8 minute read:
Photography Lesson 4: Learning To See…
Learning to see, is the most important skill for a photographer to acquire.
It’s better to focus on the beauty, the point of interest and the overall composition, ahead of all the technical stuff…..That’s what learning to see is all about….read on!
Photography, particularly down the ages but also right up to the present day, has always been a pursuit and a profession with a great deal of technical bias. The vast majority of photography tuition publications that are supposed to ‘aid learning’ in the subject, tend to be very technical….and camera instruction manuals are generally a nightmare!
I think ‘traditionally’ there existed a very nerdy hardcore within the profession, who believed they were preserving their knowledge for themselves, by blinding the masses with technical gobbledegook…and maybe this belief still persists now to a lesser degree?… Thankfully, the internet has helped to breakdown some of these barriers.
There is currently an endless amount of technical photography material available all over the internet. You will have no-doubt come across things like: photography cheat sheets, the best photography hacks I wish I knew way back when, photography tips for beginners, the best lenses for this (and that), how to achieve pin-sharp focus, how to calculate hyperfocal distance, how to calculate exposure duration, how to control depth of field, how to master flash photography, understanding ISO, understanding the exposure triangle, learning about dynamic range etc, etc, etc.….the list goes on and on, and I haven’t even mentioned post process ‘photo-shopping’.
Seeing the Beauty
More important than any technical aspect of photography, is what the person holding the camera points it at.
That’s what ‘Learning to see’ is all about.
If you are naturally artistic, then you have a good head start on the rest of us already. If you already appreciate the beauty in everyday things you see all around you, like nature, architecture or wildlife etc, then you too, are well on your way to ‘learning to see’.
You may be aware by now, if you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, that I like to focus more on the art of photography and related attributes like seeing beauty all around that can be captured forever with a camera, rather than twiddling with controls, menus and fiddling with lens changes etc.
Now don’t get me wrong, some technical knowledge is needed, but you can pick up all the technical knowledge you need along the way, as you practice and learn about the art of photography… and the art of photography primarily, is about learning to see.
Seeing beautiful, interesting, unusual or even frightening things that have photographic merit, is a skill and a talent that, as with most things, can be improved with practice. It is worth pointing out that your camera ‘records an image’ quite differently to the way the human eye sees the image. To further understand this, is maybe, a subject for a future blog post.
I often carefully study imagery. That is, I pick out images that others have taken, maybe old images which tend to interest me or any image that grabs my attention. I am also careful to plan the images I create, in a manner commensurate to how much time I have prior to taking the shot, and of course how important the shot is…so anything from a split second, to hours. Also, I often think about this subject when I’m busy doing other stuff, and ideas can sometimes come to mind which can be developed later, into something good… So, how does this compare with your appreciation of imagery?
In terms of studying imagery and learning to see, have a glance at my post: ‘Photography Lesson 1: Why Take Pictures’ for a little more insight into this (button below). Also, if you fancy having an informal few hours practical tuition with us, click the button below to find out more.
In terms of learning to see you will want to start thinking about developing some ideas about what it is you want to create or capture.
I would suggest you consider two things, firstly try picking out an image that for whatever reason, interests you. Study it carefully. Think about what it is in this particular image that made you pick it out from all the others? What is it that interests you about it? What was the photographer thinking when they created / captured it? Study the composition, look at the lighting, consider the choice of vantage point, the main subject matter, the secondary subject items, think about what equipment may have been used (consider the angle of view for clues), think what the exposure settings may be etc. etc. etc.
When you do this, you can then get to the point of challenging yourself: Could I re-create this image? It is a good discipline to try this in order to develop your own skills in creating images rather than taking snaps. But do try to develop the overall idea and use your own technique, to avoid just copying someone else’s work. Ultimately, this will develop your ability to ‘see’ through the eyes of another accomplished photographer.
The second approach I would suggest is to go out there (or in there!), with the intention of creating something of your own. So, if you haven’t already got a specific idea in mind, great!….start off with a completely open mind regarding what image you want to create, and go out and start to see and appreciate the beauty, the light, the colours, look closely and from a distance, and from different viewpoints at all things that may inspire you. Look at people, situations, clouds, trees, vehicles, architecture, landscapes and street scenes, water, wildlife, factories and industry, technology, pets, flowers, household objects….. the list is never ending.
Start to recognise the photographic merit in everything you see. You will soon convince yourself of the truth that you can create your image out of any subject matter.
There are numerous quotes from famous photographers regarding the concept of ‘seeing’. A couple of them that resonate with me are; ‘Photography is an art of observation. It has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them’ (Elliot Erwitt) and ‘I can get obsessed by anything if I look at it long enough. That’s the curse of being a photographer’ (Irving Penn) and my favourite: ‘When people ask me what equipment I use, I tell them….my eyes’ (Unknown).
Appreciating what you ‘see’, is a wonderful thing.
For a load more thought provoking and sometimes funny quotes, have a quick look at my post: ‘The Best Photography Quotes’
Pre-visualizing Your Image
As with any art, originality is hugely important. Creating images in a way that has not been done before, is very difficult given the almost infinite amount of photographic material that gets shared on the internet. However, the best way to get noticed in the galactic space of the internet, is to be original.
So use the internet for inspiration (if you need to), because it is after all the ultimate resource. But, do not copy the work of others….put your own twist on it, change it, modify it, adapt it, develop the idea further. Ultimately, always try to use your own creativity, then you stand the best chance of creating a piece of work that looks truly original.
