpsing the livelihoods far below, or seeing something from a distance through a screen, then this understanding of the value of Local Knowledge and depths of familiarity helps to warn the viewer of the very considerable limitations to what is revealed and knowable at the surface level. So both for knowing self and for knowing others, this understanding of the consequences of surface versus deep familiarity is good to know.

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Snapshot statement vs. Photo paragraph


Most people make a single statement with single emphasis; others invite the eye to wander across the field of view [credit: for 19 September 2018, screenshot sampling]

In the beginning a person with a camera is drawn to single subjects in isolation from the context of meaning, status, space or time. It is the thing itself that they wish to capture as a frozen moment – unchanging for eternity. As one gains technical skills at controlling the composition and exposure with increasingly sophisticated gear and post-processing tools, the production values improve and the thing in and of itself attracts attention. It gives visual pleasure for the rich quality that is faithfully communicated, or even improved more than the visual experience of the original subject in its actual setting, as light quality is enhanced, color is given added or decreased saturation, distractions are minimized, and so on. The art of timing and standpoint may develop, too, culminating in the wonder of and the appreciation for Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.

But after seeing and composing enough single-subject photos, some people become interested in the contrasts, juxtaposition, or interplay of surrounding ideas, symbols, or other subjects nearby or ones suggested by their absence. These photos are analogous to paragraphs or even short stories, compared to the single declarative sentence or question that is expressed by a snapshot that attracts the viewer’s eye only momentarily. Instead, these wider or more complicated scenes invite lingering looks all around the frame, traveling from background to middle and foreground and then in return. Perhaps the eye follows the lines of composition, figures placed in each field of the frame, or the play of texture and light/shadow. Whatever it may be, these photographic tableaux seem to be full of meanings, interpretations, or settings for what is about to take place (or the scene of something that is now underway; or what has happened at the scene).

Once one’s taste for photographic scenes goes beyond a single statement, exclamation point, or question mark, then it becomes easier to spot compositions of this kind. Likewise, it becomes easier to notice, compose, capture, and convey scenes like this to others. But how far along this path could a photo go: beyond the single phrase and then an extended paragraph, could a photo all by itself, without the support of caption or indeed with no accompanying written context, be able to convey several paragraphs of meaning, or even present an entire (dramatic) story from the setting and cast of characters, to the complicating factors or antagonists in view (or suggested), to the resolution? That is an open question; one worth consideration and worth trying to photograph, too. Norman Rockwell‘s visual representations succeeded this way, again and again.

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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.