Looking Better To See Better

There is little doubt that the most valuable skill of a good photographer is the ability to see. Seeing is highly individual and each of us is likely to observe something different when we look at the same object. What an individual sees probably has more to do with who he is than anything else. However, what we see also has a lot to do with the techniques we use for looking.

It makes sense for photographers to give some thought to how they look at things. This blog describes a few ways of looking that help me see better. Readers may find these techniques to be useful.

Looking While In The Field

When photographers are in the field, their initial look at a scene usually is with the naked eye. After a promising scene is identified, most photographers crop their view by looking through the viewfinder of their camera. Some digital cameras allow previewing in black & white and this feature provides photographers who shoot black & white with a direct means to visualize scenes without color.

I prefer to make my initial crops with a viewing frame since my view camera is large and it is easier to look through a small, lightweight piece of plastic than set-up my camera. Since I make black & white photographs my viewing frame holds a yellow filter that renders scenes nearly monochromatic (yellow). The yellow filter removes most color information from scenes so it is considerably easier to visualize them as black & white images.

Note that looking with the naked eye, through the electronic viewfinder of a digital camera or through a plastic viewing frame all provide views that are substantially redundant. That is, all of these generally provide views that are logical and easily digested by the brain.

Our brain has been influencing what we see since we first opened our eyes and it probably influences what we observe more than most people think. One result of this is that people tend to observe what they expect to see. For example, people expect to see fallen apples resting beneath apple trees because they know that gravity pulls apples down from trees. When looking at an apple orchard from a long distance, people tend to see small round objects beneath the trees as apples even though they may be rocks or softballs.

At times, it clearly is beneficial for photographers to look at scenes in ways that reduce their tendency to observe what experience has conditioned them to see. For example, it may be beneficial to look at scenes in ways that provide views which are not so logical and easily digestible.

When I am photographing with my view camera, people often walk up to take a close look at my equipment. While the camera is focused on the scene in front of us, I encourage people to look at the camera’s ground glass. When most people do this, they have a strong emotional reaction to what they see. It is obvious that their reaction is different than when they looked at the scene moments earlier with their naked eye, a digital camera’s viewfinder or a viewing frame.

What causes this difference in people’s reaction? One reason is that the camera’s ground glass provides a view that is not as logical and digestible as when looking at the scene in more familiar ways. Looking at the ground glass reduces the brain’s influence on what people see because the camera produces a view of the apple orchard that is upside-down.

For example, the ground glass shows apples resting above the trees rather than below them. We know intellectually that this occurs only because of the camera’s design. However, the inverted image confuses people enough to elicit a different emotional response than when they looked directly at the scene in more familiar right-side-up ways.

I suspect that many readers will consider the difference between viewing a scene right-side-up or upside-down to be trivial. However, the reaction of most people who look at the ground glass of a view camera for the first time indicates that the difference is not trivial.

Upside-down viewing helps seeing in a way that is not unlike looking at a black & white preview on the viewfinder of a digital camera or looking through a yellow filter in a viewing frame. That is, the latter two remove most color information that clutters the mind so it is easier to visualize scenes as black & white images.

Viewing scenes upside-down reduces logical clutter in my mind enough to free me to observe different things. For example, viewing the orchard upside-down reduces the influence of concepts like gravity so I can see small, well-defined spheres (apples) adjacent to a network of line segments (tree branches).

Simply put, looking at scenes upside-down helps me see differently. This is a powerful thing and view camera users have discussed its usefulness for many years.

Can photographers who use hand-held digital cameras look at scenes upside-down? Turning the camera upside-down seems like a simple way to accomplish this.

I own two digital cameras and the electronic viewfinders of both automatically flip images right-side-up when the camera is turned upside-down. I believe that automatic flipping limits my visualization and I wish that my cameras did not do it. I am not familiar with the latest features of digital cameras and hope that they allow automatic flipping to be disabled. If manufacturers don’t provide this feature with their more advanced camera lines, they should add it.

