Seeing with Old Eyes

November 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Over the last months we’ve witnessed citizen journalism become increasingly significant during moments of political protest and state violence.  Cell phones, iPods, and other gadgets have become central elements of the 21st Century tool kits of contemporary human beings.  How would your daily life change without that digital multitool in your pocket?  Life would probably change in more significant ways than you would imagine.

They called this a computer (credit Gizmodo).

The internet and the many forms of computing that we use everyday are a part of the experiences that make us.  For example, many of us have sensed anxiety during Gmail’s moments of failure.  What about when your wi-fi signal fades at home?  It’s horror.

On one level, the computing tools we use everyday allow us to communicate in new ways.  We exchange information without regard for geographic distance.  Our notions of community have shifted in recent years.  Technology has permitted us to create spaces where we see social conventions such as marriage reinvented to fit our lives in an increasingly globalized world.

These are all important elements of our lives today, but what about something so basic that it goes without notice? How about the way that we see?  How does our relationship with technology have an effect on visual perception?

The digital camera has become an extremely popular tool in the early 21st Century. Designers and engineers have done a fine job of simplifying the technical process of recording photographic images.  The prevalence of point & shoot and mobile phone camera use on photo sharing sites like Flickr hints at the strong preference for user friendly image production and instantaneous sharing.  In addition, the most popular cameras (as of 11/16/2011, the iPhone 4 is the most popular camera on Flickr) frequently accompany users on a daily basis.  For many who use this type of equipment, image capture requires little evaluation of the most important element of photography: light.

On the other hand, some photographers — especially those who use less technologically advanced tools — often have a different relationship with the camera and light.  Although it is not especially common today, individuals have employed various methods for carefully evaluating light.  This, in turn, determined their use of the camera.  For example, the sunny 16 rule allows people to estimate proper exposure in a variety of lighting conditions (sunny, cloudy, overcast, etc.).  For many photographers today, understanding the importance of variables like ISO, shutter speed, and aperture for determining exposure value is not especially difficult.  However, learning to see light is another matter.

Although most people can identify relative conditions such as brightness, classifying the quality of light (intensity, color temperature, and hardness) is a far less common skill.  Of course, this was not always the case.  Consumer cameras like Brownies permitted many families to document their lives with relative simplicity as early as 1900.  However, many popular cameras in use prior to the 1960s required users to figure out basics like exposure and focus without the help of software.  Exposure charts (which required users to evaluate light) commonly accompanied cameras in the field.  Zone focusing required photographers to recognize distance in workable units.  Given the capabilities of technology during this period, tools such as Kaufmann’s Posographe (pictured above), an exposure computer developed in the early 20th Century, were valued for making photography more accessible to users.  In time, development of tools such as automatic cameras simplified image production.  However, seeing light was a fairly significant part of learning basic photography.

Photo uploading on Facebook for iPhone

Importantly, photography is a cultural practice.  The methods employed for this form of popular image production greatly determine the ways that users interpret the world.  As designers create new instruments and popular aesthetics develop alongside technological instruments, users find additional ways to use these tools and toys.  Of course, the technologies that we use in image creation today do not have to limit us from seeing in old ways.  Digital SLRs, micro 4:3, and point & shoot cameras allow us to toy with light in a number of ways.  Nonetheless, in depth knowledge of basic principles of photography or lighting are not necessary for using cameras as tools in our communication workflows.

Some might argue that technological developments in cameras have allowed users to focus on content rather than technical factors.  Has this resulted in better photography?  Maybe.  Has it allowed more people to participate in visual communication?  I imagine so.  Has it changed the way that we see?  Absolutely!


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