Sea swimming Pool Cliftonville February 2018 – Frame 2 of 14

This is the second of two posts in the “See Like A Professional” series. In the first post we looked at the following topics:

  1. Bad pictures are good,
  2. Shoot fewer frames of more subjects or shoot more frames of fewer subjects,
  3. Pictures are taken, photographs are made
  4. Effective and efficient seeing practice is not repeatedly pressing the button

See the full Part 1 post here

There are many articles about photographic seeing available on the web and in print. The idea behind this series of articles is to set out some of the wider fundamental thinking before you get into the nuts and bolts of how photographic seeing is achieved. In this post we will be focusing our attention on the following topics:

  1. Relax and observe your subject
  2. Fully work your subject and frame
  3. Look for the extraordinary within the ordinary
  4. Less is more
  5. Be brave and get closer
  6. Ignore the background at your peril

Let’s go through each practical point and I will explain the reasons why they are useful to help you see photographically. I have said many times photography is a very individual practice, the resulting digital image or print is brought about by a myriad of different routes. Each photographer has their own way of coming to that settled and satisfying result of vision, style and the craft of printing. See the German Fotospeed photographer Elke Vogelsang’s blog post on the benefits of printing your own work.

1 Relax and observe your chosen subject

Swimming Pool, Cliftonville Kent, February 2018

As a generalisation, many photographers see the outline of the picture in their mind’s eye and take the shot with a very short period of observation. In some cases this will be the appropriate thing to do due to the timing available, the shot will be lost if action is not taken immediately. For example, this could be true of street photography, motor racing or team games. Where you have the opportunity to observe or to put it in a more poetic way “to stand and stare” seeing benefits can be gained.

In recent years Mindfulness has come into the orbit of photography. Without going into long explanations about Mindfulness here it simply means to be “completely in the moment”. We need to give our full undivided attention to observing and framing our chosen subject. We cannot be distracted by worrying about how to operate the camera properly. When you are looking through the viewfinder, 100% of your concentration must be channelled into the picture taking and making process.

Take, for example, the practice of the excellent Fotospeed photographer Paul Sanders he will spend much time observing his subject even before taking his Fujifilm GFX 50s camera out of the bag. Finding the most useful viewpoint and background for your subject is one of your key jobs as a photographer. As you change your viewpoint there will be a corresponding change to the resulting background. Finding the viewpoint that gives you what you want to say without distractions is the whole point of observing your chosen subject.

True observation is not a quick glance, it is an intense scrutiny of your chosen subject just as an artist would observe their subject matter before sketching with a pencil. You cannot sketch in detail without keen observation.

2 Fully work your subject and frame

A major mistake made by many is they fail to explore all possibilities of the subject, viewpoint and framing. You will note that there are two parts to this topic the first being find your viewpoint and angle of view. So you’re stood in the right place and you have chosen an appropriate focal length to encapsulate your vision.

To carry on the second point from above:

⦁ How capable are you of arranging your dominant subject matter within the frame?

⦁ Is there only one satisfying arrangement?

⦁ How else could you compose the picture so you have a variety of options to choose from when you come to select a file to be post-processed?

To quote the highly esteemed Canadian photographer and writer Freeman Patterson “Only use the rule of thirds when all other arrangements fail to satisfy.”

The photographer who presses the button very few times of the same subject must be highly confident that their commitment to a small number of frames will not cause disappointment later.

Isle of Sheppey Crossing February 2018 – 1 of the 24 frames taken

3 Look for the extraordinary within the ordinary

Do you feel when you go out with your camera were looking at the same old, same old stuff?

“The real voyage of discovery consists of not seeking new landscapes. but having new eyes”.

Marcel Proust


Familiarity can easily breed contempt, however, there is always the excitement of a new location that makes the visual creative juices flow. We may travel halfway around the world and find great stimulation in the new and novel.

But to see photographically in depth in many cases will require repeated visits to a familiar location or subject. Repeated visits allow your knowledge and appreciation of the totality of the subject to grow at different: times of the year, weather conditions, lighting and of course the variety of subject matter.

Both ends of Herne Bay Pier – the middle section was blown away in a 1978 winter storm

4 Less is more

As a photography mentor, my clients come with all sorts of different needs in their ability to take and make pictures. In general, photographers fall into three camps

⦁ firstly, those who easily see an interesting visual composition in any given scene,

⦁ secondly, are those who with work can find a pleasing composition and

⦁ thirdly, there are those who struggle to see any picture anywhere.

Those of us in the second and third categories may have a tendency to be looking at everything and seeing nothing. Their concentration may be out of kilter because the camera is fitted with a zoom lens which means that they have the opportunity to capture many possibilities. In order to reduce the number possibilities to a manageable number choose a preferred focal length and look for pictures that can be taken at that length. Also on the same theme of less is more if you want to train yourself to see better go out with a telephoto lens and look for pictures to capture.

Many photographers identify with the idea of zooming in to exclude unwanted periphery and distractions. Have you considered the equal and opposite action of zooming out to find the minimum amount visual information to create a cohesive picture? Sometimes turning a problem on its head can help to find a solution.

Turner Contemporary Museum, Margate – February 2018

5 Be brave and get closer

If you feel your work lacks immediacy and connection with the subject matter I suggest using a wide-angle lens to give your pictures more impact. Impact can be increased by getting closer to the subject matter. The wider the angle the lens, the closer you need to be.

Pictures gain impact when the foreground is filled, this is part particularly true of landscape photography. Perhaps not an approach I would recommend for candid portraiture but it seemed to work for the New York street photographer Bruce Gilden. There are no rights and wrongs is in photography you have to follow your own vision and style.

You may be aware of the quote by Robert Capa who said “If your pictures are not good enough get closer” as a photographer in the second world war he did not necessarily mean to get physically closer. We can also get closer by training our awareness and perception of the subject so we become closer and in-tune with its essential and significant elements.

For example, the finest photographs of any subject will change, add or improve the knowledge of the viewer about the chosen subject. This is quite a statement when you consider the millions of pictures posted on social media every day. Much of visual information we see each day is lost in what amounts to visual noise.

Swimming Pool Cliftonville Kent February 2018 – I was 150mm from the foreground subject with a wide-angle lens – be brave and get closer

6 Ignore the background at your peril

Herne Bay Pier – note the distracting wind turbines in the background

Your job as a photographer is to make a picture (a communication document) that’s intelligible to the viewer. You are the viewer’s eyes, you decide what to include and exclude, yours is the job of deciding what is significant and why. The background is in equal part of the picture, it is just as important as the foreground. If the background is not helping to amplify the message carried in the foreground the impact of the picture is weakened.

It is always good photographic practice to check the background for distractions before pressing the shutter release. For example, it may be that the proverbial white van in the background. If your subject hasn’t moved therefore you’ve lost anything by waiting for the van to move out of the picture. Such a distraction may be difficult to remove at the post-processing stage. The attitude of “I will take that out later” if it can be done in-camera just adds work.

Going back to what we said earlier about the choice of viewpoint: viewpoint subject, and background are always linked together. Change the position of one and a different picture is composed.

These two blog posts have given you ten ideas to think about seeing like a professional. Not every idea will apply directly to your photographic practice. The best free hot hint I can give you is “every time you press the shutter is an opportunity to get it right, don’t waste it by a lack of time in the Learning-Zone and a trained intuition”.