Learn How to See

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I always make excuses for myself in my photography. I always think my equipment and camera is the limiting factor. I feel that I have a creative genius inside— wishing to come out. But I feel I cannot unlock that inner-genius without the agency of a “good enough” camera.

I think that shooting film will help me render images that are more faithful to my creative vision. I think that shooting black-and-white will better render my emotions into images. Sometimes I feel that a more pastel-like color palette from shooting Portra 400 will render that. Sometimes I feel that 35mm-film is too limiting; that medium-format will better give my images the “3d-ness” that they deserve.

When was the last time I really “looked” at her?

Berkeley, 2015 #trix1600
Berkeley, 2015 #trix1600

This morning I woke up, and looked over to my left. I saw Cindy, fast-asleep, snoring (cutely), and the light coming down on her face from outside. Even though we have our blinds closed, there were little streams of white-light flowing through; hitting her in the face.

I then looked at her face— really looked at her face, and for the first time saw the color of the light, and the color of her skin. I then asked myself, “When is the last time I really gave a good look at Cindy’s face?”

I then nudged Cindy to wake up; then headed to the bathroom and took a cold shower. Got out; had a shot of espresso, and just stood outside, looking at the trees.

Cindy came out, and sat on the couch; contemplating her day. I then sat down, and gave her a really good look in the face— I saw all of the fantastic proportions in her face, her nicely tweezed eyebrows, the almond-brown color of her skin, and her luscious lips. I gave her a big smile, and kissed her. She gave me a weird confusing look as if saying, “Eric, you weirdo.” I smiled back; and told her, “Cindy— when is the last time I really looked at your face? You are beautiful.” Another kiss on the forehead.

When was the last time I was curious with my eyes?

LA, 2012 #portra400
LA, 2012 #portra400

I then sat in the middle of my apartment (on my green fake grass IKEA rug) and looked around my apartment. I am generally so busy, so caught up with all my fancy electronics, my own business concerns, and everything else in life— that I have forgotten to really see, and forgotten how to look; and to be curious with my eyes.

Be nosy

SF, 2014 #portra400
SF, 2014 #portra400

The other day I was at Philz coffee in San Mateo, and it was a really cool new interior and space. High ceilings; bustling techies working away on their laptops, and nice art on the walls. Before even ordering, I walked around like an old Asian man (arms crossed behind my back), and just looked around, and peered at the space. I tried to look at every single detail— from the color of the countertops, the type of wood they used in the ceiling, the colors of the art on the wall, and also analyzing the people sitting in the cafe (while also peering into their laptop screens; curious what they were working on).

I got a lot of weird looks from people who noticed me just standing around; looking like a dope, and just looking.

Which made me realize— who really “looks” anymore— who is really curious and amazed by the world anymore, and who could really “see” anymore— with these 4’’ (now 5’’) devices that block our vision, and emit this brutal blue/white-light into our faces?

We are screwed.

Tokyo, 2014 #portra400
Tokyo, 2014 #portra400

I recently experimented with the new Oculus Virtual Reality headset for the Samsung smartphone and was amazed by the technology. When I had all the settings calibrated, I literally felt like I was in a different world. For about an hour I forgot I was in my apartment in Berkeley; I felt like I was either in outer-space shooting aliens, or in a fancy NYC loft, or riding a bus in Hong Kong.

While I love new technology and I had a great time— when I took it off, I thought immediately to myself: humanity is screwed.

We are already disconnected enough as it is already with our smartphones. I am the first to admit that I cannot stand in line at the grocery store or wait at the bus stop without being audio-visually stimulated. I need either to be distracted or stimulated by reading blogs, reading a book, listening to music, or learning something. I have lost the ability to simply stand, look around, enjoy my own company, and appreciate the beauty of the world and people around myself.

If having our field-of-view distracted by smartphones is bad enough; imagine how bad it will be in the (near) future when people will wear virtual-reality helmets or goggles in cafe’s or on the bus— totally disconnected from reality. How will we be able to really “see” the beauty of the real world— and how will this affect us as photographers?

Our most valuable tool

Melbourne, 2014 #portra400
Melbourne, 2014 #portra400

As a photographer, our most valuable tool is our eyes. Our vision— the way we see and interpret and perceive the world.

Our eyes have a bajillion-rods and sensors that perceive the wavelengths of light in different ways. Then this information is fed into our brains, which interpret this light in different ways. We perceive color, texture, contrast, and depth.

If you think about it— cameras (and sensors) are pretty dumb. They don’t have near the “dynamic range” of the human eye. If you ever looked into a sunset and realized you could see the foreground and the bright sunset (both equally lit) this is the amazing power of the “high dynamic range” of your eyes. Then when you took out your smartphone to take a photo, you might have been disappointed to realize that your camera could only either expose correctly for the sunset or the foreground (unless of course, you “HDR” your photos).

One big difficulty I have been having with digital photos is trying to get the skin tones of human skin to look appealing to me. But then again I wondered to myself, “Do I really know what human skin tone looks like ‘in real life’?” Once again, I took a good look at Cindy’s skin this morning, and realized that because of the white/green/blue light coming from outside, her skin had a tinge of green. Her skin wasn’t this pure tangerine-orange skin tone I imagined it to be.

Digital distractions

Venice, 2013 #portra400
Venice, 2013 #portra400

When we are out shooting on the streets, I think one of the worst things that obstruct our vision is not only our smartphones and devices— but our own concerns of our lives. When we’re out taking photos, instead of focusing on trying to find beauty around us— we are distracted and concerned about our finances, whether we will be able to pay the bills this month, whether our kids are doing drugs, whether our loved ones are cheating on us behind our backs, how many likes we are getting on Instagram, or what you plan on cooking for dinner that night.

