Learning to See

This is not going to be some "artsy" theoretical discussion of "how to see" in order to be creative. I'm not going to write about getting your "zen" on, "thinking sideways," or any other theoretical abstract concept. I don't believe that "creativity" is something I can teach you... and I'm quite certain that such an abstract concept is probably impossible to teach in writing. Your mind and your creativity are unique to you; trying to make it like mine defeats the whole point. Besides, I'm not all that creative/artsy anyways...
But I do believe that creativity can be learned to some extent. And one of the first steps towards that is learning to see... the way your camera does.

There are four general approaches to composing/creating an image,  and three of them are "wrong."

In the first approach you see something that interests you, so you grab your camera, find a focal length for the composition (zoom in), and you take the picture.... wrong!

In the second approach you see something that interests you but you're not happy with the composition so you move for another angle. And when you find an angle you grab your camera, find a focal length for the composition (zoom), and you take the picture... this is "better," but it is still wrong!

In the third approach you see something that interests you. Maybe you don't like the angle so you move to find something more pleasing. Then you grab your camera, but this time the lens you have on the camera doesn't suit the composition, so you move closer/farther until the composition fits and you take the picture... again, a little better. But yet again, it is still wrong!


These three approaches are all examples of "zooming" in order to get your image... and *THAT* is what makes them wrong. As I've tried to show in the previous articles Depth of FieldMore on DOFMore on Lens Selection, and Using Perspective, there is only ONE combination of subject distance, focal length, aperture, and shutter speed that is ideal for the image you want to create. You cannot "zoom with your feet;" IMO that is one of the worst analogies ever created. And unfortunately, it is one of the most common and first taught to beginners in photography... And just standing in one spot zooming with a lens is one of the best ways to ensure you take a mediocre "snapshot."


These two images are very different, and they could not have been created in any different manner than they were. In fact, there is less than 10ft difference in the subject distance. I'm not saying they are great images, but they serve to make the point.

If you change one "setting" it will have an avalanche effect on everything else. If you change the distance it changes the composition and it changes the depth of field, which requires a change in aperture, which affects sharpness/diffraction, and shutter speed, which might require a change in ISO which affects sharpness and noise, which might have to be offset with aperture... And around it goes...

So, what is "the correct approach?" 

The correct approach is to use subject distance and focal length as "chosen settings" for the image you want to create. And in order to do that you have to learn to see as your camera does. 

This is harder than it may seem, but luckily you own the required training aids... you own a camera and that makes it "easy." All you have to do is put in a little time and effort.
In order to learn this critical skill all you have to do is choose a composition, and then experiment with that composition by changing the subject distance and focal length in order to learn how they affect things.

If you have a zoom lens or multiple lenses, start by learning the difference between short distances and wide focal lengths as compared to long distances and long focal lengths. After you have that fairly well in hand, add in the intermediate focal lengths.

If you only have one prime lens you can experiment with subject distance and cropping... at least that's a beginning.

If you've been doing photography for any length of time you probably already have a general idea of how it works and the differences it makes... if that's the case, then the only thing you need to do is make those factors "primary setting choices" when you decide to take a picture.

Once you do that, you will begin to truly "create" the photographs you take. And once you start creating your images you will start to see the potential images in your mind that are not readily apparent... You have just become more creative! And the more often you use this new creativity, the more automatic it will become.

 

Considerations of an Image, effects on Depth of Field and Exposure

There are three primary aspects every image has that makes an image what it is. There's the subject, the BG, and focus (sharpness/DOF).

The subject distance (and secondarily the BG distance) determines the perspective, or the perceived spatial relationship of the subject to what is around it. The perspective is hugely important in determining what an image is/says. Subject distance also affects sharpness/DOF...2x as much as aperture does.

The FL determines how much of it is included in the image, but perhaps more importantly it affects the character and amount of the BG included. This inclusion/character of the BG in relation to FL is terribly overlooked. It also affects sharpness/DOF. But if you change distance along with FL these difference are largely negated *at the subject* because FL affects sharpness/DOF opposite the way distance does. It is important to note that the negation is at the subject and NOT at the BG (not entirely/equally).

That leaves aperture to control the DOF and sharpness of the image. And ISO is wherever it needs to be for an appropriate SS (sharpness/blur).

This is the basics of it; the way most think of it. And in this respect distance and FL do not really affect exposure or DOF. But in reality it is a huge oversimplification...

 

That's because you don't always have to trade subject distance and FL equally. You only have to trade them equally if you have already determined the size of the subject in the scene, and you are unwilling to crop or add BG in post (the Brenizer Method is a prime example of "adding").

For instance, if the subject and BG are close together there may be little difference in perspective between an image taken at 10ft and one taken at 15ft. But all other settings being the same, the image from 15ft will have 2x the DOF... (or alternatively, the image at 10ft will have 1/2 the DOF). You would have to change the aperture 2 full stops to have the same effect (or counter it). And this is why distance affects exposure...

People say that FL controls perspective; it doesn't. FL controls subject distance. But again, that's only if you've already determined the size of the subject w/in the composition. If you are willing to change the composition or crop/add BG then you can again significantly affect DOF and therefore exposure (and again it's 2x the effect that aperture has..i.e. 50mm has 2stops more DOF than 75mm).

 

And we are talking about creating/seeing/finding the image, not about keeping anything "the same." And in this case you can trade things all you want in order to create the final image.

 

Now, there will definitely be times where you cannot get exactly what you want. And there may be very good reasons why you want/need to take the picture at that time, and that's OK. You make compromises to get it as close to your ideal as you can and you accept that the image will be somehow a little "less" than you want... such is life and photography. There's always "next time" and the chance to do it better, that's part of the challenge and fun of photography.



And then there's always photoshop ;)



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