By Bill Dobbins

Seeing is one of the most complicated things we do.  But we are mostly unaware of the complexity involved with vision so we don’t fully appreciate all that goes into being able to take in visual information and create the experience of vision.

Cameras and technology are constantly changing. The need for a talented and experienced photographer remains constant.

The human brain is the most complex structure we know of in the whole universe and the parts of the brain involved with vision are extensive.  Seeing is such a remarkable process that Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, has written a whole book about it. (Astonishing Hypothesis).  The world we perceive as being “out there” is in reality something we create “in here.”  Our visual experience is manufactured by our senses, nervous system, certain cells in our brain and informed by our expectations and previous experience.

The eye takes in light but the brain creates the experience of vision.

Our brains have different cells that recognize vertical lines, diagonal and horizontal lines.  Certain cells respond to various shapes and to movement.  Somehow all these cells work together to create a coherent visual experience.  Humans have specialized cells that recognize human faces.  Your dog or cat can’t do that.  They may recognize you as an individual but not by being able to identify your face.  There are some people who are “face blind” – that is, they look at a face, see all the details but simply can’t recognize to whom the face belongs.  There are some (mostly men) who are  “color blind” and unable to perceive color accurately.

Color perception makes fruit visible in the jungle.

Color perception is another very complex process that our brains allow us to experience.  When light comes into the eye it has wavelength, but that is not the same as color.  Color perception is created by an extremely complicated process in the brain.  Being able to see color has some obvious evolutionary advantages.  Imagine being in a jungle and searching for fruit.  In a BW world, where everything is a shade of gray, the fruit would be almost invisible.  When you can see color the yellows, reds and other bright colors of fruit stand out vividly.

There is something called “color constancy” which describes the fact that we can identify a color even when the object we are seeing is being illuminated by different wavelengths of light.  That is, look at a red ball outdoors or in our living room, under bluish or warmer light and you can still tell it is red.  For most of history people have recognized this was a fact but were unable to explain how it works.  It took Edwin Land, creator of the Polaroid camera, to figure it out.

The ability of painters like Raphael to depict the world is simply astonishing.

Land discovered that the cone receptors in the eye are modified by three different types of “filters” – essentially red, green and blue.  These produce BW information with three different ranges of contrast (much as the Kodachrome process does).  The brain takes this information and calculates what the color must be in order to create these different contrasts.  The end result is our subjective experience of what we call color.

Of course, if your eyes and brain are functioning properly this happens as unconsciously as the rest of our experience of vision.  You need to make no conscious effort to see a dramatic landscape, a beautiful woman or to know what color a red ball is.  Seeing is an automatic process that we pretty much take for granted.

But we know that human abilities and performance very greatly among individuals.  Some are more naturally athletic than others, sing better, are more gifted when it comes to numbers and math, are better draughtsmen and so forth.  Any species survives and thrives  because of the genetic variation among its members.  So it stands to reason that some people see better than others.

Leonardo da Vinci had such a great eye he could stop the motion of flying birds or waves.

This fact becomes very obvious when we talk about painters.  A painter creates a visual images from scratch, starting with a blank piece of paper, a plaster wall or canvas.  Traditionally (at least before the development of abstract art), and before the advent of photography, we relied on the ability of painters to capture a version a version of reality in their work that could be shared with the culture.  The technical ability of some famous painters to depict aspects of reality is totally astonishing.  They possessed the ability to see in ways most of us can’t and to use their skills to create amazing representation of what they saw.

Leonardo Da Vinci supposedly had such a great eye that he could watch birds flying or waves crashing on the short and create a “stop action” image in his mind he could use as the basis for an accurate drawing.  This kind of ability represents a special talent that most simply don’t possess.

The Brownie, introduced in 1900: You push the button, we do the rest. Photography at it’s most mechanical.

There is obviously a lot of training and technique involved in (traditional) painting that is not the same in photography.  In fact, photography has been suspect as a serious art form from the beginning because of its reliance on mechanical technology.  When it comes to shooting a photo, virtually anyone can do it.  Monkeys can shoot photos.  There are blind  photographers.  As Kodak said when it invented the Brownie camera, “You push the button, we do the rest.”  Until recently there was a great deal of craft in photography required to do anything more than shoot snapshots.  We know that certain photographers have been outstanding when it came to manipulating variables use as lighting, exposure and development and printing of images.  But the mechanical nature of photography has always seemed to allow for many fewer artistic choices compared to other art forms.

But if photography was just a matter of mechanically manufactured images we wouldn’t have a long history of great photos by master photographic artists compared to all the rest.  If anybody could do it everybody would have done it.  And that has not been the case.  Looking back we can see certain photographers who produced outstanding work displaying  recognizable styles very different from what other great photographers have done.  So there is obviously something involved that goes beyond the nature of photographic equipment, technology and processes.  There is some art involved somewhere in the act of superior photography.

The idea comes first: Photographer Mel Sokolsky’s “Bubble” photos are among the most iconic in the history of fashion photography.

The “somewhere” here is the complex process we know of as visual experience.  When an excellent photographer uses a camera to shoot a photo, billions of brain cells are interacting in complex circuits to determine what he or she is seeing and how they feel about it.  Remember, emotion is always extremely important when it comes to any kind of judgement or choice.

An experienced photographer may hardly be more aware of this process than we are when we simply experience the color red.  The individual mental processes of photographers when it comes to visual experience are simply better than that of most other people and allow for superior intuitive decisions regarding what “looks good” and what does not.

This is much like the legendary painter who did a seminar at a university and a professor showed a slide of one of his paintings while waxing poetic about his use of opposing diagonal lines to create visual tension.  When asked, the painter admitted he didn’t intentionally strive to create that effect.  “As I was painting I just thought those lines belonged there,” he explained.

Even monkeys can shoot photos. And based on some published pictures, some do.

Or course, talent is only part of the equation.  Anybody developing a skill requires a lot of time, practice and experience.  Author Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours to become a true master of anything.  So like other artists and craftsmen, photographers need a lot of time and experience to fully develop their talents and gifts.  The end result for the master of anything eventually is total concentration on the desired goal with almost no thought given to method or technique.

This explains why two photographers can stand side by side shooting the same subject and using basically the some equipment but one ends up with excellent photos and the other doesn’t.

This happens because cameras don’t shoot photos.  Photographers do.  And photographers can differ tremendously in the ability to see and in terms of the richness of background and experience that informs their visual experience.


Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in the Westwood area of Los Angeles.  He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)






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