And as I mentioned earlier— we attribute our lack of creative insight and vision because of our tools. But our main tool; our eyes, is what is truly being obstructed— covered in a digital veil covered in grime and dirt.

How can we learn to see?

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Everything I mention either in this blog, my writings, videos—whatever; I am the first to be guilty of.

So let me give you some suggestions in terms of what has helped me personally better learn how to “re-see” life.

1. Turn off my smartphone

Downtown LA, 2013 #portra400
Downtown LA, 2013 #portra400

This is probably one of the biggest ones— learning how to turn off my smartphone. No, not just silence it— turn it off completely.

Now my close friends know how annoying it can be to contact me at times (Cindy always yells at me for not having my phone on, because she becomes my ‘digital secretary’). But trust me, I don’t do it to alienate any of my friends or family members— I do it as an attempt to be more truly-present with the people I am with.

For example, when I am having dinner with Cindy— I don’t want to be thinking to myself, “What photo am I going to upload to Instagram tomorrow morning?” I want to truly be in the moment— to enjoy my time with her. I want to appreciate the space of the restaurant I am at with her— the ceilings, the color of the table, the ambiance, the kindness of the waiters, or the smell or flavor of the food. For some reason, when I have my phone on, I feel like I cannot truly concentrate.

Similarly when I am out just going on a walk— I will turn off my phone completely. The second that I turn off my phone, I no longer feel the “phantom vibrations” in my pocket. When my phone is off, I feel like suddenly the world looks more “3d-like” — that I can see the green in the foliage of the trees, that I can see the cracks in the pavement, that I can see the old people laughing and having a good time at the cafe.

2. Don’t be afraid to look at people

Istanbul, 2013 #portra400
Istanbul, 2013 #portra400

One of the most difficult things as a street photographer is to deal with confrontation with strangers. Especially when making eye contact with strangers.

Have you ever been sitting in a cafe or eating lunch, and you see someone interesting from half-way across the restaurant, and you want to just look at them for some reason? But you feel nervous or awkward about it?

Screw it— I do it anyways. I will stare at people, not in some creepy way— but in some admiring and curious manner.

When people make eye contact with me, I just look back, and give them a genuine smile, and they smile back, and they go about their business again. And then I continue looking, or I just look away and inspect other people.

As human beings, we are naturally curious— social animals. There is nothing more interesting than another human being— especially the human face.

So rather than feeling awkward and meek about looking at others; try to learn how to cultivate to just look into the eyes of another— especially a stranger. Cultivate the skill to smile at a random stranger, without quickly averting your eyes and pretending like you were looking at something else.

3. Unplug your headphones

London, 2014 #portra400
London, 2014 #portra400

I love music. But the problem with music is when I am listening to music and walking— I am totally zoned out of the “real world”. I can’t see things as vividly when I am having sound-waves blasted into my ears.

I still find it difficult to walk long distances, especially when I feel bored, without listening to music. But on the occasions I do walk without listening to music, I see a lot more.

So when you’re out shooting street photography— try your best not to listen to music. I know some photographers who like to listen to music while shooting (it helps them get in the groove)— but try it also without listening to music.

One of the benefits of shooting street photography without listening to music is that you can sometimes overhear conversations that might be of interest— which might draw you closer to them; awaiting to take a photograph.

Not only that but for practical reasons, not having your headphones on while crossing the street might help prevent you from getting run over by a bus, a taxi, (or nowadays) an inattentive Uber drive texting-while-driving or consulting Google Maps to see where his next pickup is.

See, appreciate, and record

Melbourne, 2013 #portra400
Melbourne, 2013 #portra400

I think photography is really three steps:

  1. See
  2. Appreciate
  3. Record

We have to first see what we find interesting in the world. Then we have to appreciate what we see before our eyes— and appreciate the inherent beauty in it. Then lastly, we need to record that moment (taking a photograph).

Photography is really the “art of seeing” — the recording (actual taking of the photograph) is easy. Any smartphone camera can make a picture-perfect image nowadays. But how few people can really see beauty in the world anymore?

Meditate in nature

Downtown LA, 2013 #portra400
Downtown LA, 2013 #portra400

I find whenever I am becoming too obsessed with technology, I just go out for a walk, and take nature-photos with my smartphone. This helps me re-connect to my roots (I started off taking photos of landscapes and flowers, like any good beginner).

Although cities and the streets are what ultimately interest me— being able to cultivate your interest in natural beauty is a good way to re-invigorate yourself. And use the most basic equipment possible (once again, smartphone)— and you will see how your photographic limit isn’t being hampered by your equipment— but by your eyes.

See, see, see

Amsterdam, 2015 #trix1600
Amsterdam, 2015 #trix1600

Your eyes are hungry. Your eyes are hungry to see more beauty in the real world. Your eyes want to consume what you see before it. Feed your eyes— don’t let your eyes be blocked. Explore the world, have fun, follow your curiosity, be brave, be social, be happy, smile, dance, frolic— whatever. Be the crazy and weird photographer that everyone looks at funny— but enjoy your experience of noticing beauty, and capturing beauty.

After all, isn’t that what photography is all about?

10:47am, March 14, 2016 @ My ghetto standing desk (chair on top of my IKEA dining table) in Berkeley.

Articles on seeing

Marseille, 2015 #trix1600
Marseille, 2015 #trix1600
  1. Zen in the Art of Street Photography
  2. Taoism and Street Photography
  3. Follow Your Intuition
  4. Notice
  5. Find out What to Photograph, Not How
  6. Why Do You Take Photos?
  7. Do You Like Your Own Photos?
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