See Like A Professional

This is the first of two posts in the see like a professional series.

There are many articles about photographic seeing available on the web and in print. The idea behind this article is to set out some of the wider fundamental thinking before you get into the nuts and bolts of how photographic seeing is achieved.


1 Bad pictures are good

You may wonder about the sanity of a professional photographer who starts an article about photographic seeing by saying that bad pictures are good! Surely, we all want to take good pictures and the bad ones don’t matter. Consequently, the assumption that bad pictures don’t matter is a common fallacy must be put in its place right away.

Bad pictures are only good if you have the passion and humility to learn from your mistakes and not to blame perceived poor tools. The hankered after top of the range camera body and lenses only make you have less money in the bank account and not a better photographer. Hence, the cost of the spend on equipment does not equal seeing ability value

Especially relevant is no one learns from their successes, you only learn from the mistakes.


To quote Malcolm Forbes of Forbes Magazine fame “Failure is success, if we learn from it.”

If you aim to see like a professional and the hoped for good pictures turn out to be bad, the growth mindset is critical when seeking to turn failure into success. The process of overcoming failure goes along these lines for many professions:

  • Seek quality feedback
  • Review the feedback
  • Innovate new ideas from the insights gained from the feedback
  • Experiment and test new ideas
  • Review
  • Adapt and test
  • Review

If you think the creative success is easy take the example of James Dyson the inventor of the Dyson vacuum cleaner. He had 526 prototype failures before getting it right.

see like a professional
2 Shoot fewer frames of more subjects or shoot more frames of fewer subjects

The title of this section has purposely been written in the way that many photographers will perceive how their practice changed over the years. When we are young and enthusiastic we tend to shoot as many different subjects as we can. As our experience grows and we gain a vision and style that is played out in the picture templates that are embedded in our subconscious. A picture template is repeated way of seeing and taking pictures, we all have them. See this encouraging article about Powerful Picture Templates and how to ensure your creative seeing muscle grows.

Most of all, we see like a professional when we shoot more of fewer subjects.

The experienced photographer may tend to shoot more frames of a lesser number of subjects. We tend to do this because we link the output or the use of the pictures at the taking stage. You cannot use pictures that you haven’t taken whilst on location. Therefore, story-boarding and a shooting list mean that you can complete the project with all the required pictures in one visit.



Click on the pictures below to enlarge them.

see like a professional
see like a professional
see like a professional
3 Pictures are taken, photographs are made

What is the process for making a photograph? The outline creative process in simple terms to create a photograph may be along these lines, every photographer will have their own working practice.

The take-away thought from the process opposite is begin with the end in mind to quote Dr Stephen Covey

  • Inspiration
  • Theme
  • Ideas
  • Hunting or farming – planned and unplanned shoots
  • Taking – capture
  • Editing – reducing the many to the few
  • Post-processing workflows – making the photograph from the raw material
  • Output – online, book, exhibition etc
see like a professional
4 Effective and efficient seeing practice is not repeatedly pressing the button

Henri Cartier Bresson said “Your first 10,000 pictures are the worst”. He did not mean that when you get past 10,000 pictures all will be well. For me, I feel he meant 10,000 prints not 10,000 negatives! In the digital age 10,000 camera files can be made very quickly and will have very little value in the learning process.

Practice only becomes effective and efficient when it is linked with honest and capable feedback. Practice only really works well when the technique you are practising is slightly beyond your current reach. So for example, I use a phrase along the lines of “show, do, review”. The workshop participant is shown how to do something, they do it themselves and then I review the pictures / seeing with them so they pick up and correct any errors on the spot. This way of working leads to a much quicker progress than repeatedly shooting random frames. Yet it is unfortunately true your ability tends to plateau just by shooting frames randomly without feedback.

Seeing is all about recognising the photographic moment in say street photography for example when all the elements of the picture come together. This may be the subject matter, composition and timing. This subject is explored in greater detail in my book The ABC of camerawork manual on page 69.

Ideas about seeing in the arena of street photography will be explored in greater detail on the one day street workshop in Bristol with Dave Mason and myself on the 8th September. There are only a few places left.


In the next post in the see like a professional series we will be looking at
  • Relax and observe your chosen subject
  • Fully work your subject and frame
  • Look for the extraordinary within the ordinary
  • Less is more
  • Be brave and get closer
  • Ignore the background at your peril