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February 1, 2018

VR Photography and Seeing More of the World Around Us

by Jim

For the most part, this blog is mainly focused on my Virtual Reality (VR) photography. When I started it, VR photography was still fairly uncommon. That’s no longer the case as VRs are commonly used in advertising and gaming, Google uses them in Street View, smartphone apps make it easy to take and view them, and experiences are becoming richer with fully-immersive headsets. Even so, there still seems to be a place for them in the art of photography, and I still enjoy the process of making them.

I like to apply this to waterfalls in particular, because doing so reveals other scenic things. As beautiful as most waterfalls are, they’re often located in surroundings that are also striking. Lush canyons, austere cliff faces, bubbling brooks, and so on. When we take a single still picture, the surroundings are rarely included. By taking a VR, other elements become visible. It’s as if you are there, and can look around and appreciate the whole environment.

VRs capture a more complete, and in some ways more honest representation of a scene. This has been pointed out in journalism, for example. When taking a standard picture, simply framing the shot is an editorial decision. What to include versus what to leave out influences how the viewer responds, what they learn or perceive, etc. This sort of thing can have profound influence on how one interprets a scene.

In addition to the photographic aspect, continuing to work with them has developed my understanding of VR photography as a metaphor, revealing new ways they show how we think about the world around us.

Our natural belief is that human senses give a correct picture of the world, leading us to believe that what we see is all there is. Unfortunately, it’s been shown many times that the way we see the world is often wrong, and we can even miss things that are right in front of us. How much easier it is to miss things that require a little more effort to see! In either case, it takes deliberate effort to see what’s there, and this is beautifully illustrated by the VR photography metaphor. We are given a starting viewpoint into a scene, but it takes effort on our part to see more.

Now, it’s common to accuse religious people of behaving irrationally and seeing things that are not there. There are similar cognitive errors that come into play in those instances. But the real point is that these errors are ubiquitous in both cases, so we shouldn’t assume that only believers are easily mistaken. The world is still full of things we don’t understand and can’t explain. We see the recent successes of science and technology and believe reality is completely worked out — that’s all there is. Or we see a few unexplained coincidences and think the world is full of ghosts.

In either case we can become jaded and refuse to continue exploring. Instead, I think we should keep seeking, keep learning, always look around.

Not sure exactly how this guides photography, but I sometimes keep it in mind when making a VR. It would be fun to explore the idea more deliberately, perhaps framing shots with a surprise element that’s only visible when looking around. Just like there are some things in our world that are apparent only when we open our eyes to see them.

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