Continuing the series “Seeing Lessons,” I asked my friend Bill Vriesema to share a few thoughts on how photography has helped him learn to see—and how learning to see has helped his photography. You can enjoy other slow-down thoughts from Bill and his wife, Judy, in the pages of Not So Fast.

Seeing through the Lens
by Bill Vriesema

It has been said that the difference between a good and a great photo is not what you include in the photo—but what you leave out. This sounds a bit ironic, doesn’t it? But think about the way many of us take those snapshot pictures of family or our vacation adventures. We tend to move back to include as much as we can in the viewfinder (or now, LCDs). Somehow, the photo we see later doesn’t have quite the impact we thought it would.

When we “see” a scene, we see selectively with our eyes—or better, our brains. Our brains can help us select what to concentrate on—but not so the camera. It sees everything. So we need to be more aware of how to “leave out” those distractions that take away from the very thing that caught our eyes in the first place.

But how?

Some ways we learn to use the camera for selective seeing is done by what we include to be in focus—and what is out of focus.  Or, we can move around the subject until we can see that the background is not busy or distracting.

In this photo I wanted to capture a photo of canoeing. At first I had my partner in the front of the canoe in the photo. Good for documenting the occasion. But something about the water coming off the paddle was mesmerizing. So, I took this shot:


This didn’t quite do it for me. The cabin in the background and the tree line pulls my eyes away from the water droplets. So I decided to leave out the background, chose a different viewpoint, and here is what I got:


Many people have told me that this photo was very “evocative” or “emotional” for them.  It is something they could relate to. They have been there. But I could not create this photo without “leaving out” that which was distracting.

Let’s try another. These cosmos flowers caught my eyes at a nearby conservatory:


I like this photo quite a bit. But from experience I knew that there was more to see. So I moved in close, tried to leave out some of the visual “noise,” and got this photo:


By getting in close and putting more of the background out of focus, I began to see a very different view of the flower. This has a stronger pull to the eye and is more peaceful and glorious (in my opinion) than the riot of flowers in the previous photo. The point is not that one photo is better than the other, but had I not eliminated the background, I would have missed out on the intricate beauty of each individual flower.

The camera lens is a wonderful way to train us to notice things we would otherwise miss. As you learn to visually “leave out” more in the photos you take, you begin to see more of what you did not see before. Insides of flowers have so much visual majesty. A leaf by itself is an abundance of shapes, lines, color and patterns. Your mind starts seeing photos everywhere. How come the world is now so full of visual feasts you didn’t see previously? For me, it was learning how to “see”—by learning what to eliminate from my view.

On a personal note, this way of seeing has more implications than photography—or any visual concept. I’ve been on a spiritual journey the past few months that has worked much the same as the camera lens. I’ve been learning to eliminate distractions from my “view,” and in doing so have been seeing more of what I believe God has wanted me to see.

Typically, to try to grow spiritually—so to speak—I would try to be more active in church, do more acts of service, say my prayers more often, etc… etc… Those are all good things, and I continue to do them. But what I have been learning, with the help of a spiritual mentor, is much like what I have been doing with my camera lens—that is, by changing my position relative to God such as to remove distractions; by changing my focus so that God’s love for me is clearer and sharper; and by “moving in closer,” I am growing in my relationship to God. I am learning to see in ways I have not seen before.

Hmmm … I can’t resist. One more photo. Learning to see can bring lots of wonderful surprises. Just after a spring rain I went around my yard looking for flower photos with rain drops on them. I discovered this little fellow who graciously posed and smiled while I took his picture.



Bill Vriesema

(Photo credit: all photos by Bill Vriesema)

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