Why does one photographer walk by an opportunity that someone else turns into a magazine cover? How can you learn to see creatively? Your camera manual won’t answer these questions. But with the right tools and process, you can improve your photographic vision.
The tools that help photographers to creatively see include patience, positive attitude and an open mind. While most people possess these traits to some degree, they usually lack the process that pulls it all together. On your next photo shoot, use these steps to improve your photographic vision.
1. Elimination. Most photographers identify their subject using a logical pattern. They usually eliminate items from the foreground and background until something catches their eye and they make the photograph. Unfortunately, most shooters eliminate things until only the most obvious choice remains. Then they fire away at the subject without thinking about other options. Photographers who see creatively establish routines that lead them to see other ways to frame a subject. A photography teacher unknowingly taught me this very point when he opined, “Look up, look down and then look all around.” He was trying to get me to see the same subject in many ways. To this day I practice his approach.
Example: Laying on the ground to change perspective and using wide-open telephoto to compress background as well as focus attention on the foreground allows the photographer to eliminate certain elements that a standing photographer would have no choice but to include.
2. Evolution. Try raising your camera in six-inch increments from the ground to your tripod’s maximum height. Look carefully at the subject on every level. This incremental approach to making different photographs of the same subject is a perfect example of evolutionary creative seeing. Make many small refinements to your composition for the best chance to see the best shots. This approach is especially valuable when photographing familiar subjects.
3. Reinvention. In the late 1800s, the head of the U.S. Patent Office advised Congress that the Patent Office should be closed to save money. He decided that everything worth inventing had already been invented! I once heard a photographer say that he would not photograph national parks because they’d “already been done.” This is the opposite of creative thinking. There is always a different or better way to shoot what has been photographed before. You just have to “see” it.
Example: Use selective focus to draw the eye into the scene rather than just generally focusing on the most obvious subject.
4. Revolution. As photographers we need to approach our photographic subjects from the inside / out perspective if we want to see creatively. Turn the problem (or subject) around. After the paper clip was invented, someone created the staple gun. This lesson can be applied to photography. For instance, when you are trying to shape light for a portrait, instead of using strobes for the usual three to one ratio with a main and fill, try subtracting light altogether with scrims. Or try making your next landscape both horizontally and vertically. Which is better?
5. Synthesis. Think of this as the multiple exposure method to seeing creatively. Combine multiple ideas (seemingly related or not) to make one image. Ansel Adams did this by always trying to put an interesting object into both the foreground and the background. Think of things like audio books, dinner theatres and drive-in movies. These were all invented as the result of synthetic thinking. How can you apply this form of thinking to your image making? How about putting a canoe in a field of wheat to illustrate “amber waves of grain?” Or juxtapose two things that don’t seemingly belong together. Try putting a uniformed basketball team in the swimming pool for the team portrait.
Example: accentuate an object in the scene that you want to draw attention to by using light or shadow.
6. Starting Over. Use things that were invented for one purpose, and maybe even discarded, for a brand new purpose. Throw out all the rules and see what you can see. Maybe you will photograph your next subject while lying on your back. Perhaps it would be a good idea to shoot slide film in a situation that normally calls for prints. This kind of thinking led to recent surges in cross-processing, selective focus and toning of color rather than just monotone photographs. All are now very popular with the magazines but out in left field when they were first applied. Other possibilities include the more traditional techniques like iteration, use of color as subject, use of line, shape or form to draw the viewer’s eye to the subject.
7. New Directions. Try a brand-new angle, both literally and figuratively. Try all your lenses. Shoot from different perspectives. Change formats. Maybe your shot would look good as a panoramic? Shoot a rectangular shot as if it were square. Focus your complete attention on the opportunity. Let the process take care of itself. Don’t approach your composition as if the solution is more important than the result. Use a fish net as a diffuser to get a nice soft look. Go crazy and try new stuff.