How to See Like a Photographer

There are few “inventions” as complex and capable as the human eye. Our eyes give us extraordinary power to see the world around us, and in the case of photography, (hopefully) enjoy what we see. Our vision has fewer limits than our camera’s and lenses. That differences in capabilities means that you have to learn how to see like a photographer – to see the world through the barrel of your lens.

The question is, how do you learn how to see like a photographer? Here’s a few considerations that will help you…

Think About Depth of Field

Healthy eyes naturally adjust their focus to maintain just about everything in your field of vision in crisp sharpness. Your camera and lens can try to do that on their own, and in some cases, they might be successful. But understanding how to manipulate depth of field – the area of the photo that’s in focus – will help you utilize your camera and lens to create more interesting photos.

I’ve written a detailed guide on depth of field that you can check out here, but for a quick review, depth of field is the product of several factors:

  • Aperture – The larger the size of the aperture, the shallower the depth of field.
  • Distance to the subject – The closer you are to the subject, the shallower the depth of field.
  • Distance from the subject to the background – The greater the distance between the subject and background, the shallower the depth of field.
  • Focal Length – All else being equal, the longer the focal length, the shallower the depth of field.
  • Sensor Size – All else being equal, the larger the sensor, the shallower the depth of field.

The reason it’s important to understand depth of field is because it can be used as a very powerful creative tool.

That means that where your eyes will see everything in focus, your camera might not – and you might not want your camera too, either.

By manipulating the factors above and learning how to see as a photographer, you can use features of the scene you’re photographing and a different depth of field to create a more compelling shot.

Consider Tones

Today’s cameras are more capable and powerful than ever before. Yet despite that, they still aren’t as capable as our eyes in seeing a range of tones and light values. That means that when you look at a scene, you’re able to pick out a wider range of light than your camera lens. You’re also more able to see details in deeply shadowed or brightly highlighted areas as well. When you photograph a scene, you have to bear in mind these limitations of your camera and lens when composing the shot.

For example, if you’re photographing a scene like the one above in which there are bright highlights and dark shadows, your camera won’t be able to record that wide range. That means that you’ll either have to expose for the highlights and have a very dark image otherwise, expose for the shadows and have a very bright image otherwise, or find a way to minimize the dynamic range of the scene such that your camera can get a well-exposed image throughout.

There are several ways of doing this:

  • Use a graduated neutral density filter (for landscape shots).
  • Take multiple exposures, each exposed for a different level of light (i.e. highlights, midtones, and shadows) and combine them together in post-processing. Learn how to do that in the video below by Serge Ramelli.
  • Use your camera’s HDR feature, if so equipped.

So again, we see the difference between what your eyes are capable of doing and how much more capable they are than your camera. If you don’t learn how to “read the scene” when it comes to lighting, you’ll have a difficult time creating images that are well-exposed when the lighting is too much for your camera and lens to handle.

Your Eyes Aren’t Constrained – Your Lens is

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between your eyes and your camera’s lens is that your eyes aren’t bound by a strict frame. That is, when you look at a scene, you can see far beyond the borders of a shot of the very same scene. That means that when you venture to take photos, you have to learn how to restrict your field of vision to match the field of view of your camera. Doing so allows you to see the forest through the trees, so to speak, and pick out interesting or compelling subject matter from the larger scene at hand.

This is difficult to do, especially for new photographers, but it’s a skill that will serve you well. By learning to see within a much smaller frame, you are more capable of identifying what should and shouldn’t be included in the shot. This isn’t to say that you have to go minimalist with every photo you take; rather, being able to exclude unnecessary elements will simply make your compositions that much stronger.

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