see2think

thinking with pictures


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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.


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Learning curve – end points, acceleration, pausing

When it comes to exercising one’s eye for pictures, there are many elements to become conversant in: light values (source, indirect – reflected, surfaces, angles and qualities of light per season and latitude), composition (timing and shutter speed of capture, aperture and depth-of-field, focal length of lens/angle of view, alone and in conjunction, lines, proportion, positioning, fore – mid- background, shadow and light), and subject treatment (alone, in context, in contrasting setting, applying filters – lighting – hdr or other influences); not to mention post-processing options and advisability to enhance and clarify versus over-do and separate viewer from intended subjects. Typically of a new photographer’s mind and eye there is a sequence of steps on the road to maturity and developing one’s “voice” –to use a writer or musician expression for the confident walk that a person is able to take once having mastered conventional elements and rules in order to express one’s original compositing, pastiche, or indeed expression and message.

search string, Learning curve, gives visual representation of the idea of expanding mastery

search string, Learning curve, gives visual representation of the idea of expanding mastery

A beginner in the digital camera age has the advantage over the film learner because result of experimenting are instantaneous and the easy and low cost of sharing or producing various printed versions is relatively easy to learn and do singly or in multiples. Thus the cycle of trial and error is sped up thanks to digital cameras, including the ubiquity of cellphone lens and sensors and apps to alter or improve what the phone sees in order approximate what the human eye perceived in a place or time worthy of capture and communication to others. Some of familiar milestones on the road to greater photo experience of seeing, thinking and capturing/producing images include these: cliche shots (well worn compositions from family, work, or community events: blowing out candles of birthday cake, first day of school, sunset at vacation spot, etc), self aware or ironic shots (self in mirror, or reflected in windows; pictures of others taking pictures), visual puns or jokes (antenna that appear to come from one’s head or the shot of a hand that seems to hold a cloud in it), verbal jokes (bumper stickers, posters, public service messages framed against a subject that supports or else contradicts the message; example, “no smoking” but a hand holding lit cigar is foregrounded).

Little by little one’s ability to overcome challenging lighting (mixed, less than ideal, harsh, artificial color temperature), inconvenient shooting environment (rain, windchill, storm conditions, extended effort to get into position, miscellaneous adversity of natural, linguistic, or cultural factors) and the experience to translate what one conceives visually into the limitations of one’s equipment and sensor grows stronger and stronger. One’s sensitivity to the language of light, color, texture and so forth increases; both the ability to “read” and understand these matters, and the ability to “speak” or express oneself in these terms.

The photo sharing sites, and before that the pre-Internet practice of building up visual vocabulary by browsing shelves of library books in the TR 680 classification (Library of Congress system of numbering books) or 770s (Dewey Decimal system), is one way to expand and deepen one’s awareness of locations and qualities of light that others have conveyed already. In so doing daily, one’s learning curve and fluency in the language of lens and light accelerates. The complementary part of seeing other’s work is to be responsive to photo opportunities of interesting location and captivating light qualities in one’s own daily routines. Carrying some form of camera in a holster for quick draw shooting of fleeting scenes is one way to make visual notes during one’s day and year. Some people go further and share their work in a daily blog, 365 or Photo-a-Day, project. Both sides of the exercise –becoming responsive to certain features and qualities from other’s work, becoming responsive to subjects in one’s own photography— work together to move one along the learning curve. Marking “favorite” in the photo sharing sites builds up a collection of images that allow some reflection and searching for the common elements that speak to one’s own eye. The same is true in periodically reviewing one’s own captures to discover what seems to be the connecting thread in one’s shots.


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quoting for photos

A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense, and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.
Ansel Adams

I do not object to retouching, dodging. or accentuation as long as they do not interfere with the natural qualities of photographic technique.
Alfred Stieglitz

No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it, and is sure of his method and composition.
Claude Monet

Seeing these and others in print caused me to seek more online. The result is a compilation of quotes by Photographers or about Photography.