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For Beginners – Learning to See

Image: A granite shoreline on a local lake offers endless opportunities for images.

A granite shoreline on a local lake offers endless opportunities for images.

Photography is about vision – real or perceived.

Before we take the camera out of the bag we must first learn to look at what we are seeing, and to see at which we are looking.

Often times beginning photographers will stop dead in their tracks and in haste put the camera to their eye. Then the search begins, the human form will go through contortions resembling those of Gumby and Pokey while the lens is zoomed in and out, raised up and down, and enough gadgets are incorporated to leave any mechanical engineer in awe.

The fact of the matter is that once we have recognized a scene worthy of photographing, the one element that often fails in the process is the inability to see, to really see, what it was that stopped us in the first place.  Once the camera is raised to the eye you should be looking at what it was that you had earlier seen, thus, the camera simply becomes a mechanical device to record the image that the grey matter located four-inches behind the viewfinder has already registered.

So, “how do we learn to see,” you might ask?

This is a million dollar question, and hopefully, the answer is one that you will chase for as long as you are physically able to hold a camera. As we learn to see we incorporate a vision or style, and as you journey along this wonderful path you will find that you will revisit that same subject in a different light as your vision and style evolves. This is healthy and shows a maturity and progression.

But first we must give our eyes exercises so the act of seeing becomes an intuitive process.

As we learn to read, we read slowly by studying each syllable of each word, and annunciating those syllables aloud. As our reading skill improves we learn to read silently, and eventually will often be speed-reading by skipping or scanning words in our left-to-right habit instilled form. We don’t see every word, we just intuitively know what noun, verb or adjective is next simply by scanning that line.

This is a problem for the new photographer. For years we have trained ourselves to not only read, but also to look from left-to-right, and as such we often skip over pertinent details.

Image: A backyard garden is a prefect training ground for the nature photographer. Get down low and...

A backyard garden is a prefect training ground for the nature photographer. Get down low and study those flowers to see what surprises may be waiting.


One of the first tricks I learned many years ago had nothing to do with photography, but was drilled into me by an army sergeant. It only took a few smacks up the back of my head to learn how to look from right-to-left when scanning a landscape in an effort to see the hidden “enemy” in our mock battles. This process of reverse reading forced me to slow down and read each tree as if it were a syllable I was seeing for the first time. Even today, about thirty years after I called that sergeant every adjective not found in a descent dictionary, I still find myself scanning a landscape from right-to-left.

If you don’t believe this will help in your visual acuity, just read the first line of any paragraph in this column. Notice how your eyes skip and jump ahead of what your mind is absorbing? Now read that same line from right-to-left, I’ll bet you are even turning your head with your eyes as you slowly study each word.

Now put this skill to practise. When you are out at your backyard bird feeder, or at the neighbourhood park, start scanning those trees looking for birds from right-to-left. Soon this will become an intuitive process, and you will see more birds in the forest or spiders on flowers than you ever imagined. Only by seeing that bird or spider can you then make a picture of it.

As the great purveyor of quotes, professional baseball player Yogi Berra, once said: “You can observe a lot by just looking around.”

Image: By training our imagination at the same time as our eyes, a whole new world of opportunities...

By training our imagination at the same time as our eyes, a whole new world of opportunities can open. This lake is a centuries-old canoe route for the indigenous aboriginal community. By rotating the image I imagined the Great Earth Mother with arms and hands holding her pelvis and the unborn child in her womb.

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Dale Wilson
Dale Wilson

is a freelance photographer based out of Halifax, Canada. He has been a regular staff writer for a variety of Canadian photo magazines for 18 years. Wilson has also published or co-published four books and was the photo-editor on the Canadian best selling Canada’s National Parks – A Celebration. His practice concentrates on commercial work and shooting natural history images for four stock agencies. After a 10 year hiatus Wilson will once again be offering eastern Canadian workshops with his teaching partner
Garry Black.’

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