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,
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 InspireYourCameraClub.com.