The Habit of Seeing: Outside the Frame


Only those who stand outside the frame are capable of seeing the whole picture. – Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Quick question for you: when does composition begin? If you’re only starting to look, or truly see, once you’ve got the viewfinder to your eye, you’re a bit too late. Getting your best photos relies on learning to see all of what’s in front of you, in order to find a worthy shot in what can sometimes be a great big mess of clutter (or, alternately, sheer boredom).

There are, of course, a few reasons to pay close attention. For one thing, what we think of as our subject – the first thing that catches our eye – might be obscuring, or drawing our attention away from another, more compelling subject. I’ve had this happen more than once in my own photos; I’ll get the shot, and when I get home and view it on my monitor, I realize that there was something else going on there that I’d totally missed the first time I looked. Sometimes that “something else” made, or would have made, for a more interesting photo if I’d been paying closer attention.

Similarly, sometimes it’s not just a single subject that makes the photo work. Sometimes it’s a pair, or group, of related things that reinforce each other. Other times, the juxtaposition of unlike or seemingly disparate things give you a different meaning than either of them would on their own. If we’re not paying attention, we’re missing those relationships, and the little things that can turn a competent shot into a great one.

Then there are times that you see something, or someone, that just makes you say, “Huh?” Things that at a glance, blend into a scene, but which, if you take the extra second to take notice of them and really think about them, end up being the visual equivalent of a pebble in your sneakers – they jab at you a bit because there’s something just a little bit “off” about them. Neglect the area outside the frame, and what’s inside it just might suffer for it.

The photo accompanying this post is an example of one of the times I got it right. I’ve shot that gargoyle (and the other three that accompany him) many times, often at different times of day. This time, I noticed birds flying around the gargoyles, and waited to see what they’d do (using my zoom as a spotting scope). One little guy flew right into the gargoyle’s mouth, but had that look about him that birds get when they’re not going to stay in one spot for very long. I waited, and this is what I got. I could’ve simply gotten the gargoyle and gone home – which is exactly what I’ve done in times past, and which makes me wonder how much else I’ve missed because I wasn’t paying attention.

When we think about our ways of seeing, it’s helpful to remind ourselves every now and again that the fraction of a second that comprises a photo is only a small part of the picture, after all. If you want what’s in the frame to be an accurate representation of, or even a means of condensing, a bigger picture, or to be able to tell a larger story, you need to be attuned to what’s going on beyond the viewfinder, and also beyond yourself. Often as not, something that drew your eye did so for a reason; there was something about its color, shape, relationship to its surroundings, or some mental association it triggered in you, that made you take notice (and take photos). If it captures your imagination, capture it in turn. Just don’t stop at that obvious photo; be willing to look around, and beyond, it to other things that might be less obvious.

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