What do we really see?

Identical images--click on image to see larger

Identical images–click on image to see larger

This may be one of the oddest post I will ever make here and one of the hardest to present in a clear way.

Ever since I was very young, I have always wondered about our vision and how our brain translates the things we see. I can remember sitting in grade school and wondering if my classmates really see the same thing—if I could see through their eyes and translate that with my brain—as I do when I see RED, for instance. It wasn’t that I thought they didn’t see “RED” or relate “RED” to other colors as I did, but whether maybe their “Red” might be green or purple or something else if I saw what they saw but interpreted it with my brain. We know cultural norms can affect how beauty, for instance, is perceived but what about actual visual perception?  Do we really “see” the same things or just interpret them the same?

I suppose that I saw this in one form, at least, when I was teaching at PNCA back in the 90’s. One of the students in my photo class would routinely bring in these photographs with the most incredible rendering of light within them. This “light” was incredible in the sense that I have probably only seen it a handful of times in my life—once that I can remember in one of my own photographs—other than in this person’s photographs. Everyone was pretty impressed (the photos themselves were alright, but that light!) A student who had been photographing for quite a while asked him “how” he got that light. Pondering that question, a more or less blank look came over the students face. I said “you have no idea, do you?” and he looked at me and said “no, I don’t”. For whatever reason he interpreted light in such a way that he “saw” things that most of us don’t. The question, really, might be whether he saw what he was seeing as exceptional in the way the rest of us did, or just as normal—and how did he see our rendering of light?

It might be a surprise to you that the two photos above are actually identical! Well, at least in the sense that they completely match when I isolate them and look at the one on the left with my left eye and the one on the right with my right eye (actually, they did until last Tuesday!). And it might be surprising that, in this case, they both look more like the one on the right than the one on the left. Let me explain the best I can, which is not going to be easy.

Like most of us will at some point, I have developed cataracts over the past decade or two or three… They’re the result, in my case, of spending so much of my life outdoors with much of that in the desert or on the water with no sunglasses or UV protection for my eyes. And, I suppose, age might also be a factor. Over the years, I have had friends who had developed them in their 30’s, so I guess I have been lucky that it has taken a bit longer. Apparently, certain types of eye injuries can help speed them along as well.

But it was about three years ago that they could no longer correct my eyes back to 20-20 with glasses. At the time, the Optometrist suggested that I was seeing things pretty yellow, given how the cataracts had progressed, and I said that I didn’t see things yellow at all, things seemed very clear to me and as “normal” as they ever did. He suggested that I just wasn’t recognizing it, as they were definitely pretty yellow and getting worse. It was also about that time that I had taken a Color Acuity Test and scored very high—a “6”, although not perfect (“0”) but with 99 being poor, I’d say my score was pretty good. (The test can be taken here: http://www.xrite.com/online-color-test-challenge.)

But things progressed over these last 3 years and although I knew there were some changes, I didn’t recognize them all. For instance, when I bought my Truck a year and a half ago, I couldn’t see the speedometer unless I turned on the dash lights. Not having that problem in my other truck or my wife’s car, I complained about it being a design flaw (it wasn’t!). I started to get rainbow halo’s around bright lights at night and driving at night became much less “fun”. I love to drive from predawn to after sunset! During the day, I needed to keep my sun visor down while driving to cut the “haze” caused by the bright sky. One of the worst side effects was that I could no longer read a book (a paper one) comfortably, as I couldn’t get the contrast to see clearly on a white page and it was worse with those fancy art books that don’t use pure black type!  But color, that seemed totally normal to me.

Well, the fact is that I was halfway through cataract surgery when I created the side by side images above, last Monday. My left eye had been corrected the previous Thursday and on Tuesday, I was having the other eye done.

The first thing I noticed after that first eye was operated on was just how clear and BLUE everything was with the “fixed” eye—absolutely blue, not just in reference to the one not fixed yet. I wondered if the nodes in my eye were just so used to fighting the yellow that they needed to settle down. It wasn’t like seeing through a blue filter, just that neutral grays and whites just had a blue cast instead of being neutral.  Actually, each day I have noticed that the extra “blue” had diminished a bit. But I was driving my wife nuts asking her to describe what she saw color-wise to gauge how my “new” eye was seeing—by last Monday it seemed to have all but lost the bluish bias but still a bit more so than what she described (she doesn’t have cataracts).

The image above, on the right, is one that I processed about a year ago through my cataracts. Looking at it with my now fixed eyes, it still looks pretty much as I felt I processed it, if not maybe just a tad “cooler”, but certainly acceptable as it is.

To create the one on the left, I blocked my left eye, the fixed one, so it could only see the left image and the right eye, which still had its cataract, so that it could only see the right image. Both images started out the same as the one on the right. The eyes certainly were seeing different renditions of the image.  To equalize how I saw them with each eye, I made several Photoshop adjustment layers with masks to the left image to try to get the color, contrast and other visual effects to make what I saw with the left eye match what I saw with the right, unfixed, eye. Under this segregated procedure, these are extremely close except for a very small amount more clarity and contrast in the left image than what I was seeing with the right.

