Most of us go through life looking without really seeing.

While this doesn’t always directly cause major problems, everyone can benefit from practicing more active seeing.

For photographers and other visual artists, being able to see effectively is the most important skill you can develop.

See what I mean?

To demonstrate how easy it is to have your eyes open but not really be seeing, try this simple exercise:

  1. Sitting comfortably in a safe place where you won’t be disturbed, fix your gaze on something around you. It should be in the middle distance; not too close nor far away.
  2. Keeping your eyes open and trained on that same object, recall a favourite memory of a time in your life that you can vividly remember. It could be yesterday or years ago; it doesn’t really matter. Immerse yourself in this memory — put yourself back in that place and time as much as you can.
  3. After spending a few moments with your mind fully elsewhere, bring your attention back to the present moment.

When you regain present moment awareness, immediately notice that while you were concentrating on that memory, the input from your visual systems was effectively put “on hold”. While your eyes were still open and generally taking in your surroundings, your brain was otherwise engaged.

In this state or mind, you’re looking without really seeing. This example demonstrates how the eyes and brain must be working in tandem to fully take in and understand what we see.

Basic training

Beyond active seeing and present moment awareness, there is also much you can do to train your mind to digest and comprehend the true nature of what your eyes are actually taking in.

Here’s another exercise:

  1. Fix your gaze on something relatively close to you; say, at arm’s length. Focus intently on it and, while doing so, notice how the areas surrounding that object in focus become less distinct. The areas within your peripheral vision grow and shrink depending on how you focus your gaze.
  2. Experiment with shifting focus back and forth between a single, specific point and the larger scene around it. Doing this, you may physically feel your eye muscles and its internal elements, including the lens of your eye, shifting and changing as you do this. You are consciously using both your eyes and your brain to actively control your sight. (This can be surprisingly tiring, especially when you first start practicing!)

As this exercise shows, it is possible to simultaneously focus intently on one specific point while also allowing your mind to perceive the surrounding areas, even while you maintain focus on the target. Photographers, in particular, should practice this dynamic mode of seeing, as it’s a fantastic aid to deciding how to frame your shots to produce the strongest possible compositions.

Own your vision

The act of focusing your gaze on a specific point and then de-focusing is something we all do constantly throughout each moment we’re awake with our eyes open. We all do it unconsciously. I’m encouraging you to commit to a much more active role in the process and learn to see consciously, paying much more attention to what your eyes and brain are actually doing in various circumstances.

After you’ve gained some skills in active seeing, you can next turn to areas of comprehension; that is, improving your conscious recognition and understanding of the visual characteristics of what you’re seeing.

Key skills for artists

First, start paying close attention to tonal values — the light and dark areas you will find in every scene you encounter. The difference between light objects and darker ones is the main characteristic that allows us to understand the world that we see around us. Tonal variation is the most important and common type of contrast: light versus dark, and all the shades in between.

After you’ve gotten good at recognising tonal values, then start to actively notice shapes. What we perceive as a shape is mostly determined by the edges and boundaries delineated by tonal contrast; e.g. the differences between the tones (and colours) of objects adjacent to one another.

The identification of shapes, along with an understanding of how we respond to them psychologically and the ways shapes interact, is fundamental to effective composition for photographers and artists.

Beyond shapes, three-dimensional forms are revealed by the combination of shape boundaries and tonal variation. The effects of light are fundamental to this, and will be discussed in another article.

Practice paying attention to whether an object is seen as a flat, two-dimensional shape or as a three-dimensional form.

Bringing it all together

These three elements — tone, shape, form — represent the basic foundation of all that we see. For artists, understanding and reproducing these core elements is crucial for the success of any picture (even when we’re capturing it with a camera!).

Beyond these basic elements are other optical characteristics including texture, pattern and much more which can all be applied effectively in our visual arts. (You’ll learn more about these in another article.)

As mentioned earlier, contrast — the differences between things — is what allows us to perceive objects as being distinct and separate from one another. In a broader definition, there are other kinds of contrast other than tonal values: smooth/rough; green/red; large/small, etc. — all are types of contrast. Photographers and artists can create fundamentally stronger compositions through an awareness of these contrasting relationships, and by controlling the way they are presented within the frame.

Improving your perception and perspective

Taken as a whole, the process of active seeing, the conscious understanding of what we see, and adopting an engaged mode of comprehension all culminate in what we might consider our perception. To perceive something indicates some level of insight, of understanding. Actually noticing more around us.

One of the most fun and rewarding outcomes of practicing all these techniques leads to working on actively changing your perspective. Defined most literally, we may think of perspective as a point of view, or angle of vision — a viewpoint defined as a function of physical position. But, even more importantly, perspective also describes your opinions, beliefs and intentions about what you’re seeing. Improvement in perception and perspective begins simply with increased awareness and a commitment to seeing more and seeing better.

Work to improve how you see. Then practice changing your perspective. I guarantee you’ll be amazed and inspired!

This article is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Abstract Photography as Fine Art: Essentialism in Photographic Design.