Sunday, August 25, 2013


Today I drove the rest of the way across Canada to the coast at Vancouver. There was some kind of Ferrari group therapy session going on in Vancouver so along BC5 from Riverton I got to watch Ferraris blow past me all day.

I didn’t take any pictures of anything because I knew everything I saw would never look as good in a picture as it did when I saw it and it wouldn’t even be close so I didn’t bother, I just looked. This is a frustrating fact about photography; photographs usually look worse than what you saw, occasionally they capture the gist if you’re lucky and rarely they’re better. Why is this? I think our eyes trick us into photographing the wrong things. The way that we perceive a scene and the way that a camera sees a scene (and later a viewer of the photograph taken through the camera) are different. This isn’t a complicated technical difference, it’s very simple; we have two eyes and a camera has one. I think that the majority of our difficulty in taking interesting pictures can be attributed to this morphological difference.

Having two eyes, we perceive the world through binocular vision; focusing both eyes on a single point and using the difference in perspective between the two eyes to get an approximate feel for the distance of the objects in our field of view. This gives depth to everything we look at, and is responsible for the sensation of being “drawn in” to a scene such as a sunlit patch of grass viewed through a tangle of mossy vines in a forest.
A camera’s monocular vision has none of this ability. You’ll see something interesting, you’ll close one eye and put the other to the camera’s eyepiece and view the scene in the frame of the focusing screen and suddenly you don’t get that same “drawing in” feeling from the scene. You take the picture anyway but when you get home and look at the photo, removed from the environment in which you took it with the memory of the scene fading, you can’t remember what was so interesting about it. Then you show it to someone else who has never even been to the place it was taken and the photo is utterly boring to them. This all occurred because once you lost the binocular vision of the scene the depth was gone and the depth was what drew you to the scene in the first place.

People have been trying to overcome this limitation of photography since the camera was invented. Stereoscopic photography has the photographer image the same scene twice, moving the camera to the side by roughly the distance between human eyes after the first shot. The prints are made side by side and a special viewer is used so that the left eye only sees the left image and the right eye sees the right image; pretty much the same principle that modern 3D cinema uses. The problem with this is that it shouldn’t require equipment to view a photo! Not to mention that a stereo photo can only be viewed by one person at a time; you can’t stand in front of a stereo photo with your friend and point out its merits.

So without these types of tricks, what can a photographer do to record the depth of a scene. First consider more thoroughly what contributes to the sense of depth we have with our binocular vision. If you stare at the question mark at the end of this sentence, how many other words around it can you read without moving your eyes? You can see the borders of the screen and the color of the page but the details in all but the closest words are lost. In this way your eyes give you the context of the scene without allowing too many distracting details surrounding the subject of your gaze. This is what makes spotting a familiar face in the crowd so exciting or why you can stare for an hour at a city skyline. Your focal point is isolated from the surroundings, you don’t experience the whole scene at once.

Now imagine the sun soaked patch of grass through the yellowed mossy vines in the forest again. The vines are right in front of the patch of grass but you barely notice them; you know that they’re there but you can still see the entire patch of grass through them. The reason for this is depth of field; what’s in focus and what is out of focus and the distance of these limits from your eye. So while the vines are along your line of sight, you’re focused on the grass in the distance; the vines close to your face are out of focus. They don’t even block your view because between your two eyes, your brain has the visual information to construct an unobstructed view.

These sensations are still very much dependent on the way our brain processes binocular vision but a camera can mimic some of these effects. The lens on the camera has an adjustable aperture that is used to control the amount of light reaching the film in the same way that your pupil adjusts based on how bright it is where you are. The choice of aperture also controls the depth of field for the photograph. With a small aperture opening, objects both near and far from the camera will all be in sharp focus. With a large aperture only a small range of distance from the camera will be in sharp focus while nearer or farther from that range the image will gradually blur. While at first it would seem advantageous to keep as much of the image in focus as possible, keeping a thin slice in focus allows you to isolate a subject and provide context to your scene while eliminating distracting details.

I personally like to use old, large aperture lenses on my camera. The fact that they’re old and of questionable quality gives them another attribute that many people try to avoid but I actually like; they leave a darkened vignette around the corners of photos taken through them. The image can still be seen at the corners but it is much darker than at the center of the frame. To me this mimics the first component of our experience of a scene; the obfuscation of details surrounding the subject.

In this way you transmit information to the viewer of the photo about what you found important in the scene. You can draw their eye to an object in sharp focus in front of a blurred wash of color and you can give them the context through details in shadow around the edges. These are some of the things I try to think about when choosing what to take a picture of. That’s not to say that I’m always successful, but I try to help people feel what I was feeling when I saw what I took a picture of. On other days that I spend mostly driving I’ll try to think of some more.

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