Having an initial idea, is the first step to pre-visualising your image. What is the image you want to ‘create’?… Is it portraiture?… Is it a street scene?… A landscape?… What is going to be unique about it?…What will make it noticeable?… What equipment will be needed?… What variables will affect the image?…
How do you ‘plan’ on creating this image?…
Ask yourself all these questions and more. Depending upon circumstances, you may even choose to scribble some of this down on paper, and sketch out your ideas to capture them and develop them…discussing them with others as appropriate to gain their input (without boring the pants off anyone!).
This may start to sound a bit daunting at first, but with practice, you will start to ‘automatically’ think through, and pre-visualise your images like this.
Notice I’m talking again of creating an image here, not just capturing a snapshot. See some of my other photography lesson posts for more info.
Selecting The Optimum Vantage Point
When you have developed your idea, you’re well on your way through the process of pre-visualising your image. You will inevitably need to start to think about the point from where you will create your image – the vantage point.
It’s important to bear a couple of things in mind here. Now I’m a great believer in doing things efficiently, effectively and economically. Back in the film days, that meant doing everything possible to get it right first time in the camera, due to the cost of film and processing, and the fact that you could not check your results instantly.
With digital photography, you should still strive to get it right in the camera, and thereby avoid endless hours behind a screen post-editing your images, but don’t deny yourself one of the big advantages of digital photography….so go ahead and take a bucket load of images! There is ‘no additional cost’ of taking ten versions of your image rather than two.
Subsequently, the other thing to bear in mind is that you may consider more than one vantage point. If you think about it, you’ve done all your pre-vis and planning, you’re trying to determine your optimum vantage point, why not keep an open mind and try multiple vantage points to see what works best?
If you do try multiple options, you may discover that an unusual vantage point, gives you a really special and original perspective.
It is often ‘more efficient’ to take the opportunity to capture a few extra versions at the time whilst you can, particularly in circumstances where you cannot go back. Consider portraiture for example. When photographing a single person (and I don’t mean unmarried!), there’s probably about a 30% chance they will blink when captured on a single photograph. So if you photograph two people, the chances of one of them blinking doubles, it follows that if you photograph 10 people you’re approching near certainty that one of them will have their eyes closed! You get my point, if you take the opportunity to rattle off a bag full of shots, you stand a better chance of picking the very best.
Just be ruthless when it comes to quickly deleting anything that isn’t up to your very highest standard.
Composing The Image
OK, you’re well on your way through the ‘learning to see’ process, you’ve pre-vized your image, you’ve selected your optimum vantage point, you’re ready to compose your masterpiece!
Referring to your pre-planned ideas (re above), consider carefully the overall composition of the image, in addition to each of the key individual elements contained within it. So, it sounds obvious I know, but its about making sure everything you want in your created image is where you want it to be. It is surprisingly easy sometimes to miss an important secondary element of an image, when concentrating on the primary element within the image!
Think about the main area of interest within your image and typically, this must be kept in sharpest focus. Consider the key positioning of your main area(s) of interest relative to your pre-visualisation.
Bear in mind also the background, and whether this should also be sharp, or control the amount by which it is meant to be out of focus (determined by your choice of aperture and lens focal length).
Obviously, you’re controlling both the exposure to limit the amount of light on your created image, and any intended subject motion blur as per your desired outcome. So shutter speed selection, ambient light and additional lighting, along with ISO selection are all key considerations. Not forgetting any camera mount preferences.
When you’ve double checked your composition re your requirements, frame the shot.
Framing The Shot
You’ve composed your image, framing the shot is really about the final tweak on the crop of the image. Think about how your image will be used in it’s final form; will it be printed and framed? Printed on a wrap around canvass? Published online? Published on video as a floating still?
I find in most cases, it is better to not crop the image you are creating in camera too tightly…you can always crop it down a little afterwards in post, but you cant un-crop it if you’ve framed your image too tightly in the first instance. So unless you really want an ‘intimate’ closely framed image, don’t ‘go in’ too tightly in the shot.
Take The Shot
Take the shot (oh, sorry SHOTS!)…there you go, you’ve got your masterpiece!…
At this point, it’s important to be honest and critical for your own benefit, and assess the end result against your previsualisation. How does it compare? Could it be improved? What aspects of it are not quite up to scratch?… and do you know why they’re not up to scratch?
Don’t be too hard on yourself if the end result is initially not as good as you expected or hoped. It’s all about learning and continuously improving. No photographer, regardless of how accomplished they are (or claim to be), ever get it perfect every time, it just doesn’t happen. Learning never ends.
If your masterpiece turned out as good as you’d hoped, then well done!
Now do it all over again, and again, and again until you don’t even need to think about all this blurb I’ve written!…
Congratulations, you can now see!
Thanks for reading – Let us know your thoughts below, I’d love to know how you’ve got on if you’ve had a go at this type of approach for the first time… Cheers Cheers.
‘Photography Lesson 5’ along with other blog posts, are on the way!…watch this space.
Please note: My ‘Photography Lessons’ blog posts, are designed to ease you through the journey of learning photography, focusing on the things that matter up front. This means I’m steering clear of delving too deeply or too soon into technical aspects of photography, which can often switch people off. If you want to learn more of the technical specifics of photography along with gaining practical experience, then consider having a bit of practical one-to-one photography tuition with us. I will introduce more techy stuff later as the lessons cover more advanced topics, but in the early lessons I am aiming to offer some different thinking and maintain focus on the pure visual aspects of photography…? Anyway, the internet is awash with all kinds of technical photography advice (of varying levels of quality)…so if that’s what you want, just search it out.
Please note: I welcome your comments and contributions to my blog, thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I always publish and respond to your contributions. Personal contact details are not made public. I moderate any contributions as appropriate, only to ensure they are not offensive or in poor taste, I do not alter the actual message itself.