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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Taking a peek at a spring peeper. © Gordon Dietzman
Taking a peek at a spring peeper.

© Gordon Dietzman

April 2001

The art and science of seeing

An experienced wildlife photographer offers tips to improve your powers of visual observation outdoors.

Tim Christie

The eyes have it
Learning how to see

Some people have perfect vision, but they can't see. You know the kind. You and a friend are in the Chequamegon National Forest and a buck of epic proportions is standing at the edge of the timber. The conversation goes something like this:

"Look at the size of that buck!"
"Where?"
"A hundred yards away. Right next to the tree in the brush. It's facing us!"
"I can't see it..."
"Are you kidding? It's standing just to the right of the tree."
"That's not a buck! It's just another tree!"

Admittedly, the buck's tan body is subtly camouflaged in the shadows of a white cedar. The "branches" of the tree your compadre sees, however, are the antlers of the biggest deer north of Medford. In your eyes, it stands out like a neon sign. Your friend thinks you've lost your senses. You walk away shaking your head. Either your friend is blind or needs an ophthalmologist. Maybe both!

How can two people standing practically on the same spot see completely different things? The answer lies in that one person is seeing, and the other is only looking. It happens all the time because most people have not trained themselves to see. Vision and seeing are similar to hearing and listening. Just because we have the physical ability doesn't mean we know how to use the gift.

Success in the outdoor world – in birding, hunting, photographing or just enjoying wildlife – demands the ability to "see." As a professional wildlife photographer, I have spent the past 25 years studying the "seeing" process to improve my ability to observe nature. It's an attainable goal: Once you understand how vision works, acute observation becomes a matter of consistently employing several simple techniques.

The eyes have it

Let's go back to that buck in the Chequamegon. You see it because light waves are bent as they pass through the cornea in the front of your eye. The lens focuses the image, turns it upside down, and projects it onto the retina, which is the back of the eyeball. It works something like a slide projector where the image is projected onto a screen. The retina is your screen. Once the image is transmitted onto the retina, it is passed through the optic nerve to the brain, where it is processed and put right side up.

Although many people assume they can see a field of approximately 180 degrees, humans only clearly focus on a zone of approximately ten degrees. The area where the image is focused is called the macula lutea. In the center of that area is the fovea, encompassing only two degrees of our vision. This area has the greatest sensitivity to form and color. So, although we have a wide field of view, we focus only on a very narrow area within it.

To develop a perspective of how narrow our band of critically sharp vision is, extend your hands to arm's length and form a circle with your thumbs and forefingers. Look at the space in that circle. The image within the circle is sharp, while the balance of your vision field lacks the same clarity. If you focus on something else in that vision field, the encircled image loses sharp focus.

There's a buck in here...somewhere! © TIM CHRISTIE.COM
There's a buck in here...somewhere! © TIM CHRISTIE.COM

Anytime you look at something, you unconsciously direct your attention to a particular spot by focusing your eyes. It is impossible to clearly see everything in your field of vision simultaneously, as your eyes limit what you can focus on at one time. We do pick up motion throughout the entire field of vision, but to truly see it, we must focus the eye on the object that's moving to process the image. That's why you saw the buck, but your friend didn't: He was selecting different stimuli on which to focus his attention.

Whenever we are in a situation we focus on those things we determine are important. Research demonstrates that typically we select (see) the things that are the most obvious to us. If there is a bright color, a large tree among small trees or a bird flying across our field of view, that is what draws our attention. For your friend, the trees were the obvious objects, so he saw trees. The old saying "First impressions are lasting impressions" applies here. Once your friend saw the buck as a tree, it was difficult for him to see it as anything else.

But you picked out different things to look at. Your experience and background guided what you saw.

Learning how to see

The mind's ability to process images occurs unconsciously and at light speed. In order to improve the perceptual abilities that will help us "truly see," three other factors must be taken into account: experience, motivation, and expectations.

Experience changes how we perceive situations. The beginner in any complicated endeavor quickly discovers frustration, but with additional effort, frustrations move to understanding and success. When it comes to seeing wildlife, there's no substitute for practice out in the field. People are constantly amazed at my ability to spot wildlife in highly camouflaged situations. I have good eyesight, but any skill I have is a result of 35 years of outdoor experience.

