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Art of Seeing

Copyrights Ganesh H Shankar, June 2007.

It is long since I have been thinking about writing an article on art of seeing. When I sat down for writing I realized it is relatively easy it is to make an image instead of writing about the thought process that goes behind making an image. It is a soul searching excercise to think about why I made different images. With this note let me start with some random thoughts.

Looking at a definition of art - "Art is a (product of) human activity, made with the intention of stimulating the human senses as well as the human mind and/or spirit; thus art is an action, an object, or a collection of actions and objects created with the intention of transmitting emotions and/or ideas. Beyond this description, there is no general agreed-upon definition of art, since defining the boundaries of "art" is subjective, but the impetus for art is often called human creativity."

Summary of this definition of art to me is there is no definition for art - which has been my belief for long. What is art to one may not be an art to another. But the degree of art mentioned in the link above appears a useful measure of art -

"An artwork is normally assessed in quality by the amount of stimulation it brings about. The impact it has on people, the number of people that can relate to it, the degree of their appreciation, and the effect or influence it has or has had in the past, all accumulate to the "degree of art." Most artworks that are widely considered to be "masterpieces" possess these attributes."

In a nutshell we can't agree upon what an art is but we know how to measure the degree of art - interesting. Similarly seeing is a very personal act. There is no right or wrong way of seeing. I strongly belive in nature photography we need not faithfully represent what we see. That is imposing a serious limitation on our own creativity. My suspicion is faithful rendering of the nature by photographers is what caused debate on whether nature photography (or photography in general) can be considered as an art. When I say not faithful representation I am not talking about cloning head of a tiger and placing it on lion using an imaging software. I am talking about options like using limitations of recording mediums to our advantages, creative croppings, choosing perspectives which are readily not apparent to name a few. To summarize options which goes beyond just plain seeing to seeing through mind.

This becomes very challenging in wildlife photography since one has to act instantaneously in the field. I think some of which comes by practice and some if it is in our genes. Let me try to explain this using a few of my images. Look at this image of White Throated King Fisher. It was slightly far away on the other side of a river in a wooded forest. Background was shadows of trees which appears dark due to more than 2-stops of difference in light compared the subject. As we know no recording medium (slide/film/sensor) can capture the dynamic range in that scene faithfully due to limitation. But I had an opportunity to use it for my advantage. Further, for the plain seeing through 50mm eyes of a human being composition as presented is not very apparent. One of the lesson I learnt in many years is always look through the lens! You know such things only by experience. When I was looking at this through the view finder with mounted 600mmf4 lens this is what I saw. So I backed off a bit for right size to suit my taste and made this image.

Sometimes we may just pass an opportunity in front of us with out noticing it. It is not always possibile to walk in the field seeing only through the view finder. It may prove costly if you are carrying your 500mm f4 or 600mm f4 lens and walking -:) In the swamphen image above, when I saw the swamphen near lake, I quickly realized the patterns and exposure differences which will make an opportunity create a unique image of a common subject. Swamphens may be common but the context may provide us with unique opportunities which we need to be able quickly recognize and react.

In the image of the bear and its cub above, I must admit the compostion the way presented is an after thought. It is a vertical crop of an image. The original image contains full face of the mother. When I was processing the image I felt eye of the cub has a potential to retain the viewer on the frame which appeared to be subdued by the dominant face of the mother. So decided to boldly crop half the face of the mother to emphasize the cub's eye - an added bonus was unique appearance of the cropped face of the mother which added to the image in my view. So, seeing is also possible after you released your shutter. The portrait of the bear here on the other hand is a full frame image. Framing this way to crop the head is a conscious design decision before pressing the shutter. It helps to see through mind's eye when we are in the field.

One day I could approach a purple heron very close. It was deeply focussing on some possibilities. I spent lots of time looking at it through the view finder from a close quarter. When it spared a curious look at me I was ready to release the shutter. Spending enough time with our subject before moving on
really helps in the field. Also, keep an eye on when to break rules.

More often than not some of us who have long tele lenses (500mm and 600mm f4 lenes) are very eager to make images of our subject at minimum focus distance. Of course we get some unique perspectives. But chances are we may also miss seeing different perspectives and unique opportunities. When I made this image of a spurfowl on the left, I saw the stones adding a lot to the image. This is a full frame image with lots of details. I can easily crop those stones and show only the bird. But to me (personal taste) the composition becomes un-interesting. Tastes differ, when others don't see what we see we need not change our views.

Here is an image an Indian Vulture. Backlit morning light was very beautiful. I quickly decided to make some images of it using my 70-200mm f2.8 lens even though I had my 600mm f4 ready on a tripod.

Often we don't realize opportunities we may have in shaded regions in forests. A ray of light touching your subject and offering unique opportunities are not un-common. I spotted a group of babblers under a tree in shaded region. This one was in unique light. I was quick to make an image or two of it in a dramatic light from a close range. Challenges are we need to be always ready with right techniques, compositions - in this case left to camera's meter image would have got ruined. I was ready with right exposure using an incident light meter and I could quickly see the image. The image of an ant here is another example. But in this case I had enough time to think and react. Here is another image made in similar conditions. The point I want to emphasize here is these images are made not taken. They are neither shots nor snaps - at least to me. This image of a Tailed Jay butterfly flapping its wings on a flower is another example of pre-visualization and careful execution.

All about seeing can't be expressed in words and lot of it is personal. Sometimes when we see nature or wildlife around us the feeling we get may be very difficult to express . But we may be able to translate some of it into images in our own way. I think the key is to spend time in thinking, exploring possibilities, pre-visualizing to name a few. In field most of the time we run behind a bird trying to make a close portrait - not bad at all, but I doubt whether we can make lasting images. Just my views - your mileage may vary.

I wish you good luck in your journey to create lasting images... (You may click on images to see them at a larger size)

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Thanks in advance

- Ganesh H Shankar

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