Learning to see: going beyond looking

A camera is 
a tool you can use 
to learn how to see 
 -without a camera

Dorothea Lange

Have you ever taken a photograph and realised when you get home that you’ve included all sorts of background details that you really hadn’t considered at the time?

Yeah, been there, done that.

Lily at Scremerston: photo of dog and unwanted bench
Lily at Scremerston

I mean, what was that bench doing there? It wasn’t there when I took the photo! However, the evidence is clear – there it is. But I was concentrating on the dog and totally missed the bench.

Perhaps more typical is this:

Photo of church on distant hill with loads of unwanted foreground

Santuario Madonna di Lourdes at Verona

You get so taken by the church on the top of the mountain that you discount all the houses on the other bank of the river, AND the river itself, none of which add anything to the scene. It could almost be a postcard.

When we show these pictures to other people we wonder why they’re so underwhelmed with our offering.

Why are these pictures so terrible?

They are both sharp, in focus, well lit and you can tell what the subject is. What’s so bad about them?

In the dog picture, there’s at least one thing that’s just distracting (the bench). And the church as the main subject is just too small – an insignificant dot in a sea of river, trees and houses, and not in a good way.

The common factor with these and many other pictures is the photographer didn’t take notice of things in the viewfinder that were not the subject of the picture. The bench is maybe forgivable, but how did I miss the fact that the church is so tiny?

A lot of that is to do with the way we see things. We concentrate on the important stuff, and the rest? Well, it turns out we just invent it.

So how do we see things?

Despite how it feels, our eyes don’t work like video cameras, taking in everything that passes before us in a constant stream. In fact, our brain directs our eyes to take snapshots (called “saccades“), 4 or 5 every second, of what’s in front of us. And we build up a picture of the scene from those snapshots.

Each snapshot takes in a small area of the scene before us. This could be, for example, someone’s nose or their mouth. This is based on the work of Yarbus, a Soviet researcher in the 1950’s. He discovered that when confronted with a person our eyes stop in a limited number of places while we work out a) it is a person, b) they are not an immediate threat, and c) whether we already know them.

As we can see from these images, our eyes tend to focus on what appears to be key elements of the scene. Unless we have good reason to do so, there we stop. We don’t normally examine the edges of the picture, or take in more than superficially details in the hair, say.

Other things that draw out attention are bright, shiny things (the sun, for instance), things that stand out in contrast to their background, and things that are new to us.  Designers of advertising have long exploited this tendency.

Memory as vision

Actually it’s even more bizarre than that. Until we have seen enough of a scene to recognise it, it seems another part of our brain brings back memories of similar people or places and inserts those into our perception to fill the gaps. We combine memories of similar scenes with our current perceptions until we’ve had enough. It also uses those previous experiences to direct where our eyes look for the next snapshot.

Imagine looking at a large cliff. Most people will see the rocks and vegetation; some may even start to make out features in the rock such as overhangs and ledges. The majority of people will fail to see the two tiny figures of mountaineers making their way up the cliff simply because they don’t expect to see anything like that. Other climbers, having previous experience of that sort of pattern matching, will probably spot them. They can imagine the potential based on their experience. Play Spot the Climber here in the NY Times gigapixel picture of El Capitan in Yosemite.

In evolutionary terms it makes sense. The faster we can identify a threat in the neighbourhood the longer we’re likely to stay alive. So our brains are hardwired to recognise patterns and get us to an understanding of what we need to do next, fast. Anything we can do to shortcircuit this process the better.

But it does mean that if we need to examine a scene in more detail, we have to work a bit harder at it.

How is this relevant to taking photographs?

Many photographs are not as striking as they could be simply because the photographer looks through the viewfinder in the wrong way. 

Many photographs are not successful simply because the photographer looks through the viewfinder as if they were examining the scene for scary animals. Once that have made up their minds they are not about to be eaten, they press the shutter button.

However, for photographic purposes, they should really keep looking. The camera will not differentiate between the friend and the lampost in the background appearing to stick out of their friend’s head.

Photography is not about just looking. It is an activity quite different from glancing at something sufficiently to work out that you know what it is, and you don’t have to run away from it. You have to look carefully at the full frame in your viewfinder and deal with that.

So how do you look properly?

There are a number of steps you can take to make sure your picture is more likely to work for you.

A photographer at work pointing his camera in the tree.
Ian carefully framing his chosen trees
  • Make sure you have decided what the purpose of your picture is. If you haven’t worked that out, the rest of these actions won’t help very much.
  • Consciously look round the edges of the viewfinder frame. You’re looking for things that are normally lurking in your peripheral vision. They may be the things you have assumed just aren’t there. You may have to reframe the picture to exclude these elements if they don’t add anything to the story you’re telling us.
  • Draw our attention to the main reason for the photograph. This includes focussing on the subject or making sure it’s large enough, or bright enough. It might mean you use other compositional techniques like leading lines to make sure we don’t miss it. 


If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.


Robert Capa
  • You may even have to move closer to your subject. Or zoom in a bit more. Fill the frame with what you’re photographing.
  • More radically, change the way you’re approaching the picture completely. In the case of the church on the hill, I decided to pull back even further, find a viewpoint (on top of another church) and using a wide angle lens took a photograph of the city as a whole. The church I originally saw ended up a small element in the picture. (That picture didn’t work either but I see no reason to show myself up twice in one article!)
  • It’s not over until you press “Save”. And finally, these actions could take place while you still have camera to hand, but they could equally be things to do when you’re working on your pictures on the computer.

So Dorothea Lange was right: “The camera is a tool you can use to learn how to see without the camera.” Over time you’ll find you will change the way you look at things, largely as a result of forcing yourself to look properly through your camera’s viewfinder.

For more of my articles on this you might like to read:

The Shieling on the Tweed

Make your intentions plain

Being clear about your intentions for a photograph before you actually press the shutter button is the first step in creating images that say what you want them to say.

Simplify, simplify! Pictures with impact

One of the hardest lessons to learn when starting with photography is not how to fit everything relevant into your pictures, but how to leave everything else out. Here are three steps I follow when I’m trying to create images with impact.

Don’t just look. See!

“Seeing Things” by Joel Meyerowitz was conceived as a “Kid’s Guide to Looking at Photographs”, but it works for older kids too. And why is this just a kids’ book? If you can get past the sub title on the cover page, this is a well written introduction to photographs that might just trigger a few of your own brain cells into action.

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