Learning to See

Part 1 – Photographic vision, gorilla suits and traffic studies

Light Rail Crossing at Night

We have all been told that in order to take better photographs we need to learn to see as the camera sees. We are taught that our eyes see selectively while the camera records in exact detail what is in front of it. On an intuitive level we understand that there is a filtering mechanism in place with our eyes. Our brains process the information that our eyes take in. But just what is the mechanism by which this filtering occurs and how do we teach ourselves to see beyond the filters and develop photographic vision.

As I was reading a book, “Traffic and Why We Drive the Way We Do” By Tom Vanderbilt, I came across an interesting study that helped put everything in perspective. In a well known psychological test subjects were shown a video in which there was a circle of people passing around a basketball. Half the people had on white shirts and the other half wore black shirts. The test subjects were asked to count the number of passes while watching the video. At least half of the subjects involved in the study did not notice that a person wearing a gorilla suit passed through the circle of basketball players. These subjects suffered from a phenomenon known as “inattentional blindness.” (You can see the original video HERE )

How could someone miss something as obvious as a person in a gorilla suit? The explanation is that there is an unlimited amount of information around us, but our capacity to process that information is limited. The subjects in this test missed the appearance of the gorilla suit either because they were looking for something else or because something came along that they were not expecting. What this study shows is just how selective our vision is even when we think we are paying full attention. Daniel Simmons, a coauthor of the gorilla study wrote, “If you’re limited in how many things you can pay attention to, and attention is a gateway to consciousness, then you can only be aware of a limited subset of what is out there.”

What do gorilla suits have to do with photographic vision? The common belief is that we first see a scene and then interpret it. In reality there is evidence that what you have in mind actually precedes your perception and affects what you see. The concept that our expectations and knowledge influence what we see in a scene is the essence of photographic vision. We must train ourselves to recognize a set of values, an “attentional set,” that make for great photographs. In other words we must learn to see the gorilla in the picture.

Before you all jump on a plane to Rwanda, let me just remind you that that I am speaking metaphorically. The gorilla I refer to is the set of values that we must program ourselves to see. Not only must we be able to see the elements that make a photograph, but we must at all times be ready for the unexpected.

Photographic vision can be divided into 3 categories;
1. The decision to create an image which leads to choice of subject matter and style.
2. The nature of light which can be broken down into color, direction and quality.
3. Composition which is the arrangement of visual elements within the image.

Over the next few weeks in this Blog I will explore each of these categories as well as offer tips on how to train your eye, but, before I go I want to mention that there is a fourth area of consideration. That is the unintended photograph or “happy accidents” that can sometimes lead to great images or even whole new genres of photography. This is probably what John Szarkowski had in mind when he said “The camera has ideas of its own”.

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