Learning to See

January 13, 2009 ·

Michael Reichmann

Paris Zigzag. Sept. 2004
Canon 20D with 70-300mm
DO IS Lens
ISO 200.

“As a young guy I’m just getting started in the world of photography, I am simply awestruck by your work. In my search for the specific type of photography that I want to pursue, I find myself repeatedly returning to your site. While browsing all of the popular photography sites, I’ve noticed a trend. Many sites give overwhelming attention to all of the new photographic technology and very little to technique. I have had my fill of technical information and I am more informed because of it. However I do not feel that it has made me a better photographer in the least.

I’m contacting you because I believe your experience and talented eye could be of great benefit to me. I already have a Canon Digital Rebel and a few nice lenses. I plan to get a good tripod and ballhead soon, as well as a custom-made focusing screen with a split-prism focusing aid. I am skilled in the operation of the camera and lenses. When the chips are down, however, things get pretty bad. My photos are in focus and correctly exposed. They are also sharpened, white-balanced and colour-corrected. The photos are technically correct, but from a purely aesthetic standpoint there is something missing.

How do I learn to take beautiful photographs? There is no lack of subject matter. There is only lack of vision. This is why I’ve contacted you. How do I find vision?

– Anon: September, 2004

Valley – Toronto Brickworks. Oct. 2004
Canon 1Ds with 70-300mm
DO IS Lens
ISO 100.


Vision, Not Technology

Possibly the biggest curse of the digital photography revolution is that it has excessively focused photographer’s attention on technology, rather than vision. We now have tools that allow us to take very sharp pictures indeed, but a sharp photograph of a fuzzy concept is of little interest or value to anyone.

Why then do the majority of photographers, magazines and enthusiast web sites concentrate almost exclusively on gear, secondarily on technique, and hardly at all on how to see? The answer is simple – it’s easier.

I can explain, for example, how depth of field works. If I’m a good teacher you can learn about this aspect of photography fairly easily, and then quickly put that knowledge into practice in your own work. If how best to use a certain tool in Photoshop is what you’re looking for, then the numerous tutorials on this site will be found useful. And, if you’re like some 85% of visitors to this site, you’ll likely first turn to the equipment reviews.

Why? Because – in order;

– an understanding of basic photographic technique must precede any form of competence

– utilizing contemporary tools is one of the cornerstones of the digital zeitgeist

– the belief persists that good equipment helps photographers take good photographs

Of course it is the later partial fallacy that trips most people up. The pitfall being the use of the word “good“. Of course the best cameras and lenses can produce images of superior technical quality to gear that is less capable. Similarly, having an understanding of the photographic basics is a prerequisite for anyone who wishes to master their craft. And, unless one wants to learn the tools and techniques of the traditional darkroom, learning Photoshop has to be high on most photographer’s to-do lists.

But, a good photograph isn’t measured in line pairs per millimeter, MTF functions, S/N calculations, or any of the other measurements that photography enthusiasts recite like religious mantras. The most important tools that are used to takegoodphotographs are the human eye, the human brain, and the human heart.

Grandma and Chair. Paris, France. September, 2004
Canon 20D with 17-85mm IS Lens. ISO 400


By The Numbers

If you’re a regular visitor to this site you will have noticed that when I publish my photographs I almost always provide a line of technical data; camera and lens used as well as ISO setting. Very occasionally I will provide some additional nitty gritty shooting data, typically if the photograph is being used to illustrate a technical point being made.

As to why I publish the camera and lens information – the answer is, because when I don’t I am inundated with e-mails from readers wanting to know which camera did I use, and with what lens. Does knowing this information contribute to an esthetic appreciation of the photograph? Likely not. When was the last time you saw a photographic exhibit where the type of equipment used to create the photographs was known? Likely never, because fine-art photographers as a rule want to pretend that their art is divorced from the crass realities of craft and technology.

But the insecure, the newcomer, and the inexperienced believe that the ability to take visually interesting and compelling images comes from equipment and technique, while in fact, though these are necessary, are secondary at best to the need to also learn how to see.


Finding Your Vision

Unfortunately, learning how to see is as difficult as it is to teach. If learning it were easier the young man who wrote me the above letter wouldn’t have felt as adrift as he does in a sea of technobabble, digicam reviews, and B&H advertisements. If knowing how to teach it were easier, I, along with other photographic educators, would be doing a better job at fulfilling our mission.

So, you say, it isn’t easy to learn, and it isn’t easy to teach; what do we do then?

