4 Practice Techniques to Develop Photographic Observation

4 Practice Techniques to Develop Photographic Observation

practic Techniques to Develop.jpgThe greatest skill of a talented photographer is not how accurate he or she can be with exposure; it’s not being spot on with all of the tech details, or putting out thousands of images a week.

The greatest skill any photographer can hope to possess is that of observation.

Observation will define your work. It will give life and breath to the stories you capture and the beauty you create. Observation will be the difference between an average photo and a captivating photo; between an image that is a visual picture, and one that speaks to it’s audience in the most audible ways.

Developing observation – specifically in your photography – takes deliberate and practical efforts. It takes time and effort, and an unwillingness to take what is at face value.

Practice with some of the following techniques, adapted specifically for photographers:

1. Analyze

Take one inanimate object and place in on a table in front of you. Look at it for five minutes and take note of everything You notice about it. If it is an apple, notice the shape; is it round, is it bumpy, does it have many grooves? Notice the size; is it large, small, medium – and in comparison to what? Notice texture, color, shine and polish. Does it look old? Why? Does it look freshly picked? Why? Is it mouthwatering? Then what makes it so? Ask every question you can about your object until you can think of absolutely nothing else. What kind of stories were you making up in your head about this object? Why?

2. Exhaust Perspective

Take another inanimate object and set it in a window. Take your camera, and with one lens, take as many pictures with as many different perspectives and focal distances as you can over 15 minutes. What are you trying to communicate? What makes different angles express different moods or feelings? Use the light in as many ways possible. Does the overall look and feeling of your communication change based on the way you use your techniques and combine your options? This stretching exercise will challenge your capacity and cause you to begin looking outside your box for perspectives you have never seen before.

3. Evaluate your Locations

When you go on a shoot, take a few minutes prior to evaluate the location. Ask yourself which location communicates different feelings and emotions. Then, ask yourself why. Is the lighting streaming through the trees above, creating soft and diffused sun rays that give warmth and drama. Is the placement of the flowers asymmetrical, creating a feeling of artistic dynamic? Don’t take anything you see at face value.

4. Take pictures in Your Mind

The first few months of dedicating photography often cause individuals to “see” frames everywhere – even when there is no camera in hand. This joy and wonder in photography causes a heightened sense of observation. Force yourself to create images in your mind before they happen; notice the pieces of images all around you and develop your mental sharpness for visual elements.

The skills of observation will enable you to combine all elements that are at your disposal, and arrange them to reinforce the storytelling strength of your image. And that is a powerful thing.

About the Photo Above: I noticed this young married Indian girl walking in the middle of the others. She looked up at me with a shy wonder, and her eyes were filled with expectation. As she walked, I noticed that she didn’t assert herself as many of the others did. She rather hung back. The rough texture of her skin, the cut on her lip, the dirtiness of her hair all spoke to me – that her life had not been easy. And yet her eyes spoke something else entirely. Her eyes spoke with a soft and quiet confidence, almost as though she didn’t have to have the easiest life to know that she was beautiful. When I asked if I could take her picture, I discovered my intuitions were correct. For a brief moment she didn’t meet my eyes, but when she looked up, she nodded a permission and met the gaze of the camera unflinchingly.

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Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography www.BrideInspired.com and leadership with www.RevMediaBlog.com.

Some Older Comments

  • White Petal Wedding Photography January 11, 2012 05:13 am

    Sound advice, like this. I often find myself thinking 'camera' even when I don't have it with me. I suppose we should think of maybe using a camera phone as a stop gap measure and then if it works..... go back with your DSLR!

  • Paolo Saway January 5, 2012 07:59 pm

    Excellent! As a beginner in this wonderful world of photography, this will surely help me see the world. Thank you!

  • Paulo December 26, 2011 09:02 pm

    Yeah,interesting photographic hints(exercises) . The kind of pratice that every photographer should do develope his art (but sometimes we/ I forget...because looking to do a great picture).
    About the portrait above I find it really beautiful (being at the same time simple). Evocative (with soul). Thank you for your article.

