Tackling the Frustrating Problems of the Photographer's Eye

Tackling the Frustrating Problems of the Photographer's Eye

Although it sounds like a nasty disease, like athlete's foot or tennis elbow, the photographer's eye isn't that. We take our eyes for granted, and they are an essential part of photography, both metaphorically and literally.

I wonder how many chapters in photography books have been written about the photographer's eye. It's the title of one reference book I really enjoyed reading and recommend. Of course, it is usually applied figuratively and refers to the photographer's ability to create a compelling composition. However, it also has a literal meaning.

It’s a constant news item that the world’s population is aging. The United Nations says that, globally, the median age has increased by seven years since 1950. It was 24 and is now 31. Here in the UK, the average age is 40.6, and in the USA, 38.5. Saying that, nearly two thirds of the world’s population is under 39. When I visit camera clubs or see other photographers walking around with their cameras, most are my age and older. Indeed, far more than half of my trainee clients are older than me. Consequently, more than half of those clients need their vision corrected.

Do You Use Glasses When Photographing

Not so long ago, I started wearing glasses. They were not something I had needed before, but having perfect vision in one’s youth usually means needing some optical correction when the eye muscles become less tight than they once were. My slowly deteriorating vision is helped by the precise autofocus of my camera and the focus assistance that outlines the in-focus area with a colored line.

Like me, many of my clients are battling with close vision and the problems of wearing spectacles. Luckily, the diopter adjustment on my camera’s eyepiece is sufficient for me to see through the viewfinder. It surprises me how many people are unaware of the diopter adjustment on their camera. If you haven’t found it, it’s the little wheel next to the viewfinder. Use the autofocus to lock the camera onto a subject, and then turn that little wheel until what you see through the viewfinder looks sharp. There should be a lot of resistance on this wheel. A client of mine recently told me that his diopter was forever getting accidentally readjusted in the camera bag.

But that doesn’t help me when it comes to looking at the menus or using the Live View screen and I am not wearing my glasses.

For a while, I wore a string that suspended my glasses around my neck, which mostly worked. Sometimes, however, my camera would get caught on them, and the loops attached to the glasses would fall off, resulting in my specs hitting the ground.

I tried keeping my glasses in my top pocket, but that was a nuisance. So, in the end, I bought multifocals, which are the best solution. I use those for photography and driving. I have two separate sets of reading glasses. One pair has the distance set for my computer screen, and the other is correct for reading a book. Nevertheless, they are still not without their difficulties.

Recently, I tested a lens I had agreed to review. It looked and felt great, so I attached it to my camera and went for a walk on a sunny winter morning. But, looking through the camera’s viewfinder, I could see a significant chromatic aberration around high-contrast edges. Consequently, this tainted the rest of the shoot for me. Despite the speed of focusing, the build quality, the ability to get shallow depth of field, the close focusing distance, the lack of distortion, and the fantastic ergonomics of the lens, I didn’t enjoy using it because of that optical fault.

I only like reviewing gear if it’s worthy of recommending to you. If it’s terrible, I don’t want to write about it. So, what was I going to do?

I got home and uploaded the photos to my computer. There wasn’t a hint of chromatic aberration there. First, I turned off the lens profile. The images were still clear. Then, I looked at the photos using different software. There was still not a hint of purple and green lines around the contrasting edges that I could clearly see when I took the pictures. Next, I put the SD card back in the camera and pressed the play button. There was still none to be seen on the camera’s Live View screen. So, I looked through the viewfinder and couldn’t see it.

After scratching my head, I put my varifocal glasses on. There, in the viewfinder, I could see the chromatic aberration. It was the glasses causing it, not the lens.

Right Eye Dominance Helps Photographers

Are you left- or right-eyed? Most of us have a dominant eye. If you need to determine which yours is, and assuming you have two working eyes, keep both eyes open. Now, point at an object a few yards from you. Next, alternately close one eye and then the other. You will see your finger move in relation to the distant object when you close one of your eyes and move back to its correct position when you open it again. That is your dominant eye.

Years ago, I worked providing adventurous outdoor activities. I had a fantastic time climbing mountains, sailing and canoeing on sea lochs, and scrambling up rivers. One of the activities we did was archery, and the archery instructors would always talk about left and right-eye dominance. If you are left-eyed and try to shoot right-handed, you will miss. Teaching someone to shoot left-handed was always more challenging for the instructors to get their heads around. Left-eye dominance more often occurs in left-handed people. So, the first question they would ask the clients would be: “who is left-handed?” I used to tease the instructors by secretly telling the groups of clients beforehand to all answer yes to that question. It’s a question I still always ask my photography trainees.

Most of us are right-eyed, and cameras are built for us. Holding my camera to the right eye, the rear of the camera doesn’t push against my big nose, and if I keep both eyes open, I can see objects moving into the frame from the right. That isn’t true of every camera. I have tried bigger cameras that painfully squash my nose; yes, I have a big nose.

