Seven ways to photograph what your brain sees

Updated: Jul 16, 2018

Have you ever pulled the car over on the side of the road because you saw an unmissable view or an epic sunset, reached for your smartphone and snapped a photograph, only to be utterly disappointed by the result?

Me too.

There are a few things going on here that are working against you, and it has to do with the way our eyes way and they way our brain interprets that data, compared to the physics and technology of how your camera and its lenses work.

First there's the matter of contrast. This comes down to luminance values, and the human eye has incredible dynamic range. The sky can retain its detail and you can see well into the shadows in a way that your camera can't. When you take your photograph and review the landscape before you with the photograph you just took, you're likely to be disappointed.

Fortunately, your brain can be trained to interpret what your eye sees, and with experience you will start to look at a scene and know where your highlights are likely to burn out and where your detail will be lost to the shadows. The very best training for this is by using a 35mm analogue camera.

It can be hard to translate what we see in front of us into a photograph because we're taking three dimensions and compressing them into two. With our eyes being set apart as they are, we're able to perceive the real depth of a scene, and that depth can be flattened unless you know how it's happening.

These are pretty major disconnects between your eyes and your camera, but there are a few things you can do to combat it, whether you’re shooting on your phone or a DSLR.

1. Focal length

Let’s go back to basics and think about how our brains see what they see. The human eye sees the world at somewhere between 35mm and 50mm on a full frame camera (56mm to 80mm if you have a cropped sensor).

What does this mean? When we talk about focal lengths, we don't just mean the field of view, but the depth compression that happens at those focal lengths. Take a photograph of a woman with a city skyline in the distance behind her. If you shoot that photograph with a wide angle lens, the city is going to appear to be even further away than it actually is. If you switch to a telephoto lens and move further back to compensate for the longer lens, then suddenly the city feels much closer, it's brought into the frame.

Your choice to bring the city closer or push it further away is a creative decision for you to make. When you look at the scene, is the city important to you? If you were in a mountainous landscape you might want to pull those peaks towards your foreground element, to emphasise the landscape and give the mountains a true sense of presence in your photograph.

When you use focal length for depth compression, you'll need to reposition yourself to maintain your frame, but the effect can be powerful when used correctly!

2. Shoot for the highlights

In film, the rule was to shoot for the shadows. You were exposing a negative, and your exposure would affect the density of your film. Underexpose your image and you end up with insufficient density on you negative, which translates to a solid black shadows with no detail in your print.

In digital photography it's the other way around - always shoot for the highlights. If your camera has the ability to show a histogram on its display, start using it to show you when your highlights have peaked beyond the point where you can bring them back in the edit. If your histogram is showing a lot of your image is bunched up on the right hand side, your highlights are clipped and there will be no detail being captured on the sensor.

You should be able to see visible detail in the sky in order to create a well-exposed, balanced image that represents the scene you are photographing.

3. Exposure bracket in extreme contrast situations

This one relies on some work in the edit after you've shot your image, but can be a really useful tool if you're faced with an incredibly contrasty scene and you're losing too much in the shadows at one end and you're clipping your highlights at the other.

Exposure bracketing means capturing one image that preserves the highlights, and another that preserves the shadows. It requires a tripod or other stable surface so your camera doesn't shift between your exposures, and then a little technical prowess to compile the two images in post.

4. Get to know filters

This is my preferred method in dealing with high contrast situations. Our eyes naturally darken our perception of the sky, but when we photograph it a blue sky can look washed out and a sky with incredible cloud formations can lack contrast and depth when over exposed. The sky adds so much to landscape photography - us landscape photographers worship our weather apps in order to get out and shoot in exactly the right conditions for interesting photographs. If you lose the sky's detail and depth, it can make an incredible scene feel mundane when rendered in 2D.

Filters are a landscape photographer's best friend when it comes to retaining and enhancing the sky. Filters are a whole topic on their own, but the two you need to consider in terms of getting your photographs to match what your eyes are seeing are gradient neutral density filters and circular polarisers.

The first will do the job of knocking a few stops of light out of the sky. They come in different levels of hardness between the dark portion of the filter and the clear portion. You would want to use a hard edge GND anywhere you find a clearly defined edge to the horizon, and softer the more your landscape reaches up into the sky, like mountains.

A polariser has a few applications, but the one that is most useful to mention here is to aid in separating your clouds from the blue sky behind. The polarising effect is strongest at 90 degrees to the sun's position in the sky, so don't expect results if you're pointed straight towards the sun, or with the sun behind you.

This one is definitely more relevant for cameras where you're able to add filtration, but there are methods you can employ when using the camera on a smartphone. That is a topic all on its own, and I'll be writing about that soon!

5. Framing

Now we've tackled the technical obstacles that you have to take into consideration when you're interpreting a scene in front of you, we can move on to the art of getting your photograph to match what you're seeing. Aside depth compression, another consideration for focal length is how much of the scene you want to include. What's the salient part of your photograph?

Even though the whole vista might be impressive to your eye, it might not make the best photograph, or maybe the light is drawing you to a certain part of the scene. Sometimes these intimate landscapes where you've punched in to just a small element of the landscape can be the most effective at capturing the beauty of what you see.

6. What's in your frame?

Following on from how big your frame is, it's important to think about your relative position to your subject, where you place things, and how you're guiding the viewer's eye through the image. Is there framing that helps you emphasise scale or mood? How much breathing space do you give your subject for maximum impact? Can you move 20 metres to the left and get that little church in the middle distance to sit perfectly between two mountain peaks, or use a car on a road or a boat at a dock to provide scale and interest? Is there a leading line or an S curve you can take advantage on to make your composition more pleasing?

You should be asking yourself all these questions as you look at the scene in front of you. Interrogate the way in which you photograph it, and you'll produce an image that represents what your eyes are telling your brain they see.

There are all sorts of ways to photograph a scene, and this is your chance to really look before you depress that shutter. Something that looked wonderful in 3D can fall flat in 2D if you don't use one of the best advantages your camera has over the human eye - the ability to frame.

Lean into the art of framing, consider what story your image has to tell and where you want to position yourself (and your subject) to give the impact that you want. For more on composition techniques that pack a powerful punch, take a look at my post on nailing the composition in camera.

7. Edit!

Of course, there are a huge range of possibilities in software like Photoshop, ranging from a simple case of pulling down the highlights (assuming they haven't clipped) and pushing the shadows, right through to full on composite techniques where you can replace the sky if you lost all your detail.

Through the edit, you can go some way correct the exposure and contrast, but you can't alter the effect of the lens you used.

Editing is also useful in helping you tell the story of the scene. Where do you want people to look? What was the light like that day, how did it make you feel, and how can you enhance that through editing your photograph? Again, this is a huge subject that requires its own blog post, but start thinking about ways that editing can support your photography and help tell the story you want to tell.

The art of photography is more than just documenting what we see, it's about interpreting what lies before you and communicating that to an audience, whether that's your friends and family, your Instagram followers, or a wider audience if you're lucky enough to have one. Learning how to make your photographs reflect what your eyes tell your brain they see is the first step to making meaningful work. It takes time and the desire to learn how to be the translator between your brain and your camera, but it's so rewarding when you start nailing it first time. That's the when you're on your way to being a photographer.

What to read next: How a few simple edits can elevate a photograph... or ruin it.

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