thinking with pictures

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A taste for light – connoisseur at the winter solstice

DSC01664About 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.

moonlit - camera's capture vs. human visual experience of the light

moonlit – camera’s capture vs. human visual experience of the light

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 MAQ01667


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driven to distraction; or, the medium and the message

M. McLuhan shone the spotlight on the importance of a 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 reasons, rather than to enjoy the subject matter or the composition, several elements 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) postprocessing (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 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. Being driven to distraction can be financial constraints or loss avoidance, social status or relationships in distress, consumer dissipation, health preoccupations, unpredictable rule of law and social 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.