I find that looking at a thing is not seeing, that I had to learn to see. I think photographers are not alone in this perception. Paul Rezendes, the well-known tracking expert and, coincidentally, nature photographer writes about his ideas in his book, Tracking and the Art of Seeing, “Sometimes there are no tracks at all, but there is never a square yard in the forest that does not tell us something…” He is saying looking at tracks fails to inform, while seeing a wider view still contains what we need to know.
I’m a birder. I know that looking at a spot where I heard a sound more often than not fails to get me a sighting, but letting my eyes scan around an area will often catch sight of the bird as my gaze snaps to where my moving eyes saw it.
For me as a photographer, looking at my subject is an act of fixing my gaze on a flower, a person, a waterfall, anything. As likely as not when I snap the shutter my composition just won’t work when I try to make my finished image. By looking more widely, by not looking at one thing I see the entire frame and am better able to compose my shot and wind up happy with my end result.
I have been shooting without a viewfinder for my camera for the past two or three years. I thought I’d want the optional viewfinder that I could have purchased. However, I found the LCD view, perhaps too close to my face to focus my eyes completely, prompted me to see the whole frame, the image as my camera sensor would capture it. So I never did acquire one.
My friend Richard Paul Hoyer, who I know through his role as an instructor at the Worcester Art Museum, related a similar experience which he describes as seeing shapes. He has carried his art of seeing forward to his current gear, seeing shapes through the viewfinder. He’s working with the entire frame, not just one thing within it.
I recommend to any student of the camera to learn this art of seeing. Your photographic craft may rise to a new level; and your pleasure with the result help you stick with the effort at learning to control your camera and photo editing software or darkroom technique.