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Photo Tips > Increase Powers of Observation


I owned my farm for two years before learning that the sky dance is to be seen over my woods every evening in April and May.

Since we discovered it, my and I have been reluctant to miss even a single performance.

Aldo Leopold

A Sand County Almanac


The image is indivisible and elusive, dependent upon our consciousness and on the real world which it seeks to embody.

If the world is inscrutable, then the image will be so too.

It is a kind of equation, signifying the correlation between truth and the human consciousness, bound as the latter is by Euclidean space.

We cannot comprehend the totality of the universe, but the poetic image is able to express that totality.

Andrei Tarkovsky

Sculpting in Time


I kept going out a little further and each time, I would think of my money being stolen and I was less afraid of sharks.

It just sort of happened naturally.

I realized that I was out a little further and a little further until all of a sudden I was out further than I had ever been in any ocean, in any world, anywhere.

I was beyond Ivan even.

I was so far out—I could tell that I had never been in this situation before because of the view of the shoreline.

I had never seen the shore from that point of view before.

It was so far away that I felt this enormous disconnection from Mother Earth.

Suddenly, there was no time and there was no fear and there was no body to bite.

There were no longer any outlines. It was just one big ocean.

My body had blended with the ocean.

And there was just this round, smiling-ear-to-ear pumpkin-head perceiver on top, bobbing up and down. And up the perceiver would go with the waves, then down it would go, and the waves would come up around the perceiver, and it could have been in the center of the Indian Ocean, because it could see no land. And then the waves would take the perceiver up to where it could look down this great wall of water to where Judy Arthur and John Swain were body surfing—like a Hawaiian travel poster—far below, and then—"Whoop!" The perceiver would go up again. I don't know how long this went on. It was all very out of time until it was brought back into time by Ivan's voice calling, "Spalding! Spalding, come back, man! I haven't tested those waters yet!"

Spalding Gray

Swimming to Cambodia

Why Do You Need to Increase

Your Powers of Observation?

In Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events (PDF or PDF), Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris recount their experiment.

Subjects watched a video (Click View the "basketball" video) of a basketball game.

They were asked count the number of times basketball players wearing white passed the ball.

During the game, a person in a gorilla suit walked slowly across the court.

About 50% of the subjects didn't see the gorilla.

If you can't see the gorilla, how can you be the best photographer you can be?

The Gorilla, or It

In Swimming to Cambodia, the late monologist Spalding Gray described being in the ocean off of Phuket as a periscope.

A singularity taking in the totality.

Photographers, whether they look for photographs or make photographs, must have many sensitivities.

We must be sensitive to light and to the life of the surfaces and interiors within the frame.

How can we increase our powers of observation?

Getting the gorilla, the it, into our eye, is the hard part.

Once there, we can feel the it and can think about the it.

We can put it to use.

The it could the it of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

Or, the it is whatever.


Colin Fletcher, who was hiking through the Grand Canyon, wrote:

I was lying sprawling out on the hot sand, naked.

I was doing, as far as I remember, nothing.

Now, interludes in which you sprawl and do nothing are great occasions for seeing important things that you have always been too busy to notice.

And after I had lain there for a long time, with my eyes just above the glaring and granular sand, I noticed a fly.

A fly so small that even to my ground-level eyes it had little more than existence.

It was, I mean, just a dark speck with no particular shape or character.

This fly--which a cleverly classified as a sandfly, though I had no idea what it was--kept recrystallizing in to my field of vision.

And always, when I saw it, it was moving along the same zigzag and vaguely pugnacious route.

Before long, I had mapped out its routine.1

Set aside a length of time.

Turn off your connections to the world, cell phone, Blackberry, and so forth.

Find a place where you can sit comfortably.

Observe anything and everything.

You can also be more directed.

Choose something to observe, such as people's expressions.

When your eye wanders away to something else, stay with the new direction, or wander back to people's faces.

Objective Tools - Mind

Measure it.

Locate it.

Where is it?

Catalogue, such as shapes



Make a hypothesis.

Subjective Tools - Heart

Faces, and gestures such as those made with arms, stance, and walk.

Sense Tools

Listen with your eyes closed.

In a film, the sound track communicates

Movement is easier than stillness.

Photography Tools

Your position is the camera position.

Should it be elsewhere?

Observe the scene from other perspectives as you observe from a single position.

The Challenge

Our actors in the frame don't have words, nor any music.

The major pathways to feelings and thoughts are absent, or can only be implied.

Start Small

Sit in front of a photograph.

If you have a notebook, you can sit on the floor without attracting attention.

Write down everything that you see, think, and feel.

Don't censor.

Two Books

About Powerful Observers


Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino

In Mr. Palomar, by Italo Calvino, Mr. Palomar observes the world through philosophical eyegalsses.

The book is described in Wikipedia as follows.

For example, chapter 1.2.3, "The infinite lawn" ("Il prato infinito") has elements of all three themes, and shows the progress of the book in miniature. It encompasses very detailed observations of the various plants growing in Mr Palomar's lawn, an investigation of the symbolism of the lawn as a marker of culture versus nature, the problem of categorizing weeds, the problem of the actual extent of the lawn, the problem of how we perceive elements and collections of those elements ... These thoughts and others run seamlessly together, so by the end of the chapter we find Mr Palomar extending his mind far beyond his garden, and contemplating the nature of the universe itself.



Mezzanine: The Novel by Nicholas Baker

In Mezzanine: The Novel, Nicholas Baker chronicles the escalator ride of a man.

J.T. Nite wrote the following in an Amazon review.

The undeniable appeal of "The Mezzanine" is almost impossible to explain to anyone who hasn't read it. Try it, sometime; tell someone "It's a 150 page book about what a guy thinks about as he goes up the escalator to his office." Not exactly an easy sell.

But it's a fantastic read. This is not just "some guy" who's sharing his interior monologue, it's a guy written by Nicholson Baker. That means he's funnier than you, smarter than you, and his meandering observations are bound to be entertaining. His neuroses are interesting, his thought processes bizarre (but no more bizarre than mine or yours).

So if the "plot" of the novel is "a guy goes up an escalator and sits down in his office," what is the novel about? It's about all of the tiny little thoughts that fly through our head, day in and day out. This is significant because these "unimportant" thoughts are our *lives.* All of these idle wonderings are what make us human and what makes each person an individual.

So walk a mile in Baker's head, and know him and yourself better.

J.T. Nite

Another Book


On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes

In On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, Alexandra Horowitz walks the streets of New York City with experts on different topics, including her toddler son.

1 Fletcher, C. (1968). The man who walked through time. NY: Alfred A. Knopf.