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  • Writer's picturePaul Cotter

What We See

Closeup view of waterfall at Chimney Rock State Park, NC, captured with long exposure, slow shutter speed

An interesting thing happened when I photographed Hickory Nut Falls at Chimney Rock State Park last week. This 404-foot falls, located near Asheville, North Carolina, appeared in the film The Last of the Mohicans. As you’d expect, it’s a popular spot for visitors and a magnet for photographers.

The morning I was there, I was intrigued by the vastly different ways that people – myself included – saw the falls and used it in their photographs.

Our significantly different perspectives support what John Lubbock said long ago: “What we see depends mainly on what we look for.”

A wedding photographer posed a young bride and groom at the base of the falls, using it as a scenic backdrop for their portrait. Many people stood with their backs to the falls, holding their smartphones at arm's length to capture a smiling selfie. Some people used a wide angle lens and moved back as far as they could, trying to include the entire falls in a postcard-worthy view.

As for me, I was hoping to capture something abstract and unique. After a long stretch without rain, the flow of the falls was more like a trickle on this particular day – not much to work with. So I zoomed in on a specific detail that caught my eye: a thin stream of water cascading over jagged fingers of rock.

John Lubbock was right: What we see is influenced heavily by our intentions – what we want the outcome to be. That explains how everyone in a group can look at the same thing – whether it’s a waterfall, a mountain or a hotly-contested political issue – and come away with a different view.

Photographer’s Footnote: I took this photo using a 6-stop neutral density filter, allowing a 31-second exposure that shows a smooth, silky flow of falling water.


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