We have this marvelous product of evolution that enables us to comprehend patterns very quickly. It’s almost like the muscle reflexes we’re familiar with – jerking away from a hot surface, blinking when something suddenly moves toward our face – but in a visual sense that we look, and almost immediately recognize without thinking too hard about it. Some people do it better than others but this might just be due to practice, experience, knowledge or age. Nonetheless, it’s a tool photographers can take advantage of when composing an image. Consider it a shorthand for visual elements where I don’t have to show you each and every one because in a glance your brain will fill in what’s needed.
Take this image:
Nothing particularly compelling about it, unless you think like prey. What is that object in the middle? You’ve probably already identified it but suppose I enlarge it 400%:
Yeah, now it’s clear what it is and if you’re a small, ground dwelling animal it’s probably time to take cover.
So why was this so easy? Because of a couple of elements we’re familiar with. A big bird with dark wings that is light in the front and back (take a look at that first picture – you can see these elements) is probably a bald eagle; there are so few other birds that look this way in our country. And because of our cultural bias in the US from seeing bald eagles in imagery just about everywhere. We expect to see these elements so a glance is all we need to confirm we’ve seen what we expect. There are lots of other elements serious bird watchers will use to identify a bald eagle but for most people you just need to see these two (dark wings, light front and back) in a glance.
Notice even in the fuzzy enlarged version most people would instantly recognize the bird, just from the elements I mentioned. I could probably put up a blurred version of this same image and people would still get it right. These elements on a big bird are just too ingrained in our cultural experience.
Can our glances be fooled, though, or influenced by other factors? Possibly. Here is a pair of examples – what is the influence here?
The elements are the same – horizontal and vertical lines based on contrasting luminance between trees and snow. Which is easier for you to see these, though? I’m betting it’s the black and white one because the color tends to distract you in the first one. The color implies there’s something else important in the image when actually there’s not. I just wanted to show off lines in the forest. Learning to “see” in black and white is a useful skill in order to compose like this – I’m just learning how to pay attention enough to achieve it. Converting to black and white in digital is a great way to learn how to use this tool effectively and it’s fun to see for yourself how some images work great without color and some just die when it’s gone.
And then there’s our inability to see two things at once, even when they are right in front of us. For example:
Remember those posters you had to stare at in order to see the 3D image embedded in them? You’d stare and stare and stare, and then suddenly the image would form right in front of you. Lots of advice surrounded them – relax your eyes, look beyond the poster, glance at it casually – but no advice would result in your ability to see the 3D image as well as the design on the poster. It’s either one or the other. The images above are like that. The first one was made with a polarizer and the second one without. Light reflected off the surface of water is polarized anyway so added a polarizer in front of your lens and turning it to maximum effect really wipes out most of the reflection. Yet both scenes are reality taking place before our eyes. There’s no “right” or “wrong” image – there’s just what you want to portray. But the photographer has to decide which suits the purpose best because the viewer can’t see both simultaneously.
When you start to think about photography as an exercise in visual imagery you realize there are all these tools available for you to use in constructing an image that tells your story. We think about painters creating a composition, placing elements where they want and portraying light to the best possible advantage. Photographers may not have quite as much flexibility but we do have the means to craft imagery that appeals to the viewer. It’s more than which lens and how many megapixels – you’ve got to really see what you’re looking at before you even get the camera out of the bag.