  • Khurram Malik December 24, 2011 06:04 am

    its as nice post. i found it very informative for beginners. after reading this article i found all these activities in me now a days, after starting photography and studying stuff like this my mind set is totally changed now. now i make frames the whole day either i have cam in my hand or not. i see the bill boards and other pics in magazines to learn and to find out the different ways or making frames and capturing different objects. Thanks for uploading these kind or articles

    my FB page link is given please watch n "like" if u like :) or comment in any way


  • Lee Coppack December 23, 2011 11:26 pm

    I've a little drawing and a little photography. Both are about learning to see. Endorse Terry's comment wholeheartedly.

  • Rob Wilson December 23, 2011 07:50 am

    My challenge is to turn my mind off. Seems everything I look at or see is through the prism of "would this make a photo? A great photo? A ho-hum photos? How would I shoot it?"

    Great shot of the Indian gal...the story behind it lines up perfectly with the photo. bingo!!

  • Nubia December 23, 2011 07:34 am

    Very important information. One that all beginners and many advanced photographers need to hear, thanks.
    Preparation, visualization, walking and working the subject from different angles and perspectives are so essential and we forget it many times. Thanks for a reminder

  • Douglala December 17, 2011 04:31 pm

    Great article! I need to put all 4 steps into actual. I spend way to much time on the technical side of photography and not enough on the artistic side. Thanks a bunch.

  • Scott Webb December 16, 2011 11:56 pm

    This is a great article here. I also believe that a tool like the iPhone can now be a great observation tool. It's helped me to slow down and open up to what's around me. It then serves as reference for places or things I may want to explore more with a DSLR or other cameras and different times of day.

    Great point from Terryd on Drawing. Loved that comment!

  • terryd December 16, 2011 07:35 pm

    An excellent article with some good suggestions, but one of the best is missing. If you REALLY want to improve your observation skills, the absolutely best practice is drawing. If you've got time, take a course where you get the benefit of both students and teachers to learn from, but if you can't afford the time, get a copy of Betty Edwards Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and work your way through that in your spare time. Even tracing from images you like will force you to observe more carefully as you place lines on the page.

    The most common reason most photographers don't take the time to draw is that, like me, they had bad teachers in school who absolutely KILLED the experience of drawing. Those of us with that experience believe we lack talent or that we're unable to draw or some such thing, but a very little time working in Edwards book will rapidly teach you that you don't lack the skill, you just aren't OBSERVING carefully enough.

    Successful drawing, above the level of stick men, is all about seeing what is REALLY there in front of you, not what you THINK is there. You must learn to observe in order to draw. Drawing creates a cycle where every drawing improves your observation by making it clear where you didn't really see. If you then feed that back into your next drawing, both your observation and your drawing improve.

  • raghavendra December 16, 2011 04:24 pm

    I strongly agree on observation is the perception of our mind.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck December 16, 2011 10:09 am


    I would suggest to play with lighting and understand how it creates character and mood in your shot. You don't need fancy studio gear. You can use a simple window and have your model move the nose gradually towards the light from Sillouette to Rembrandt. You can also use cheap incandescent lights that you can buy at any hardware store for back lights, hair light etc. You can fashion diffusers out of simple materials as well.

    ...then get you camera off Auto and start experimenting!

    Here is an example of somewhat complex lighting!


  • Simon December 16, 2011 08:43 am

    Thanks Christina, I will be following your advice in this article and amazing photo of the Indian girl.

  • Scottc December 16, 2011 08:40 am

    #2 would definitely teach some lessons about light and metering!

    Not trying to be critical, don't take it the wrong way, the included photo would seem to indicate the handiness of photoshop as well :)


  • jmleclercq February 1, 2010 02:22 am

    Thanks for this article..great ideas !

  • Donovan Bryan January 7, 2010 04:31 am

    is a great article, I usually try my best to feel the moment, feel the passion..try to express your thoughts to others in your pics

  • Vijay Kumar January 4, 2010 11:02 pm

    i donno wether i m right or wrong, since i am new in this field, but i dont think dat the picture is perfect, a lill less exposure would have done it.

  • Curtis Wallis January 3, 2010 03:04 pm

    Practice! Practice! Practice. It only costs you the price of film, oh yea its digital and free. In that case Practice more.

