Beginning Photography Photography Fundamentals

Understanding the Human Eye

The human eye does not look at the world the same way that a camera does. To design effective images, you’ll need to understand how the eye sees.

What is it that makes photography so enthralling? When you think about it, there isn’t anything that we photograph that we can’t just look at. Certainly, photography has a sort of convenience to it. Once you take a photograph, you don’t have to return to the spot you took it because now you have a visual record. But if that is all photography was, merely a visual record, then most people wouldn’t find it quite so interesting.

I think that a large part of the interest comes from the way the human eye works. To put it simply, we just don’t see the same way that a camera does. A photograph gives us a whole new perspective on the subject.

To see what I mean, you can try a little experiment. Wherever you are sitting, pick an object, and focus your eyes on it. Choose a small object on the other side of the room from where you are. Something like a doorknob or a piece of paper. Notice how, as you look at that object, the object is in focus but everything else in the room remains blurry until you turn your eyes to focus on specific areas.

That’s how the human eye operates. When you take a photograph, the camera is capable of seeing everything with clarity, across an entire frame. The human eye, on the other hand, only focuses on the small spots that it is directed at. When we take in the world around us, we don’t generally fix on a panorama with a steady gaze. Instead, our eyes unconsciously flit around, scanning to collect as much data as possible – building an image one piece at a time rather than capturing it all with one press of the shutter.

This is what makes photography interesting. There is a lot of clearly focused data presented in one rectangular image and that data is presented in a way that our eyes are not used to seeing. When you look at real life, you are glancing 180 degrees around you. However, when you fix on a photograph, the image only makes up a span of a few degrees directly in front of you. You can take in more information at once because it is easy to focus on more objects.

In short, this gives us an unusual new perspective on common subject material. There is more brought in to focus, and because it is directly in front of you instead of all around you, it is easier to scan and pick out individual elements for further study. This, I think, is a large part of the reason why we enjoy looking at photographs.

Keep the Human Eye in Mind When You Take Photographs

Now that you’re thinking about the way the human eye works, it is time to apply that to the creation of photographs. By this, I don’t mean composition – although good composition does certainly make it easier for our eyes to take in information. I am referring to the tools that photographers use to direct the viewer to look at certain things within a photograph.

Simply put, our eyes glance around to create a full image. As the photographer, it is your job to direct those eyes, to not allow them to wander because that makes an image less impactful.

When you give an image a narrow depth of field, for instance, you are directing the viewer to look only at the parts of the image that you have left in focus. The pretty washes of color from blurred areas serve to add ambience to the image but more importantly since there is nothing there for the eyes to fix on directly, they serve as a way to isolate the subject material. You’ll spare a moment or two on the background and then go back to looking at the perfectly focused details.

Isolation is one tool that we can use, but what about those times when you don’t want to introduce a narrow depth of field to images? Another tool at your disposal is the logical progression. In fact, if you want to create images with impact, then you’ll find yourself relying heavily on logical progressions.

To understand logical progressions, think about some real-life examples of the way you observe the world around you. For instance, if you are standing in the middle of a street, then the natural temptation is to look down that street.

When you are at home, sitting in your living room, what do you look at first? Generally, the things that are most interesting. The TV, which is flashy, followed by your loved ones or a pet playing on the floor. You may stop to glance at a lit candle or a lamp. If something is happening outside, such as the neighbor’s children playing in the yard, that will be interesting enough to look at, too.

Now, this is the heart of the matter: As you are building a logical progression, think about things that you want the viewer to look at. Using your living room as an example, what subject do you want? Let’s say it is your wife, sitting in an armchair reading a book. All of those other things – the pet playing on the floor, the TV, the lamp, and whatever is happening outside your windows – it is up to you to decide whether they are part of the logical progression. Do these elements add to the story in some meaningful, logical way? If not, keep them out of the frame so as not to give viewers unnecessary distractions.

Further, you will need to decide how best to organize the image. To do this, you’ll need to place each element in the proper position of prominence. In other words, make the element that you want viewers to look at first the most prominent, with each other element following becoming less prominent based on the order in which you want them to be seen.

When you understand how the human eye observes the world, you’ll have a much better understanding of photography, too. Not just how we observe photographs but also how we can manipulate the way we look at those images through effective organization.

Now, go and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation through your lens.

About the author

Will Moneymaker

Will has been creating photographs and exploring his surroundings through his lens since 2000. Follow along as he shares his thoughts and adventures in photography.

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