- Guaranteed for 2 full months
- Pay by PayPal or Credit Card
- Instant Digital Download
I am the kind of person who loves nothing more than to read a new camera manual back to front. When the Canon 5d MK3 came out the manual was over 200 pages, YUM! It was the thickest Canon manual yet, heaven!
I love my kit and I love finding out how it works, what cool tricks I can do with it and what every single button does plus custom settings, autofocus modes, etc. I still use film (and digital of course), print my own work (which I keep detailed records of) so you can see that I am a solid tech nerd.
Yet, I see all the time how distracting the camera can be when we are taking photos. This statement probably seems like a massive contradiction so let me explain. We expect this piece of kit to take great photos for us – even though the camera is an inert and emotionless device with no brain or heart. Thinking, seeing and feeling are what create great photographs.
Sound technical knowledge is just the springboard – don’t get stuck there. Use it to launch your work to the next level by spending the majority of your time improving your ability to see, and I don’t mean just taking photos.
Good technique will only improve the quality of your shots – it will not help you create awesome images, it will not help you tell a story, communicate the feelings of a subject, or show the viewer how a place feels to be standing right there. Only you, the photographer can do that. This is where I think many photographers get a bit lost.
Diane Arbus, one of my favourite photographers, and one of the most revered portrait photographers we’ve ever had, had a brilliant relationship with her camera:
“I think the camera is something of a nuisance in a way. It’s recalcitrant….I mean I can work it fine, although I’m not so great actually. Sometimes when I’m winding it it’ll get stuck or something will go wrong and I’ll just start clicking everything then suddenly, very often, it’s alright again.”
For her the camera was just a tool that helped her execute her vision. To create her famous portraits, she spent the most amount of time on finding subjects she was fascinated by, creating a relationship and connecting with them. It’s that connection, and the ease at which her subjects felt with her that created the power of her work. The expressions that she obtained from her subjects are often very moving and they tell the story about what it was like to be them.
Once you’ve learned the fundamentals of how to use your camera, then you are obligated, in my opinion, to focus on seeing, truly looking and truly feeling what’s going on in this world. That is how you will create truly unique and original images.
Learning to really see, is learning to be in a state of mind where you notice everything around you. Not just visually, but with every sense, because all of your senses feed into each other. You’re wandering around one morning and you smell fresh bread baking; it leads you to the back door of a bakery where the door is propped open and the bakers are laughing as they bake trays of bagels. It’s intriguing. It is making you smile.
You are not taking photos. But you are practicing seeing by noticing, by having the intention to notice. All of this is fuel for your photography. It stokes the flames of your creativity, it creates a discipline that you are becoming more and more aware in this world. At first it is a very active practice. It’s like becoming a child again. You have to keep paying attention rather than get lost in your thoughts, your to-do list, your future. But the more you do it the more it comes naturally and you start to see the impact that it has on your photography.
A great way to develop your eye is to always be chasing the light. Light diffracts, reflects, is filtered, and bounces off of things in a myriad of ways. If you see a shadow, think about where is that light coming from. I’ve spent a lot of my life looking for the sources of reflected light; off building windows, puddles. It’s like a light puzzle and when I’ve found the incident angle, I’ve solved it, and sometimes get a good shot as a prize.
We miss most of the things that are happening around us because our brain blocks out what it considers to be unnecessary stimuli. So we are essentially fighting our brain and retraining ourselves to notice. I find going back to a place is a good way to see new things. Ask yourself, “What can I see in this place today that I didn’t see yesterday? How can I show something new that I haven’t photographed before? How has this new light changed the scene?”.
One fantastic way to start training your eye is to create a seeing project for yourself. Pick a subject, then look for that subject wherever you go. I’ve done snail-trails; my friend did red-jack playing cards. It could be tabby cats, purple cars, the colour yellow. Lots of people like shooting doors. You get the idea.
Choose something that is not that rare, but rare enough that you’ll be challenged, and it will help you to develop your eye. It’s like when your mate gets a new car and suddenly you see that car everywhere. The reality is that there aren’t more of those cars but your attention has been focused, honed to it. I’m always taking photos of things embedded in the street, purely for my own satisfaction (looking down is as important as looking up!)
Our senses all work together, and heightening one sense will heighten the others. Having an emotional reaction to your subject will help your photos because you will imbue those feelings in your photos. I loved what travel photographer Steve McCurry said in an interview:
“A picture of a guy in the street in New Guinea, with a bone through his nose is interesting to look at. But for it to be a really good photograph; it has to communicate something about what it is like to live with a bone through your nose. It is a question of the moment to reveal something interesting and profound about the human condition.” Steve McCurry
A few years back Victoria Coren wrote about some advice her father, the late writer Alan Coren, had given. I thought this was a brilliant idea that could be applied to taking photos:
“Don’t write the first thought that comes into your head, because that is what everyone will write. And don’t write the second thought that comes into your head, because that is what the clever people will write. When you hit on a third thought, pick up the pen. That one is just yours.”
That first thought is the photo everyone sees and takes (the tourist shot). The second photo is one you thought over and shot. But the third photo is one where you stopped and really examined everything around you. When you start taking that third shot you will see your style come through. This third way of shooting will come quicker as you practice.
I’ve found that photographers are often drawn to the same places. I have had so many situations like this one – where I’ve stood with banks of photographers on Westminster Bridge and they are all shooting in one direction:
But then, if you turned around, there was a very different style of photo behind us, which everyone was ignoring:
Seeing is a lifelong journey that will open up tremendous opportunities for your photography. Commit to improving your ability to see, and it will transform your photos. Push yourself always to see more, experience more and feel more.