thinking with pictures

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driven to distraction; or, the medium and the message

M. McLuhan shone the spotlight on the importance of a communication medium that shapes or at least colors the message being expressed. When it comes to the daily browsing of and persistently being distracted by technical reasons, rather than to enjoy the subject matter or the composition, several elements stand out, again and again. Doing a simple search for “landscape” and then selecting the filter for licenses set to “no known copyright” brought up a pageful of images, mainly in color. It did not take long to spot 10 irritants that get in the way of my viewing engagement with a subject and what the photographer expresses through composition and moment of release.

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click picture for full size view

(1) glaring element (color at edge of frame not cropped out or muted somehow)

(2) focal length falsely represents the corners, insinuating visual effect of distorted motion
(3) postprocessing (similar to overly HDR examples) makes color/dynamic range strange
(4) photoshop exercise in imagination: great for fiction, distracting for non-fiction (if lenswork can be bifurcated this way)
(5) hazy capture may be optically accurate, but probably is false when compared to human visual experience
(6) poster-like colors are attractive, but by drawing attention to itself little else can be expressed
(7) blurry foreground pulls the eye away from the larger composition
(8) horizon is tilted, thus taking a moment for the viewer to question what is wrong before solving the problem and finally seeing the scene itself
(9) artful blur of moving subject shouts for attention, thus distracting from the whole
(10) colors are rendered inaccurately, causing the viewer to react to this error before proceeding to the subject itself

Why do such distractions matter in the experience of visually communicating a place, time, or topic? That depends on the viewer expectations and purposes when searching through the images. In my case the pictures that speak most clearly, deeply, or with most insight and clarity of expression tend to express gorgeous light or interesting locations, contexts, moments or subjects well portrayed – not so much to show off the photographer’s talents or imagination, but instead to convey something about the subject itself. By this standard, the best pictures are technically transparent and least distract the viewer from seeing the subject itself. Things like focal lengths far outside the “normal” range (35mm film equivalent of 35mm to 65mm lens), tilted horizon, blurred subject, color distortion and the other complaints illustrated above all get in the way of engaging with a subject. The best pictures present fewest barriers to seeing the subject plainly. Accuracy and honesty are the watchwords, according to this way of seeing things. Better still, when the human eyes’ visual experience can be approximated by normal lens to stitch several frames into something like the 175 degrees (ground to sky) by 180 degrees (lefthand the righthand peripheral view), then I am most content of all. See this logic of making a facsimile to human vision in the slide set at

Finally, since the language for understanding or comprehending plays on the language of seeing or vision, perhaps there is a useful extension to make from this discussion of the things that get in the way of plainly seeing and enjoying a scene. Just as there are a number of minor things that detract and distract from viewing a composition, so too in one’s waking consciousness there are a variety of things that singly or in  combination cause a person to dwell on incidental details and miss the big picture. Being driven to distraction can be financial constraints or loss avoidance, social status or relationships in distress, consumer dissipation, health preoccupations, unpredictable rule of law and social order, and so on. Drawing on the logic above and in an effort to minimize the distractions, it makes sense to strive for a simplified, streamlined life experience with relatively few moving parts and a least restrictive environment; one where the path from one’s dreams to reality has least friction and most supporting infrastructure ready to use.

The principle is the same, whether it is searching through sets of images at flickr, or seeking pathways to fruitful living in one’s waking experience: distractions are many and the things competing for your attention only seem to multiply. Acknowledging this situation is the first step to mindfully guarding against things that get in the way of fully and truly seeing.


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more than pointing and shooting

A friend paraphrased Ansel Adams when he gave workshops and confined his own shooting with the students to a small camera, maybe analogous to the Point-and-Shoot camera of our time. At the end of the training and practice, everyone’s work would be displayed and judged. If anyone beat his score, then he’d refund their workshop payment. But none ever did beat him. All this is to say that the eye or vision of the photographer grows with experience, practice and command of one’s tools all along the workflow from preparing to set off with gear, to capturing, to producing and presenting the finished work.

Numerous essays and postings from Alain Briot at develop this idea of one’s deepening vision and extending the range of one’s technical powers, as well.

To begin with there is the intersection of date, location, time of day and position relative to the sun or other light source. Then there is choice of subject, its composition (lens, lighting, framing, connection or separation from adjacent and surrounding context), and moment of capture. Overlaying these tangible factors they may well be less obvious but still significant context of news value, cultural meaning, or social significance to the subject immediately and personally, or as a symbol or illustration for a more general expression; or even at the most abstract, an overlying meaning that is more abstract of all, derived from the play of color and form, texture and shading.

And so, while aiming the lens and pressing the shutter can produce a visual memento of a subject at a particular place and time, there is surely much more that goes into the decision to be at the right place and the right time before composing, recording and finally producing a vision of the scene.