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

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The eye of the beholder – composing in LCD vs lens

composing by LCD screen separates eye from frame



The transition from film camera and TTL (through the lens) composing was disorienting at first. Rather than planting your eye close to the viewfinder, it was necessary to hold the camera away from your face to frame the shot, level the horizon, then release the shutter – if relying on focus and exposure according to the camera’s calculation. Going from a time when shutterbugs with quick reflexes would pull a camera up to the face and snap a shot to the seemingly ubiquitous cellphone today, at first it seemed clumsy and slightly comical to see a photographer composing by waving the device to a suitable angle and height, perhaps using one hand to shade the view screen from glare or shading the lens itself from distracting light. But now it seems normal, non-threatening, and sometimes expected that someone will stick out their arms this way and snap a picture to share or possibly to print.

There are a few things that cause a sense of losing creative control when abandoning film and committing to digital. One is being able to rotate the lens barrel to pin-point the focus. Another is the velvety black space of the viewfinder that makes the scene and frame so vivid. To a lesser extent, the mechanical control of exposure by manually adjusting f-stop ring or shutter speed dial is also a transition to make when interacting with camera via touchscreen. The handy depth of field marks on the lens barrel (hyperfocal distance guidance) of film cameras can be worked around with some digital cameras, but on others this functionality is lost for the most part.

composing with viewfinder presents a dramatic space, free of clutter

There are some control settings on cellphones and even the consumer and pro-sumer levels of digital camera. Touchscreen for main point of focus; exposure compensation over/under; sometimes optical zoom to change the focal length. Even more film-like is the experience with a d-SLR since the viewfinder presents a very similar composition space. The manual exposure and manual focusing selection makes the overall experience most film-like of all.

In his 2012 book, Photogaffes [photographs that turn out to be social or cultural gaffes], Richard M. Chalfen collects personal instances from many contributors from the recent era of transition from film to digital camera to cellphone photography. Each form has its high and low points and the people who have contributed visual moments from their lives to the book present a very wide spectrum of way that camera use is affected by the changing technology and the changing society, too.

Why does it matter if composing by viewfinder instead of LCD screen at arm’s length? One difference seems to be peripheral vision: the screen composer is aware of the surrounding scene and perhaps may consider stitching 2 or more frames into a panorama, immersive scene. By contrast the deep black space of viewfinder composition imposes a kind of tunnel vision that blocks out distractions and encourages single-minded focus on a central subject. Another difference is the role of camera in social interaction. When shots are taken from arm’s length, it is easy to reverse the camera to make a selfie. Those were infrequent in the film camera days, although self-timers and tripods did make it possible for a photographer to squeeze into a picture. The range of subjects that are suitable to capture and sometimes to share has grown wider with digital (low cost, Internet connected) and LCD screen (arm’s length but still within the scope of one’s own personal space) photography, compared with TTL shooting on film or on memory card.

What philosophical lessons can be squeezed from this essential change to photography composition and, by extension, change to seeing the world? First is the difference between arm’s length composition and the camera viewfinder that separates the photographer from the scene; a mediated experience that cuts out distractions from the viewfinder and thus from the finished composition. The picture taker who relies on the LCD screen to adjust focus, exposure, frame, and release of shutter remains much more aware of the context of the picture-taking experience; somehow the act of making a picture is more publicly present and (potentially) responsive to the people who are there.

Then there is the expanded vision of a person composing on the fly and positioning the camera at various points before releasing the shutter. Since the peripheral awareness is inescapable at arm’s length, the photographer perhaps is more amenable to panorama pictures to convey the widest experiential space. On the other hand, the viewfinder composer considers each shutter release to be a finished work; a complete statement, rather than something immersed in a wider place and moment.

Finally there is scope of what constitutes a photographable subject. People who are accustomed to the controlled and soothing space of a viewfinder will be accustomed to well-defined subjects that can be framed and captured as a distinct statement. By contrast, more casual point-and-shoot photographers may be less concerned and less readily able to access the controls over their picture’s exposure, depth-of-field, and shutter speed. Instead of a well-defined subject, the more casual shooter may be interested in conveying a memento of an experience of a place and time; the purpose is to bring back memories rather than to communicate to viewers in a carefully composed way.

By reversing roles, so to speak, and putting (d)SLR into hands of casual shooter and then putting point-and-shoot cellphone camera or digital camera in the hands of an enthusiast or professional photographer, perhaps each will still be able to make the kinds of pictures that they are fond of. But the design of the viewfinder does tend to focus the mind and encourage careful composition, while the LCD screen does tend to encourage more casual composition and shutter release. So while the technology does not always cause some types of composition, at least it does make certain habits easier than others to practice. And so the lesson is that form-factor does play a part in coloring one’s experience of composing pictures. By extending lens to brain, perhaps it is possible to say that form-factor of one’s lived environment (architect F.L. Wright’s quote, “a house is a machine for living”) also affects daily and lifetime habits; the kinds of activities, ideas, ambitions, problems defined and solutions suggested that a person contends with. Going further with the camera & life metaphor, the difference between capturing a set of well-focused, carefully composed scenes versus a more casual collection of mementos of less controlled composition could be interpreted with regard to camera and also with regard to life trajectories: well-defined complete subjects versus more casual and incidental experiences that range widely.


