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Learning to See…  By Bryan F. Peterson

June 4, 2014 by Admin

Learning to see creatively is very dependent on what your camera and lens can and cannot see. Captains of ships need to become very familiar with their maps as they navigate the world, making certain to keep the ship pointed in the right direction. In much the same way, your lenses are maps that can lead you to new and enchanting lands. With constant practice, which will only come by placing the camera and lens to your eye, you’ll begin to visually memorize the unique vision of each and every lens—both the pluses and the minuses. The more you do this, the less likely you’ll be hearing yourself ask the question, “what lens should I use?” You’ll learn just how vast an area a wide-angle lens can cover, or how a telephoto lens can select a single subject out of an otherwise busy and hectic scene. It won’t be too much longer until you’ll find yourself knowing, without hesitation, what lens to use as you see one picture-taking opportunity after another.


Then, you can begin to take this new found vision to even greater heights, challenging yourself to view the forest from a toad’s point of view, or the city streets from a sidewalk point of view, or your backyard from a robin’s-nest point of view. (Ladders are not just for house painting.) Lie on your back at the base of a large fir tree and show me the point of view of the squirrel that raced up it only moments ago. Set your camera on the shoulder of the road, and fire away just as the big semi truck comes into view. A composition like this will, for example, make it dramatically obvious why it is so important that the city council build a small underpass for the ducks that cross that same busy road every spring.

Whether or not your compositions are compelling depends not on some magic recipe, but rather on a thorough understanding of lens choice, point of view, elements of design, and final arrangement, or composition. All of these are, as I said, “maps” that require studying, some more then others. Both your fears and preconceived notions will be challenged. How will you ever share with others the robin’s-nest viewpoint if you’re afraid of heights? How will you share the busy sidewalk view if the idea of lying down on the sidewalk is too intimidating? You’ll certainly hit a “reef” now and then, and you may even feel compelled to abandon ship at times.

What If. . . ?

Once you begin making discoveries about how your lenses see, don’t be surprised if you find yourself at times consumed by the question “What if. . . ?” What if you focus close on your toaster that just burnt the toast and, as the blue smoke rises from inside, we see your wife—with the baby in her arms—out of focus in the background, running towards it? What if you focus on a passport lying on the sidewalk and we see an obvious out of focus businessman getting into a taxi in the background? What if you focus on a bottle of sleeping pills with an out of focus woman asleep in her bed in the background? What if from inside the house or garage, you focus close on a broken window-pane with an out of focus solemn-looking little boy, glove and bat in hand, in the yard in the background? What if you focus on just the thumb of a hitchhiker on a busy interstate? What if you focus close on just the used syringe in an alleyway? What if you focused close just on the. . . ?

Our desire to see objects up close is innate- a longing for intimate encounters perhaps. And when we combine an up close and personal view of a given subject, we can in turn control the subjects “visual weight” via the proper selection in aperture. It is the aperture in combination with the close focus that determines the overall sharpness in a given scene. And in both of the finished examples shown here, focusing close and the use of a large lens opening, f/5.6, emphasizes the foreground flowers, and in turn the background is rendered into out of focus shapes and tones. It’s as if the flowers have been given a voice, a voice that says quite simply, “Look where I get to bloom!”

The very small village of Jarnioux, France is listed as one France’s Most Beautiful Villages and for good reason. I have shot in Jarnioux more then a dozen times, during all seasons and I never ceased to be amazed at making new discoveries here. As we can see in the first example, the village boasts an old church and castle, and along it’s nearby fields and roadside ditches one can often find wildflowers blooming in the spring and summer. After shooting the first image:

The thought then occurred to me, “What if I could show the village of Jarnioux from the flowers perspective, as if the flowers wanted everyone to know where they lived?” With the aid of my Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8 lens I was able to move in really close to a single flower stalk and when combined with a large lens opening, I was able to give the flowers a voice. 

As this second photograph shows, it’s as if the flowers are now exclaiming, “Look where I get to bloom!”

(Capture info for above images: Nikon D300S-Nikkor 28-70mm F/5.6 @ 1/800 second, 200 ISO)

The Valensole Plain in Provence France is a lavender shooters paradise. Once you drive up on any number of small roads that lead to the top of the plain, you will be greeted with waves of lavender as far as the eye can see. It’s an area that is truly hard to take a bad picture! However, having shot ‘waves of lavender’ many times already, I was once again looking for something new. It was then I spotted these yellow flowers in a large expansive field of lavender.

I knew I could once again place the visual weight on these flowers and render the waves of lavender as out of focus shapes and tones in the background. Again, I was able to give the flowers a voice.

As the second photograph clearly shows, “Look where we get to bloom!”

Get to know your lenses and their unique visions and instead of asking what lens should I use, you will soon be asking “what if…”

(Capture info on lavender photos: Nikon D300S, Nikkor 70-300mm ED-IF VR, f/5.6 @ 1/1000 second, ISO 200)