Here, as best I can using the printed (transilluminated?) page, are some suggestions for setting off down a path toward learning how to see; how to develop your own vision. Unlike leaning a new Photoshop plug-in, this isn’t something to be mastered overnight, nor likely even in a lifetime. In fact there is no goal; no destination. To the extent that there even is one, thejourneyitself is the destination. For the person who wants to learn how to really see photographically, photography itself has to become a way of life, a passion, a calling. If you want to find yourself traveling this path, then here are some suggested routes to follow.


Mime. Paris, September 2004
Canon 20D with 17-85mm IS Lens. ISO 400

Looking at Photographs

Here’s the first step: start looking at photographs. Visit a good book store and look for images by photographers whom you admire. Buy a few books, and spend some considerable time studying them. Not with the TV on in the background, but by yourself, quietly, and at some length. Look at each image, and ask yourself what it is that captures your eye. Is it the light, the subject, the composition, a combination of these, or something else?

If you can, look at a range of one particular photographer’s work, ideally covering a long period of time. What themes, if any, can you identify? Do you see a progression of style, or an evolution? Did that particular photographer’s work improve as his or her career progressed, or was their best work done early?

If you live in a large city, or the next time that you visit one, visit a couple of photography galleries. Look at the work that your contemporaries are doing. Do you find inspiration or despair when you see the work of others?

Looking at Art

Photography is the youngest of the visual arts. Visit an art museum and look at both contemporary as well as historical paintings, watercolours and lithographs. What styles and periods do you like? Which artist’s work excites you? You don’t need to have a formal art background, or even much knowledge or appreciation for painting. But, when you look at how visual artists have recorded and interpreted their worlds over the centuries, you may derive some insights into your own way of seeing things, or even discover a new way of doing so.

Attending a Workshop

One of the most popular methods for photographers to improve their craft is to attend a field workshop. Usually lasting from a long-weekend through a week or ten days, working together with a small group of like minded photographers in an interesting location can be creatively stimulating. And, of course, if the workshop leader is someone whose work you admire, and they have some skill as a teacher, working alongside them can be very stimulating as well.

If you can though, try and join a workshop or seminar whose purpose is to explore creativity, and to provide critical feedback. Few people have an opportunity to have their work critiqued by someone with a discerning eye. “That’s a nice shot…” just isn’t the type of feedback that helps anyone learn and grow. The more critical the evaluation of your portfolio, the more valuable it will be to you.

Taking Photographs

Of course, the eye is like a muscle. It needs to be exercised. Musicians know that unless they practice daily, they’ll loose their edge, and it’s no different for photographers. The best way to learn how to see, is to practice seeing. And, since with the advent of digital the cost of turning seeing into images has effectively been reduced to zero, the only excuse for not spending time each day shooting is ones other time commitments.

But even the busiest person can steal a half hour at lunch time, an hour in the evening or before work, and certainly a few hours on weekends. It doesn’t matter where one goes, or what one shoots. The idea is to have a camera in hand and force yourself to record images. Then, at night, load them onto your computer and see what you’ve recorded. Even if it’s just a shot of your back yard furniture, or the dog next door, ask yourself why you shot it the way you did. Then tomorrow, try to see it differently and shoot it again.

No need to save these files. Just trash them after you’ve spent some time examining them. Don’t even bother doing any post processing. Just shoot JPGs, and set your camera on automatic. The issue here is not technical perfection, or aspects of image quality. What you’re trying to do is break way from the mold of concern over equipment and technique. You want to divorce yourself from everything except the question of seeing, and recording what you see in a way that’s meaningful to you. (If, after a while of doing this, you’re still worried about chromatic aberration on your lens, consider taking up another hobby).

Gutter. Paris, September 2004
Canon 20D with 17-85mm IS Lens. ISO 200

Don’t Fear Taking Bad Photographs

That’s why I suggest shooting digital and throwing the files away when you’re done. A musician doesn’t record every performance, and artists are constantly making rough sketches. Shoot freely. Explore the world around you. See how something that you saw and shot yesterday can be different today, in different light or weather. Or, maybe simply because of your mood. Don’t show these to anyone. Don’t save them. Feel the freedom to take photographs and then destroy them, with only your memory as a record. Sometimes, as with the case of the gutter reflection on a Paris street seen above, something unexpected happens, and the exercise might just become a performance worth recording.

Then, when you do find yourself out taking photographs in a place where there is potential, you may just find that two things will happen. You will be more open to possibilities, and your fluidity with your equipment will be enhanced.


Updated: 2/27/15

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Michael Reichmann

Michael Reichmann is the founder of the Luminous Landscape. Michael passed away in May 2016. Since its inception in 1999 LuLa has become the world's largest site devoted to the art, craft, and technology of photography. Each month more than one million people from every country on the globe visit LuLa.

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