Holistic Photography: Try something now; hold your hand up in front of you with a straight arm and focus on your thumb. You’ll notice that your little finger is out-of-focus; blurred.
What’s happening here? We see a surprisingly small circle of sharp vision, and our brains fill in the rest of the scene. We’ll rarely really look at anything for more than a general sweeping view of our surroundings.
Now try looking in a mirror in dim light then shine a torch into your eyes. You will see your pupil (the black hole in the centre of your eye) shrink. Whenever you move your eyes to look at brighter or darker areas of your scene, your pupil will change its size, letting in more or less light.
The camera is also able to change the size of the hole that lets the light in; the APERTURE. However, while the eyes act more like a video camera, automatically adjusting the EXPOSURE (and focus) based on what they’re looking at, a camera must use the same sized hole to encompass all of the tonal range in a scene; so certain areas are often too bright or too dark.
In addition, because this small roving circle of sharpness darts back and forth and quickly focusses on objects at different distances from the eye, and because the brain ignores blurry areas, we have the impression that everything in the scene is in-focus; the camera’s not so fortunate.
The next couple of experiments are worth doing when you have a chance. Firstly, try looking directly at a faint star for thirty seconds. It will disappear. This is because the small circle of sharp focus requires a lot of light to work. The rest of the retina is more sensitive to light, so look slightly to the side of the star to ensure that you can see it.
This area of our visual field may be much better in low-light, but it can’t really distinguish colours. Seems strange? Try shuffling a pack of coloured pencils behind your back then, staring straight ahead, take one colour at random, hold it at arm’s length to your side, and slowly move it towards the centre.
You will see the movement of the object first and not make out much detail. If you keep focussing in front of you, you’ll be surprise how far you have to bring the pencil before you can identify its colour.
Biologically, the retina inside the eye (like the film/sensor inside your camera) has cone cells clustered in a small area in the centre; the fovea. These cones are great for seeing fine detail and colour, but close to useless in dim lighting conditions.
The cone cells in the centre are surrounded and far outnumbered by rod cells; which aren’t sensitive to colour but work well in low light. They are more sensitive to motion and make up our night and periphery vision.
Because we’re using the rod cells at night when light levels are low, the scene seems less distinct and the colours muted or absent. The effect is mimicked in cinematography; look at the colour palette change for night shots.
Photographically, we might say that the cone cells in the centre our vision are similar to a slow, low grain colour film like Fujifilm’s Velvia 50; plenty of colour and detail but requiring a lot of light to produce a picture.
The surrounding area that’s covered in rod cells may seem similar to a high-speed grainy black and white film like Ilford’s Delta 3200; sensitive in low-light levels but monochromatic and poorly detailed.
The curious part about this is that, due to the brain’s magnificence, our impression of the world is usually total colour vision. Try looking about more than usual; up, down, around you – with more information, your brain can create a more expansive visual field.
In the dark, look around the object you wish to see, bringing your eyes to rest a little above it, a little to the side, a little below it and so on, pausing for a second each time; you’ll find your night vision improved.
Our camera sees more objectively. When there’s less light we’ll need to use a slower SHUTTER SPEED, a larger APERTURE, a higher ISO SENSITIVITY or a combination of the three variables to create the correct exposure.
But the colours in the resulting photograph can seem more vivid than the scene seems before us. Recognise that our eyes will make a dimly lit scene less colourful and then photograph it anyway; the results might surprise you.
Though they can’t discern the colour, the rods are also far more sensitive to green and blue light than they are to red light. This gives rise to the Purkinje effect; a red rose will seem brilliantly rich in daylight, but will appear to darken at dusk while the green leaves will seem simultaneously brighter in comparison.
The rods’ insensitivity to red light is shared by photographic paper and explains why photographers use deep red ‘safelights’ in the darkroom; they don’t affect the paper. Likewise, red lights are used by the military to preserve night vision which takes about thirty minutes to properly develop and can be quickly set back by white light.
