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Why visual intelligence is a skill that every photographer should acquire

In photography, there is no greater asset to have than the skill of visual intelligence. Other people of different trades seek this skill, but it is only those that look through the lens of life and art with clear, unbridled eyes, that can perfect it.

So what if I told you that photographers possess a skill that might save humanity from any type of treatment?

That the military service, the Department of Homeland Security, and all of our national guards, are trained to adopt this skill that for most creatives, comes naturally?


Or that only the best doctors and nurses possess it? Because, beyond the thousands of pushups and hours of study, there is one mental training that makes all the difference when it comes to every single duty in life: attention to detail

Amy E. Herman calls it visual intelligence, the ability to perceive things (or situations) objectively. She is, in fact, America’s secret weapon.

What is visual intelligence, and how does it relate to photography?

Amy Herman’s course “The Art of Perception” has served the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the NYC Police Department. She has taught in countless hospitals and medical facilities.

The course, like the title suggests, teaches through art how to train your mind to be open and attentive to details — something photographers practice every day. 

And the good thing is? This skill is not something you are blessed with at birth. You can actually learn how to sharpen your sight.

Amy Herman’s Visual Intelligence, Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life

In her book, Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life, Herman explains the profound benefits that sharp perception has had in her life.

She is a lawyer with an MA in art history. And thus she has learned to enjoy the benefits of both art and science in an unconventional way. Through her career, as she explains, she discovered how dependent we (all humans) are on people’s ability to see things clearly and unbiased.

In law, like in life, there are plenty of life-or-death situations that depend on witnesses’ ability to see and communicate with detail. 

The book tells plenty of examples of where sight makes or breaks a situation. Doctors missing key information to accurately diagnose a person. Lawyers overlooking easy loopholes. Pilots not knowing when to land because a bottom didn’t light up, but everything else was clear.

Both terrifying and optimist stories where visual intelligence plays a key part in the outcome. But how do we learn to sharpen our sight? 

Amy uses an interesting approach. She teaches her students; agents, doctors, consultants, etc, about art. She uses paintings, photos, and all types of artwork to train her students to see thoroughly. 

Stand before a painting, describe what you see, from top to bottom, use numbers, and be specific with color. Annotate, then come back in a couple of minutes, and do it again. You’ll find you missed some information that is key to understand the paintings and thus, a situation. 

Beware of the social filters 

But more interestingly, and perhaps something all photographers should take into consideration, are the social filters that Herman tells us we should try to avoid. 

visual intelligence photography

Amy Herman explains that more often than not, we are told what we are looking at, deliberately planting a bias image on the viewer’s head.

Once you are told what you are looking at, it’s almost impossible not to see it.

She uses Renshaw’s cow as an example; a black and white picture of a cow, which can easily be seen as one of those Rorschach psychology paintings. Yet, once you know it’s a cow, it’s impossible to unsee it. 

amy herman

How can these lessons help photographers? 

The point is to learn how to perceive things through an unfiltered and unbiased eye. Unlearn how an object should look like to see it in a new, renovated way. And Amy Herman suggests using the same visual exercises that teach people to see through details.

So, to avoid the mainstream photography of a flower or the typical portrait, make it different and exciting — new to the eyes.

Next time you are instructed to take a portrait or a simple picture of a flower, double-check what you are looking at.

Forget it’s an object you were told. Take your time to learn its details, what gives the subject personality, instead of what the subject is.

And, if this sounds like something that would elevate your visual skills for photography, you might find yourself enjoying Visual Intellingence, Sharpen your Perception, Change Your Mind.

Photography is the ultimate barometer for how quickly humans can use their visual intelligence. It is thus a skill that photographers should consistently work to hone in on.

And still, visual intelligence is a skill for all humans, of any trade. And it can be perfected at any point of the day. We are always seeing, we are always analyzing, whether we know it or not.

So get out there and practice your own visual intelligence. Practice makes perfect.