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Saturday, 19 May 2018


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It depends on what lens we are using. I often go out with just a longer focal length of 200 or 300mm and then just look for scenes that fit.

Back in the 70's Ralph Hattersley wrote an article claiming that men have telephoto vision while women see in wide angles. Even then it seemed too simplistic but it did cause me to "think" wider.

This is an interesting scale. 'Seeing' here has more 'perception' than 'looking'. Perception in this case has more reference to external cues, whereas looking at is more internally interpretive. Is this necessarily true? Do we 'look at' an object to see better, such that we perceive better? Conversely, sometimes do we simply 'look at' but don't don't really 'see'? I had always associated 'looking at' with a more passive act than actually 'seeing', which to me is a more active process.

I think Jim is right on the money with his analysis. I might quibble slightly with his "focal lengths"but looking and seeing are two differing modes. To paraphrase, we have quite the ability to use our brain to control our eyes as ultimate intelligent zoom lenses. And, in 3D!

cheers and beers,

The difference between seeing, perception, and what the camera captures challenges me frequently when trying to capture the grandeur of epic cloudscapes.

They look huge to the naked eye . . . so I assume I need a wide-angle lens to capture that hugeness. But then the clouds look puny in the image.

The only way around it that I've found is to shoot a series of vertically oriented frames at, say, 135mm (e), to zoom in on the clouds and then to stitch them together horizontally to get the width so they look both big and wide in the resulting image.

Here's a link to one of those panoramas:


Click to see the full-size image.

How the brain manages to do that escapes me.

I “see” at 35mm. I can’t use a 28mm, 30mm or 40mm. I’ve tried all of them.

If I concentrate on something, It’s a 135mm.

I don’t really need anything else except an 85mm if I’m indoors and there isn’t enough room for a 135mm.

What Jim has said rings right to me. The struggle lies in its interpretation...and then articulation, if there's something more to be said.

I can’t agree more with Jim, and the comments from BC in this post.

Mike, thanks for reminding me of Richard Zakia. I knew I had a book of his and it turned out to be, "Perceptual Quotes for Photographers", from which I quote.

"The formula used for the preparation of Coca-Cola, I understand, is not quite the same in New York as it is in New Orleans, in Vermont as in Virginia". Rene Dubois

[Pedant mode ON]
'helping thousands of photographers hone in on their creative vision': surely you can hone something, or home in on something. I blame Amazon. It's like 'pry' and 'prise' - drives you nuts.
[Pedant mode OFF]

Beautiful, thank you, Jim! Helps me clarify my thinking here, as it runs more or less parallel to my 'lens moods', i.e. one day (or week) I am in a 35mm (eq.) mood and feel no need to put another lens in my bag, while the next day I am decidedly in a 50 or 75mm mood. One lens one year would be hard for me, as naturally my moods don't last that long. Only 'examining' isn't exactly what I feel or sense with a 75mm eq. lens on my camera, strangely 'intimacy' seems to come closer in that regard, in spite of the usually longer viewing distance.

Aaah Language!... We had a couple of young Chinese students staying with us last year-- their English was almost perfect.... ( as well as having both Mandarin and Cantonese as their "mother tongues") , but one day, one of them asked me.. "Bruce, what's the difference between "look" and "see" and "watch"? My golly I had to think about that! We see a TV set in the corner,, but we watch TV, and look at it in a shop display........

I see in degrees, not mm, but otherwise I agree.
(Perhaps one day we will replace 'mm' with '°' (degrees) for a more universal approach.... or perhaps we won't... )

That is very well put. It also ties in well with my experience of having preferred a 30mm-e lens for street photos; the angle of view captured pretty much the scene as I'd take it in and the wide angle also meant I had to be close in, which affects the feel of the photos.

Now, when I mostly photograph still scenes and I want a lens that makes them look "natural" my angle of view of choice comes in the form of a 40mm-e lens.

Flattening the scene by using a 50mm-e lens was tempting me, but when I got an iPhone X it proved to me what I had expected, that the angle of view granted by a 50mm-e lens feels too claustrophobic to me.

Ever think of Thoreau as a photographer? How about this:

"It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see."

I have noticed when looking at objects out to sea (ships, platforms, sea forts, artificial islands etc) that although they subtend a tiny angle of view in naked eye vision, they can still psychologically seem bigger, closer and more detailed than they have any right to be - given the very wide field of view of the eye.

Then, when I pick up my camera with a telephoto lens, the subject can appear smaller and further away through the tele lens than with the naked eye (obviously not optically possible). In fact, from experimentation I would guess the unaided eye can easily match the apparent magnification of a 4x zoom lens (200mm equivalent).

The only way I have found to make my camera outdo the naked eye is to snap a picture then zoom in on playback.

There is no physical way to explain this experience, this is being done by brain processing. We somehow have the ability to create a virtual telephoto lens in our heads by doing nothing more than concentrating on a specific object in the wider field of view.


Hi -

Back in the day when I studied pyschology, we mapped perceptual vision as part of a course. For me it was 18mm/28mm/60mm/105mm. We all have slightly different physiologoies and perceptual fields based largely of visual acuity (i.e. how bad your eyes are). Mine are pretty bad...

Best, John

This. Except in panorama. In other words, put those lenses on an Xpan.

By "we" I'm assuming he means "most people." The structure of the human eye is complicated, and then the brain gets involved to varying degrees before light from the scene becomes vision. This would be a great subject for experimenting on groups of people. I like the general idea though. I think it would hold up fairly well to testing in the real world.

What I am curious about is color. We see color one way, and we remember it differently. That I feel confident about. Does color perception change between "sensing" and "examining?" How much, and in what way? I don't know.

Bruce - in the 1950s, when my parents first bought a TV, the older generation would 'look in' at television, just as they would 'listen in' to the radio. Or wireless. That was in the UK - I don't know about the US. I'm 70 now - the changes in English usage during my lifetime have been considerable.

What Bruce said.

For myself, I think I probably see more like an adapted vintage 16mm cine lens - uncoated, so prone to severe flare, reasonable sharp in the centre of the visual field, fading to deep obscurity at the edges, and colours yellowed with age...

I agree.

50mm for looking, 35mm for seeing.
I always wonder why there are no 42mm lenses. Would be a perfect normal.

Sometimes I go out with just a 20mm. It's a great walkaround lens. Hold it level at chest height and try to picture the scene instead of looking for subjects.

[Pentax has a 43mm Limited, which is close enough. And a 28mm lens on an APS-C camera is 42mm-e pretty much to within the limits of the tolerances. --Mike]

Hats off to Mr. Simmons for getting this exactly right.
Human vision is dynamic in a way that a camera cannot replicate so perhaps we need to retire the label "normal" when talking about lenses.
If we are talking about a single lens for general use then perhaps "standard" is a better choice. This being the lens that most often meets a photographers needs. For many it would probably be the equivalent of a 35 to 40mm on full frame camera but not for everyone.
I remember being a little confused in school when I was told that the "normal" focal length for 4x5 was 210mm. I had always thought 150 to 180mm was more like it but the school insisted on 210mm. It wasn't because of the field of view it was because of the image circle a 210 threw. Go figure.

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