The Way The Camera Sees

In Most Popular, The Craft, Thoughts & Theory by David20 Comments

One of the things that fascinates me about photography is the raw materials it uses. Painters have paint and canvas. Sculptors have stone and metal. But photographers? We have space,  time, and light, and I think that’s magic. Hold that thought for a moment.

How we think about making photographs can change how we make photographs and, therefore, change the photographs we make, so I want to discuss one of the more significant paradigm shifts I had as I have grown in this craft.

Ever the learner and always trying to embrace a beginner’s mind, I try hard to keep uncovering new ways of looking at and practicing this craft, and the realization I’m about to share with you was one of the things that has most helped me use my camera more creatively.

The hardest job of the photographer is not the making of pictures. It’s not the pushing of buttons. It isn’t even being aware and having open eyes and an open mind—it’s more.

The hardest job of the photographer is seeing the way the camera sees.

That one realization—that the camera sees, or can see, much differently than we do—has probably helped my understanding of making photographs more than anything else. 

We do not see the same way the camera sees; thinking the camera sees like we do will make you frustrated and wondering why your photographs don’t look the way you wanted them to. Depending on your choices, the space in the frame won’t look the same. Use a wide-angle lens and what happens to the space in the frame? The foreground gets bigger, the background smaller and expansive. Use a longer lens and it contracts: elements get visually compressed.

We see in three dimensions, but the camera sees in only two, so our choices of where we stand with the camera (in combination with the choice of focal length) will affect a much different look than we could achieve with our own eyes.

The same is true in terms of light; the camera can do things our eyes can’t. It can dial down the light coming in so much that it only sees a lick of light around a silhouette. We can’t do that. It can also dial up the amount coming in, so it sees details in a brighter scene than we can see. Lens flare, too. We can’t dial our eyes down to f/16 and create a sun star with a small point of light. We can’t really make shadows go dark and mysterious either because our eyes adjust automatically. They have no manual mode, but the camera does.

And time! No matter how closely we pay attention to something, we’ll never see water droplets frozen in the air the way a shutter speed of 1/8000 can. Nor, for that matter, will we ever see the blur of a waterfall or a passing pedestrian the way the camera can by stretching out time.

In a very real way, the camera sees time differently than we can, and that gives us tremendous possibilities beyond just the defaults.

Space, light, and time are our raw materials. The camera sees these elements differently than we do (or it can if we ask it to) and this is what makes photography so much fun for me, and so full of possibilities.

Through the choice of optics and settings, we ask the camera to change the way space, light, and time are represented in the photograph; we ask it to do something we can’t do with our own eyes and render a reality we couldn’t otherwise see but can most certainly feel.

Because while we will always see time pretty much the same way, we don’t always feel time the same way. The same is true about how we feel about space and light, but the camera can create interpretations of space, light, and time that feel more like the way we experience them. I can’t be the only one who thinks this is pure magic!

So what does this mean for your craft? Among all the questions I constantly encourage you to ask as part of your process, I want to suggest one more (though it’s more like a set of questions): how can the camera see this scene? Notice I didn’t ask “how does it see this scene,” but how can it? What are the possibilities? You know how you see it, and with a little soul-searching, you can identify how you feel about it. Try asking how the camera might see it, with a little guidance from you.

How are your chosen optics telling the camera to see the space in your scene? How are your exposure settings telling the camera to see (and interpret) the light? What about time?

To all of these questions, there are multiple answers that you get to weigh in on. It’s not about which one is right, but about which one aligns with what works best for you: which version of the camera’s many perceivable realities is closest to your vision or intent for the photograph.

It’s important to remember that the camera is not merely a tool for capturing reality but for interpreting it; it’s even more important to remember those interpretations of our raw materials of space, light, and time are up to us.

So next time you’re considering a lens, try asking how that certain focal length will help the camera see the space in your frame differently: how your exposure choices will help it see and interpret light in a way that you can’t see but might feel more real—perhaps darker or lighter than your eye can see. Or how your shutter speed choices might cause the camera to see time in a different way, because slower or faster, it’ll be different than your eye sees it, and that’ll make it feel differently as well.

If you’re getting frustrated because your photographs don’t look or feel the way you’d hoped, ask yourself if perhaps the camera is seeing space, light, or time differently than you are seeing or feeling them, and if there’s not a chance to use the camera’s many different ways of seeing to interpret or express your vision a little more powerfully.

For the Love of The Photograph,

PS – Want to inspire your camera club? I’m now booking virtual lectures for Camera and Photo Clubs

I’ve been asked lately about virtual lectures for camera clubs, so I’ve put together a 90-minute experience that camera and photo clubs around the world can book for the meetings that are increasingly taking place online via Zoom. If you’re going to bring in a virtual speaker, bring in someone who loves this craft as much as you do!

I’ve put together a simple website that will make it easy for you to pass this information along to those who plan your lectures and events, and to get in touch with me to discuss the details. Spaces over the next six months are limited, so the sooner we talk, the greater the chance we can make this work.

