Tag Archives: photographic vision

The Primitive Eye: Learning to See Through a Pinhole September 12-October 24

Do you want to improve your photographic vision, but find yourself frustrated with your images? The Primitive Eye is a six-week guided exercise in seeing. The course meets on Tuesdays from 7-9pm, September 12 to October 24th. The only requirements are that you are ready and willing to tackle some challenging assignments, and that you obtain a pinhole objective for your camera. This could be a pinhole in a body cap, it could be a custom pinhole objective, or it could be a dedicated pinhole camera that shoots film or photographic paper. It could be a digital camera or it could be a Quaker Oats tube.

By stripping down your gear to the most basic of photographic tools, the pinhole lens, you will be forced to contend with the three fundamental components of a photograph – light, composition, and time.

Foggy Bottom Metro, Waiting
Foggy Bottom Metro, Waiting

Light: light itself, with directionality, quality, and quantity, must be critically accounted for in pinhole photography. There’s no gaming the system with a fast lens.

Key Bridge, Georgetown


Typically, pinhole objectives are wide-angle. Because they are so small, composing through the objective is difficult at best. You have to carefully plan your composition, or you have to open yourself up to serendipity. Either way, you have to know how your camera sees before you set it up, or you’ll have no control over what you get.

Pan-American Health Organization HQ
Pan-American Health Organization HQ


Pinhole objectives force a recognition of the importance of time in a photo. With modern, automated cameras that have mechanical shutters that freeze slices of time as small as 1/8000th of a second, and electronic ones much faster, we are used to thinking of photographs as truly static objects, and movement and blur are objectionable. With pinhole photography where a 1 second exposure is quite fast, you must carefully plan for how movement will be captured by your camera, because it will. It will also force you to re-think the notion of a photograph as being time-less and two-dimensional, and being time-ful and four-dimensional.

The Primitive Eye: Learning to See Through a Pinhole is a six-week class on how to develop your vision through simplification. Strip away all the bells and whistles of technology, and you have to concentrate on the fundamentals of photography: light, composition, and time. To register, go to the Photoworks website or click here:

Register for: The Primitive Lens

Pinhole Resources

Where to find:

Pinhole Pro – multi-aperture pinhole for various DSLR/Mirrorless mounts

B&H Photo – pinhole cameras

B&H Photo- Pinhole Body Caps

eBay – pinhole

Work to Inspire:


FslashD – Pinhole Photography (my work was published in their inaugural anthology volume)


Photographic Vision, or: Re-seeing the same things

Many photographers complain about “I don’t have anything to photograph where I live… there’s nothing interesting, blah blah blah… I get tired of seeing the same things over and over again”. If you’re getting tired of seeing the same things over again, then you’re not looking right. Not only are you not paying attention to what’s around you, but you’re failing to observe change in your environment and to record that change, which is one of the greatest functions a photographer can fulfill.

Case in point: two images of the same house, taken about two years apart. The first image is the earlier one. I was foremost interested in the gas meter as an organic pattern against the rigid geometry of the red brick and the white window at the time I took this one. The window and the gas meter were each singular objects set off against the dark, weathered red of the wall. At a bright and cloudless sunset, the meter casts a long shadow, further repeating its organic pattern.

Gas Meter, Red Wall, V Street
Gas Meter, Red Wall, V Street

Returning two years later, the house has been re-painted, this time in BRIGHT red, along with the gas meter plumbing and the bollards protecting it. Instead of looking at singular items tightly framed, this time I pulled back a bit and gave the scene a narrative – there’s a person visible inside the bars of the one window, the other window closed. The lighting is flat from an overcast sky, pushing the drama of the scene into the deeply saturated colors and the enigma of the house – who is that person inside? how did they get in there when there is no visible door? Why is the one window bricked up but the other one open?

Red Wall, Window
Red Wall, Window

By re-visiting the same subjects, we not only learn to see them, but to see them differently instead of as static, unchanging objects. It also helps with story-telling and narrative development. Being able to tell a story with an image is one of the key differentiators between a factual record (“on this date, this building/car/person/plant/animal looked like this”) and an artistic output (“why does this look the way it does? Who is that? Why are they there? Why are they doing what they are doing?”). I think that we should all strive for that artistic output and not just factual recording (not that there is no value in recording of facts – we need facts recorded!).

This is one aspect of photography that I would hope to help inspire my students toward, as an educator. But it’s also the hardest thing to teach – photographic vision is something that has to happen, organically, natively, within the individual photographer. The best you can hope for is to provide exercises to stimulate them in the direction of building their vision, and to provide constructive critical feedback to focus that energy.