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Tarn Canvas / Olympus E-M1, 1/120 sec @f/5.6, ISO 200, no filters

I often tell students to think less about “subjects” and more about shapes, colors, lines, and of course light. That’s something that’s not easy to do, especially when photography itself perpetuates ideas of capturing and taking.

Those are all actions that favor, and in many ways promote, looking over seeing. Looking is certainly a necessary prerequisite to seeing, and so it’s a good practice on the path to become a better photographer. I spend lots of my time simply looking at light and how it interacts with things.

Look at that tree over there, or that rock over here, or the mirror like reflection in a body of water. All of these we identify with labels and that gives us a sense of comfort that any photo we make of them will be easily identifiable by others.

But therein lies a potential problem, one that can hinder our creative vision without even realizing it. Because it’s comfortable and relatively easy to define the subject of our image, we limit our seeing as a whole, and therefore ignore other potential possibilities right under our noses.

I’ve seen this happen many times when I make a slight adjustment to a students camera and suddenly an image appears that seems obvious, yet was invisible a moment before. And I’m sure I’ve missed many images myself due to the same lack of visual awareness.

One common suggestion that’s repeated too may times by photography experts is that you need to see rather than simply look. But simply stating that doesn’t help unless one knows how to do this. It reminds me of a great quote by Einstein – “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”

The fact is that you don’t simply pick up the camera and immediately start seeing. As I mentioned before, seeing is a process that starts with looking and observing. Learning to see however is not necessarily some intuitive creative process that only a few right-brained people can do. It’s a skill, which means anyone can learn to do it with enough practice and patience.

The key is making the transition from looking to seeing. And that entails many things, but chief among them, a good understanding of visual design and a conscious willingness to let go of the aforementioned labels and focus on light.

The Image

Ok, so now let’s talk about this image in particular, which I think encompasses much of what I’ve explained above, both in how I approached it and made the final capture.

While I recognized what the literal subject was, a shallow pond with grasses and warm evening sunlight, I tried to capture a different subject, one that couldn’t be labeled but conveyed the essence of the beauty I saw. This is not an abstract image, because the basic shapes and their origins are recognizable. But those basic recognizable elements are not what the image is about. What drives the image is the light, the color, and the tension between the detailed shadows and smooth highlights. That tension doesn’t need labels. It’s simply a relationship that creates harmony and beauty, at least to my eye.

I started with a much larger composition, and removed as much as I could until the I had the purest form of what I saw – without any regard for identifying anything. In other words, the “subject” became the light and its changing quality throughout the frame, not the grasses or water and what they actually looked like. The orange area in the upper left is critical because it provides movement back to it and away from the detail and texture of the grasses – what I like to think of as “musical resolution.”

I used a 150mm focal length with a relatively shallow depth of field of f/5.6. The focused on the lower grasses because they are above the water and need to be sharp. The upper grasses are reflections, so I wanted them to be somewhat softer to create a sense of depth. There was no wind, so conditions were prefect and I didn’t have to worry about too slow a shutter speed.

I tried several variations, but kept coming back to this one since it “felt” the best. I didn’t have much time to make this image, and a few minutes later the sun disappeared behind the distant hills.

The red horizontal lines represent the basic compositional form of the image - a group of three distinct areas flowing diagonally. The blue circle is the organ area that resolves the image, or gives it a sense of rest. The red vertical lines show the direction of movement and between the 3 areas - color, tension, energy.
The pink horizontal lines represent the basic compositional form of the image – a group of three distinct areas flowing diagonally. The red circle is the orange area that resolves the image, or gives it a sense of rest and breaks the pattern. The red vertical lines show the direction of movement and between the 3 areas – color, tension, energy.

The Print

I alway wait until I make a print before I feel really confident about an image, and it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I got the time to think about printing this one. I chose Canson Infinity BFK Rives, a beautiful mat paper with a slight irregular surface texture that I really love for images like this.

It has great contrast and maintains the fine detail, but also adds a painterly look and feel that complements the graphic nature of the image. It keeps it musical and light, rather than aggressive, which is what I want to convey with this image. I printed it at 11″ x 17″ on my Epson 3880 using Lightroom 6.3 and evaluate it using a GTI PDV-2e desktop viewer.


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I’ve only scratched the surface on the whole concept of looking and seeing, but I hope this image and my attempt to explain my approach helps you understand the basic ideas involved. Surely there are many other approaches, and I can only describe my own. But the basic fundamentals are still important. Design, composition, and seeing light are critical factors to consider when it comes to making images that are meaningful for you and others.

Questions, comments, or feedback?? Please share below, I always enjoy hearing from you.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Thanks so very much Robert for this very enlightening reflection on paper. I do appreciate your generosity to share your knowledge/expertise that I rarely see anywhere else.
    Greetings from Venezuela,

  2. Funny, I stopped at this exact spot a couple of years ago and took numerous photos. I just couldn’t get what I wanted. I’m constantly drawn to color and light and shadows and textures but when I raise the camera to my eye it all disappears and I don’t know to to approach it.

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