Holistic Photography is about learning to see, and a crucial part of this process is noticing and understanding the visual biases that our visual system presents us. The camera ‘sees’ the world quite differently to us. We must bear this in mind if we wish our photographs to accurately represent the scene in front of us or the picture in our mind’s eye.
If you’ve made a photograph at night, you’ve probably encountered motion blur, especially if you moved the camera during the exposure (when the picture was being taken). Why don’t our eyes exhibit this blur when they move?
Our brain actively ignores the blurred image created when we move our eyes about; a process called saccadic masking. This is why the second hand on a clock appears to move slower when you first look at it – the deleted period of time when the eyes were moving is replaced with the initial image of the clock.
There are other more important visual biases too; our mind will emphasise certain elements of the scene and downplay others. This is due to our RAS – or reticular activating system – which stomps about generalising, deleting and distorting.
It has to filter our perceptions like this; there is simply too much information coming in through the senses for us to cope with. But interestingly, everyone’s RAS is slightly different, so every person sees a different version of the world.
It is this ability to see that Holistic Photography wants to refine and develop. People talk about being born with a good artistic eye, but the fact is, that’s cowardly elitism speaking. Certainly, learning advanced camera techniques or buying better lenses won’t make you a great photographer; but that elusive artistic ‘eye’ can be taught.
Beliefs create our view of reality. They are tremendously powerful. With positive beliefs, the world literally seems like a better, happier place. This will come across in your art. Contrarily, those people with negative beliefs may ‘see a red door and want to paint it black’ to match their experience of the world.
Because we see the scene subjectively and the camera records objectively, sometimes the photographs we make do not reflect our own impression of the scene. There are things that you can’t capture; but used properly, photography can communicate what you think, see and feel.
One of the most common divergences is seeing several interesting objects and attempting to frame them together; this may force the use of a wide-angle lens, making each object small in the frame; the mind exaggerates them, but the end photograph will not.
It is beneficial, therefore, to really focus on what’s important to us in the scene and ensure that it is emphasised appropriately. Obviously, the most straightforward method to accomplish this is to make the object bigger in the frame – either by using a long, telephoto lens or by getting closer.
But this needn’t be our only approach. There are other ways to draw the viewers attention in the final photograph to what attracted our own at the time. And we can make use of the biases inherent in our visual system.
Survival is a strong desire. It’s built into our body and mind in a way we still can’t entirely understand. Photographically, we do know that contrast draws our attention; the chap in the bright red jacket standing in the green landscape mimics the tiger in the forest so we notice him even if he’s small in the frame.
White objects will contrast strongly against black backgrounds and vice versa. The easiest way to achieve this is to have your subject lit by a different light than your background; in the sun with a background in the shade works well. Remember that our eyes mitigate contrast, so what looks like light shadow to you may appear black in the photograph.
Complementary colours jump out when seen together. Common pairs include red and green, blue and yellow and purple and orange. Instant action; look for contrasting backgrounds to make your subject stand out.
Holistic photography has a repertoire of tricks and techniques to ensure that the intended subjects are not in the milieu of the scene; many of these principles are based on psychological research and work cross-culturally.
Just as important as actively leading our viewer to what we would have them pay attention to, removing distractions effectively performs the RAS’s job of excluding unimportant objects from the final photograph.
We can start by removing high contrast objects; neon traffic signs are likely culprits. There are several ways to do this; chief among them is simply positioning any distractions behind something else or adjusting the framing so that they fall outside the borders of the photograph.
For movable distractions often the most straightforward solution is just to move them. Spend a few minutes removing any clutter from your scene; what doesn’t add to your photograph detracts from it.
When it’s not possible to remove a distraction from appearing in your frame, it is then worth considering if the accuracy of the scene is worth sacrificing to artistic licence and using Photoshop to airbrush the picture.
The important consideration is simplicity; your mind is able to filter the scene, indeed has to do so; but the camera does not, and the only filtering done in the final photograph is that which you actively do yourself.
But back to the essentials; how to choose the correct exposure settings for your camera. Your camera is a light-tight box into which you allow a quantity of light from your scene, varying which alters the brightness of your photograph.