Seeing versus photographing as a photographer

ByDavid M. Conte

Apr 18, 2022

Famous photographer Dorothea Lange once said, “A camera is a device that teaches you to see without a camera. I have always loved this quote. Once you master shooting, you start to see the world like a photographer – you notice things, you notice light, you look slower, you take pictures in your mind. The camera saves them, but even without you see differently.

But the reverse breaks down; there are significant disparities between photographing and seeing, and not understanding them well can lead to frustration and self-recrimination, thinking “I’m not good at taking pictures”. That’s not true, you just need to master the differences – and when you do, your photos should improve immediately.

Break time

You look at a breathtaking view, sunlight glistening on the lake or autumn leaves fluttering in the breeze – and you take a picture…and upon examination, the picture looks just plain flat. Your eye processes the delicious movement into a billion sparks, but by freezing that movement you see that it is not the sparks but the changing sparks that are so delicious. It can be difficult to capture. I find this also true with the magic of a snowfall or a rainstorm – it’s very difficult to capture the scene as you experienced it because the magic is in the movement and the depth.

Rain… (Rubin, 2016)
…and snow. Playing with shutter speed and depth of field to get closer to the magic of sight. Whatever the technique, it’s different. (Rubin, 2022)

Once you recognize that a still photo will never recreate motion as you saw it, you have a few creative options. The first is to slow down the shutter speed. You can get closer to the experience by allowing these moving objects to change while shooting. It will produce blur or streaks and it’s a way to feel motion. You have to experiment in the moment to determine how long to use a shutter speed, which of course depends on how fast objects are moving and how far away you are from them, and ultimately, how stability you can have for how long. Snow is slower than rain.

Of course, it’s always a game in photography – how long do you leave a shutter open – how many time frames do you want to encapsulate? because as time increases, the slice becomes a volume long as you flatten. Michael Kenna’s gorgeous scenes are quiet and devoid of humanity in part because his shutter speed is slow, and so the volume of time in the photo can be hours, freezing only the things that don’t change.

Photography beginners explore the possibility of freezing a live animated 3D scene in a 2D slice, but where time is a variable. It’s new and weird. And funny.

At the other end of the spectrum, you are stopping time and the picture is very different from how our mind experiences a moving moment. A stopped raindrop is actually hard to see. So when something catches your eye, you also have to recognize what’s in that scene that makes you want to record it, because it’s often about motion and time, and those are more difficult to record that light.

Brain ignoring details

There is something wonderful about the human visual system and the way it scans a scene — called a jerky – pausing momentarily at a fixed point, then moving on to another and stitching pieces together into a seamless whole with imperfect and changing information.

Content not specifically picked up in this saccade is filled in by our brain – which is the rest of the fuzzy peripheral data we have, sometimes what we expect to see there.

Eye tracking software is big business today, where it matters to everyone from interface designers to advertisers who are very invested in where you look and for how long. You can focus on your own curiosity and what catches your eye, and train yourself to look around more.

This becomes apparent when you take a photo – you might imagine it’s just a photo of that cool tree, but your brain ignores many cumbersome objects in the distance and in the foreground. The camera, on the other hand, ignores nothing. What started in your head as an elegant image of a beautiful tree becomes a cluttered snapshot where the tree is hardly magical. It’s an optical illusion.

The practice is to practice noticing things inside your camera frame and understanding how they will look when shot at different settings.

Left brain vs right brain

In his book Draw on the right side of the brain, artist Betty Edwards asks students to copy a line drawing of a man sitting in a chair. The drawings are horrible. Then she asks them to return the drawing and redo it. This time the designs are fantastic. It illustrates the way we process information: we don’t draw what we see, we draw what we to know.

If my brain sees an eye and a nose, it tries to draw its iconic understanding of an eye and a nose, instead of drawing light and dark right in front of my face. When the drawing to be copied is turned over, the brain recognizes nothing and has no choice but to draw the lines it sees. This is also how artists draw.