Motivation is the second component in improving how we see things. If you believe you will be successful, you can be. Without that passion, it's easy to give up. All the great hunters, fishermen, photographers and birders I know are successful because of desire. With desire comes effort and success, hence positive experiences that hone one's talents to a higher level.

Expectations are the most powerful influence on why people have difficulty seeing wildlife. We tend to focus our attention on where we think animals will be. As products of a mass-media world, most of us assume, for instance, that all bucks stand in open meadows, just as they do in the glorious full-page photos found in every magazine, including Wisconsin Natural Resources. Believe me, it is seldom like that.

In the real world, animals are intuitively wary, employing their natural camouflage to stay concealed. If you want to improve your ability to see, focus on areas where the animals are hardest to see. If an animal is in an obvious place, you'll easily see it. When you learn to spend your time looking in the shadows and the brush, you'll begin to find more animals. Don't have preconceived notions as to where an animal or bird will be. Look just as hard in the places you don't expect them to be.

Improving our ability to see involves more than just recording scenes; we need to use our eyes to dissect the environment. To do that, we must pay attention to what is before us. This sounds easy, but it requires practice.

Take a moment from reading this article and look at the room around you. What do you see? Try to see each item in the room. Don't just look at it – focus on it. Study it. Look at the texture, the color, the printing on it, if there is any. Quickly you realize how much is before us.

Now, recall that last glorious trip into the outdoors where you were bird watching, hunting or photographing. Recall the amount of country that you covered and what you saw. Consider what you probably missed! To truly see, slow down and spend the time to study what is before you. If, for example, you are looking for an eagle, study everywhere it could be. Examine every aspect of that scene until you are positive nothing is there, then move on. It takes time, but it also doubles your chances of seeing what is really there.

Don't look for whole animals. Again, the videos and photos we all admire fool us into thinking animals spend most of their time completely exposed. Far more often, you'll see just an ear, the reflection of the sun in an eye, a flash of wing, the horizontal top of an animal's back in an otherwise vertical scene. Look for the unusual. Study. When something looks out of place, concentrate on determining what it is. Again, it takes time, but you'll quickly be amazed at the amount of wildlife you'll see in the process.

If you view situations as a whole, you miss those little things. To scrutinize a scene thoroughly, mentally divide the area into a grid, then systematically study each segment until you have thoroughly examined the entire scene.

Try the grid technique to hone your outdoor eyes. See the coyote? © Lance Beeny
Try the grid technique to hone your outdoor eyes. See the coyote?
© Lance Beeny

Even with perfect 20/20 vision, there are limits to what you can actually see, even at relatively short distances. At 100 yards, approximately 10 feet of what you see is in critical focus where you can clearly see detail. It may be focused, but can you clearly see everything that is there? A twitching ear? The lower part of a deer's leg? Probably not.

A good pair of binoculars can help. If you look at the same scene with 7X binoculars, you have increased the size of the objects you are looking at seven times. The binoculars' magnification literally allows you to pull an animal out of its natural camouflage. Even with that, remember your eye can't focus on the entire field of view the binoculars provide. To really study the area, divide it into a grid and examine each segment for your quarry.

Obviously, binoculars are essential in open spaces, if you want to study distant subjects. But I also use binocs to examine the cover that is right in front of me in broad open spaces. Binoculars are equally indispensable in heavy cover. In brush and timber country, I use my binoculars constantly because the chance of an animal escaping detection increases with the amount of cover. Further, if the animal gets up and runs, I've missed an opportunity.

Learning to see means learning to focus your eyes on the entire picture, not as a whole, but in segments. Developing an "eye" for wildlife requires time afield, and fine-tuning your senses with experience. Our vision is a remarkable gift. Using it to casually peruse the world is like taking an Indianapolis racecar to the market for a loaf of bread. With work and experience, you can hone your senses and discover the world you've been walking by.

Tim Christie lives in Couer d'Alene, Idaho. He has photographed wildlife for 25 years and been a freelance writer for more than 15 years. A version of this story previously appeared in Wyoming Wildlife.