If I try holding any camera to my left eye, my nose gets in the way, and I cannot see anything out of my right eye because my right hand obscures the view. Just as the world is prejudiced against left-handed people in so many ways, cameras are designed for right-eyed people or maybe left-eyed people with tiny noses and hands.

I’m still looking for a perfect camera and glasses combination solution. I don’t want to wear contact lenses and won’t consider laser surgery, but any practical suggestions you have will be welcome. Have you already discovered whether you are right or left-eyed? If you are left-eyed, have you noticed the inconvenience of right-handed cameras?

Ivor Rackham's picture

Ivor Rackham earns a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer. Based in the North East of England, much of his photography work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography.

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I am left eye dominant and shoot that way. The way I hold everything I use that as a brace to be more steady. I can still open both eye just fine as well.

Do you find that your right hand and the camera obscure your vision on the right side?

Not really. It's not as wide open of course but I've shot air shows with Blue Angels coming from left an right and been able to see the opposite side of the one I am tracking well enough to time the shot.

Being left-eyed, I also have a problem with rangefinder style digital cameras where the viewfinder is positioned on the left side of the camera body - my nose hits the screen and changes the focus points meaning that, more often than not, I end up having to turn off touch-screen functionality. This is less of a ptoblem with SLR-style designs!

I have that problem, and I am right eyed; my big nose!

Fun article. I’m right eyed and left handed, so archery felt strange. And indeed the first thing the instructor did was find out which was the dominant eye.

Thank you, Ruud.

Because I can only see out of my left eye due to a birth defect I have got used to unsing the camera this way, but sometimes it can be a nuisance!
Rangefinder cameras don't worry me and I would think they would get an image halfway between the left and right eye view because the lens is usually at the nose compared to people who use their right eye. With right eyed users the lens is slightly right of the face!

For many years I used to shoot left-eyed, that is until I bought a Leica. Have been right-eyed ever since.

Use a Leica Ivor.

I'll start saving!

Right eyed and right handed, but old enough to rank cameras I want based on how big the viewfinder is.

I agree there. Some models have ridiculously small viewfinders, and there is really no excuse for it. It's bad design.

You say you don’t “want” to wear contacts. I didn’t either until I tried them. I use multi focal contacts now, yeah that’s a thing, and they pretty much fixed for me all the issues you describe.

As do I... but there is a vision compromise; at least for me, in my case. Maybe the large range of correction distance vs near is the cause, but I have to either sacrifice clarity on the near correction, or sharpness at distance. I'm unable to get my prescription dialed in to accomplish both. The goal was to eliminate reader glasses, and that has been accomplished to a degree. But in dim light, or with small text/objects and precision work, I still have to add readers after all. It's far better than the alternative (glasses full time) for me, but is never perfect (frustrating).

I'm with you, Peter. When I say "pretty much fixed", I mean it's not perfect. My optometrist adjusted the mix so that I can still see at distance well enough to drive (i'd forgotten how much better driving is without glasses!) and just clear enough at close distance to see my camera buttons and LCD without pulling out the readers. Works most of the time, except not so great in low light as you mention. Still, I ain't going back to glasses all the time.

My wife has contact lenses. I just don't like the thought of using them.

I'm right-handed but left-eyed. I'm also an archer. The thing you have to do in archery is close your non-dominate eye and the problem is solved at least for aiming. In both archery and photography of course there are significant benefits to having both eyes open, especially for anything involving fast action. I also have aging eyes that require correction at close distance. I use the viewfinder diopter because having glasses on with a camera against my face is very annoying to me. But I do have my glasses perched up on my head so I can menu dive and review photos on the LCD. Also an annoyance, but less of one. In the end, you just have to play the hand you're dealt.

Sometimes, I use one of those lanyards that hang my glasses around my neck. I find it more convenient than on top of my head. Thanks for your input.

Oddly, I use my left eye for photography and right eye for archery and long ago, skydiving photography using a ringsight. Just means I have nose marks on my lcd screen but that’s ok! 😂

Unless it's a touch screen, and then it causes problems.

Have you tried a Leica S medium format? I've read reports from many people that it's the best DSLR viewfinder they've ever looked through. I don't know if it's any better for left eye dominant people though...

When I was in school, there were left eye dominant people and they had the least problems with louping large format ground glasses. I would think that either eye could focus with equal ease on a bright ground glass with a fresnel lens (especially an 8x10)

Also, it's interesting that you noticed chromatic aberrations with your glasses. I've had similar problems finding perfectly neutral sunglasses without any color shifting.

That's interesting, thank you.

Many years ago an eye doctor suggested graduated bifocal lenses for me. They caused significant chromatic aberration when looking through the viewfinder. It wasn't because they were bifocal, it was because of the "graduated" portion between the two parts of the lens. I never had this problem with regular bifocals, and I returned to using those instead.

That's fascinating; I was using similar lenses.