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The Language of Seeing… by Bryan F. Peterson

July 28, 2015 by Admin

Agree or disagree- the following two locations are absolutely, positively, without a doubt, fully capable of offering up two truly compelling images?  IF you don’t agree then perhaps you aren’t quite fluent in the foreign language of seeing creatively. Let me explain.

I have lived abroad on two separate occasions. From 1989-1991 I lived in Bavaria, Germany and Amsterdam, Holland and from 1999-2008 I lived in Lyon, France. Fortunately for me, 88% of Dutch people speak fluent English so my stay in Holland was less challenging, but not so in Germany and definitely not so in France. Needless to say my challenge would be to communicate my needs, hopes and desires in a foreign language IF I truly wanted to integrate myself into their respective cultures. A daunting task perhaps, but there is nothing like the full immersion method. Just like throwing a baby into a swimming pool where it quickly learns to swim, I too quickly learned ‘how to swim’. The few phrase books I had brought with me were quickly retired, not because I had mastered the language, but rather because no one seemed to speak in the phonetic manner that these phrase books suggested. But in well under 3-months, I was soon speaking just enough German and French to get myself both in and out of trouble!

As the months continued to unfold, my confidence took a sharp turn upward as I could sense my adventure on foreign soil was moving forward at a much faster pace and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

 And what does any of this have to with learning how to see creatively? EVERYTHING! Truth be told, your camera and lens(es) are a foreign country, a country where your camera and lens(es) do speak a language all their own. Until you are willing to learn the language your lenses speak, fluently I might add, your attempts at picture making will require constant translation.

Some of us can pick up the language of ‘seeing creatively’ quicker than others but I also believe that if given enough time everyone can speak the language of ‘seeing creatively’. I have seen and taught too many students to believe otherwise. And the road to speaking and seeing fluently is made much shorter when you put the language of your lenses to work, week in and week out. Obviously you won’t become proficient at speaking French if you go to one French class a year or visit only Paris for two weeks every five years. The same is true in learning to see creatively; visual fluency requires weekly practice.

Are you ready for lesson #1? Do you know what language your wide-angle lens speaks? Are you even sure you have a wide-angle lens? How close can it focus? What is its maximum angle of view? These questions need your answers and they can only be answered of course when you put the camera and lens up to your eye!

  Today most if not all shooters are running around with at least one variable focal length lens, the “street zoom” as I call them, e.g. 18-70mm, 17-40mm, 24mm-105mm etc. and with a lens like that there is no excuse why you can’t be banging out one prize winner after another-no excuse at all!


Assuming that you have one of those “street zooms” and depending on its focal length, set the focal length to either 17mm or 18mm or 24mm and make a point to not change this focal length at any time during this exercise.  Now choose a subject (a favorite barn or oak tree) or take your spouse, friend, or child into the backyard or over to the local park. From whatever distance is necessary, place your subject so that it falls in the middle of the frame, allowing for a lot of “empty space” above, below, and to both sides. With the camera still at your eye, make your first exposure and then begin walking toward your subject. Every five paces, take another exposure, mindful of course to keep the subject in focus. Keep walking closer until your lens can no longer capture the subject in sharp focus.

 One thing is sure to result from this exercise. Your first composition will record not only your main subject, but also all of that other stuff that probably detracts from it, and your final composition should record a close-up of your subject, which not only cuts out that other stuff but maybe cuts out some important stuff, too.

Now, without changing the focal length, repeat the exact same exercise while on your knees and then again while on your belly. Finally, once you’ve gotten as close to your subject as you can, and making that last shot while on your belly, turn over onto your back and take just one more shot while shooting straight up.

 While walking on your knees, you no doubt discovered a far more intimate portrait of the small child or perhaps recorded a far more intimate “portrait” of the barn that had the added drama of depth and perspective since the field that surrounds it now fills up the foreground of the image. Perhaps also, while on your belly, you discovered a wonderful and fresh composition of the surrounding park framed through the feet and lower legs of your friend or spouse. And, most of all, you learned the inherent vision, when combined with differing points of view, of your ‘street zoom’ and that includes everything it can and can’t do.


But, you’ve only just begun! Make a point to do the same exercises at 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 60mm, 70mm, 80mm, 90mm, and 105mm. Switch over to your telephoto zooms and start this exercise all over, shooting at various focal lengths up to 200mm (or 300mm if you have it). If you maintain this regimen of “eye exercises” once a week for the next six months, you will soon be speaking the visual language of your lenses, fluently!

 And when you are fluent in seeing creatively, you will see the two compelling images that are yours for the taking 
from the above two images.