Becoming A First Class Noticer

I’ve been thinking about what it takes to ‘see pictures’. People will tell you that ‘pictures are all around us’ and yet I find that few are able to consistently find them. Why is that?

Personally I feel as though I go through my day with blinkers on, really only paying attention to the things that I need to pay attention to in the specific moment. The things on the periphery are ignored in an effort to get onto whatever is next as expediently as possible.

This is a sentiment that I found echoed in ‘Sketch‘ in which the author, France Belleville-Van Stone has this to say:

Most of us have acquired, with time, the capacity to “tune out” the things around us. This faculty to conveniently ignore the things that don’e “matter” allows us to live without being constantly bombarded with visual stimuli. We need to be able to drive or walk without being distracted by the slightest object in our field of vision.

As adults we have trained ourselves to disregard the landscape around us in order to keep a certain focus, that is, where are we going, how we are going to answer questions during an upcoming interview, how not to trip in those brand new heels so as to avoid public embarrassment.

Jay Maisel seems to have this problem of seeing licked licked. He always carries his camera with him and is always looking for, and finding, pictures. How does he do that? He seems to have retained a child like curiosity in everything around him.

For me this enhanced way of seeing is most easily achieved when I put myself in new situations, where things are strange or scary or strange and scary. It’s amazing to me how I seem to notice everything when I’m in potentially dangerous situations – balancing precariously on rocks in the ocean before dawn, walking along the beach when it’s so foggy I can hear but can’t see the breaking waves or walking through a forest in the near dark hoping that I’m still on the trail. In these circumstances I have a heightened sense of awareness, time slows down, and I can pay attention to an enormous amount of detail. Interestingly this sense of awareness persists, so that I find that I ‘see’ pictures when I’m on my way home in a way that I didn’t an hour or so earlier.

Have you experienced this sensation? How do you get into the ‘picture taking, seeing zone’?

Drawing to Improve your Photography

On a recent archeological expedition in the basement I came across my copy of Betty Edwards’s book ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain‘ and the sketchbook that I had used for the exercises. It had been a while since I looked at the drawings and I must admit that I was surprised – they weren’t actually that bad. There were two exercises that stood out for me in the many that are in the book. The first was to copy a drawing that is shown upside down. Remarkably when you copy an image that is upside down you do a better job of capturing what us there than you do when the same image is right side up. Why? The exercise prompts a shift from the left brain, verbal mode of thinking, to the right brain, visual mode.  We become conditioned to name objects and to have a standard ‘symbol’ that represents the object rather than drawing what is actually in front of us. Having the picture upside down makes it difficult to recognize the image and so there is more likelihood that we will draw what is there than rely our symbol short-cuts. The recognition that we tend to rely on short-cuts rather than truly seeing spills over into photography.  I have wondered on more than one occasion whether using a medium format camera, where the scene before you is viewed inverted, would help advance my photography by removing the familiar, making me more reliant on graphic elements.

The second exercise that stuck with me was drawing a chair.  In this exercise, rather than draw the chair, you are guided to draw the space around the chair.  This is a great lesson in the importance of  negative space and how it defines the object of interest.  How negative space and the space occupied by the object of interest fit together within the boundary of the frame is fundamental to good composition.  Defining the boundary of the frame is as important in photography as it is in drawing.  While some may argue about the validity of cropping from the standard 2 x 3 format of the DSLR, it is unquestionable that some compositions would work better in alternate formats.

The drawing that I have been using to support my photography is the compliment to the writing that I have been working on.  My drawings roughly map out ideas for new photos that I have developed through some of the writing exercises. The drawings are not frameworks for future Photoshop constructions but rather ways to help me be prepared for what I may find when I’m on location.  While I may not find the exact drawings that I had imagined, they allow me to see opportunities where I may not have otherwise.