“The painter draws with his eyes, not with his hands. Whatever he sees if he sees it clear, he can put down…. Seeing clear is the important thing.” The book The Painter’s Eye, by Maurice Grosser
Photographers have studied how painters have used light and colour and other techniques to create a masterpiece. Unlike painters, photographers have to know how to use a camera and the various tools associated with photography. If the photographer is not fluent in the use of his tools then no matter how well he sees the subject to be photographed, it’ll be beyond his ability to craft an image that will do justice to the beauty in front of him.
How often a beautiful scene is photographed only to be a great disappointment when it is seen on a print. Why couldn’t the photographer translate successfully what he saw? A good image is composed of many elements working together. In this article I’ll analyse one important aspect. In future essays I’ll cover other ingredients of a successful photograph.
Meanwhile, I’d like to elaborate the point that Maurice Grosser made and apply it to photography.
“Seeing clear is the important thing.”
For a photographer seeing clear means more than for a painter. To explain, let us imagine we’re admiring a beautiful scene or moment in nature. The time is the early part of the afternoon when the sun’s brilliance creates excessive contrast. As we observe the scene, we focus our attention on the deep shadows – we can clearly see detail and texture in there.
Next, our eyes move to study the high lights, these are the brighter areas of the scene – our eyes can also detect detail. Even though the scene is bathed in harsh light we can pick up meaningful information throughout the different tones.
We decide to take a picture. We raise our camera to eye level; by the way, in this example we’re using the best camera money can buy. We carefully take note of the overall exposure and click the shutter.
When we see the photographic print we are disappointed; what’s on the print doesn’t do justice to what we saw. The shadows are pitch black devoid of any detail, the highlights are burnt out, meaning that the highlights have no detail, they are paper white.
Most photographers on the road to photographic fluency have likewise been disappointed. Why does this happen?
Yet, as Dr. Miller explains, camera film or digital sensor, “doesn’t even begin to compare with the versatile sensitivity of the retina.” With the same “film” we can see by moonlight or in sunlight 30,000 times more intense. Furthermore, the retina can discern fine details of an object part of which is bathed in light and the rest of which is in shadow. “The camera,” explains Professor Guyton in his Textbook of Medical Physiology, “cannot do this because of the narrow critical range of light intensity required for proper exposure of film or sensor.”
This explains the two versions of the same scene, what the photographer and what the camera saw.
Seeing as the Camera Sees
For a photographer, “seeing clear” requires seeing as the camera sees. The human eye and brain can detect detail over a very large dynamic range in comparison with the best cameras and films available. When confronted with a similar situation, the photographer has a number of important decisions to make if he’s going to come away with a successful image.
If we don’t learn to see how the camera sees, we’ll end up with mishaps, such as the proverbial pole appearing to grow from someone’s head. In this instance, to the photographer the pole didn’t appear to come out of the person’s head because his two eyes allowed him to see that there was distance between the pole and the subject. Binocular vision reveals the scene in three dimensions length, height and depth. On the other hand, the camera sees with one eye, its vision is flat; there is no depth.
There remains one simple exercise. When you reach the end of this paragraph, please raise your head from the computer screen and look around. Probably you’re very familiar with the different objects in the room. Now, close one eye. In an instant separating objects and judging distances are not straight forward – you are now seeing as the camera sees – monocular vision.
As a camera focuses an image on photographic film or on a digital sensor, our eye focuses on the retina an image of what we see, (the retina is a small membrane that fits over the back of the eye. As thin as paper, it contains over a hundred million neurons arranged in different layers.)