The odd thing was that as I was “creating” the one on the left, it didn’t look yellow at all, nor did the one on the right to my right eye. It wasn’t until I pulled away, allowing both eyes to see both images that I noticed the strong yellow in the one on the left. My brain seemed to still be “normalizing” what I was seeing color-wise, as I matched the two images as described above.

(I should note here that the same day that I created these images, I retook that color acuity test mentioned above. The “fixed” eye, which is my weaker one, scored a “9” while the uncorrected eye scored a “60”, which is a far cry from the “6” of just a few years ago!)*

But, when I wasn’t blocking either eye from seeing the image on the opposite side, I couldn’t get the right image to match the one on the left even by closing one eye and trying to look only at the image on its own side. The one on the right just looked “right” with the right eye and the one on the left yellow, with the left eye. The fixed eye did see the image on the right a bit cooler, and certainly sharper, but the right eye saw the right image pretty much as it appears except for those differences (there was a very slight yellow cast to the warmer nature of the image). The biggest color difference that I could notice was just that I could not see any of that rich yellow-green in the foliage in the center of the image on the far bank or in the reflections of the tree in the water.

When I again isolated the eyes to seeing only the image on the same side as the eye looking at that image, the yellow again disappears and the images normalize to each other—looking pretty much as the one on the right with those contrast and slightly warmer differences the “fixed” eye sees when looking at the right image.

I think what fascinates me most is just how the brain could find a way to interpret and normalize the color out of either eye, let alone the uncorrected color vision I have seen for the last couple of years. Certainly it wasn’t perfect, as I could see when comparing the fixed and non-fixed eyes, but in a reasonable range. I have gone back now and looked at the color images I have created over just this last year and although I might make some changes (warming some images up a bit), they are not garish, over saturated or too contrasty as I might have expected given the results indicated by the images above.

Anyway, I thought I might share this as I felt it really dovetailed well into some of the other posts here that have dealt with perception and reality and how the brain resolves all sorts of visual information.  In this case, overcoming substantial color variance to give a “normal” view.

Please feel free to ask questions.  I spent about an hour on the phone with a friend who saw these and heard the explanation and still was trying to get a grasp on what was going on.  In fact, this was going to be posted last Tuesday but after the conversation, I wanted to see if I couldn’t make things more clear here.  So, please ask questions if something isn’t clear and I will try to further clarify things.  Thanks.


*4 weeks after my cataract surgery was completed for both eyes, I retook the color test and had a perfect score.

Quotes to Ponder: #0007

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”


~ Marcel Proust


I hadn’t actually planned to make a post today but I saw this quote posted by my nephew on Facebook.  It seemed perfect now that we have ended the “Looking at Photographs” series.  Perfect because like so many things in life, we often pursue “new” things when there are, in fact, so many things to be discovered right in front of us if we only take time to look.

The series was about how we can gain new insights when looking at a photograph or other artwork by trying to understand things outside of our awareness or just that quick glance.  Learning about the Context of an image, why it was made and what is important to the artist; Describing what is actually within the image, recognizing the little things that can be pointers to further understanding; and then the Analysis of the structure of an image, what visual clues do we have in the way an image has been constructed.  These things can all bring a new awareness to something we thought we understood.

As photographers we have an opportunity to show the others new or alternative ways of looking at the world.  To present our unique way of seeing and to let others see what is important to us.  We don’t have to constantly be chasing after new places or where we think we can find our next great photograph.  We can simply start looking at things in new ways, ways that are meaningful to us.  Doing so can only end in the creation of meaningful photographs.

(“Quotes to Ponder” will be a regular feature here. My philosophy about quotes isn’t that they prove any point as they are often taken out of context or they may have been said in response to something we have no way of knowing about. But they generally do embody some sort of opinion or thought that can often be worthwhile pondering. I expect that in many cases, they will be the teaser to a longer discussion of their idea in a later post!)

Part 3: Looking at Photographs-Structural Analysis

In the last installment of this series, I mentioned that there were two functions that involve Visual Perception that we can use in deciphering a photograph—or any piece of art. The first was just simple observation and description—noticing what is really in the visual, the objects. This is where we start to look for symbols and metaphor, things that enrich what the image actually depicts and means.

The second function is just a slight twist on the first and although maybe just as straightforward, takes a bit of study. It also takes a bit more work to break a visual down in this way. But it can be incredibly effective in our understanding of what we are looking at.

Sometimes, I think that when we read posts such as this series, we view them as more theoretical, unlike a tutorial on lighting or how to create this or that type of photograph. What I would like to suggest is that the information learned here, when practiced, will be more valuable to one’s photography than a simple instruction on how to do this or that. We build our abilities to respond to a scene and make the most of it, regardless of what we shoot or what type of image we like or dislike. When we are shooting, we don’t think about these things but draw upon them. These things are foundational and, as such, can be drawn upon over and over in any situation.

