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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

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Tulips 2006 for Gran ellengwallace's Tulips 2006 for Gran photoset

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Learning to see: photo lessons

Snapping shots


What I saw when I woke up Sunday morning
Rhone Valley, slow dawn, near Crans-Montana, Switzerland

From snaps to photos: training the eye
Most of us see, more or less well, so we don't give it much thought. Taking pictures, for those of us who are not professionals, is a way of recording our lives, a visual diary that for a brief moment narrows our focus.

Thinking about what we see, realizing what our eyes are registering and then reacting to it, takes training. A camera for me is the equivalent of a finely sharpened pencil for learning to write. The lens helps me see in new ways. It sharpens visual skills. How many things have any of us learned or understood better without using these?
Bottles of scents from a wine game: acacia, banana, cassis
We can train our senses
We can improve all of our sensual skills, but it takes effort and it's a choice. I can drink nice wine and simply enjoy the taste, happy buzz and compantionship. I can go one step further and teach myself how to tell one smell from another. It's a choice. One of my grandfathers was a chemist and in his university days a fellow student told him to take a big sniff of something, as a prank. It was ammonia and his sense of smell was badly weakened. As an old man he used to amuse us by putting vinegar on his ice cream, pointing out that because he couldn't smell it, he couldn't taste it as something bad. I would think of him and sniff hard at things around me.
What I saw a few minutes later on Sunday
My husband, sun arriving in the room
What I saw when I thought about it
A study in white
rephotographed in black and white
We choose snapshots, or we choose photos. I'm happier with photos, but my family can't understand why I pour a cup of tea for someone and then take pictures of it before I even serve it.


My son's cup of jasmin tea, snapped as is, on a cluttered bookshelf


The same cup of tea, cropped image. I now have a more pleasing balance of shapes and colors, and I see reflections of the window and blue sky that I didn't notice before. The next step would usually be to photograph, rather than just crop, this image. But when I tried, the steam from the steeping tea fogged the lens.

(My son then drank the tea, still hot.)

Training takes discipline and a bit of time
When I was little my mother used to irritate me, rushing as I always was, by scolding "Don't forget to take time to look at the flowers!" She will be 94 in two weeks and I hope she knows that I now look down at flowers, fallen leaves, garbage and just about anything else on the ground. I look up at clouds and buildings and leaves on trees. After all that, I take a look at what is in front of me.

And I find I see best when I have a camera in hand, so now I rarely leave home without my camera in tow.

In 1970 I began to do serious black and white, or b&w, photography. I used a darkroom as often as I could. This was shortly before b&w's nosedive. The New York Institute of Photography has a nice article about black and white in photography, with tips and a bit of history. I learned that b&w can create mood and help us focus on different details - form, shape, contrast.
I still try to remember to shoot in b&w regularly.
Today, for example, I photographed a scree slope on the mountain, in color. What I notice first is that the sun is coming up. I photographed it again in black and white and I was see first is the power of the mountain.
I photographed a still life, my garden herbs and grasses, dried in a metal vase. In color I see my books, the purple of the rosemary flowers, the bright pink of a book and other details. What I see in black and white is to me a more pleasing harmony, the whole of three loves of mine: garden, family, reading.
Flickr's black and white gallery
I've been exploring black and white photos that people post on Flickr, to see what kinds of pictures people prefer to shoot this way. As I pretty much expected, favorites are landscapes, portraits, abstract images. Here are some of the ones I enjoyed, from Flickr's b&w photo set:
photo by midweekpost

photo by trittium
photo by autumncat
photo by daita

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