The difference between ‘seeing’ and ‘photographic seeing’

Just a few days ago I was chatting with some fellow photographers about our most important moments of personal revelation in our chosen field. Anyone who has played about even half seriously with a camera has had one of these moments, I remember my first one happening the day I bought a ‘nifty fifty’ lens and I realised how useful a tool manipulating the depth of field could be when it came to isolating a subject.

Everyone I spoke to had their own experience but the one we all came back to as being the most important in terms of personal development was when we discovered the concept of ‘photographic seeing’.

‘Photographic  Seeing’ is based on the very simple but often overlooked realisation that the sensor does not deal with light in the same way that the eye does. The human eye can scan a scene and make impossibly quick adjustments between the extremes of light and dark. This information is then further flattened by the brain to produce the image we ‘see’.  The camera has no such luxury. It cannot smooth the edges, flatten the bright peaks or boost the dark troughs. It can only reproduce exactly what has passed through its lens.

Thus the concept of ‘photographic seeing’ is looking at a scene and seeing not from the perspective of the eye but of the camera. To observe a subject and know with certainty how it would look reproduced in a print or on screen and, much more importantly, what you could change to improve the image.  It sounds tough but fortunately this is an ability that can be taught and refined quite easily by practising a couple of simple exercises.

First of all look out of your nearest window and imagine it as a photograph. Take a second to look at the light. What are the brightest and darkest areas of the frame? These are the parts that will draw the eye most forcefully (they eye is guided by the dark and drawn towards the light) so next ask where do these spots sit in the frame? Are they at the edge or in the centre? Are the bright and dark spots next to each other or creating a high contrast or are they separated out? Finally, and most importantly, do these bright and dark spots help or hinder the subject? Do they take the eye towards the subject or away from it?

If you take the time to do this a couple of times a day it soon becomes second nature. It doesn’t take long at all before you start doing it automatically and I guarantee your photography will improve dramatically as a result.

The next step is a little trickier but equally worthwhile. Once you have analysed a scene take a second to think how the light could change it. What if the sun was in a different place in the sky? What if it was a cloudy day? Where would the shadows fall? Where would catch the light? Would this help or hinder your image? If you are having trouble visualising then grab an egg and a torch and try this:

Light is photography Ergo, if the light changes the photograph must always change too.

Once you have spent a little time practising these skills your ‘photographic seeing’ will dramatically improve and with it the quality of your photographs.

If you would like to do a little more in depth reading I can recommend “The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression” by Bruce Barnbaum and “The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos” by Michael Freeman


53 thoughts on “The difference between ‘seeing’ and ‘photographic seeing’

  1. This information is useful even for my point and click mentality. I used the same techniques in writing. Where is the tension, and are the elements drawing the reader toward the main story or away? I remember doing the same thing in painting. Photographers compose, painters record an image and together, we all make art. I will try applying this to forming a composition with my camera tomorrow. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for the eye opener. LOL, I am just learning how to use my Canon T2i and I will def. put this lesson to good use.

  3. I’ve been shooting photos since 1987. Sometimes I think the greatest gift photography has given me has been the art of truly seeing. Even when I am not shooting photos, I am constantly aware of what light is doing and how it plays on a scene. I believe this has enabled me to more fully engage with the world around me.

  4. Interesting write up. i love it. i decided to add a recent post of mine about seeing or at least the lack of it.

  5. Well done on being Freshly Pressed! I was Pressed about a year ago and it’s a really lovely wee surprise! I’d love to get into photography but it’s always seemed so intimidating. I’ll give these tips a go the next time I have my camera out! Have a great day! Alanna x

    • I won’t lie, it has all gone a bit crazy. My news feed has gone nuts!

      The best part about the exercise I describe is that you don’t need to have your camera with you, you can do it anywhere. Driving, even sat at your desk.

  6. Pingback: Elements of Composition – Contrast and Tonal Range | Will Hey Photography

  7. the beauty of teaching and learning is that lessons are everywhere and content does not need to be complicated to be powerful. Thank you for sharing. The simple things are very often the ones that stay with you forever!

  8. “The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos” by Michael Freeman is definitely a great read. Thanks for sharing! Do you have any others you can recommend as well?

  9. This is a great post and a simple and effective video! I am currently using my first off camera flash and this helps a lot, especially in understanding how one simple light can change my photography so completely.

  10. Very interesting and helpful. I recently wrote about photography and its impact on science and society and a large part of it was directly related to this very concept in the early days and as photography developed. Photography was accepted in courts and in science because people believed it showed what was really there, not what your mind picked out. As you show here, that is and is not true. It takes practice to see what your camera will show and it is a skill worth developing in many fields other than photography. Architecture, interior design, and fashion are just a few examples that could greatly benefit using this skill. I appreciate the exercises you give to develop the skill.

  11. Thank you for sharing this article. It was a great read and informative. I am in the process of studying light and the effects on my photos in order to make them better.and this confirms that I am on the right track. I am looking forward to following your blog!

  12. Will, you make some excellent points. I would add that it is also important to take to truly see what you are photographing before putting a camera up to your face. I think too often people arrive a place to take pictures and just start shooting instead of really taking the time to absorb and process the scene they are about to photograph.

  13. Pingback: Transformation: Darkness into Light | Andante Cantabile

  14. I have a bridge camera and I love to take pictures. One day, maybe a DSLR.
    I have not taken any classes, so I appreciate the info that you have given. Thank you.
    Didn’t think about it before, but I think over time….I did come to know how the camera sees the world. Actually carrying a camera has made me much more observant of the things around me.

  15. Light, dark, perspective — important — essential … but how about the trash cans in the background? Missing feet chopped off at ankles and the trees growing from tops of heads? Ooof!

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