An Exercise in Seeing…

I’ve been playing a game with myself in the lab lately.  Its a game of seeing which sounds a little funny given my professed profession.  The point of the game is that we are deluged with information in science these days, so the “player” sits down and looks at *just one* any old piece of data and tries and find something interesting about it.  It does not have to be revolutionary or even notable, just… interesting.  The goal is then to dig into the interesting and see how far one could go.

The other morning I decided to extend this exercise to photography.  An interesting exercise in seeing if you will.  We have a similar problem in photography these days with hard drives able to store many terabytes of our photographs and we have cameras that can generate those images ever bigger and faster than ever before.  My primary camera for instance can create 27MB sized images at 10 frames per second.  That’s over a quarter gigabyte every second.

We have wonderful applications to database, annotate and rate our images, but its easy to have any one image get lost.  Even more, its easy to forget the actual point of the image one captured, so perhaps its best to slow down and take a moment to reflect on the process of seeing again.  Zach and others have been having some existential conversations about photography lately, so I said to myself walking back from a meeting on lower campus the morning this image was captured: “I’ll photograph the first thing that catches my eye” fully knowing that the photograph would likely neither be good, nor necessarily interesting, but that I’d capture the image of something… something ordinary and then examine the image later to see… what… there… was… to… see.

So, 20 yards outside the door of the Warnock Engineering building, I look down on the sidewalk and see a penny.  I captured *one* frame, put the camera back in the bag, picked up the penny and went on my way, back up to the lab.


So, what is there to see from this one frame?  Sitting down tonight I was a bit surprised to see a mite to the left of the penny.  Modern digital cameras pack lots of pixels and given decent enough performance of the optics, there is potentially huge amounts of latent information in all of our photographs.  This mite was easy to miss when the image was made, but there is enough resolution and information in the 200x zoom, that it is likely possible to identify the exact species of mite.


The penny is from 1960 and not 1940 as I originally though when I took the image.  Wear and a scratch makes the 6 look like a 4.  Also, apparently a 1960 penny in pristine shape is currently worth 35 cents to numismatics.


Concrete is not made like it used to be.  This is a modern concrete with much more sand in it than the original sidewalks in my neighborhood.  Those original sidewalks have lasted 100 years or more.  The new ones seem to flake or start cracking after about 5 years.


A simple edge detection filter shows the plane of focus of the camera and lens.  Too bad I did not capture the image in multiple wavelengths as we could have done some multi-spectal imaging and image decomposition to determine properties of the materials…  Gotta think more about that one.

What else can you see from this image?  The images above have simple facts associated with them, but complete narratives are easy to imagine.  What is the history of the penny?  How did it come to be there?  Who owned it?  What was the history of the world in 1960 when the penny was minted?  Its a fascinating time in American history for sure, not to mention the world and the sort of thing I would not be surprised to see Errol Morris make a documentary of.  These sorts of questions are luxuries for sure, but its not a bad exercise for photographers to step back and take a moment to reflect on what inspires them to make images, what is in those images and what do those images say about the world when those images were made?  What are you missing in your own photographs?  What can be seen in them?

The full resolution jpg is available here.  Download it and see what else there is to see from this image and leave a comment.

11 Replies to “An Exercise in Seeing…”

  1. Wow. It looks really 3D. There’s a huge amount of detail in the penny — both by design and from years of use — that I surprised me. The texture of Lincoln’s hair. The green (copper) stain on his body. The dark red dirt behind his head. The way certain characters in “In God We Trust” are scratched and flattened along the bottom. The ridge around the penny. The penny’s shadow. There is a huge amount to see here.

    Oddly, my uncorrected eyesight is remarkably good about 5 inches from my face. I can actually read the teeny tiny hidden messages on hundred dollar bills. Looking at this high-resolution image of a penny on my 24″ monitor was nearly as revealing as a close, contacts-out examination of any other small item.

    One question: How did you make the magnification circles?

  2. perhaps the most interesting detail is present in the image and yet not visible. time.

    the penny’s date of 1960.

    where has it been, who has held it, what has it paid for? how many times was it lost, how many times did it combine with other small change to buy someone a cup of coffee or a pack of cigarettes?

    how many times has the penny been to washington d.c?

    endless questions.

    if i don’t sleep tonight i’m blaming you…

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