If turning a camera upside-down doesn’t invert images, an alternative is to turn the photographer upside-down. This might be satisfactory in situations where the camera is placed close to the ground so the photographer can bend over to look at the viewfinder upside-down. This is not the ideal way to utilize upside-down viewing but may work for some people.

Looking at Images On A Computer

Before editing a digital photograph I normally spend quite a bit of time simply looking at it on the computer monitor to detect as much image content as possible. While doing this, I also try to comprehend the flow of visual content through the photograph. Put another way, I try to learn how image content affects the viewer’s eye movement. I have a few ways of looking at images on the computer monitor that help achieve these objectives.

First, I fill the working area of my monitor with the image and take time looking at it. Then, I open PhotoShop’s cropping tool and explore different image compositions by moving the cropping tool around the photograph without actually executing any crops. Next, I rotate the photo 180 degrees to turn it upside-down and spend more time looking and exploring different crops.

My goal at this stage is to get a feel for how visual content affects my emotional reaction to the photograph, especially near the image edges. I often find that eliminating small areas near edges can change the feel of the image substantially. However, I don’t execute any crops at this time because I don’t understand the photo’s visual content well enough yet. Instead, I simply make mental notes about image content and its affect on my emotional response and my eye movement.

To investigate visual content more, I reduce the display size of the photograph and spend more time looking at the smaller image size. I reduce the size again, look again and repeat this until the displayed image size has been decreased to about 4inch x 5inch. At each size I look at the photograph both right-side-up and upside-down. As was the case in the field, looking at inverted images provides a different view which often allows visual content to be seen easier. At each display size I also explore various image compositions with the cropping tool.

The purpose of repeatedly decreasing display size and looking at smaller sizes is to ‘average out’ smaller and smaller image details so they are no longer visible when display size is decreased. Averaging in this manner effectively emphasizes the larger image components that dominate visual flow through most images.

Once I look at a photograph right-side-up, upside-down and with the cropping tool at various display sizes, I usually understand its visual content well enough to actually execute an image crop. The crop is performed after enlarging the display size substantially to achieve greater precision.

It is hard to overemphasize the importance of cropping images intelligently. Cropping is crucial since image edges have a huge influence on viewer’s eye movements so I take plenty of time to make a decision about cropping. Once cropping is completed, it is time to turn to the next step of the photo editing process. That is a subject for another blog in the future.

Looking At Prints

The goal of my photography is to make prints which have as much quality as I can produce. Consequently, I make test prints and spend time evaluating them carefully.

Note that we edit digital images while looking at a computer display which is nearly vertical. Similarly, most prints are displayed on vertical walls so it is prudent to look at prints in a vertical orientation during their evaluation. My reaction to prints sometimes differs substantially when viewed vertically on a wall or laying horizontally on a table top.

I look at prints two basic ways while evaluating them.

First, I use magnets to attach a print to a large piece of sheet metal that is fastened to a wall near my editing area. I spend time looking at the print and then look again after turning it upside-down. Sometimes, I even turn a print 90 degrees to help see its visual content better.

While looking at a print, I pay close attention to the initial movements of my eyes to ascertain how they move through the print. A pen is used to make notations on the print surface for editing. This process is repeated until I believe I have produced the strongest print that I can make.

Second, I ask a few friends to stand directly in front of the “final” print and tell me what they think about it. As they look I watch their faces closely to observe how they react to the photograph. In particular, I watch to see how their eyes move through the photograph. This gives me information about visual flow and often helps me discover weaknesses that remain.

For example, I may observe that viewer’s eyes tend to fall off the photograph at a particular corner. This tells me that I need to edit the photograph again to redirect viewer’s eyes back into the print. Editing leads to yet another “final” print and I repeat evaluation again until I am satisfied.


Techniques of looking while in the field, working with images on a computer monitor and printing have been briefly discussed in this blog. I hope this discussion encourages photographers to think about how they look and helps them develop ways of looking that lead to better seeing.

Any comments you might have about this blog will be appreciated. Sharing other useful ways of looking with blog readers will be especially appreciated. Please feel free to post comments below.

Randall R Bresee

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