Learning to See More

As photographers… and as human beings… learning to see more is an important skill that helps to transform how we experience the world around us. From a photographic standpoint, it has always fascinated me how differently people can capture the world around them, even when standing right next to another photographer.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 27.2 mm, efov 73.4 mm, f/5.6, 1/40, ISO-1600

The visual patterns that our eyes follow can become habitual. When that happens we may miss opportunities to see things that are right in front of us. In essence, we become visual prisoners. There are various approaches we can use to challenge ourselves to break away from our preconditioned ways of seeing the world around us. This article shares a few techniques that may be helpful.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 87 mm, efov 235 mm, f/5.6, 1/100, ISO-400

Using ‘soft eyes’.

This is an approach that I frequently use on a conscious basis. ‘Soft eyes’ is when we try not to lock our eyes… or focus our attention… on anything in front of us. It is a purposeful attempt to take in everything from our right and left peripherals… and everything in between. It is like a wide angle, blurred vision experience. For example, when I used ‘soft eyes’ when doing flower photography, I saw a cascading white flow in the image above. Not individual blossoms.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm @ 10mm, efov 27mm, f/8, 1/50, ISO-400

Using ‘soft eyes’ can help us see composition opportunities. This technique enables the geometric shapes around me to come into clear view with landscape photography. Like the green rectangle across the top of the photograph above, and the strong grey triangle formed by the surface of the still water. There is also a green/brown triangle on the left hand side of the composition.

Mangawhai Heads Beach, New Zealand, Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 10-30 mm f/3.5-5.6 PD @ 20 mm, efov 54 mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-160

While walking down to the beach at Mangawhai Heads in New Zealand an incredible red triangle jumped out at me. I explained what I saw to my wife. She then composed the image above which captured the essence of what I saw.

En route Havelock to Kaikoura, New Zealand, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 40.6 mm, efov 109.6 mm, f/5.6, 1/400, ISO-800

I first experienced the photograph above as three green triangles intersecting in the distance.

Kaka Point, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/1000, ISO-800

The photograph above is one of my favourites from a visit to Kaka Point in New Zealand. Using ‘soft eyes’ caused me to see this image as four, intersecting geometric shapes. A blue rectangle running across the top of the composition. A dark green rectangle created by the cluster of beach front trees. And, two opposing triangles on the bottom of the composition.

Rather than allowing your eyes to focus on the high contrast trees in the scene, try not to focus on anything. Take in the image in its entirety by concentrating on your peripheral vision. When you do, you may see the same four geometric shapes that I experienced when I composed the image.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 90 mm, efov 180 mm, f/5.6, 1/40, ISO-5000, subject distance 2.2 metres

Using ‘soft eyes’ enables me to see shapes and patterns in larger scenes so I can hone in on them.  This cutaway at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum yielded a number of compositions.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8 @ 40 mm, efov 80 mm, f/4.5, 1/30, ISO-4000, subject distance 805 mm
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8 @ 40 mm, efov 80 mm, f/4.5, 1/30, ISO-2000, subject distance 540 mm
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/5.6, 1/60, ISO-6400, subject distance 2 metres

Using ‘laser eyes’.

This technique is the opposite to ‘soft eyes’. When using this approach we do our best to eliminate the bigger scene in front of us, focusing instead on small details. This can be very effective when doing close up and macro photography.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 32mm f/1.2, efov 86.4mm, f/1.2, 1/1250, ISO-160
Olympus OMD-E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/3.5, 1/200, ISO-2000, subject distance 245 mm, handheld focus stacking used, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-400, handheld focus stacking used, subject distance 200 mm, out-of-camera jpeg
Olympus TG-5 @ 18 mm, efov 100 mm, f/6.3, 1/60, ISO-1600, microscopic mode
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/400, ISO-6400, subject distance 235 mm, Handheld Hi Res Mode

Starting with the background.

