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The Way We See

“The first great mistake that people make in the matter, is the supposition that they must see a thing if it be before their eyes.” John Ruskin, “Modern Painters”.

Contrary to common belief, the human eye does not work like a camera which records every single thing which is in front of us. Far from being just a tool which passively filters light reflected by subject matter and then transfers it through the optic nerve to the brain, the eye is, in a certain way, an extension of the brain. What our eyes see is not the product of random exposure to the outer world, but more a precise result of focused awareness filtered by our conscious and unconscious thoughts. In simple words, we do not see the world, but only a selective part of it related to what our brain is prepared to see.

One of the first frustrating experiences we all have as budding photographers is using our cameras to immortalize a memorable experience, a strong emotion or a majestic landscape, only to discover later when observing the resulting images that nothing of what we thought we saw can be seen on the photographs. While in the field, our vision filters the reality, focusing on what really interests us and more or less ignoring all the rest. In a way, our brain is a machine programmed to make sense of the world around us, finding recognizable patterns out of the chaos which fills the universe and always alert to keep us safe. Red colors excite us because they remind us of fire and blood, our eyes eagerly follow diagonals maybe because they trigger genetic memories of falling logs in the forest, contrasting elements magnetically attract us because of their possible significance as a threat or danger. Cameras, on the contrary, do not filter reality according to emotion or human reason. When we face a landscape and press a shutter, everything in front of the lens is equally well recorded.

A budding photographer could be particularly attracted by a small boat sailing on a lake; dwarfed by distant looming mountains and isolated in a large expanse of water. Excited by the view, a photograph might be taken to capture the magic of the moment, only to reveal later at home that nothing in that photograph resembles what he thought he initially saw. Instead of a small boat floating in a limbo between the water and sky, what may actually be seen is a visual jumble of cars parked in the foreground, a series of electric poles sticking out into the horizon and a big featureless expanse of sky which cuts the composition in two. And, lost in the visual confusion of the photograph, a minute element that could be a boat floats in a small area of water in the distant background, partially obscured by a merged group of trees in the mid distance.

When we feel attracted to a landscape or a part of a landscape, it is essential to first understand what precisely caught our attention, and then why it did so. By doing this we unconsciously become aware of the fact our eyes and brain are seeing selectively, and that if we really want our camera to create a photograph which depicts that vision we should frame and arrange the elements in our image so that the complete visual experience of viewing the photograph will reproduce the partial visual experience the photographer witnessed while pressing the shutter. Camera position, framing, arranging elements around the frame… this is what we call ‘good composition’ in our photograph. Edward Weston said that “composition is the strongest way of seeing”, and with good reason. By composing, we take into account the way our brain sees the world, and translate that vision into the language cameras use. When we succeed, we end up orchestrating the way observers will ‘read’ and visually explore the photograph, ideally triggering emotions, thoughts or aesthetical reactions similar to the ones that made us point the camera towards the landscape in the first place.