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Tips for Learning How to See Photographically

Open your eyes: learn to appreciate the wonder that is all around you

The camera is definitely a tool that can be used to capture moments in time, and record memories for posterity. However, the potential is there for so much more than that. If you think of the assembly of plastic, metal, and electronic gadgetry you hold in your hands as a paintbrush, and the world around you as paint, then untold possibilities await.

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Look at ordinary objects in a new way

One way to investigate this idea is to use your camera as an instrument, to turn the ordinary and mundane aspects of life into something unique. For example, when you take your vehicle to the car wash and sit inside while the machines do their work on the vehicle’s exterior, what do you do? Sit and wait patiently? If you’ve got your camera with you, why not turn those few minutes into an opportunity to look through your window and consider the colours, details, and shapes that the lights, water, soap and wax make as they go through their different cycles.

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While there is certainly a whole world of possibilities when considering the abstract, sometimes a scene will present itself that simply stops you in your tracks. The subject and its background are arranged in such a way, that all you have to do is look through the camera’s viewfinder and press the shutter release.

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Slow down and take notice

Of course if you go about your day in a hurried manner, if you’re rushing here and there, so focused on the task at hand that you don’t notice your surroundings, then your chances of appreciating the beauty around you will be dramatically decreased. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of some ideas (and examples) to help guide your photography adventures:

  • Slow down – when you’re rushed, you will be less likely to notice interesting details.
  • Look for juxtapositions, such as the motion of water against the solidity of a rock.
  • Look for lines and shapes – like standing on a railway track (safety first and always obey the rules and get permission), you could photograph the tracks as they converge towards the horizon.
  • Look around in all directions – if you go for a walk on a path, stop every once and a while and look back at what you’ve passed, look down at what you are walking on, or look up to the sky.
  • Photograph ordinary items in non-traditional ways – try and photograph a stream of water falling on an inflated balloon.
  • Photograph the same subject in different light and seasons – if you have a favourite tree, photograph it from the same perspective at different times of the day, or do a seasonal series.
  • Look for things that shouldn’t be there but are – a leaf poking it’s way through the snow in the middle of winter, for example.
  • Use both standalone images, and image sequences to tell a story – ski tracks in the snow leading their way up to a mountain.

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Practice and practice some more

In time, and with much practice, you will most certainly develop your own style and discover what appeals to you. At first, there may be a temptation to make several exposures, which is fine. When you look at the photos later you can use the many different images to compare them with each other. This practical exercise of discovering what you like, and don’t like, is a great way to learn. Try different techniques on the same scene and compare the results later.

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With practice, you’ll be able to consider a scene and learn how it speaks to you, even before you make a single exposure. Then use the knowledge you’ve gained to minimize the number of images you make, until you end up with a photograph you’re ultimately happy with.

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Do you take photos, or make images?

Lastly, consider the words make and take. One suggests theft and aggression (take), the other, contemplation and creation (make). Perhaps it’s only a minor thing, but when talking about your own photography, how do you describe your method? Are you a taker or a maker?

Ultimately, photography is about how you respond to a scene, and with the idea of being an image maker in mind, you’ll be in a better position to creatively express your feelings. Case in point, the following photograph of some snowflakes.

It was a very cold day on the ski hill when I stopped on a trail to consider some snowdrifts on my left. The bright sun was illuminating the snow in a brilliant way, and after half an hour or so, I left with a handful of images. This particular one stands out because of the visible details in the snowflakes. It’s a testimony to the power of something so tiny and delicate, for without it and untold billions of its friends, no ski hill would exist.

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Time to go apply and get shooting

Homework time. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go out and have fun. In the words of a former photography tour leader, go and play. I’d love to see the results!

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Curtis Cunningham
Curtis Cunningham

is a freelance photographer in Smithers, BC. He’s passionate about seeking out the splendour of this earth, from the smallest snowflake to the grandest mountaintop vista. He absolutely loves telling the story of wherever he is, no matter what he’s doing through his photography and writing. You can follow him on Instagram or his website.

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