People who are new to photography often wonder, “what does it take to become a better photographer?”
Here’s my answer to this question. You want to get into a place where what you’re envisioning to communicate to your audience and what the camera actually records matches. Basically, this is about getting better at handling the camera as much as it is about getting more clear about your vision. Most people think that they’re going to become a better photographer by just knowing the ins and outs of their specific camera model. But that’s only one part of the equation. If you don’t also work on your photographic vision, your images will never be outstanding. By just working on improving your technical skills you’ll certainly get better over time. I mean, your images won’t suck anymore. They will be sharp, properly exposed and well composed. But are they going to truly inspire your audience? I doubt it. At least as long as you’re not also actively working on improving your photographic vision.
Now, what do I mean when I’m talking about “photographic vision”? For me, vision is closely related to what I would call “the intent of your picture”. Taking a photo and presenting it to an audience is an act of communication. Let’s take a closer look at an example in order to explain what I mean.
What comes to mind when you think about fog?
When I drove up to McClures Beach last weekend, I was expecting the area to be covered in dense fog. Not that I had watched the weather report on TV, but because I had tried to photograph the beach in a nice surise/sunset situation several times before. Over and over I had gotten into my car, driven up towards the beach and then turned around half way once I saw the huge fog banks on the horizon (I wish someone would install a live webcam on some of the beaches of Point Reyes National Seashore). Now, last weekend was different. I knew that I wouldn’t drive back home without taking any pictures. I also knew that it was very unlikely at this time of the year to take a photo of the beach being bathed in the nice colors of the golden hour. Instead, I imagined the place being covered in fog and I started to think about what kind of mood these specific weather conditions would convey to my potential audience.
What comes to mind when you think about fog? Close your eyes for a moment and think about it. For some people fog is scary. They might be reminded of movies like John Carpenter’s The Fog which plays with the notion of impaired visibility as a source of fear. Others associate fog with solitude. That’s because fog muffles sounds and standing in the middle of a thick fog bank makes you feel like you’re the only person on the planet while everything around you is gone. For me personally, it’s that mix of solitude and silence that makes fog really special.
I had previsualized what I intended to communicate
So, before driving up to McClures Beach, I had already previsualized what my pictures that day were about to communicate: solitude and silence (this is a good moment to take another look at the photo on top of this page). At the location, I followed the steps that were needed to make my vision match with what my camera recorded. In order to get a clean-looking shot, I blurred the surface of the ocean by using a 3-stop ND filter (which produces the silky look in the picture above). Without this effect, the image would have been much weaker. Think of dark waves covering the bottom of the photo. Also, in order to convey a sense of solitude, I composed the shot in a way that added a lot of negative space in the upper part of the image. Here’s where “craft” needs to match “vision”: without knowing about the effects of strong ND filters and without the concept of “negative space” in my mind, I would have never reached the goals I had in mind when I was “making” the picture (taking an image is shooting a photo as a reaction, without any preparation, while making a photograph is a process).
Some of my photos that lack photographic vision
I think you already get it at this point. However, let me show you a few of my earlier photos that clearly lack “photographic vision”.
If this all sounds reasonable to you and you’d like to think more about how developing a photographic vision can improve your images, take a look at some of David Duchemin’s books. He’s the one who got me thinking about this topic and his books are a great source of inspiration for me.
Now, let’s put this all together. Start with previsualizing your images prior to shooting out in the field. Previsualizing a shot means to imagine what you as the photographer of a scene want the final result of your work to reveal about the subject. Then think about what kind of equipment and settings on your camera you’ll need to communicate your vision of the subject. Create a mental checklist of what kind of you images you might want to take. Are you going to need a specific filter (for long exposures, e.g. when capturing waterfalls or blurring ocean waves) and what role will composition and light play? How will the effect that you’ll create with your equipment support the message that you intend to communicate? The bottom line is, stop taking snapshots and start infusing photographic vision into your work. This, and continuous practice, will make you a better photographer over time.
Oh, and one last note. Do I think that the image that I took that day at McClures beach is outstanding? No, I actually don’t. But I believe it brought me closer to getting a great shot some day in the future. Because it reminded me of how important it is to keep both “vision” and “technique” in mind when making photographs.