Studying and applying these while looking at great photography/art, we build up a “visual” vocabulary that we can draw upon in the same way we draw upon our verbal vocabulary to express ourselves in all situations—and without having to think about it, we just naturally use the tools we have that work best in any situation. It is when we are looking at work that’s already done that we analyze and think and gain/expand our basic self-knowledge, the only thing available to us when we create.

In fact, the particular skill that I am going to discuss here is fundamental to creating compositions that effectively communicate our ideas as well. Although I will be discussing this with regards to looking at photographs, it is also foundational to making them—in a very direct way.

On the most basic level, our visual perception is not really about things at all. As I said in Part 2, we translate what we see into things we can define and often make assumptions based on our first glance. But what we actually perceive is essentially what is often defined as the Elements of Art. We see line, shape, color, texture, value and form, then, based on our experiences, we identify what they mean or seem to represent. We see a rectangular shape with a pattern/texture and we know it is a plank of wood or a piece of sheet metal or whatever we decipher. Based on the elements we see, we might even be able to identify the particular type of wood or metal.

As well as being the building blocks of the objects we recognize, they also have visual properties that can affect the nature of a photograph and what it means.  They can be active or passive within a scene.

When we look at an image, if we take the time to start to really analyze these Elements and how they relate and interact, as well as how they are organized with the Principles of Design, we can gain even more awareness of what the image might be about—or at least an objective insight into how these things interact within an image and give it meaning.

I am not going to get deeply into describing and analyzing each of these things at this time but here is a list of each (lists will vary slightly if you research this on your own):

Elements of Art: Line, Shape, Color, Texture/Pattern, Value and Form

Principles of Design: Balance, Proportion, Rhythm, Motion, Emphasis and Unity

Of course, what I am referring to here are the same things we covered in the post, A Tale of Two Worlds and there I referred to this particular link where these things are discussed:


As time goes on here, I will be covering these Elements and Principles in more depth and hope to complete a book on this topic in the near future. There are lots of resources on these things but very few that are photography specific. That is what I hope to present here later as well as in book form.

One thing that you will notice from these lists is that there are no rules or shortcuts. It is line that we need to understand, in all of its forms, not just leading lines or S curves alone. If we learn the properties of line, we can understand how they actually function within an image and add to its meaning. We learn how Balance affects the way we view an image, how it was achieved or maybe even how the work has employed a sense of imbalance to affect how we respond. Balance doesn’t rely on a specific formula but is rather something we feel within the frame of our given photograph.

I mentioned on Part 2’s introduction that in an art class I took, we were assigned to write critiques and the first criteria was to physically describe what we saw. The second part was to break down how the elements of art were used and how the principles of design were employed. We did this for both two and three-dimensional artworks.  It was uncanny how doing this purposefully gave so much more insight into the works than just my natural first, gut reaction.  Admittedly, it was very difficult to actually do this type of analysis but it got easier as I applied it to more and more works.

A significant point of all of this for photographers is that, especially when looking at great works and employing the tools of analysis presented here, is that we start to get a better understanding of composition and how what we do influences the meaning of our images. We begin to see how these things play within an image, what has been used, what has been subordinated to effect the artist’s vision. As we become more facile doing this, it further adds to our visual vocabulary and we find that we more easily solve our own visual problems.

Even if we don’t “like” a work, we can begin to understand how it works and how these things were employed. We get insights into what the work might be about and gain an understanding of just what was done.

The purpose of doing the type of analysis described in the three parts of this series is about personal growth and increasing our ability to understand and create visual art. It is important to realize that we still may not relate to certain types of photographs or other artworks. That isn’t the point but, with practice, we can develop the tools to start to make some sense of things we may have passed over before. Having this ability will facilitate the learning of new things and a recognition of ways of seeing that are different from what we already know-even if only incrementally. It can look impossible to get from where we are to some distant point—and that is often the case when learning these types of things rather than those “clear” shortcuts—but it is surprising how far we can get, and how fast, if we just start and push forward one step at a time.

My own experience with this is that for the past 30+ years, I constantly return to study these things and I always gain new insights. Sometimes I still look at a photograph or other piece of art and I think I don’t know where to begin to analyze it.  Then, I just start to describe it and things become more clear.  But I do think it has been constantly looking at great work and continually developing the tools to actually see what was done and how it all came together within the image that has helped me progress the most in my own work. When I am in the field or studio, I rarely think about any of this but instinctively respond to the image I am creating and the intent/idea behind its creation.  There is a trust that I will naturally draw upon what I know at the time and what will work best.

There are certainly those times when I get stumped and can’t figure out how to solve the image at hand. Most of the time just taking a moment to focus on something else allows the answer to emerge.  Just shifting my attention to getting lunch or a snack, the answer almost always comes right to me.  But, at times when I am shooting for myself, I might decide to walk away knowing that I learned something in the process. Often, I come back to that same place a day or even months later and the “solved” image is there waiting for me.