Feb 082016

Canon’s experiment shows how obsessed photographers are over the details

Canon's experiment on how obsessed photographers are with detail.

Canon’s experiment on how obsessed photographers are with detail.

While this makes for a great blog title, it does not reflect what the Canon video is actually about.  What do I mean?

How we see is one of those endless human debates like:

  • Does society need religion?
  • Are all people equal?
  • Was it a blue and black dress or a white and gold dress?
The eye movements of a non-professional, a photography student, and a professional photographer.

The eye movements of a non-professional, a photography student, and a professional photographer.

Some debates will never be settled, but that will not stop us from trying.  And whether “we, artists” see differently than “non-artists” fits under that umbrella.  As an experiment, Canon set up a not so scientific test to see how three people, who represent three categories look at a photograph.  They chose:

  1. The Non-Photographer:  212 eye movements
  2. The Photography Student:  445 eye movements
  3. The Professional (Joel Grimes, who took the picture…but is supposedly color blind):  1,197 eye movements


Now before the scientifically backed readers get up in arms about the flaws in methodology, statistical weakness, and interpretations of results, let’s just watch the video and see what we can tease out of this because there are some interesting observations to be made that have nothing to do with selling Canon printers or photographers obsession with details.

The Non Photographer

The Non Photographer

The Non-Photographer

Not everyone who owns a camera aspires to be a professional.  They might just shoot for the fun of it.  But anyone who calls themselves a photographer, professional or not, would not like to be thought of as a non-photographer who owns a camera.  It could be considered insulting.  Does being a non-photographer affect how they look at a picture?

Canon’s suggestion is that they do not look at that much of a picture.  To be precise the “Non-Photographer” only registered 212 eye movements.  The professional had 1,197 eye movements.  So at first glance we understand that the “Non-Photographer” looked less than the professional.  But why?  What does the professional see that no one else sees?

It strikes me that the big split between the two groups has to do with what they are looking for in a picture.  The list of “things to be looked for” are much shorter for the “Non-photographer” allowing her to be done looking much sooner than the professional.

By her own admission she looked for two things:

  • Do I like or not like the picture?
  • Does the picture have a story to tell?
Don Robertson © Joel Grimes

Don Robertson © Joel Grimes

On Liking a Picture

“A good habit to practice when looking at a photograph is to AVOID at all costs saying “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” In art school we were forbidden in critiques from using those phrases. Why? It is not because our teachers were totalitarian dictators hell bent on instilling words of propaganda from our still-forming art mouths. They wanted to show us what happens when we were forced to search for a vocabulary to properly describe the visual language. We needed to understand that the Visual Language is a real language, like Sanskrit, Greek or French. It is not simply a collection of symbols which excite a preference for “Liking.”

Is there anything wrong with liking?  No, of course not.  But does a growing photographer wish to see things the same way a non-photographer might see them?  Probably not.  We expect professional musicians to be better listeners, professional chefs to have a better palate, and professional photographers to have a more refined sense of seeing.

On a Story

Again, nothing wrong with looking for a story in a picture, but with the non-photographers very often there is nothing else to look for.  It is a bit of a deal breaker.  In the absence of a story, the reaction is often, “My kid could do that.”

Do they like it? and does it have a story to tell?  These are the criteria most of the time, which is about as artistically evolved as a jar of mashed baby peas.  We don’t fault an infant for having unsophisticated tastes, just as we do not fault the non-photographer for not seeing like a photographer.  BUT and this is the big but, if any photographer finds themselves at the same level of evaluation that a non-photographer exhibits there is a problem.

The Photography Student

The Photography Student

The Photography Student

The photography student, takes an excellent step forward…well almost.  He bypasses the “I like” introduction, but he only took it as far as “I love.”  Ah well…lets keep listening and see what he says.