Drawing of Picasso upside down, from “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”

The photograph has some similarities. When we look at the world, we often see things — names, collections of objects. We see with the logical left side of our brain, and that makes photographic composition difficult. Photographers also learn to see with the right side of the brain, the side that sees not so much bounded things as patterns of light and dark.

Although we cannot disrupt our scenes, it is possible to practice “beginner’s mind” (an idea of ​​Zen Buddhism known as “shoshin”). It refers to an attitude of openness and freedom from preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just like a beginner would.


In the real world, looking around you don’t compose little vignettes from the things in front of you. There is nothing natural in this activity.

On the contrary, when you look around, your brain always creates some kind of internal 3D model of the spatial orientation of things around you. Look at the bowl on the table: when you move your head and all the objects move in your visual field, your brain assembles all this data into a pattern. When I take a photo, I am very aware that I have to choose a Single point of view, and from each point of view, I see a slightly different arrangement. By what criteria would I choose one over another?

And now as I look at the bowl, which is the subject I’m interested in, I notice there are reflections in the window across the room. This stuff doesn’t interest me, but it should, it could be in the frame. As I put a frame around the bowl, I think about what level of context I want or what various objects might mean in juxtaposition here. So I move around a bit here and there and make decisions to have more of this in the frame or less of that in the frame.

Objectives and outlook

We’ve all had the experience of seeing something looming in front of us, taking a picture, and that big object of our attention is rendered small in the frame, much smaller than it felt in real life. It is an optical property of lenses and linear perspective.

Adobe researcher Dr. Aaron Hertzmann has written brilliantly on this issue and describes the problem in detail. As he says, “theories of perception and photography often tend to be hit or miss. Either the linear perspective and the cameras are correct, and the cameras don’t lie. Or else there is no objective reality and everything is made up. The reality is clearly much more complex. Our works of art use all kinds of complex nonlinear structures, and our brain is able to understand and interpret them.

So, barring new computational photography solutions, the best option for a photographer is to experiment with lenses and focal length in the specific scene you’re shooting and figure out in the moment how to distort the view in a way that ” looks” the most like what you want to represent. And it further confirms the fact that all photography is an artistic creation, a function of the mood and intention of the photographer, and never an “objective” reality.

Candid photographs

It happens to everyone: something awesome happens and you go and take a picture and the moment ends. Bringing out a camera in a social scene will change the situation in front of you, in a very Heisenberg way (who says that the very act of observation directly modifies the phenomenon studied). Your photos may look stiff.

To circumvent this effect, your observation must be limited: as much as the cameras certainly change the moment, I think that there can be a short period during which a camera comes into view without causing much modification of the scene. If the camera is left on longer, it has a much greater effect on the people in front of it – feeling uncomfortable, feeling watched or judged.

You invade the space you are in, simply by inserting a recording device into it. You’re sitting with friends, with your kids, at work or on vacation: you pull out a camera to capture something, and if you want an authentic scene, you have to be discreet and fast.

These six situations (individually and together) can be frustrating for novices who feel like “my photos never quite capture the scenes as I see them”. It’s not you, it’s me,” uh, it’s the camera, the act of taking pictures, and overcoming these psychological barriers is easily done with practice.

PS If you like this way of approaching photography, I encourage you to take one of my workshops through Santa Fe Photography Workshops. There are periodic online programs of 3 weeks (6 sessions), and in August, there’s a week-long in-person crash course that should be fun for any creative enthusiast, maybe if you’ve hit a plateau, feel good about image taking, but want to push yourself. Anyway, thanks for listening.

About the Author: Michael Rubin, formerly of Lucasfilm, Netflix and Adobe, is a photographer and host of the podcast “Everyday Photography, Every Day”. The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author. To learn more about Rubin, visit Neomodern or follow him on Instagram. This article was also published here.

Picture credits: The header photo is “Selfie, 1981” by Michael Rubin.