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Re-learn to see
Train your perception and improve your compositions.
We are born with the capability to see and we hardly contemplate about it unless we lose or eyesight or our focus. Yet the way we see greatly determines our “talent” as photographers. Low-level subconscious brain functions filter the information our eyes capture, before it reaches the slower and more complex areas of our brain where we make conscious decisions. Sometimes we must learn to un-filter information so that we can grow our talent and go beyond our previous capacity as photographers.
How we see
We are incapable to process all the information our eyes capture. Most of our senses have filters, that pre-process and classify information.
While you are reading this, you will not feel your left foot, until you start concentrating on it. This is of course assuming your foot did not send out alarm signals (pain) before.
Perception happens only in a very small field in the center of our vision. While you are reading this page, your eyes follow the words, despite the fact that your field of view is broader than this page. This is because your brain only recognizes things that you focus on.
We also have peripheral vision. In the peripheral vision, we quickly identify movement, but we have no clue what moved. We need to focus our attention, the center of our vision on the moving subject to identify it.
Our brain processes information from the center of our vision different from the peripheral vision. Our camera does not discriminate between the center and the edge of the frame.
This way of seeing has served man well through the millennia, by enabling us to hunt (focus on the prey), while our peripheral vision effectively warned us of threads.
When we photograph, our way of seeing the world actually hinders us for two reasons.
Firstly, we tend to ignore obstructions. When we focus on a subject, our mind blends out things that do not belong, like rogue tree branches. In a print on the other hand, those obstructions draw the viewer’s attention and s/he will focus on them instead of our subject, double jeopardy.
Secondly our way of viewing the world hinders us from seeing the full picture and quickly evaluating the best compositions. Our narrow focus takes away a lot of the options from the start. Even when we consciously scan everything around us, we only see compositions that utilize our narrow field of view where we consciously recognize things.
The Re-learning process
Fortunately, we can train our brain to see the same way our camera does.
It is actually easy. We all have done it before.
Before we get into it, you need to learn how to empty your mind. In order for our mind to perceive everything at once, you need to rid it of thoughts. When you are preoccupied, you will not be able to use this technique to the fullest. Read my posts on the Zen Photographer for more advice on ridding yourself of useless thoughts. You could meditate for a few moments to settle down and empty your mind.
To practice seeing, I recommend you go for a walk around your house or work place. Simply open your eyes wide, but keep them from moving, from jumping from object to object. Normally our eyes jump around as we focus on different things. For instance when we drive, our eyes jump from cars, to pedestrians, to street signs and so on.
Fix the position of your eyes and assume a blank stare, don’t focus on anything while you slowly walk. With this “mindless” stare, you have created a blank canvas for recognizing the world in a completely new way. Keep un-focusing your eyes but realize all the forms and shapes around your complete field of view, not just in the center of your vision. Without recognizing shapes for what they are, you can now observe their shape, shadows and see the interaction with other shapes. Amazingly, when we keep our eyes from jumping, our mind also stays blank. One reinforces the other.
It takes a little bit of practice, but eventually you will be able to see with your entire field of view instead of the small spot in the center of your focus. Even better is that you will suddenly feel drawn to objects without knowing why. Eventually those can turn into beautiful new compositions.
I found it easier to do this when I am listening to music. Classical or relaxation music works well, since the lyrics of most songs and the familiar beats often draw our attention, which is exactly what we hope to avoid.
I realize that the nature of this subject may not resonate with everyone. Maybe it does not work for you at all, but it does work very well for me.
I also realize that the description of the process could sound illusive and confusing and I apologize for that. I found that keeping an open mind to new techniques generally helps me to improve. Even if the technique does not benefit me fully, new ideas always do. Sometimes we need to choose to ignore our habits or behaviors to open ourselves to new horizons, helping us to achieve something outside our comfort level. With practice, we will then be able to expand our comfort levels to include the previously alien thoughts.