I've started to learn photography and I start to appreciate what makes a good picture. One of the problems that I've noticed is how to look to the world. For me, taking a picture is a kind of tunnel vision from the reality, just crop a portion of the space.

The other day I took this picture because my girlfriend told me, "Look there and take a picture!". The picture was there but I could not see it.

pictures are tunnel visions?

I'm reading these days Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull president of Pixar Animation. One of the problems that have the new animators sounds familiar to me. It's a different problem, but it is related to recognize the space and the picture.

What are your thoughts about my concerns and this excerpt from the book?

For instance, in drawing a chair, the new artist might draw it poorly, because she knows what a chair is supposed to look like (and that chair in her head—her mental model—keeps her from reproducing precisely what she sees in front of her). However, if she is asked to draw what is not the chair—the spaces between the chair legs, for example—then the proportions are easier to get right, and the chair itself will look more realistic. The reason is that while the brain recognizes a chair as a chair, it assigns no meaning to the shape of the spaces between the chair’s legs (and, thus, doesn’t try to “correct” it to make it match the artist’s mental model).

The lesson is intended to help students to see shapes as they are—to ignore that part of the brain that wants to turn what is seen into a general notion: a model of the chair. A trained artist who sees a chair, then, is able to capture what the eye perceives (shape, color) before their “recognizer” function tells them what it is supposed to be. The same thing is true with color. When we look at a body of water, our brains think—and thus see—blue. If we’re asked to paint a picture of a lake, we pick the color blue, and then we’re surprised that it doesn’t look right on the canvas. But if we look at different points in that same lake through a pinhole (thus divorcing it from the overall idea of “lake”), we see what is actually there: green and yellow and black and flashes of white. We don’t let the brain fill in. Instead, we see the color as it really is.

I want to add an important side note: that artists have learned to employ these ways of seeing does not mean they don’t also see what we see. They do. They just see more because they’ve learned how to turn off their minds’ tendency to jump to conclusions. They’ve added some observational skills to their toolboxes. (This is why it is so frustrating that funding for arts programs in schools has been decimated. And those cuts stem from a fundamental misconception that art classes are about learning to draw. In fact, they are about learning to see.)

Whether or not you ever pick up a sketchpad or dream of being an animator, I hope you understand how it is possible, with practice, to teach your brain to observe something clearly without letting your preconceptions kick in. It is a fact of life, though a confounding one, that focusing on something can make it more difficult to see. The goal is to learn to suspend, if only temporarily, the habits and impulses that obscure your vision. I did not introduce this topic to convince you that anyone can learn to draw. The real point is that you can learn to set aside preconceptions. It isn’t that you don’t have biases, more that there are ways of learning to ignore them while considering a problem. Drawing the “un-chair” can be a sort of metaphor for increasing perceptivity. Just as looking at what is not the chair helps bring it into relief, pulling focus away from a particular problem (and, instead, looking at the environment around it) can lead to better solutions.

Excerpt from Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I love this topic in general, but I'm not sure it works well for Stack Exchange. It's hard to know what a "correct" answer would look like. Can you focus something from the quote into more of an answerable question? (Maybe something more along the lines of your question title?) \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Jul 18, 2015 at 17:41

3 Answers 3


The book you're probably looking for is Betty Edward's Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which has a number of exercises in it to break from seeing things as "things" or symbols of the thing, and getting to what it actually looks like as a specific shape of a 2d projection by kicking into "right brain" mode. Drawing negative space, drawing in mirror-image, or having an image upside down as you attempt to copy it are all examples of ways to get your brain to flip into right-brain mode.

The only exercise, however, that you could probably do while photographing would involve looking at the scene upside-down. And you can only do that if you're using a view/technical camera. I hope someday someone over at Magic Lantern will consider doing a vertical flip on the LCD for this reason. But right now, they only flip the overlay information in case you're using your camera for macros suspended below your tripod (sigh).

One big sign you're in right-brain mode is that you lose time-sense, and you have difficulty verbalizing things. I find that with photography, I can go in and out of right-brain mode (messing with settings tends to be left-brain). But when I've lost sense of time passing, I'm definitely "in the zone."

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    \$\begingroup\$ Love that book. I've been reading it and following the exercises to improve my drawing skills, it's been an amazing read. \$\endgroup\$
    – Joanne C
    Commented Jul 18, 2015 at 22:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ A good book, granted, but based on a model of the brain and theories of cognition which are now considered inadequate as a result of decades of research. \$\endgroup\$
    – IconDaemon
    Commented Jul 18, 2015 at 23:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would absolutely use vertical flip view mode, great idea. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 1:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @junkyardsparkle And, of course, it should be reversed L to R too. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – inkista
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 20:17

This is gonna sound funny, but sometimes I squint really hard at a scene, to the point where the resolving power of my brain gives up and I just see the basic, fuzzy, light and dark shapes... helps a little. Sometimes I'll also do this when trying to crop a picture I've already taken into something a little less compositionally lousy. I suspect the ritual of having a physical act as an associative trigger probably helps, too.

As far as retraining goes, my own experience is that just spending time in a different perceptual mode, using any method to get there, makes it a little easier to do the next time, for whatever that's worth.


You might find it inspiring to visit museums or galleries with others. I stress "with others" because you should take their opinions and observations into account. What better way to get out of your own mold than to examine someone else's? It may be easier for your girlfriend to show you what she sees on a 2D projection than in 3D space.

It may also help to take a course in subjects like art history, art appreciation, or even photography. A good instructor will thoroughly educate on facts and theories, while providing their own personal flavor; a bad instructor might not have strong personal opinions, or may insist that their teachings are supreme. Good students will help by asking questions and posing their own thoughts for discussion; in contrast, poor students will sit there silent, accepting everything at face value.

Just like you had to learn about nouns and verbs and sentence structure when learning a language, critiquing also has its own vocabulary and concepts.


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