About an hour before the sun settled onto the horizon in the west, the broken pattern of clouds opened up and the low-hanging sun, just a week before its final ebb of the year at the December solstice, shone across the fresh, snow-covered landscape and dramatized the silhouettes of the trees now bare of leaves. With the low angle comes an extra measure of atmospheric haze that the rays of light must pass through and the blue and purple wavelengths are mostly absorbed along the way, leaving only the longer wavelengths of yellows, oranges, and reds to cover the wintry scene in a warm, golden blanket of photons. The course of human life has resulted in visually sophisticated skills with something like 20 or 25% of the brain dedicated to processing patterns, color, texture and light. But some people develop their visual function beyond everyday uses and become visual artists or designers, or if not makers then with an appetite that allows them to appreciate good, better, and best quality of light and visual interest. Photographers represent an unusual medium since the bar to making photographs has been set so low ever since the Kodak “Brownie” box camera 100 years ago; the original point and shoot, fixed focus lens that made home photography accessible to the wide public. The equivalent device these days perhaps is the cell phone, equipped with camera for both still and video capture, not to mention audio portraits with the built-in (voice) recorders.
As with other muscles and skills, the more you use it, the stronger or more refined and specialized it becomes. This learning curve is both physical and mental: physical because actions and habits of response involve flesh and effort with repeated use leading to stronger apparatus. As a simplistic illustration, the more times you press your finger to the shutter release button, the more familiar the action becomes and stronger the feeling and function becomes. The more often one’s eye goes over a composition in the viewfinder or in reviewing the work of others, the more quickly one can compare to other instances and see both good and bad points in the current image.
But besides the physically expanded powers gained by repetitions, there is also a mental side to the work of making images or reading the ones made by others; indeed, in seeing the views that present themselves to one’s eye day by day, like the winter late afternoon light, above. “Practices makes perfect” is not only about the physical motions and habits that form little by little, it is also the growing familiarity with the range of conditions, the angles of view, the technical compensations possible to make when correcting the literal, mechanical recording of the lens and sensor in order to produce a scene closer to one’s human visual experience (correcting the camera by adjusting color temperature or averaged exposure setting; example of moonlit snowy nightscape, below). The more pictures one makes or views, the more discerning one comes to be: capable of distinguishing slight variations in the temperature of the light (bluish cast vs. overly warm tone; natural versus artificial light sources; direct versus indirect, reflected illumination), or the quality of shadows and the likely changes to expect to the composition when a cloud bank threatens to cover the sun, or the way that the rising light of the passing morning hours is going to transform the scene if only one is patient enough to wait and also to move to a viewpoint right for the moment in the future one is seeking.
In summary, to spend more and more time observing the visual scenes throughout one’s day, with camera in hand or purely by eye, on screen or in one’s waking life, then the more one’s responsiveness, capacities, fine-motor skills, and mental familiarity with conditions will grow. One result is increased awareness and appreciation of the visual banquet that many people take for granted, like those who wolf down their meal in haste versus those who linger over each bite. Both may exhibit a healthy appetite, but one savors the texture, temperature, color, flavors, taste and smell of the food more than the other. One more than the other “reads” more deeply into the presentation and eating of the food, enjoying the company of others at the table at the same time. The same is true of the ubiquity of daylight or reduced illumination of nighttime: many will take it for granted, see past it in their preoccupation with other matters, or regard it as incidental background to what really is demanding their focus. But instead to take the time to view the light itself as a worthy subject to observe, record, and savor can lead to great pleasure, as was this hour of golden light on the bright snow as it shone through the windows, etched the outlines of twigs and tree trunks in gold, and caused shadows on carpet and walls to move across the room. The blanket of warm light on the cold afternoon was truly glorious (click video link, below, to watch source file at flickr.com).