Photography, Focus versus Field.

I’d like to use the practice of photography to explain about the concept of Duality. Duality in our perception, or the way we tend to see everything. Later i hope to show that this Duality exists in all things we do, not just photography.

If you stand still with a camera somewhere where there is a view to the horizon and just look – your field of view covers a vast arc many miles wide and, quite possibly, if you are in an elevated place, many miles ‘deep’ (away from your standing point) also. There is much more detail than your mind can fully take in all at once. There may be a flower or tree or person close to you, a river or a lake with waterbirds on it in the middle distance; perhaps a mountain range with forests or fields with animals in them in the far distance and maybe a rising moon, or some clouds, over the horizon.

J Glover view
J Glover – A View of the Artist’s House and Garden.

With your camera you can take a picture of the whole scene, but you need to set up your camera in a special way to do that so you can see as much of the view as possible and in as much detail as possible or you don’t get a clear picture, or you might miss something out. You need to choose a wide angle of vision to get it all in the one shot, a long depth of field so the details are as good as possible over as much distance as possible, and you need to set the focus in the right way so it is not all blurry. These days most camera’s know how to do all this way better than you ever could and you just point and shoot: the camera then shows you pretty much what you were looking at the way you were looking at it!

But if you have a good enough camera (like they had in the old days before auto-focus, back when you had to load a thing called ‘film’ into it to capture the shot) you can do something remarkable. You can adjust settings on your camera and end up seeing very different things without changing much in the way of where you are looking or what you are looking at. And the interesting thing is, the more you look at one thing the less you see of something else! And that works both ways – when you look more at what you didn’t the first time the less you see of the first thing and the more you see in what you did not before.


It works like this: if you narrow your field of view to a small area and focus your vision sharply you bring into your picture things that were in the overall shot but were mostly ‘overlooked’, like with a macro or close-up zoom lens. In doing so you choose to ignore the larger entire picture and focus in on a smaller part but in much more detail than originally. You ‘lose’ some of what was there but gain more information about something you could not make out well enough before.

Or, you can widen your field and stretch out your narrow fine focus and lose all that tiny fine detail that still makes up an important part of the overall picture ( it is after all always there!) but gain much more overall information. The trick is the more you do of one the less you get of the other. Both are an important and integral part of what you are actually looking at/photographing.


The graph above shows how by choosing to maximise either the field size  (and so taking more of the total view available in) you must lose some level of fine detail in every part of the view, (near and far)  or maximising the fine detail you must lose a large part of the field of view. One straight line on the graph (there are only ten straight lines on the graph – the curves are an optical illusion – they do not exist in reality!) represents the setting and result for one type of picture. You can’t see everything at the maximum level of detail (100% focus). You can’t see much detail at the maximum size of your field (100%) – the Big Picture.

This is how duality works – it is inversely relational, that is, the more you get of one the less, in proportion, you must get of the other. There is a very important point here. The reality you get from any one situation is every bit as real and complete as any other situation. If you have maxed out your zoom you have minimised your area of view (field size) and you see a small amount of stuff, but with incredible detail and clarity  (IF you are in focus! 🙂 ) This is the reality.

But that reality almost disappears entirely when you reduce your zoom and pull back to maximise the area of view. Now (again if you are in a new focus) you see a far greater amount of stuff but in no where near as much detail as you had in the zoom – you might see a distant tree in full but you can’t make out the bark grain or a vein on a leaf like you could have done previously. This is the same reality – only one that appears very different to that of the first.

Basically what i am saying is: There is more than one way of looking at things and even when we all look in the same direction we can all see different things, maybe that others cannot see, and yet we are all right , even when what we see appears to conflict with what someone else sees. I don’t have to be wrong just because you (think you) are right when we both look in the same general direction.


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