Posted by: kerryl29 | August 9, 2021

Thematic Interruption: Looking vs. Seeing

On the first morning of the desert Southwest trip, while photographing sunrise at Little Cut, I was in the process of packing up to leave when I noticed a composition with elements that appealed to me, so I stopped what I was doing to take a closer look.

Lone Tree Moonset, Little Cut, Coconino County, Arizona

It wasn’t the most spectacular set of elements that I’ve ever seen, but something about the scene appealed to me. This is how I roll in the field. I try not to look for images; rather, I try to see them. What’s the difference? It’s a matter of intent. In the former case (i.e. looking for images), you have something in mind. It may be a certain element or a specific style (or both), or something else entirely, but there’s something preconceived about the process. (Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with this. In fact, some photographers prefer to follow this very recipe.)

“Seeing” images, on the other hand, is a bit more reactive and a bit more organic. I don’t want to overstate the case; it’s effectively impossible to approach a scene entirely passively, devoid of any preconceived ideas. But I do think that there’s a qualitative difference that distinguishes these two approaches. One is focused on the idea of trying to fulfill a vision and the initial thrust of the other is to respond to what one discovers.

Again, I don’t want to leave the impression that these notions are mutually exclusive or that one is “better” than the other. But my general preference is to find scenes and compositions rather than actively look for them.

And so it was with the Little Cut image. I most definitely was not looking for it. As I said, something about it appealed to me on sight; it was only after seeing the scene that I could begin to explain the appeal, and that’s exactly what happened because Jason noticed that I had discovered something and asked me what I’d found.

And that inspired me to go through the process of describing what it was about this scene that appealed to me. There were, I discovered, a number of things. First, there was the lone juniper, at the top of the rock face. There was also the sinewy crack running up the bluff, right to the base of the tree. And the mixed lighting, still soft enough not to cause all kinds of exposure issues, with its relatively workable shadows, spoke to me. And finally, there was the setting moon, which critically produced the effect of seeming to reduce the amount of blank sky, an elemental approach that I’ve tried to utilize on a number of occasions in the past, rarely by preconceived design. (See below.)

Dawn Light, Myers Beach, Pistol River State Park, Oregon
Moonset, Sotol Vista, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas
Mono Lake at Sunrise, Mono County, California

None of the points that I’ve described about the Little Cut scene were things that I was consciously aware of until Jason asked me what I’d discovered and I started actively thinking about them. But they were there, buried somewhere in my subconscious; I was effectively reacting to what I found subliminally appealing.

This “seeing vs. looking” dichotomy became something of a mantra during the trip, a distinction that Jason and I brought up in our ongoing discussions on a number of occasions, sometimes as we were working in the field, and sometimes while we were driving from place to place and talking about the art of–you guessed it–seeing in the field. Give yourself the opportunity, I said, free of preconceived notions, to look around you, hopefully without prejudice. There’s nothing implicitly wrong with fulfilling a vision; I noted that I’ve done so myself, more than once. But the danger, as I see it, of relying heavily (or exclusively) on this approach is that there are countless images, countless compositions, that you’ll simply walk by.

A photographer can’t make an image that he/she never sees in the first place.



  1. Reblogged this on Hellenic Canadian Literature.

  2. Reblogged this on worldtraveller70.

  3. The corollary to this is “seeking vs finding.” Seeking a particular image may cause you to miss finding something extraordinary. And, conversely, finding what is there may mean what you were seeking is either missed or lost. As you said, neither is a better approach; each requires a bit of a different mindset.

  4. I agree with what you said. I like to be surprised by what I see. It happens when I don’t think.

    • I think one of the benefits of the more reactive approach is that it basically requires you to stay vigilant and open-minded. Properly applied, it should lead to a wider variety of image-making opportunities than going with the “visualization” method.

  5. That photo of Mono Lake (one of my dream destinations) is particularly stunning!

    • Thanks very much!

  6. […] Seeing in the field isn’t necessarily easy. It’s even more difficult–incalculably so–when you’re distracted. It may seem like a subtlety at first blush, but in my view there is a great deal of difference in the ultimate image making universe between moving through a landscape looking for something specific and moving through a landscape simply looking. For something, anything, interesting, motivating, eye-catching, enticing. […]

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