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Surplus capacity – of gear; of eye; of mind

photo of wine glass with water

half-filled or half-empty, space is available in any case

For some people the first thought when hearing the word “surplus capacity” is Karl Marx and his insight into capitalism uses for labor and machinery to squeeze the fullest use from all inputs so that final cost is minimized and everything captured beyond that will be taken in profits. Others think of the flash of genius in the airlines when they realized that routes and schedules are flown by each company no matter how many seats go unsold. They came up with “rewards points” to that loyalty program flyers could claim seats, if they were otherwise going to be unused. The airlines also developed “code sharing” so that one company would carry the ticket holders of another company, thus filling almost all seats. Now this same way of seeing the world in terms of under-utilized capacities can also apply to sophisticated consumer or professional photography equipment.

Looking at the owner’s manual there are myriad features and special settings that can be used in particular situations, such as the “snow or bright beach background” in which the automatic exposure control usually errs in reducing the light reaching the film or sensor to achieve an average exposure for the entire scene, while frequently producing very dark images of people’s face. By using that special setting, the camera is forced to increase the exposure by 1 or 1.5 f-stops from the normal automatic exposure setting. Experimenters or creative photographers could also use the setting in ways unintended originally and try picture-taking in contrasty night locations, at indoor venues, or even for ordinary day-light subjects to create a deliberate aberration.

For most people, though, the owner’s manual gives too much information. So they learn enough to begin and then only return to the manual as needed. As a result, there will be many tools, filters, effects, procedures, and possibilities that never are explored or perhaps never are known about. These unused or under-used capabilities of a camera can be seen as “surplus capacity.” Equally of one’s eye for detail, for light, and for composition, there is a kind of surplus capacity; or a seldom used way of seeing things. For a person who responds to shadow, those instances will drawn one’s eye. For a person who responds to bold composition of lines and light and texture, perhaps an uncluttered and contrasty scene will spark interest and attention. For a person who is more journalistic or sociologically inclined, the moment’s significance will be defined along those lines instead of the visual composition itself.

Finally, moving from capitalism’s way of operating to camera gear to awareness of photo opportunities, there is still another application of this idea. Beyond the under-used power of one’s eyes and awareness, there is also a kind of surplus capacity that pertains to one’s mind and waking hours. That is to say, while a mind and one’s day to day thoughts could be filled with just about anything from the frivolous to what may be life-changing, usually the routines from waking until falling asleep will shape the pathways that one’s mind takes. Preoccupations and worries and hopes might take up one part of one’s attention and energy to care. Routine tasks might take up another part of one’s attention. Occasionally an epiphany or novel experience might cause some new responses. Or an external jolt from personal or spectated risk-taking could stir new feelings. And a few people may feed an active or over-active imagination, as well. But surely the fullest range of uses for one’s mind is seldom exercised. In sum, there is much surplus capacity in the world; not only when a camera is at hand, but even when no photography is involved.

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Four sources that frame meaning

Significance, importance, or value of a moment comes from several possible sources. (click image for full-size view)

What may be said of spotting a photo opportunity, composing, capturing and conveying the picture also may be said of life in general; what one sees without the aid of a camera. There may be many more reasons that a snapshot is regarded as important in its own time, or when researchers find it long after the time of its making. But these four initially come to mind. One source of significance comes from status of the subject; it may be a thing that is seldom seen by most viewers. Value in a photo may come from gaining privileged access to a rare sight, or perhaps not a rare sight but yet of a subject seldom recorded. It may be time-sensitive and lose value by the next hour or the next day. Or it may hold enduring interest and significance, no matter how much time separates the shutter release and the publication or circulation of the image to viewers. In other cases the importance of the image comes mainly from being technically perfect in composing and capturing a subject, whether or not the subject has ordinary or extraordinary significance. Then there are photographs that gain value for the artful play of ideas or subjects that the photographer expresses – the sheer showmanship of the maker that makes even a dull subject curious or even interesting by use of unusual light source, angle of view, or choice of lens and shutter speed, for example.

Each of these ways can add significance to an image, sometimes compounded when more than one of these reasons intersect at the moment of capture. Rare view: No matter how poorly photographed, the fact that the image gives viewers access to something seldom seen will make the image valued. Timeliness or the timing of the shutter release can give dramatic effect to a subject (breaking news on the one hand, or else the Decisive Moment celebrated by Cartier-Bresson beginning in the 1940s and 50s). Pictures that are technically well executed attract admiration, too. No matter what the subject is and its timeliness, a well-made photography can be looked at as a source of delight. Lastly there are photographs that in concept or composition can make a subject that is ordinary or out of the ordinary seem equally intriguing to the eye of viewers on the basis of artful composition or imaginative artifice. In this case it is the genius of the photographer that catches the eye of viewers, apart from the interest in subject or its composition more generally.

