Just a few days ago I was chatting with some fellow photographers about our most important moments of personal revelation in our chosen field. Anyone who has played about even half seriously with a camera has had one of these moments, I remember my first one happening the day I bought a ‘nifty fifty’ lens and I realised how useful a tool manipulating the depth of field could be when it came to isolating a subject.
Everyone I spoke to had their own experience but the one we all came back to as being the most important in terms of personal development was when we discovered the concept of ‘photographic seeing’.
‘Photographic Seeing’ is based on the very simple but often overlooked realisation that the sensor does not deal with light in the same way that the eye does. The human eye can scan a scene and make impossibly quick adjustments between the extremes of light and dark. This information is then further flattened by the brain to produce the image we ‘see’. The camera has no such luxury. It cannot smooth the edges, flatten the bright peaks or boost the dark troughs. It can only reproduce exactly what has passed through its lens.
Thus the concept of ‘photographic seeing’ is looking at a scene and seeing not from the perspective of the eye but of the camera. To observe a subject and know with certainty how it would look reproduced in a print or on screen and, much more importantly, what you could change to improve the image. It sounds tough but fortunately this is an ability that can be taught and refined quite easily by practising a couple of simple exercises.
First of all look out of your nearest window and imagine it as a photograph. Take a second to look at the light. What are the brightest and darkest areas of the frame? These are the parts that will draw the eye most forcefully (they eye is guided by the dark and drawn towards the light) so next ask where do these spots sit in the frame? Are they at the edge or in the centre? Are the bright and dark spots next to each other or creating a high contrast or are they separated out? Finally, and most importantly, do these bright and dark spots help or hinder the subject? Do they take the eye towards the subject or away from it?
If you take the time to do this a couple of times a day it soon becomes second nature. It doesn’t take long at all before you start doing it automatically and I guarantee your photography will improve dramatically as a result.
The next step is a little trickier but equally worthwhile. Once you have analysed a scene take a second to think how the light could change it. What if the sun was in a different place in the sky? What if it was a cloudy day? Where would the shadows fall? Where would catch the light? Would this help or hinder your image? If you are having trouble visualising then grab an egg and a torch and try this:
Light is photography Ergo, if the light changes the photograph must always change too.
Once you have spent a little time practising these skills your ‘photographic seeing’ will dramatically improve and with it the quality of your photographs.
If you would like to do a little more in depth reading I can recommend “The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression” by Bruce Barnbaum and “The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos” by Michael Freeman