Seeing Intentionally

I’m not exactly sure what seeing intentionally feels like, but I think I’m starting to do it.

The way seasoned photographers talk about dialing in their settings, you’d think the camera is part of their brain. And maybe, eventually, you train your hands, your eyes, your heart so well, that’s how you work. Maybe seeing intentionally becomes part of the process.

But here’s the thing: The same photographers begin glowing when they talk about using an electronic viewfinder.

Let me explain.

We’ll need a little photo history.

In the 19th century, the first time photography shifted culture, you composed by looking directly through the back of the camera at your subject. Reasonable. But to take the photograph, you had to slide the photo-sensitive material (which you’d personally made a few minutes before) in the back of the camera. Between you and the lens. You set it all up, then went camera-blind for a few minutes. You had to trust.

In the first decade of the 20th century, new technologies appeared to address this, such as “reflex viewing.” With a mirror at the bottom which would move of the way at the moment of exposure, you could now compose and shoot in one action. For many (not all!) photographers, this changed the game.

Enter later the Minigraph, the Leica (35mm film-roll), and eventually, the Single-Lens Reflex (SLR). Each simplifies and compacts what is fundamentally the same process: Seeing intentionally—in your mind—how you want the image to look. Overexposed? Underexposed? Carefully exposed, so you could play with it later in the dark room? Edward Weston and Ansel Adams preached it a lot.

If you ever shot on a disposable camera, you’re familiar with the tech the preceded the SLR, the Rangefinder. A little window at the top of the box lets you look, more or less, at what the lens sees. The SLR shows you exactly what the lens sees. And with your trusty Depth of Field Preview button, you can almost see how the image will be exposed. But there are other factors that affect the exposure, too, so even with all our digital tools, we’re still reliant on the mind’s eye.

The camera can’t show you what your settings will render until you take the picture.

Well, until recently.

About 12 years ago, a new technology came on the landscape. A mirrorless camera can show you exactly how your image will look, in your little viewing box, before you take the picture. Your phone is a mirrorless camera, though most of us don’t use it manually. A serious camera that lets you do that, I’ve been told, is once again game-changing.

I don’t have such a camera. I have a pair of digital SLRs. And as we move still further from mix-your-photo-sensititive-plate-in-a-tent-on-the-hillside, I’m glad I’m learning this way.

I’m no technophobe. I’ve shot close to 150K frames in the last 27 months. At about $5/36 exposures, that would’ve cost me around $20,000, for the film alone. Forget the processing, or slowly building a darkroom. Obviously, I wouldn’t have shot as much, and I would have learned different things. Maybe I’d be well practiced in seeing intentionally by now, but missing refined skills in finding the moment a performer is connecting with her audience.

But I see the value in learning by doing some of the metaphysical work myself. Sometimes you learn more by repeated failure. At least then success really sticks.

So, seeing intentionally.

The seasoned shooters, they seem to come away with fewer shots, and more of them keepers. That’s the goal, right? More quality, less time, less effort, less waste.

You get there by inviting the camera halfway. You meet it in a place between your human hopes and its mechanical possibility. You become partners, one of you moving the other, who moves the other…

That’s how I’m starting to see now. I leave my camera in Manual. I make choices. The scene changes. I forget to change it (a lot) and make many mistakes. I “chimp:” look at the digital display of my image as soon as it’s shot. Some of those mistakes push me in new directions, and slowly, I learn to anticipate my them. I learn to try them as ideas, instead, and then they are experiments which fail or succeed.

By changing nothing, the camera suggests something. I underexpose to draw out the colors, really emphasize the blacks. Or overexpose, to draw you through the window, through the door.

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The author

I bring 11 years as a professional writer and designer, as well as my feminism, ecological philosophies, and editorial aesthetic to photography. When no one’s looking, I bring my sense of humor, too.

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