In each case, these external factors take a subject that is embedded in its place and time and apply a compositional frame or contingent context that adds to the viewer’s experience of the picture as having special significance or particular value that goes beyond the innate qualities of the thing being recorded. Analytically separating out the meaning of a photo that comes from the subject itself from the meaning that is added by the manner of capturing and presenting the finished image is worthwhile. Doing so can help the viewer and the photographer to become aware of how much of the finished result lies in the presentation and how much resides in the subject, no matter who is photographing it. Even without a camera, these frames for adding meaning to the things appearing to one’s eye can be at work.

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Paradox – seemingly solid, but also so fragile

collage photo with old camera on left, contact sheet at center, cellphone at right

photography old and new; from glass plate to silicon chip (author photo; clip art royalty free)

Recording the lens image focused sharply to a pin-point on chemically prepared plates of glass, or sheets of light-sensitive paper made this paradox very apparent because a bump, tear, light-leak, weakened chemical solution, or bit of dust, among other things, could ruin the image-making process. Of course, even when a successful image was produced and then mounted or framed for display, the wood, glass, and paper result could easily be damaged or destroyed. The archival longevity is not known beyond the current age of earliest surviving images; maybe 175 years or so in some cases, much less for images poorly processed or ones exposed to pollution, extremes of temperature, humidity, light, and so on.

And yet during the few seconds or hours that a person’s eyes rest on the two dimensional composition and create a mental image perhaps in three dimensions or four (time’s moment of capture and subsequent passing), the scene and subject do seem imperishable and long-lasting. It is paradoxical that the subject and the momentary viewing experience can give a sense of immortality and hyper-real status to a subject, despite the precarious process once used to make images and then the risks that the photographs face once they have been produced for display, sharing, publication, or filing away in a shoe box or some more institutional setting.

Now with the leap from film, chemicals, and printing paper to pixel-packed electronic sensors to receive the sharply focused light through the lens, much of the fragile chain of events has collapsed. The person with camera and computer or Internet connection can go from shutter release to sharing around the world in moments, with or without first editing. The image capture and image viewing are only separated by a few moments, not hours needed to dip into chemicals to develop the negative and more chemicals to transfer the image to a positive exposed on light sensitive paper to be developed and fixed for perpetuity. But also the process of digital photography is still a delicate matter, and the resulting image may now be even more likely to disappear than the ones printed onto paper.

These are ruminations about the paradoxical character of photographs giving viewers the feeling of solid, enduring power of documentary reality while at the same time the photography is ephemeral to compose (only a fraction of a second is faithfully represented; what took place before and after the moment may well lack the critical drama, line, exposure and shadow, for instance), precarious to produce so that others may see it, and fragile to preserve or conserve. But perhaps there is a similar paradox in human relationships with other creatures – human or not, as well as one’s relationship to the life passage from earliest memory to the time of personal extinction and memories bequeathed to those who follow to keep. That is to say, while daily routines and places visited by habit may seem to be solid and enduring, paradoxically it is only through a tenuous series of forces, assumptions, agreements, and other supporting infrastructure that this perception of stability is sustained. A disaster, accident, or other emergency can quickly turn that imagined solidness into dust and wreckage. In this way, both the fragility and the imagined solid durability of human experience is paralleled in the experience of composing, producing a finished form to display or share, and then the effort to care for that image into the future: these matters are both fleetingly fragile and also imagined to be forever frozen in time.

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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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Entropy dissolves things while cameras focus things

Great minds have pointed out the way that structure, order, and creative forces compete with the opposite — entropy, the break up of environment and its components, and the dissolving of shape and definition into a sameness of ever smaller parts. Thinking about what happens when your eye is attracted to a subject or event and then you frame a picture, there seems to be a countervailing defense against this entropy; a neg-entropy.


Much of the world is confusing, out-of-focus, and working in diametric opposition, but lenses sharpen and freeze all the motion into a moment of clarity to express structure.

On the one hand a camera brings to bear the harmony between seeing a subject (the visual sensory experience) and knowing that subject (intellectual comprehension; acknowledgement and understanding its setting and significance). To see is to know. The unknown becomes known to a certain extent by shining light on it, focusing and framing it, then capturing on film, glass plate, or digital sensor.

But on the other hand a camera’s optical physics also creates order from disorder, pattern from randomness, focus from haziness, certainty from ignorance. To take a picture is to freeze the day’s flow of events and meanings, if only for a fraction of a second. At least in that moment everything within the frame and in focus can be accounted for, measured, related to each of the elements, and so on. In other words, when you engage with your daily experience and the wider world with the help of a camera’s lens, then the feeling of control, order, and certainty comes with it.

A camera can be a therapeutic device to impose meaning on circumstances that sometimes seem to lack meaning, pattern, structure, relationships, or focus. The work of Tony Vaccaro during his 272 days of WWII combat on the march from Normandy to Berlin with a trusty 35mm rangefinder is a prominent example of mediating the fluid, confusing days of mortal danger. The 2016 HBO documentary, Underfire, presents some of Vaccaro’s humanity at the time, during the several years of healing from that experience, and in the decades of hindsight that followed.

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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.