Seeing is one of the first few things that leads to making of a photograph. Sometimes I am on a hunt to make a photograph for a client or an assignment, in such cases I often find myself desperate to see something interesting, something that meets the criterion for the image I already have in my mind or at least something similar.
In this hunt my eyes jump from object to object, scene to scene in hopes of finding what I am looking for. While other times I'm just walking around absorbing the visual scenery that exists around and I suddenly spot something that grabs my attention and immediately my fingers get engaged and positioned on the click button of my camera and my hands lift the camera placing view finder in front of my eyes. I feel that to make a worthy photograph it's very helpful to understand how human vision works, how eye and brain coordinate, like a machine, to make sense of the world around us and help us to recognize what is important and what can be ignored. In this article I will try to explain, as a photographer, the process of seeing as it happens in the brain.
It all starts when we open our eyes, light is focused on retina and information is passed onto the higher functional regions of the brain. Retina has two types of photo receptor cells known as Rods and Cones. Central region of the eye (fovea) has high concentration of cones which are responsible for sharpness, colors and accuracy. Peripheral region of the eye has high concentration of rods to detect basic shapes, and to detect motion. Rods produce black & white fuzzy vision (this is the reason why images with good bokeh & vignette appears very attractive!). A study revealed that eye jumps from one point of interest to another in very quick movements (900 deg/sec!). These quick movements are known as saccades.
For this reason, there must be a clearly defined subject and minimal other elements to support the story. Any sharp element near the edge seems very distracting. That’s why it is said that ‘less is more’ in photography. Subject must have the highest attraction (visual weight) in the image so that eye is lead to the subject then scans rest of the image once and then come back to rest on the image. Some artists use another technique to incorporate a visual loop so that eye goes along the loop again and again. This technique makes an image very captivating.
A camera & human vision works differently. Camera as an instrument does a very simple job. It records a 2-dimensional projection of the 3D world. This recorded projection is an image. Human vision is a complex system comprising eyes (optical instrument), left and right Lateral Geniculate Nuclei (LGN), visual cortex (VC). LGN & VC forms the processor that helps us understand the data that eyes send to the brain. Visual cortex uses various shortcuts to recreate three dimensional understanding from the two dimensional data received by LGN. There are many shortcuts used by our brain to perceive depth (third dimension) from two dimensional data such as perspective lines, Shadow, relative size, texture gradient, light shading, etc. Work of VC doesn't end here, depending on what kind of visuals are received it recognizes opportunity or perceives threat and then make our body to act accordingly.
Central region (fovea) of the eye has high concentration of cones which are responsible for sharpness, colors and accuracy. Peripheral region has high concentration of rods to detect basic shapes, black & white vision and detect motion. This means that at a time eye looks at a very specific point of interest and then jumps to the next point of interest in a very quick movement (900 deg/sec!) known as saccades.
We depend much more on vision to experience the world around us compared to other four senses. This is evident as a very large region of the brain is dedicated to vision which enables us to see the world, make sense of it and interact with our surroundings. Complete occipital lobe, some parts of parietal lobe and some of the temporal lobe forms the visual cortex. Visual cortex region V-1 in the occipital lobe has retinotopic map (pixel by pixel or cell by cell) of the visual data from the eyes. From here data is sent to higher visual regions into two streams called Ventral (downward) stream & Dorsal (upward) stream. The dorsal stream determines the spatial location and guides the motor system to interact with the environment. However, ventral stream deals with understanding and making sense of the data.
In visual cortex there are higher dedicated regions to analyze different aspect of visual data such as basic shapes and textures in V-2 region, speed and direction of motion (V5), color and spatial orientation (V-4), Para-hippocampus Place area (PPA) deals with scenery & landscape view while Fusiform Face Area (FFA) is specialized in facial recognition. Higher regions are more attention specific (foveal view) while V-1 takes into account complete field of vision.
At this point it must be understood that each individual has different wiring (neural networks) in their brain. Though, everyone has all the regions but different regions may be more developed than others in different individuals depending on genetic & environmental factors. This is what causes the variety in interpretation of an image by different individuals and also remarkably different images from the same location by different photographers.
There are higher dedicated regions to analyze different aspect of visual data such as basic shapes and texture in V-2 region, speed and direction of motion (V5), color and spatial orientation (V-4), Para-hippocampus Place area (PPA) deals with scenery & landscape view while Fusiform Face Area (FFA) is specialized in facial recognition. Higher regions are more attention specific (foveal view) while V-1 takes into account complete field of vision.
Each person grows up with a certain brain configuration which means that someone may have a more functioning PPA region,V-4 region or some other region. This is the reason why some people like landscape photography, some like architecture and some others like portrait and beauty. I firmly believe that each individual has different wiring (neural networks) in their visual cortex which makes them pursue a certain genre of photography. It may sound weird but the conclusion is that we all see the same thing differently.
When we look at a photograph our brain immediately starts working to find the answer to “what must have happened?”. To answer this our brain relies on past experiences & personal value system. It searches for geometrical shapes such as lines, triangles, circles, etc. it tends to categorize subject/objects in the image based on shape, proximity & color. It assigns emotional value to the scene, sometimes even when there is no human element present in the image. This is how we see.
As a closing note I recommend you to exercise by making a story from an image . While writing your story from a photograph remember to use all the elements present in the photograph. This will help to improve 'seeing' & developing your own personal photography style.