Why Are Huge Snowflakes Camera Shy?

Is it the camera or your mind that biases the view of snowflakes?

Posted Feb 23, 2021

Huge snowflakes swirling outside my window. I try to catch them in a picture. But I fail. I can’t get a good picture. In my picture, they shrink, no matter how much I zoom in. Why can’t I capture the snowflakes in a picture?

We had snow last week and I always love watching the flakes scatter down. Especially when I am inside and warm. But something is off when I look at snowflakes. Looking out my window, I am amazed at how huge the flakes appear. Monstrous. Tremendous. Pick your synonym for large. And the snowflakes last week seemed bigger than that.

I grabbed my phone to take a picture to send to friends. But the flakes in my phone were nothing compared to the ones outside my window. I zoomed in. And the snowflakes remained small. I tried a few different times, with different backgrounds. You can see that the flakes were invisible at first, and weirdly mushy as I tried to zoom in.

Ira Hyman
Zooming in on snowflakes
Source: Ira Hyman

Have you ever tried to take a picture of snowflakes? There’s a problem with taking pictures of snowflakes. My phone makes a mistake. It can’t zoom in enough to capture how big the snowflakes really are. Either that or something is off in my mind — I’m not seeing what is really there.

The problem isn’t my phone. What is happening is that my mind has a better zoom function than my fancy iPhone. Somehow my mind accentuates the snow, highlights it against the background, and makes the flakes appear larger than life.

Ira Hyman
Another attempt at zooming in on snowflakes
Source: Ira Hyman

Attention is the critical mechanism for enhancing the snowflakes. Attention allows us to focus on one aspect of a complex world. And what we focus on becomes the center of our awareness. When we’re focused, we may miss a variety of other interesting things (sometimes with disastrous consequences — such as failures to see unicycling clowns). But when we focus, there is an incredible advantage. What we see, what we perceive, or at least what we think we see, is enhanced.

The method for studying how attention changes perception was created by Carrasco, Ling, and Read (2004). They presented two objects on a screen, side by side. Your task is to judge which one was greater or lessor on some quality. But they cued attention to one object or the other first. Attention determined perception. Whichever one you focus on is the one enhanced. They have used this to study how attention enhances perception of a variety of features, including speed of movement, color, and contrast between bright and dark patches (Carrasco & Barbot, 2019).

Other researchers have used this to see how attention influences size perception. Two objects are presented very quickly. Afterward, you judge which is larger. If attention is focused on one object, it increases in size (Anton-Erxleben et al., 2007; Kirsch et al., 2018).

In some ways, psychological researchers are behind photographers in recognizing the snowflake problem. Google how to photograph snowflakes — you’ll get some good ideas. But to do a good job, you’ll need a better camera than the one on my phone. You need to not only zoom in, but you need to manipulate the depth of field. Depth of field is how much of the display is in focus. You need to be able to focus on one set of the field, to zoom in on that part. My phone camera continues to focus on the main things in the image — which isn’t the snowflakes but rather the items in the background. I need a camera that can restrict the field to a depth where the snowflakes are falling and zoom in there. And then you can get a picture that matches what you see.

But this is the cool part. Attention functions like a high-end camera for your perceptual system. It zooms, it manipulates the depth of field focus, it highlights. Attention gets you a clear picture of huge snowflakes. The snowflakes are huge, even though objectively they may still be tiny and shy around the camera.

References

Anton-Erxleben, K., Henrich, C., & Treue, S. (2007). Attention changes perceived size of moving visual patterns. Journal of Vision, 7(11), 1-9.

Carrasco, M., & Barbot, A. (2019). Spatial attention alters visual appearance. Current opinion in psychology, 29, 56-64.

Carrasco, M., Ling, S., & Read, S. (2004). Attention alters appearance. Nature neuroscience, 7(3), 308-313.

Kirsch, W., Heitling, B., & Kunde, W. (2018). Changes in the size of attentional focus modulate the apparent object’s size. Vision research, 153, 82-90.