How To Develop The Art Of Seeing In Photography

You have likely experienced the phenomena where an image simply doesn’t do justice to the scene that you have before you. It’s all your camera’s fault for not being able to capture the beauty that you can see with your eye, right? Well, this assumption is only partly right—but it fails to recognize the role that you, as a photographer, play in what your camera sees and captures.

Image by Jesse Hebert © All Rights Reserved.

As we dig into that elusive quality that great photographers have to see the world in a unique way, you’ll realize that the Art of Seeing is only half the battle. Our camera sees and records the world much differently than the human eye. A skilled photographer recognizes this and can visualize with their naked eye how a scene will translate to an image.

Read on to discover how you can develop this skill and harness the art of seeing.

What Does it Mean to See Like a Photographer?

Digital imaging may look increasingly life-like but there is still a stark difference between the way that our eyes view the world and the way that our cameras are capable of capturing it. In fact, our eyes do not really see at all. It is our mind that constructs an image based on the signals that our eyes send to the brain.

Eye and visual cortex nerves in 3D

However, technically speaking, cameras are much more limited by dynamic range, field of view and detail than our eyes. This matter is further complicated because we experience life with five senses. Images, however, reduce a moment in time to a singularly visual experience.

It’s perhaps most important to understand that every camera captures the light from a three-dimensional scene and translates that onto a two-dimensional plane which is known as an image. This separates photography from our eyesight in a very significant way.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

This difference can especially be seen when it comes to depth of field. Much of the work of the photographer is figuring out clever ways to introduce the perception of depth in their images. Something that can be done in many different ways:

  • Use a shallow depth of field (appearance of blur)
  • Use converging or leading lines
  • Layer elements in foreground, mid-ground and background
  • Overlap objects/elements
  • Use light and shadow
  • Size of objects
  • Etc
Photo by NEOM on Unsplash

For all of the above reasons, an image is really quite different from how we normally view the world. In certain cases an image may appear as an honest documentation but it could also appear more interpretive or even surreal.

The act of seeing is then understanding how a scene may transform through the imaging process before even taking an image.

Can Anyone See Like a Photographer?

The short answer: yes. Being able to visualize is ultimately a skill. It’s true that some may have a more natural inclination to it but with enough practice, anyone can start to see in this way.

The Foundation for Visualizing

In order to build the foundation for visualization you should first understand the individual elements that make up an image. Any image, or piece of visual art for that matter, is comprised of elements such as: shape, form, line, texture, pattern, colour and space.s

Photo by NEOM on Unsplash

Here’s a quick overview of each element:

  • Shape: refers to any two-dimensional, enclosed space.
  • Form: refers to the apparent three-dimensionality of objects.
  • Line: this element can be used to elicit a variety of emotional responses from viewers or they can lead the viewer’s eye along a path through the image.
  • Texture: a powerful element of photography that communicates to the audience how an object physically feels.
  • Colour: a powerful element that can be used to create visual contrast, direct attention and evoke certain moods.
  • Value: also known in photography as ‘tone’, refers to the lightness or darkness of a colour.
  • Space: can be regarded as either positive space or negative space referring to areas of interest or empty space respectively.

For a more in-depth explanation, be sure to read The 7 Elements of Photography You Need To Know.

Photo by Brandon Wong on Unsplash

Every image that you photograph is going to be made up of some combination of these elements. You can dissect an image based upon these elements and you can also start to see the world as an assemblage of these elements. This language allows you to better assess, describe, categorize, group, and eventually portray the world around you.

In order to develop this language, you can do a simple exercise periodically where you classify an object that you see in the world based on the above classifications. For instance, I can classify a tree trunk as follows:

Photo by Young Shih on Unsplash

Shape: Organic
Form: Cylinder
Line: Organic, thick, vertical
Texture: Rough, rigid, bumpy
Pattern: Organic
Colour: Brown, Warm/Advancing
Space: Positive

How Can You See Like a Photographer?

Photo by Denley Jones on Unsplash

Visualizing is a skill that needs to be practiced over and over. The process of developing your eye as a photographer is truly never complete. It’s also something that can be lost when photographers fall out of practice.

For this reason, I recommend anyone seeking to develop their eye for photography to take more pictures. As you take more pictures you will start to understand how your specific camera translates a real-world scene into an image. You’ll learn its strengths and weaknesses, characteristics of the image and eventually start to see pockets of interest in the real-world that would make great images. This is when you’ve gained the ability to visualize.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

From here, you can further develop this sight by contemplating how you visualize the world around you, stretching yourself to capture things outside of your ordinary life, and interacting with life deeply and curiously.

To kick-start this process, here’s a list of ideas, prompts and activities for you to try:

  • Prompt #1: Shoot in Black and White
  • Prompt #2: Shoot with a Deep Depth of Field (Where Everything is in Focus)
  • Prompt #3: Shoot with a Fixed Focal Length. What did you learn about that viewing angle?
  • Prompt #4: Engage All of Your Senses. How can you capture a sense other than sight?
  • Prompt #5: Study the Masters. Consider Their Unique View of the World. Try to capture your surroundings as they might.
  • Prompt #6: Study Visual Mediums Other than Photography
  • Prompt #7: Receive Feedback on Your Images. What do others see in your work?
  • Prompt #8: Experiment and Push the Boundaries

Getting Started

It takes time to understand the key differences between the way that your camera and your eyes perceive the world. Rest assured, the results that you get from this understanding are worth it in the end! Let us know in the comments below what activity helps you with visualizing.

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