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Seeing is the Essence of Photography, And You Can Learn to Do It Better

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Photography is an analytic art form. We aim our lenses to specific parts of the world around us to pick a frame because, in our analysis, that particular frame presents the photograph we wish to take. We can certainly raise the camera, lower the camera, rotate it, pitch it, yaw it, aim at a different part and end up photographing something different.

You should realize that there are infinite number of photographs you can take from where you are now. How then do we aim the camera to “that particular frame” to photograph?

Seeing is the essence of this process, it is the essence of photography. It is our ability to absorb what lies in our view, process that, and target the frame that is the most compelling; that is the analytical part. Seeing is a mental process, it starts with our eyes capturing some information from our surroundings but continues as a mental activity.

It requires awareness; and awareness is a state of mind. There are many things in front of you now but you are not necessarily aware of all of them. For instance, you are reading this post on a screen, it feels normal to you. But, are you “aware” of the screen dimensions? Are you aware of the distance between the screen and your eyes?

Now that I mentioned these you are probably acutely aware of them. Like these, there are many more phenomena that go under the awareness radar, and many should indeed. But, should you always look at the same or similar things that you photograph and not see many more worthy of your seeing?

As you go through your daily activities, drive from home to your destination, take a walk in the neighborhood, do a little gardening, and so on, you notice things that delight you. That may be the twist on the stem of a leaf that is different from the others, the line up of cars in traffic in a particular way, the birds on the power lines like the notes on the staff lines, that may suddenly enter your consciousness. You see them!

Of course, there may be many more that you miss — you do not see them. Here are some that I managed to see and capture at different times and places:

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Seeing can be improved — you can actually work at it and start seeing things you did not notice before. It requires looking with intention and awareness and learning to appreciate many different things. The movement of the tree branches may create delightful patterns, flight path of a butterfly repeating itself, the huge scissors in front of a tailor shop mimicking the open legs of the pedestrians, there are many, many things to notice and see.

The result is that you may actually start photographing things that you did not before, partly because you did not see them before and partly because you have come to appreciate them! Seeing is part of your experience, you should feel that you are seeing something as a result of your keen awareness, in that state of mind. In fact, one of the books on my shelf is titled The Sound I Saw by Roy Decarava. It is about jazz in Harlem by a great photographer. He saw the sound! Think about that experience of seeing.

Here is a simple exercise you can try. Take your camera, any camera and go down to your basement. If you don’t have a basement, go to your garage. If you don’t have a garage, go to your bedroom. You have 15 minutes to produce 30 photographs in that space with the following requirements:

  • Need to stay in the same space
  • Your images will be cropped to leave the square area in the center, frame height determining the size of the crop, no cheating!
  • If your camera allows setting the image ratio, you may set it to square or 1:1
  • Don’t get into serious editing, the idea is seeing with limits (the square crop in the center), just crop the images as promised

Try to focus on things that normally escape your attention, like the folds of the bedspreads (if you are in the bedroom), the way the stairs may be worn going down to the basement, the stains on the garage floor, etc., etc. Look for texture, lines, shapes, forms rather than “things” to photograph.

You also need to limit your vision to the center square section of the viewfinder, this makes you truly aware of what is outside your frame, because you actually see them knowing that they will be cropped. Why are you leaving those things outside the frame? Why are you including the others you include within?

Now look at the cropped images, they are probably not your typical photographs. Do you find any that you would like to share with friends? What appeals to your sensibilities in them? What about those that did not work? Why do they not work?

There are many more exercises you can do to sharpen the way you see; in other words, you start learning to see. In that line of thinking, I would like to share the following video that I enjoyed very much: “Inge Druckrey, Teaching To See”.


About the author: A. Cemal Ekin is a photographer based in Warwick, Rhode Island who has been shooting for roughly 60 years. He retired as a professor of marketing emeritus from Providence College in 2012 after 36 years of service there. Visit his website here. This article originally appeared here.

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