  • Walter January 2, 2010 01:40 pm

    Living in a forest, (or in the woods, as some refer to vast areas of trees) was difficult for me creatively, until I stopped and observed (a) tree. Your techniques are so great that I am going to look at darkness in a new light.

  • sabira January 2, 2010 07:33 am

    Great tips, creating images in my mind l find that difficult to do, my mind often wanders. Love the

    photograph. Thanks for sharing.

  • Vinod January 2, 2010 05:47 am

    While watching movies, I start observing the composition, the bokeh, the framing and all. Now all of it makes sense :)
    Nice short article.

  • Christine Norton January 2, 2010 04:11 am

    Helpful to review this on 1 January. I feel a bit like Phil. I am motivated to commit to these tips. Thanks

  • Bruno Coutant January 1, 2010 08:57 pm

    What a great short article! :)

    I like the advice and the tone of it, and to top it all off.... a great text about the Indian married woman.


    This is what I aim to do when I take pictures, and it is nice to find confirmation from someone else in this consice and clear manner.

    Thanks again, and a very good 2010, photographically too.

  • Phil Burdine January 1, 2010 05:19 am

    Thank you Christina. Being a "Hobbyographer" I do not get out often enough to for these techniques to become one with my perspective. Your article instills a commitment to reach higher.

  • John Kirchhofer January 1, 2010 02:34 am

    Of course that any comments about photografy is important. Really the last one in this articule was the most important. Other wise, I think that more than take a picture in you mind. A real great photograph not only take a picture in the mind, bur he "dream" with meny tipe of pictures. So, whem he si the elements of its dreams coming to be togheter, he stay planning an be prepared to take a shot. This is the real way of the great pictures.

  • Jim Norris January 1, 2010 02:03 am

    Great article...learned a lot from it.

  • Rob January 1, 2010 01:38 am

    So true the saying,'A picture is worth a thousand words', that is the photo of the young woman in the article. Thank you Christina for reminding me about the values of observation. I am going to write these points in short form in my note book that is always in my camera bag.

  • Kenneth Hyam January 1, 2010 12:52 am

    These are fascinating tips. They really home in on the excitement even the obsession of photography. Some of them apply also to poetry, such as imagining what might haappen and not taking things at face value. Ireally like the beautiful portrait and the story you tell of how it came about.

  • starrpoint December 31, 2009 01:30 pm

    I think the best tip is to take photos in your mind. think with the camera almost a part of you.

  • Carol Lundeen December 31, 2009 01:27 pm

    Thanks for the refresher, Christina. It's nice to start the new year with a new perspective on everyday objects.

  • lucheng0 December 31, 2009 11:43 am

    Thx for the tips, and great shot !!

  • Adrian December 31, 2009 09:03 am

    Excellent article. Improving my observation as we speak.

  • Austin Photoist December 31, 2009 06:59 am

    Fantastic ideas to make into habits. Another habit that I have tried to create is turning around and seeing if there is anything from where I came from that now perks my interest due to the changed perspective. That's probably why I particularly like the idea behind #2. New perspective can definitely create wonderful images.

  • Dan December 31, 2009 01:16 am

    A long time ago, when I taught some very fundamental photography classes at the local YMCA for strict beginners, I would give each of the students in my class a blank 35mm slide frame and tell them to look at a potential picture through that frame to see how it might look as a finished print. This tended to cause them to concentrate more on the subject and what was actually visible in the background and removed outside influences from the image.

    The comment about "Take Pictures in your Mind" reminded me of this little technique.


  • Iris December 31, 2009 12:59 am

    Great article - thank you for sharing your tips. Marvelous portrait shot :)

    Since I started to get into photography, I don't see movies that I watch in the same way -- I now see everything in the frame of my camera. Not sure if that makes sense - lol...

  • Ahsan Malik December 30, 2009 07:19 pm

    Yes the most important prospect is to , you have to imagine things , while you go to capture pics. Thinking so much real , and feel that you are portrating yourself , think and feel while clicking shot.

  • VincentHayward December 30, 2009 12:04 pm

    Excellent article! Thank you for providing a fresh perspective I haven't thought about in a while.

