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

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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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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), as well as timing of shutter release. Finally, there is the technical mastery of the camera and the post-processing and factors in final presentation (for settings in print versus on-screen, or fit into a sequence used for 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 photographer’s goal is unmoored from sensory reality and non-fiction subjects, 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’s expertise in 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 the sum of the single instruments. 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 cannot do. A third analogy is the cultural or natural landscape: experts can “read” things in the frame 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 in 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 is 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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Driven to distraction; or, the medium and the message

M. McLuhan shone a spotlight on the importance of the 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 aspects, rather than to enjoy the subject matter or the composition, several facets 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.

click picture for full size view

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) post-processing (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 do 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. Distraction can come from financial constraints or loss avoidance, social status or relationships in distress, consumer dissipation, health preoccupations, unpredictable rule of law and social (dis)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 anonymously and judged. If anyone beat his score, then he’d refund their workshop payment. But no one 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 are things that may well be less obvious but still contribute significantly to the photo’s context: its news value, its cultural meaning, or its social significance to the subject immediately and personally, or more indirectly as a symbol or an illustration for a more general expression. At the most abstract, an overlying meaning could be very abstract indeed, deriving from the play of color and form, texture and shading.

And so, while aiming the lens to frame a subject and pressing the shutter can produce a visual memento 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.