For Beginners - Learning to See

For Beginners – Learning to See


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.

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.”

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 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.'

Some Older Comments

  • Yvonne February 15, 2013 04:52 pm

    Thanks that was a good comment and interesting

  • Fenny January 25, 2013 01:16 am

    Wow! I just realized I found a word I haven't heard before when read from right to left. You're right, my head also followed the words! hahaha.. Interesting technique!
    This year I am taking picture every single day, like a daily journal; I'm sure by using this method I will spot something new :D. Thank you, Dale!!

  • Sorin December 27, 2012 07:26 am

    Brilliant! Extremely simple and most probably effective due to its logic. I'll put it at work. How many times at home looking for something we pass by several times without seeing it... Because we skip, we kip skipping...

  • Cynthia December 24, 2012 12:01 am

    An artist I sat for (in my youth) used to use a mirror to view the scene he was painting backwards.
    He said it helped him see many more things, whether it was objects or colors or perspective.

  • Cynthia December 23, 2012 11:57 pm

    Reading the scene from right to left!
    This was such a great basic action to take. I can relate to what you suggested and said our mistakes can be.
    I am a novice but dream of taking great pictures. I think I am one step closer. Thanks!

  • Naz December 22, 2012 06:27 pm

    Yes Francis- that is the same concept- the upside down view forces you to see things that we normally would gloss over without givign much htought when viewing hte subject in it's right orientation- Turn a chair upside down, and you very quickly begin to notice the spaces between the rungs, the shapes and angles of legs, the slant of seat, the ornate carvings in the rungs etc- Looking at the scene for you I imagine forces you to look at edges, noticing thigns that might be distractign thaT you might havem issede when viewing hte scene correctly- what you describe is the same cocnept as the art excersizes

  • Francis Koo December 22, 2012 08:57 am

    I am a 4x5 LF camera shooter. Every image on groundglass is upside down. This help me to compose a better image.

  • Ed Law December 22, 2012 05:36 am

    After 75 years (started with Kodak and wet darkroom in 1937 at age 13), I am still reading and hopefully learning.

    Going through flight training in 1943 a to become a Marine pilot we were given many flash photos of enemy aircraft, ships and other scenes.

    Sometimes I look at a scene and close my eyes quickly to visualize what I actually saw.

    The comments of viewers are almost as interesting as your post which certainly is appreciated.

  • Naz December 21, 2012 06:13 pm

    in art, one excersize is to draw objects upside down- thsi forces the artist to concentrate on subject fully because it's unfamiliar view to the artist, and it gets them ind away from it's elimination ability where htem ind cuts out detail and just forms a generalized view of objects. It kind of goes along with what this article is talking about- makign hte mind do something unfamiliar in order to get it to slow down, cocnentrate, and really take notice- situational awareness- and just like anyhtign else, it needs to be practiced to develop it-

    another semi related bit of advice I recently ran acros which will compliment this article was to 'eiminate, eliminate, and then eliminate soem more'. The world is generally very chaotic and has many distractign elements in scenes- keep cropping out distractign elements so that the end result shows a strogn subject matter- for isntance- take a church for example- take a photo of the whole church and it's an ok photo- but lots of distractign elements- you have front of church, steeple, boards ornate decorations, windows, trim, nails, knots in boards, rug in foyer, columns in entrance way, on and on it goes. It can still be a nice shot, but Eliminate soem of this by cropping in to just the door with hte windows and church symbols etc- and you're narrowing hte focus to a stronger subject- crop in even tighter to the stained glass on the door showign religious figures only, and you've still got your 'church' subject matter, bvut have elimianted a lot of distractign elements and made a strong subject shot

    I ran into htis process of elimination, and scanning technique this fall- drove to a small lake durign changing of the leaves, hadm ountains behind lake, and interesting foreground- the shots were nice, but very typical really- and had lots of 'chaos' in the scene- the eye just wandered everywhere rapidly through the scene jumping all over the place- but then I took shots of just the trunks of the distant shore trees, and showed the reflection of the changing leaves i nthe calm water- this proved to be much more itneresting shots- then I eliminated even fuirther shwoign only the reflections with the different colors- made for soem pretty neat abstract shots- the point being that looking at the whole scene- it was hard to decide what to concentrate on- but htem ore i was able to eliminate, the more interesting hte shots became-

    Learnign to really see is hard- it takes getting into a scene and really workign htat scene visually- breaking out of our normal way of seeing which like htisw article suggest, just generalizes (and hten we take a photo and wodner why it looks so confused and chaotic)- and forcing our braisn to really see the scene and all the details individually- Itr takes a lot of work mentally- and excersizes like htis article point out can really help start to shape our way of seeing-

  • colette December 21, 2012 02:00 pm

    i defitely use your way of looking before i shoot

  • Diptesh December 18, 2012 06:03 am

    For a vertical scanning a down to top approach is equally effective for me

  • David Meyer December 18, 2012 03:47 am

    I'd like to echo the other comments in saying that you did I think the title may over-estimate those of us who have experience but still can benefit from a tip like this. I have never heard this before, but will definitely be putting it into practice from now on.

  • Clyde December 18, 2012 01:36 am

    This is quite amazing. I just got my first DSLR and am trying to be the sponge to suck up all this knowledge and try to find my place in the art. Tips like this are wonderful and consider I do a lot of nature/landscape shots I think it will be quite helpful. Thanks for sharing this tidbit with all of us.

  • marius2die4 December 17, 2012 05:51 pm

    In the landscape photography, from the right to left it's really work.I use too.

  • Ranjith December 17, 2012 05:08 pm

    the one which caught my eye, do you too see it?

  • Jay December 17, 2012 03:46 pm

    You did this brilliant post some injustice, by labeling it "beginners". A lot of veterans could benefit.

  • Deb Scally December 17, 2012 01:32 am

    Thirty+ years behind a camera, and I am always amazed there is a new tip (and a good one at that!) that I had never heard of or thought of before. I plan to give this a go next time I am out shooting a scene. Thanks Dale and DPS!

  • Bill Inaz December 17, 2012 01:17 am

    "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."

    Written by someone that read Carlos Castaneda in their formative years?

    In other words before taking the camera out of its bag, the mind must already be out of its.

  • Mridula December 16, 2012 07:31 pm

    Never really thought there would be a time when I would not be able to hold my camera steady! You are right, I slow down when I try reading right to left! Will give it a try!

  • Steve December 16, 2012 09:08 am

    As a safari guide you have to teach people to see and not just look. A good wildlife photographer will also do this

  • satesh r December 16, 2012 07:37 am

    Great tips. I have been only taking photos for a little over a year and I appreciate tips like this.
    This is my first attempt at long exposures…

  • Scottc December 16, 2012 07:12 am

    Wow, that right-to-left trick really works. 28 years in the Army and no one ever mentioned that one.

    I'll add this to my mental checklist, it's usually something about the light that catches my eye.