How do we see? A question any visual crafter should ask themselves. One response is a technical and physiological list of the components necessary to take in light, manipulate it, and interpret it in the optical lobe of the brain through a process far too extraordinary for me to fully comprehend. And that is entirely correct. But let me re-word the question slightly: How do we see? Now this could be answered many different ways, but for me it was answered in part last week in the mountains.
I had the opportunity to tag along with a couple of Germans from Nautilus Film, a German-based nature documentary company, who are working on a multiple-year project on the Great Smoky Mountains in east Tennessee. For those of you subscribed to the weekly e-mail you've already read about this, so I won't go into great detail about the trip itself here. But the inspiration for this post happened before the hike got underway. We had originally planned on meeting at the entrance to the Cades Cove loop road, but upon arriving it quickly became apparent that all three of us had forgotten that the loop road is closed to motorized traffic and open only to bikes until 10am. It was 8am. And the road we needed branched off of the loop. So instead of loitering around until it opened, we drove back to the cabin they were renting to kill some time and annihilate some sandwiches. During the drive there, Jan (the director) and I talked about this and that, mostly camera stuff.
At one point we got on a subject he had briefly mentioned the first time we had gone filming together, and that was visual movement. While he made an allowance for creative preference, he said, as a documentarian, to never use zoom and to never pan. To clarify, a zoom is a visual movement made by keeping the camera stationary and "bringing the subject closer" by zooming in with the lens, and a pan is a sweeping horizontal movement made by, for example, putting a camera on a tripod and moving it from left to right or right to left. The reason for this is what intrigued me. He said the main reason to not use these techniques is because humans can't see that way. We don't have telescopic vision, and thus can't zoom. If you can prove that you have this ability unlike every other Earthling on the planet, I'd love to see it. Now we can move closer and farther away from something, but this is more like a dolly than a zoom since the "camera" (eyes) are physically getting closer and farther from the subject, making it appear larger or smaller. Pans on the other hand made me think a bit more. After all, can't someone stand in one place and slowly spin their body like a top, and essentially "pan" over their surroundings? I didn't ask him this question at the time (for good reason, I hadn't thought of the question yet), but I think I see where he's coming from.
Stand up (or keep sitting if you're lucky enough to have a swivel chair) and slowly turn in either direction without focusing on any one thing, trying to keep the image as smooth as possible. Any luck? Probably not. Your eyes kept rapidly switching from near and far, and from one object to another for the simple reason that our eyes are always trying to focus on something by default. You can override this mostly by holding your hand/finger out in front of you, focusing on that and turning the same way as before. This should give you a pretty smooth pan, but now everything behind your finger is a blur; not very natural or useful. A camera is the same way. Its focus generally gets locked to one distance and goes through the whole pan that way, but since its focus is locked it's not fishing around for something else to look at, unlike our eyes. On the other hand, try a dolly "shot" by looking at something and slowly walking parallel to it (or roll if you're lucky enough to have a chair with wheels). They very frequently used dollies for up close, far away, and everything in between. So zooms and pans aren't possible for humans to do and dollies are, but what about time-lapses and slow-motion?
This was also a very interesting concept. Time lapse is when a photo is taken at a time interval (say a photo every second) without moving the camera, or at least not much at all. Then once tons of photos have been taken over minutes, hours or even days, they're all put side-by-side and played back much faster, such as 30 photos in one second. This is a main way to get those motion shots of clouds racing across a sky, a flower blooming in a few seconds, or the Milky Way spinning above. And slow-motion...well, I dare say I don't have to define that in detail. It's real life...played back slower. Obviously we can't see things at any speed other than what they are, so why would someone who doesn't use shooting techniques that aren't humanly possible to see use time-lapse and slow-motion so heavily? Because seeing things at different speeds is common to our perception...but in our dreams. Sounds strange, but true. And dreams are the most real means of seeing what we understand (light, color, shape) other than when we open our eyes. So even though we can't experience it, our brains have little trouble processing it. Not to mention that slow-motion makes everything cooler, and showing the building of a skyscraper in real-time instead of time-lapse just might be boring enough to lose a viewer or two.
How do we see? With eyes yes, but equally, and maybe more importantly...with our minds.