Selective Seeing

2018-11-05-Myllykoski-0011.jpgPhotography, at its core, is the art of selective seeing. Everything else is just technique.

The budding landscape photographer often starts with a frustrating experience: one enters a captive natural scene, raises the camera to the eye and presses the shutter. The results will hardly ever be satisfactory. Why is that so?

There are many reasons for this: the switch from the “roaming” view of the eye to one within a fixed frame in camera, differences in perspective between eye and lens and depth perception that is mostly done by our brain and not by our eyes.

On top of that, the camera doesn’t capture the warmth of the sun on our skin, the mild breeze, the sound of the sea or the birdsong – we usually “perceive” with all our senses, not only our eyes. Finally, and I think this is important, there are reasons why we have this urge to raise the camera to our eyes. These reasons can range from an experience of beauty, of certain moods, of a decisive moment, of a message or any combination of these. A photograph is the result of an “event”. With event I mean the totality of a scene and our response to it. An interaction between the world and us.

I remember once driving by a meadow which seemed to glow in the most intense greens in the evening sun. Out on the meadow was a herd of deer, also illuminated to the brightest of browns. And then, a deer lifted its head to look at the car driving by. The graciousness of the movement of the deer still fills me with joy every time I recall the scene. And this is what I’d call an event; in this case an event where the meadows, the light, the deer and my joy all came together. Every such event thus needs a sender (the scene) and a receiver (the viewer). But the camera is just a machine to record the scene; it doesn’t know how to record the joy (or other emotions) of the viewer.

This is, where the job (and the skill) of the photographer starts: to make a picture that records the event and not only the scene. In photographer-speak this is sometimes called “working a scene”. It means to find and select a part of the scene and a perspective that best represents the event. Learning how to do this, I think, is the “hard” part in photography. Everyone can learn the basic techniques of natural light photography in a day (the art of artificial lighting might take longer). Learning to “select right” seems to me a long-term (even life-long) effort.

When I started out in landscape photography the biggest surprise was how often I was in a hurry. After all, the landscape doesn’t walk away. Events do though, as do light and clouds and waves. I often didn’t have time to analyze or work the scene. Using long exposures then even lessened the allowed margin of error regarding e.g. composition. If a few exposures will take almost an hour, it is almost guaranteed that the light between the first and the last exposure will have changed. In short: I realized that I had to come (mentally) well prepared to the scene and that I had to practice selective seeing also “offline”, that is without a camera in hand.

The idea with this “offline” work is to both improve the ability to notice things as well as to internalize certain visual concepts. The goal is to intuitively recognize a picture within a scene and to have a tool set to “describe” an event.

In the coming posts, I will take up some of the methods I use to practice this kind of selective seeing. It might surprise you, so stay tuned.

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