The Mind's Eye

Why cameras' don't see the way we do.

Jon Fishback

The mind and the eye seem to irrevocably linked: you see, and your mind translates the image into usable information. If the image is something familiar, the mind extracts previous data and we recognize the image. If it is not familiar, the mind stores the data for future use.

What does this mean for photographers? In the middle of this process--and yet a part of it--there is a more complicated detail for the photographer. The detail is focus.

Focus has two meanings from the standpoint of the "the mind's eye." Focus, the literal, camera meaning, is the converging of light rays. This focus point is what most photographers think of with regard to the camera. Another important meaning of focus, and one seldom thought of by photographers, is the concentration point of "the mind's eye." Rather than call this focus, let's think of it as the "concentration point."

"The minds eye," it seems, can not concentrate on more than one thing at a time. Try it -- pick an object across the room that has other objects at the same distance, with some closer and some farther away. Then concentrate on the detail of the object selected. While continuing to concentrate on that detail, let yourself be aware of the other objects. Do not change your concentration point or move your eyes even a fraction, just let your mind be aware of them. Are these objects out of focus?

One's first inclination is to say yes, since they do not seem as sharp as the image being concentrated on. Upon further investigation, and if you have picked an object that has other objects at the same distance, you will find that they also seem to be out of focus. From a camera's point of view we all know this is not possible, as objects that are the same distance from the camera lens will be similarly in focus. Why then do these objects appear to be out of focus? The simple explanation is, they are out of your "concentration point."

Now, if one of the literal definitions of focus is the concentration point, then they are out of focus. However, I would argue this does not translate well to the photographic process, as the camera does not have a concentration point the same as "the mind's eye." The camera has a focus point.

When you photograph a scene similar to the one above, no matter what the lens aperture, the objects similar distances from the lens will have similar focus points. If the lens aperture is wide then the focus point will be narrow, the depth of field shallow, and only those objects at the distance of critical lens focus will appear to be sharp. Everything else, front to back, will be out of focus. Let's see how this plays out in our previous experiment.

Look again at the object across the room and concentrate on its detail. Be aware of the other objects in the room. Now, one at a time shift your concentration to each of the objects in the room no matter where they are. You will find, that you have the ability to quickly change your concentration point and your focus to each of them, no matter how close or distant, and exclude all others. This is the power of "the mind's eye."--and the weakness of the camera.

When you photograph the scene above, depending on the depth of field created by the camera's controls, you will have varying degrees of critical focus captured on film. After the print is made and one sits down to view it, there is a problem.

Now, "the mind's eye" comes into play and as the eye scans the print from object to object, it expects to be able to selectively concentrate on each object and find the concentration point sharp. When this does not happen, the image becomes somewhat less than reality to the viewer and borders on the abstract. This is not to say that the abstract image is bad. On the contrary, abstraction in photography can be quite interesting. What is does say is: if reality to "the mind's eye" is the desired result, there must not be any out-of-focus objects on the print.

This brings up a second experiment. Find a photographic print, preferably an 8 X 10 or larger. Choose one that has all the objects in focus from the camera's point of view. Pick a particular object on the print and concentrate on its detail. Notice how all other objects on the print seem to be out of focus, even though they are not. They are out of your concentration point.

Now selectively look at each object on the print. Notice how your "mind's eye" allows you to selectively concentrate on each detail, but not the entire print. Even if you prop up the print ten feet away, you still will not be able to see the entire print in critical focus without moving your eyes and your concentration point. Sometimes scanning the print does not seem to be changing your concentration point because it happens so quickly and is a conditioned reflex. The eye muscles and "the mind's eye" work very rapidly as you scan an image or a scene and the concentration point appears to be in sharp focus. This phenomenon of the mind and the eye causes us to go through life never really seeing an image out of focus as the camera does. This phenomenon, however, is not with us our entire lives.

About the age of 40, the human animal will begin to see things truly out of focus for the first time. This happens when the eye muscles become less elastic and the eye is no longer able to take the message from the brain and rapidly focus on all objects. The close objects now are becoming truly out of focus. When one tries to concentrate on a close detail, the result is much like what the camera sees when it is out of focus. No matter how hard you try to concentrate on the close object, it will not be in focus. Getting into bright light helps as the iris of the eye closes down and the depth of field of the eye increases. This trick only works for a few years, and eventually the dreaded glasses are required for all close objects, especially reading or trying to focus the camera.

It is my opinion that the reason some photographers are critical of details in photographs that are out of focus, is the phenomenon of "the mind's eye." Photographers over the years have debated this issue with little consensus. A few very well respected photographers, such as the group f/64, have advocated sharp details in a photographic print. I believe the reason there are those who still advocate sharp details in the photographic print is due to "the mind's eye" phenomenon.


Jon Fishback has been a photographer for over 40 years, with work in the Seattle Art Museum's collection, and has written about photography for more than three decades. He is currently working in the darkroom creating images without the aid of the camera. He can be reached at

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