He goes on to say that:

  • He loves the light. (This is great. The photography student sees beyond what the picture is “of” and looks at a formal element, the light.)
  • Then he goes on to say that he “Loves that the light brings him to the subject’s eyes.”  Someone give this kid a high five.  He articulates that he loves it and why he loves it…because the light does something.  It brings him to the subject’s eyes.  Art school is working for this guy.


What he misses is the composition.  It is rather surprising as we look at the Canon readout of his eye movements, as he only looks in spots.  He does not look in lines, arcs, or even a continuous assembly of dots that could form a curve.  His eyes seem to miss the subjects arms and hands entirely.  His areas of focus are the face, the feet, and the top two background sections.  His eyes never seem to register the composition.  But hey, maybe composition is just for professionals, so let’s see what the pro did.

The Professional Joel Grimes

The Professional Joel Grimes

The Professional (Who shot the picture)

It can be said that the way we see ourselves in the mirror is not how other’s see us.  Maybe the same can be applied when viewing our own work.  It would be nice to see what the pro might have done with someone else’s picture, but the video is after all a Canon promotional piece, so we can’t ask for too much.

But the question remains, do we view our strengths and faults disproportionately to everything else?  Might Joel Grimes have 1,197 eye movements on his own work and only 800 on someone else’s?  Surely we look more at something that holds our interest than something that bores us.

Backwards Composition

What is most striking is that contrary to all photographic logic of composition, leading lines, anatomical gesture, the professional’s first glances go right for the head.  There is no foreplay with this guy.  He just goes…BANG…right to the head.  Composition seems to work it’s way backwards from the head and out through the body.  Could the art and photo worlds really have the whole idea of composition backwards?

Do we really enter through the scene, trace along lines and lesser areas of contrast before arriving at the grand finale?  Or like a four year old at a birthday, do we just dive head first into the center of the cake and deal with everything else after we devoured our fare share of the main event?

Based on this video, everyone seems to be head-diving-cake-eaters. Does it matter?  Depends who you are.

By just comparing the number of eye movements, we can see that for these three people, they each held up to a basic expectation that amateurs look less than professionals.  But what we can’t see are the meanings behind the movements?  And do more movements equate to more seeing?  We do not know.

The way we see is even still a rather mysterious notion.  Even with advances in science and art in the last 500 years, things are still pretty murky.  But, as an artist or photographer, you will not have time for things to be proven once and for all.  If artists waited for science to prove things they knew, nothing would ever get made.  It is a bit of a leap of faith, where you feel your way through your own creations.  Perfect rationale is not often available, which is why your own experiments will have to be taken and interpreted on your own.

In the end, right and wrong hardly matter.  The exploration of the way we do anything is bound to reveal the mystery of ourselves to our most captive audience…us!

In the words of Andy Warhol:

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done.

Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad,

whether they love it or hate it. While they are

deciding, make even more art.”



  2 Responses to “Is this proof that Photographers see differently than Non-Photographers?”

  1. Marketing bullshit that means absolutely nothing. As comedian Bill Hicks said from the stage 25 years ago:

    “By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising…kill yourself. Thank you. Just planting seeds, planting seeds is all I’m doing. No joke here, really. Seriously, kill yourself, you have no rationalization for what you do, you are Satan’s little helpers. Kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself now. Suck a tail pipe, hang yourself…borrow a pistol from an NRA buddy, do something…rid the world of your evil fuckin’ presence.”

    Anecdotally, the one person I know who looked most seriously at pictures was my 80-year-old (then) Mother who never took a picture in her life. I’d hand her a picture to look at, and I’d see her eyes studying every little section of it. Often she’d look for an uncomfortably long time, and I’d be tempted to ask what she was looking for — maybe I should have.

    • Hi Bill,

      While we do not condone suicide here…the point is funny and well taken. Cities would look much better if they were rid of all advertising. One of the main reasons old photographs look better. Even when there were ads they were hand painted signs or printed papers.

      And yes, Mother’s deserve their own category. I forgot to include that. Would have loved to hear what she was thinking? But understand that you might prefer to keep it quiet.


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