Interested? Want to pass this on to the leadership of your camera club?
Check out


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  3. David, you are ever the thoughtful and though-provoking writer and photographer. I find it easier to achieve my goal with my mirror-less camera than with my film camera. The mirror-less with LCD viewfinder allows me to have an idea of what the camera sees. With film, I have limited myself to just one lens.

    1. Thanks, Khurt. I think you’re right, the mirror-less cameras definitely help us see the way the camera sees without the guessing one used to have to do with DSLRs, and most certainly with films camera. Going back now to DSLRs definitely feels a little clunkier.

  4. Hi, David. I am a member and newsletter editor of the Schenectady Photographic Society (NY). I am wondering if you would give permission for me to include this article in a future edition of our digital newsletter. I think our members would find it very inspiring. I will, of course, give you credit and include links to your website. Thank you for your consideration.

    1. Hi Linda! Thanks for asking. Please do!

      This is what I usually say:

      Want to share this in your camera club newsletter? Quote parts of it on social media? Republish it in a magazine? I’d be honoured. No need to ask permission so long as you: credit me, get the spelling of my name mostly correct, and let your readers know they can get their own copy of articles like this directly from me by going to and telling me where to send it. Do those three things for me and you can share it wherever and with whomever you’d like, with my thanks.

      Thank you for asking!

  5. This was great to read the night before heading out for a shoot.

    I’m aiming to read this again in the morning before hitting the road and hoping to keep the question “how can the cameras see this” in my mind as I shoot.

    1. This was great to read the night before heading out for a shoot.

      I’m aiming to read this again in the morning before hitting the road and hoping to keep the question “how can the cameras see this” in my mind as I shoot.

  6. Eureka, thank you David.

    So often I’m frustrated by the camera not capturing what I see but I’ve been asking the wrong question. Instead of asking my camera what it can do for me, I should have been asking what can I do for my camera (to paraphrase …) because it can do so much more than my poxy 3D eyes can see.

  7. Seeing how a wide angle lens or macro lens sees, now that is interesting. Two very different worlds that both create dramatic weird and wonderful images.

  8. Hi David,

    this is very good advice. Thanks a lot. With your thoughts you make me change the way I photograph and my postproduction. I even “find” new options in the software, that I ignored all the time.

    Thanx again, please stay happy and healthy


  9. Have you ever read some of the interviews with David Hockney about photography? He also points out that the camera doesn’t see the same way humans do, but from a somewhat different viewpoint. He doesn’t talk about lenses and such, but the camera presents a cyclops-like view, whereas we have binocular vision. He’s always on about how our eyes roam when we’re looking and the camera is set on one image, but I think that when he says that, he overlooks the fact that a good photographer — however you wish to define that term — is usually scanning the scene before he pickup the camera to take a shot.

  10. Thank you for this.. I often will explain to those that ask.. how did i do something,, what did i see? how did is set or not set up the photograph… that my camera sees differently then i do,, I studied science, and the brain in my younger years, worked in healthcare, my partner is a neurologist and musician.. So the idea that what we see through the camera,, and then “click” the button” is what we will capture on our film or digital has never made sense to me. Our eyes don’t work that way. I am grateful to you for this more in-depth and photographic response to the aspect of time, matter.

  11. Thanks, David. Once I realized that I needed to see what the camera was seeing, the camera became my tool for making photos closer to what I wanted them to be. I sometimes “force” myself to use only one lens, preferably a prime lens, to tear myself away from the convenient all-encompassing zoom lens that covers pretty much anything. It helps me to expand my creativity, but mostly trains my eye to see what the lens can see. Once I know the strengths and limitations of each lens/camera that I have, I can “play” with shutter speeds, depth of field, etc., to expand on that knowledge much more effectively.

  12. Two experiences in my photo life stopped me short and made me really begin to take the time an effort to understand how the camera sees. The first was when I captured an image just after twilight that came out so blue, because the camera sees the “blue hour,” whereas the human eye, is limited in doing so.

    The second time was when I got my first long telephoto lens and captured an image along a rocky seashore and saw how the lens compressed the image, bringing the islands in the distance in close.

    Both incidents made me acutely aware of the power of optics, and made me start being very aware of how the camera sees, how it can “collect” light in low light conditions, how a wide angle lens will push things apart and bend objects inwards, etc.

    In the end, they are all wonderful things that can expand your creative abilities to new ends. Rather than limitations I see them as possibilities.

  13. The camera’s ability to see in ways our eyes can’t is exactly what hooked me on photography. To see the needles on a pine tree half a mile away, or fill the frame with a flower that’s a quarter inch in diameter; to stop the motion of a hummingbird’s wings, or make all the hundreds of people walking around at a festival just disappear with a 10-minute exposure. Thinking about what the camera can see has taught me to see differently – to see more than I ever did before picking it up. And yet I still find myself settling into a rut of seeing one way, thinking one way, when there are whole universes in front of me, waiting for me to wake up. Thanks for another good rut-kicking, David.

  14. Thank you. This might be the single most enlightening information I have read. You and other photographers who share thoughts, knowledge and insight are helping many through this time of COVID. I am going now to look at my lenses. Really look at them from this new perspective. 🔆

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