  • Jason Collin Photography December 30, 2009 06:07 am

    For me the key to observational photography is to stay in one location long enough to let the area play out, but not too long that you are just standing around waiting for something to happen that just isn't. If I can have my back to a wall of some kind all the better too, or be seated in a corner somewhere.

  • Helly (Travel by the Calendar) December 30, 2009 05:58 am

    It's also useful to analyze the photos you already have. There will usually be one or two from a set (maybe more if you're lucky!), that really stand out to you. Ask yourself why? Is it the composition, is it the lighting, is it the memory that you associate with the photo? Ask friends and family the same question. They will often have different favourites from yours, so you can better understand what looks good to other people. Soon you'll see a style developing of the way you like to take pictures, but you may also stumble up on new styles and techniques to practice the next time.

  • Chris December 30, 2009 03:47 am

    @Ron, I see what you are saying. Taking a hundred pictures of your subjects from every possible angle and focal length, hoping for one of the pictures to turn out great, may not be a good habit to get into in the long run; for somebody just starting out though, it can really give them a good idea of what works and what dosn't.

  • Ron Gibson December 30, 2009 03:18 am

    This was an enjoyable post to read this morning.

    The only point I would shy away from is number 2. I tell everyone to slow down, think about what they are shooting and stop the machine gun effect of taking 1000 images in hopes that one turns out. Instead of taking the photo, move around the object and get a feel for what a 'difference of perspective' will provide. Move from angle to angle, look at it from above and look at it from below. When you see something interesting- press the shutter (after also thinking about Depth and field and exposure). None of this will help if your image doesn't come out!

    With a flower, lay down on the ground, or position below it- look at different perspectives you may not have noticed at first. Don't center your object (if that's what you normally do), positioning it from one side, or from a corner. If you have been using a rule of thirds for a while- stop it, and try centering your object again. Shake up your perspective.

    While I understand where this post is coming from, I think it's more important to learn composition and the ability to 'analyze a scene with composition in mind'. I believe this is the end result of this post, just a different way to get there.

    I tell people to put down their zoom lenses and stick a fixed lens on their camera and go out for the day with nothing but that lens- learn that lens and the perspective it provides. Each lens gives you something different and you start to move into position more and 'compose your image'. This is much more valuable than just taking snapshots which so many people do with their DSLR's. Try different lenses on different days, I even went out one day with only a 300mm fixed lens, and another day with only a macro lens. It will help your overall photography and your ability to view a scene with composition in mind.

  • Rivan December 30, 2009 02:32 am

    this article is very useful. now I know why I wonder many images in my head.. and how to improve it even more better.
    This article just like turning my behavior into such a thesis.
    Thank you very much.

  • Chris December 30, 2009 02:01 am

    Excellent article! I really need to try to concentrate on doing more of the things you talked about in this article until it becomes more automatic.

  • Fabi Fliervoet December 30, 2009 01:41 am

    Point 1, 2 and four are interlinked. Pacticing 1 and 2 will help a great deal with forming images in your mind. I'm glad I exercise point 4 exhaustively. I might be looking at something, and it seems I'm lost into my own world to outsiders. My friends are already used to me stopping in the middle of a spot and have me gazing at something. I just wished I had a nice compact camera to have in my pocket at all times to capture the many images in my mind.

  • WJD December 30, 2009 01:38 am

    Yet that ruggedness belies a softness, sincerity n beauty that both you and your camera caught!
    Observation ability perfectly presented!

  • MeiTeng December 30, 2009 01:24 am

    I am a hobbyist photographer. Sometimes when passing by a certain place or location, unconsciously I have in mind images I want to create or capture. If I have my camera with me I will of course proceed to create that image. If not, I will make a mental note of what I have seen and if possible, return later to recapture what I had in mind.

  • Keir Chapple December 30, 2009 01:09 am

    I love this article. I will do these things this week.

  • Christoph December 30, 2009 01:00 am

    The last point it maybe the best - but once you start taking pictures in your mind, you can't stop.

    Well, the girl in this picture wasn't so shy: she called loudly and wouldn't let me go without taking her picture :)