Seeing Like the Camera – My First Year as a Photographer

As the next college year approaches, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned so far about photography, both in and out of the classroom.  All the technical and operational basics, for sure, along with lots of creative details that more experience and practice will make stronger.  It’s been a great year.

Knocking Down HurdlesBut there is one thing I continue to struggle with overall – it’s simply vision, in all its many forms.  That includes seeing clearly as my old eyes dim with time, developing a personal style and creative direction for my work overall, and maybe most puzzling, understanding how the camera, lighting and all of the other gear can be fully exploited to fulfill that vision.

Lots of people have written about the technical/physical differences between our eyes and what the camera sees; haven’t found many who write about how best to exploit those differences when planning your next shot.  Technically, our eyes have a greater dynamic range (12-13 f-stops vs. 5-6 for the camera), wider depth of field, extremely wide angle of view and fully automatic white balance.  We have 120 million detail detecting rods in our eyes vs. up to 50 million pixels (50 megapixels) in the camera.  But our eyes also have limited peripheral sharpness, we are easily distracted by clutter or movement in the scene and we can’t freeze action or slow motion.  We also can’t change eye lenses to get different visual effects.

mcnallyOne example:  I attended a workshop recently where one of my favourite photographers, Joe McNally, demonstrated a simple lighting setup with 3-4 speedlights (flash units).  In the foreground, a gentleman from the audience with a very distinctive face and beard, arms crossed, grim expression on his face.  In the midground about 10 feet behind, 2-3 audience members, seated, heads down, faces lit, pretending to be engrossed in looking at something on their computers.  In the background, at least 40 feet away, a gelled light illuminating the wall.  Yet, when the shot was taken, it looked like a warlock’s workshop, with red lighting surrounding the pale faces of hard working souls overseen by the task master.  It was shot with a long lens which compressed the entire scene horizontally.  The point is that Joe knew it would do that.  He planned the shot very specifically that way.  It looked great and came out exactly like he planned it.

I think that’s really my main learning so far – it doesn’t matter that there are ropes and ladders and equipment and debris and even other people elsewhere in the scene – the camera, if positioned and set correctly, eliminates the clutter and distractions.  But to get the shot, to have a vision of the outcome, I need to see like the camera – to ignore the clutter and distractions.  That’s really hard to do.  Even with a viewfinder in front of you.

rick-sammonAnother example:  Rick Sammon talks about learning how to see the light – which at the end of it all is what you are really doing when you photograph anything.  Light has colour, direction, quality, intensity and movement.  It creates contrast.

Colour means the “temperature” of the light (or all the various sources of light in the scene) and selecting the right temperature for the mood of the shot.  Direction affects how much of the scene is illuminated, of course, but can also create mood ranging from sinister to celebratory.  Light quality is the harshness of the light – the glaring bright light of high noon that washes everything out or the softening quality of late afternoon with the sun low in the sky.  It’s also the difference between direct light and diffused light.  Intensity is brightness, which is probably the one feature we easily detect.  And yes, light can have movement.  Here the subjects may be moving and reflecting light or the light source itself may be moving.  It’s a choice between blurring the movement or freezing it.  The camera can do both.  Our eyes can’t.  Lastly, contrast is the spread between the darkest shadow and lightest highlight in the shot.  Remember the camera has a limited range.

As Rick reminds us:  light illuminates, shadows define.  Expose for the highlights.  Keep an eye on the camera’s histogram to understand what the camera is seeing.  Once lights and subject are positioned, move around the subject.  A few inches can make or break a photograph.

lindsay-adlerToday, post-processing is as important as taking the shot.  Post-processing allows you to reduce or enhance the differences between what the camera sees and what the human eye sees.  But the evolving importance of “post” means that you not only need to be able to see like the camera, you need to be able to visualize what you can do with the shot once you have it.  Lindsay Adler, a well-known fashion photographer in New York, says that taking the shot is just the beginning.  Cropping, enhancements, special effects and final formatting all finally make the photograph.  She always plans and takes the shot with that end in mind.

It’s baby steps, I’ve found.  As with all other personal development, the first step is “seeing” the challenge.  That’s especially true with photography.  Practice and experience are key.  But so is studying the work and wisdom of those who have done it.  My thanks to these great photographers and to my instructors for sharing their perspectives.  If the next year is as enlightening as the first, I can hardly wait.