Often I find myself examining backgrounds first, then deciding what I can match up against them. Finding nice, smooth backgrounds can be extremely important for many types of subject matter as they help create subject separation. Macro photography, such as the blossom image above, as well as flower, insect, and bird photography can benefit from starting with the background.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 260 mm, Handheld Hi Res Mode (HHHR)
Olympus TG-5 @ 18 mm, efov 100 mm, f/4.9, 1/100, ISO-1250, microscopic mode
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-2500, subject distance 4.9 metres, cropped to 4762 pixels on the width, Bird Detection AI used
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 f/4 IS @ 100 mm, efov 200 mm, f/5.6, -0.7 step, 1/800, ISO-320

Looking for light and contrast.

As seen in the image above, looking for light and contrast can help us create interesting compositions. I often use this technique in combination with ‘soft eyes’. Using a flash for macro photography can help create high contrast images.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm macro f/2.8, efov 120 mm, f/11, 1/250, ISO-200, Olympus STF-8 Twin Macro Flash used, subject distance 395 mm
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 158 mm, efov 316 mm, f/6.3, 1/60, ISO-200, subject distance 1 metres
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 90mm, efov 243mm, f/9, 1/40, ISO-400, 21mm MOVO extension tube used.
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 with STF-8 Twin Macro Flash, f/8, 1/250, ISO-200
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 1100m, efov 297mm, f/7.1, 1/125, ISO-800, 21mm MOVO extension tube used.
Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 275 mm, efov 743 mm, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-400
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 46 mm, efov 124.2 mm, f/5, 1/320, ISO-1600, extension tube used

Working with patterns.

Interesting patterns can be found all around us. Both in nature and with human creations. Patterns can help communicate concepts.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 12.1mm, efov 32.7mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO-160

Interconnectedness.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 25.7mm, efov 69.4mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-160

Confusion.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/6.3, 1/320, ISO-5000, Handheld Hi Res Mode, subject distance 270 mm

Protection.

Kylemore Abbey, Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 f/4-5.6 @ 48 mm, efov 129.6 mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-3200

Craftsmanship.

Nikon D800 + Tamron 150-600 mm f/5-6.3 @ 340 mm, f/8, 1/1250, ISO-400

Teamwork and precision.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor 30-110 mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 49.3 mm, efov 133.1 mm, f/5.6, 1/60, ISO-1600

Concentration.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 @ 157mm, efov 424mm, f/5.6, 1/50, ISO-2500

Feeling emotional connections.

Often when we look at subjects they can evoke an emotional response. We can work with these emotional connections when creating images.

Young chick near Haruru Falls, New Zealand, Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-100
Olympus TG-5 @ 10 mm, efov 55.6 mm, f/3.5, 1/50, ISO-800
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 22.9mm, efov 61.8mm, f/8, 1/125, ISO-160
Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-400
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 60 mm, efov 162 mm, f/8. 1/320, ISO-160
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/3.2, 1/125, ISO-5000, subject distance 630 mm
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 @ 283 mm, efov 763 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-2800
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 212 mm, efov 424 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-250, subject distance 5.6 metres
Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-640

Self-examination questions.

We can use simple questions to force ourselves to look for specific situations when we are out with our cameras.

  • Is there anything that looks out of place?
  • Is there symmetry anywhere around me?
  • Where do I see contrast?
  • Is anything provoking an emotional response in me?
  • What colours are attracting my eye?
  • Does my eye move towards anything that provides it rest?
  • If I imagined pouring water on the scene in front of me, where would it flow?
  • What details intrigue me?
  • Is there any movement that attracts my attention?
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/16, 1/2, ISO-160

Every photographer will have their own interests and priorities, so the questions that are relevant for you may be different than for me. Learning to see more can breath new life into our photography. This can be especially important during these times of lock downs and other physical restrictions.

Technical Note

Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear and technology as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/200, ISO-200, subject distance 700 mm

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