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The 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:
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?
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.
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.
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.