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

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Layered decisions – for lens; for life

Thanks to the convenience of point and shoot, a person can leave the decisions about exposure and time to the camera and think only about the moment of shutter release for the subject that fills the center of the frame Matters of standpoint, angle of view in the lens (sometimes fixed, not adjustable), and carefully framing the composition can be overlooked in the rush to bring camera into operation and release the shutter. When there is less haste in the moment or if the person is more deliberate in making the photo resemble the image they hold in their mind’s eye, then perhaps everything slows down and there is time to explore the best position to stand, the most important element to fix the focus onto, and even to exert care in framing some parts in or excluding them from the final composition. And if lighting is complicated or defeats the automatic settings for exposure, then that person might exercise some manual control to add or subtract the exposure value (e/v, +/-). But whether it comes from thought and decision deliberated upon, or is left to chance and the automatic settings of the camera, each of these components affects the finished photograph.

Depending on the subject and locational factors, these decisions may shift in importance or sequence, but generally speaking it is safe to say that the following decisions go into the making of a photo; although the technology for “point and shoot” often makes the decisions automatically for the person holding the camera. In the case of a pleasing landscape that motivates a person to reach for a camera, the most basic decision that contributes to the eventual composition is standpoint or point of view. Sometimes the finest picture comes from adjusting the location of the camera an inch closer or further away, a little to the left, right, more elevation or less. In stopping at a particular point the various parts of the scene are set in relationship to each other with lines that touch, intersect, or remain apart. Shadows and reflective surfaces in their colors and textures are locked into the composition. Then there is the lens – wide, normal, or telephoto – to affect the angle of view and the relative sizes and perceptual depth between foreground, middle, and background. This contributes to the third layer of decision, the frame for the composition; what is inside the boundaries and what is excluded from view. Next comes the decision about field of focus, including the point of sharpest focus along with the adjacent space that falls into the particular depth of field created by a given aperture setting. Control of the exposure also affect the final composition and this decision can lead to photo that averages the brightest and darkest elements to arrive at a setting that captures a little of both, while possibly losing the extremes of brightest and darkest. Then comes the question of time (how fast or slow a shutter speed to decide upon) and timing (determining exactly when to make the picture.

How do the layered decisions of a composed photograph correspond to the landscape of a life well lived? If the basis for all the other decisions comes from a standpoint or location, that seems to be equally true of a photograph that is composed or a life that is carried out. Where you are affects what is within the range of eyesight and therefore the subjects you can or must respond to. Your “lens” on life or worldview also shapes the kinds of subjects that are appealing or the opposite, ones that hold little interest or ability to encompass (e.g being too wide or narrow for one’s field of view). Micro-adjustments of one’s view also can include or exclude certain elements at the edge of the frame, too.

As for one’s main focus, that is a direct analog for camera or life. And the depth-of-field created by exposure decision about choosing a preferred combination of aperture and shutter speed (and ISO) might have an analog between camera and life, too. After all, the greater one’s knowledge and experience of life (perhaps also tolerance, respect, curiosity, or degree of open/closed-mindedness) then perhaps also the greater one’s “depth” of focus; the greater one is able to hold bigger and bigger spaces in focus at the same time. Stated in the reverse way, lack of knowledge and life experience may correspond with narrower field of focus (depth of field), like the photos with a wafer-thin plane of focus and all else “bokeh” blurred.

What about timing of shutter release for a photographic capture? Perhaps this is similar to life’s experience in that certain shutter speeds create a “frozen moment” while others create an awareness of motion and the passage of time. In other words, some people view their life as a series of sharply focused and unchanging moments, while others have a blurrier understanding of time’s passing and the processes they find themselves to be a part of. Taking all of these dimensions of a composition together helps to understand the many sides of a finished photograph. Likewise of a life that can be lived – sometimes a person relies on automatic settings or indecision to determine the course one takes, but other times the person carefully considers decisions that contribute to the overall view that makes up one’s life, whether these decisions lie unilaterally in one’s own hands and imagination, or instead come about in response to circumstances.


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Taking your camera for a walk versus walking with camera

photo of author on bike reflected in shop window

sunny spring glass, shadow, and light

Getting into the habit of carrying some form of camera often brings rewards – either a rare play of light to capture, or an attempt that sharpens your eye and reflexes in order to catch something similar the next time. Or simply knowing that you *could* stop and compose a shot sometimes is enough to lift your awareness of the lines, colors, and textures around you, urging you to compose a picture in your mind’s eye. Yet there is something fundamentally different between setting off to make one or more pictures, on the one hand, and setting off to see what there is to see and letting the camera be secondary to the excursion itself.

In the first case there is a certain desperateness that amplifies the scenes that present themselves and your mind may miss the larger context in the effort to seize a moment or to frame a picture. In the second case, letting the excursion be the main purpose and the camera be secondary, there is more score for wandering and contemplating, being open to the meanings that come into one’s mind.

In the first case it seems to be the camera and goal of releasing the shutter that shapes the overall experience and determines what sorts of compositions meet the threshold of one’s sense of what is worth capturing; what is or is not significant and meets the minimum standard for making a picture. Of course the power to point-and-shoot, compared to the days of glass plates and heavy wooden equipment, means less expense and effort is needed to release the shutter nowadays. But in the second case, by contrast, whether any picture is taken or not, the excursion itself provides a pretext or purpose to venture out into the environment, social or natural, and see what there is to see.

For a person with a new camera to learn, it makes sense to create exercises and reasons to take enough shots in enough different conditions to become familiar or even adept at the tools available when making a picture. But other than mastering the gadget and becoming fluent in the skills needed to capture what appears in one’s mind’s eye, to dwell only on settings and results, and not to pay attention to the subject and its context is a distraction or possibly an obstacle to engaging fully in the space and time of the photography process. The same is true in the wider space of living and the longer arc of one’s lifetime: to dwell on the technical details is a distraction or obstacle to engaging, experiencing, embracing the setting and meanings of the place and time.

So next time you set out to make some pictures, be careful to ask yourself –is this trip for the camera, or for me and my chase of the light?