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  • Writer's pictureVanessa

Learning to See

The Blog Post In Which I Learn That “Vision” Goes Beyond Optometry

Some of the first resources I picked up when starting to explore photography have been the best. I’m thankful that I was introduced to these early on, as they have formed the core of my personal practice, and their guidance moves beyond camera settings and composition to something deeper: developing one’s vision.

My vision’s fine, I thought, at the time. My optometrist said so. My eyes work and I have a camera. Tell me how to make a nice picture.

This is what I know now: I can have a fancy, expensive camera, travel to an exotic location, dial in all the correct settings for proper exposure, line up my subject into the rule of thirds, and still end up with a ‘meh’ photograph. I have enough ‘meh’ photographs as it is, and throwing money and rules at them isn’t going to make them any better.

Today, I want to tell you about a book called Extraordinary Everyday Photography by photographers and teachers Brenda Tharp and Jed Manwaring. I think this was the first print resource I consulted - borrowed from my beloved public library - after I recovered from the mind-boggling paralysis suffered when Googling “how to take better pictures.”

Brenda and Jed didn’t begin their book with an explanation of the exposure triangle or f-stops. While knowledge of these is essential to learning about photographic technique, the authors chose instead to focus on stimulating the photographer’s personal vision, obtained by “seeing with an open heart and mind.”

Uh oh, I thought. This is sounding a tad more spiritual than aperture and shutter speed. Maybe this is over my head.


When I first opened this book, I had been participating in a nature challenge that involved going outside every day for a month. During my outings in natural spaces, accompanied by my camera, I’d begun noticing a sensation that was hard to describe. While it wasn’t physical, it had some physical effects - most notably, a relaxation of my tense muscles (I’m in my forties and I have kids. Tense muscles are a given). I pictured this mental feeling as an ‘unfurling,’ like the opening of a blossom. It allowed me to slow down, observe carefully, and focus clearly on the details of my surroundings, especially when trying to capture that light, that shape, or that moment with a camera.

'Feathers and Scales,' 2021. Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

The opening chapters of the book, then - “Finding Fresh Vision,” “The Moment of Perception,” and “Expanding the Creative Process” - resonated with me because I’d already experienced a taste of this opening of the mind, courtesy of the camera and the outdoors. This was helpful in the pursuit of strong and meaningful images, in which there are no shortcuts or magic formulas.

Brenda and Jed discuss the advantages of shooting from different perspectives, in varied light, and techniques for improving compositions and creating abstract photographs (ooh, I’ve a soft spot for that). Their language is clear and accessible. They provide plenty of examples of their own images along with the motivations and stories behind them, as well as simple exercises (oops! I mean, ‘activities,’ haha) for us to try at home.

The key, for me, is this, from page 22:

“‘Seeing more’ often means acquiring a new attitude. If you believe there is beauty and interesting stuff all around you, you will see it, more and more, as you open yourself up….Your goal is to get past what the thing is, by textbook definition, and look at it for any visual delight it might offer.”

In my view, this isn’t just photographic advice, or artistic advice, but life advice. It’s about those very buzzy words that seem to be thrown around a lot these days - presence, mindfulness, and an abundance mentality. Sometimes, we see what we want to see. Or what we’ve been conditioned to see. Photography can be a method (and there are many) to help us learn to see beyond the subject itself; to explore its feeling or its meaning. I think this goes beyond ‘delight’ and into any emotion we’re capable of. What is it about? And how does it relate to you, the photographer? How does it relate to your viewer? Why is this important?

Wait a minute. Does creating or appreciating art always have to be a profound experience? Must we always be making bold statements with our work or obsessing about deeper meaning? I don’t think so. That’s too much pressure. (I also think we run the risk of venturing into the slippery land of pretentiousness if this is always our goal.)

Can’t I just make a picture because the shade of blue sky is striking, or because the texture of a tree’s bark is interesting? Yes. Do we need a hierarchy of acceptable reasons to be attracted to something? There are reasons - whether we’re conscious of them or not. I find that I’m becoming more likely to ask myself why that particular shade of blue appeals to me (it reminds me of calming summer days at the beach), or why that peeling bark intrigues me (maybe that tree is shedding its skin, reminding me of growth and renewal). It’s not a test. It’s just another layer of observation.

In terms of photographic how-to instruction, Brenda and Jed offer direction beyond the mechanics of making a picture. This is a resource more about training our eyes - and minds - to better see what’s in front of us.

I’ll start with a good pair of glasses (thanks to my optometrist). Then, I’ll get to work.


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