You learn to see by practice. It’s just like playing tennis, you get better the more you play. The more you look around at things, the more you see. The more you photograph, the more you realize what can be photographed and what can’t be photographed. You just have to keep doing it.
I have just finished reading an interesting book on Nature Photography by Nat Coalson. For those of you interested in Nature Photography, this book is a good read. In the first part of the book, he talks a lot about seeing and visualization. Coalson talks about how the human mind perceives an image in terms of tones and patterns, resolves the sharp/blurry relationships and then discusses how this affects our view of an image. He continues by noting that while we perceive things in three-dimensions, a camera can only capture images in two dimensions. If you want to experience what this is like, close one eye and look at a scene with the open eye. While this is not exactly how the camera might see an image, it is probably as close as you can get. What the cameras sees while it is looking at a scene is very different from what you or I see, so how do you look at an image and get the camera to see what you see, or, at least, think you see.
Looking and seeing are two different things in the sense that what you are looking at is often not what the camera sees nor what it captures. So how do we, as photographers learn to see? That is the question. Seeing, in the context of photography, or maybe art in general, is a learned skill. It is really training your brain to analyze the scene that you are looking at and visualize how it will look in the final image. The skill is to look at a scene and analyze it in term of its components – lines, shapes, colours, shadows and textures – and determine how they are best put together to compose the final image. This is not something you learn overnight, but it is something you can learn and you can often learn a lot from looking at the images of other photographers. If landscapes are what interest you, then find a landscape photographer that you admire and study their images. What is it about them that you like, or dislike? Make note of how they have used the components noted previously in their images. Have they made use of some of the guidelines of composition, such as the rule of thirds, the use of leading lines, curves, etc? Once you have determined their use of compositional elements, then it is time to examine your use of these components and guidelines. You will need to learn to look for composition elements in your own images and learn how they best fit together to produce an image that you like.
Think of how a child learns to walk. First he may simply roll around on the floor. Then, he learns to crawl and maybe pull himself up on some piece of furniture. Often he may take his first steps with the dutiful help of a parent or sibling, but, then the day comes when he takes his first unaided step. If you are the parent watching this historic event, can you remember your reaction. Well learning to see, to visualize a final image, in whole or in part can often invoke similar feeling. Maybe not a mind-blowing euphoria, but a certain warm, fuzzy feeling that you have seen more than you have ever seen before. The next time you are out looking at the country side thinking that maybe this would make a nice landscape image, stop, put your camera aside and really look at the landscape. Even if you do not do landscape photography, this is a useful exercise. Look at that part of the landscape that is right in front of you. What do you see? Do you see the details in the grass, or the bushes, or the trees, or the buildings (if there are any)? Now lift your head and look at the horizon. What do you see? Do you see the details in the things that are there – the trees, any buildings, clouds? If there are clouds, how do they look – thin and wispy, fat and puffy or just flat with no features? Now look at the middle ground and try the same exercise over again. Take at least ten or fifteen minutes in this type of exercise. If you haven’t begun to see the more intimate details of the landscape, then try it again – learn to look for the details, the lines, the individual objects composing the scene and their geometric shapes – squares, circles, rectangles, triangles and so on. Look at the shadows and see what is hidden in them. Look at the areas of highlights and see what is visible. Is there anything here that might draw your viewer’s attention in to, or out of, the final image? If so, what are you going to do with it – hide it, blur it into the background, or change you view of the landscape so that it is not visible? Now turn to your right about 45 degrees and repeat this exercise. When finished, turn 90 degrees to your left and do it again. Has your insight into the landscape changed? Are you more aware of the things in the landscape that you were before you started this exercise? If so, that is a good thing. If not, try it again.
A prop that I sometimes use is to take the thumb and forefinger of each hand and put them together to make a rectangle in a feeble attempt to simulate my rectangular viewfinder – hey, it works – try it. You can hold it up close to your eye or far away. Regardless, it provides a simple-minded alternative to your viewfinder and can serve to provide an initial idea as to what you might see in your viewfinder. If you have Live View, then you can use this to assess your image prior to shooting, but the hand thing works quite well, even if you have Live View.
If landscapes are not your thing, then you can try the same exercise with whatever your thing is. For example, if it is flowers, then start by looking at the flower, or flowers and really see what you are looking at. Do you see the individual petals, the stem, the centre parts of the flower? Now look at the background. Is there anything there that is liable to draw the viewer’s eye away from the main subject of your image? If so, how are you going to deal with it? Maybe, you pick another flower. Maybe, you don’t take a picture at all.
I do a lot of bird photography, particularly water birds, and I often like to stand and watch the birds for a while to see what they are doing. Some are obviously just floating in the water, others are taking off and landing and others are scurrying around, up and down the shoreline, in search of food. I then try to decide whether I just want a picture of floating birds, or do I want to try and capture one that is taking off or landing. If I hadn’t spent some time looking for the birds, seeing what they are doing and then trying to visualize the image I might like to try and capture, I suspect my images might not be as good as they sometimes are. I know that sounds a little self-indulgent, but I have learned from experience that this preliminary look-see adds to my awareness of what is going on and guides me towards the types of images that I want to take. It also means that I can then position myself accordingly to try and capture the best examples of birds floating, landing or taking off, or whatever it is that they happen to be doing.
Regardless of what type of photography interests you, they all have one thing in common – colour. Whether it is ordinary, everyday colour, or black and white, the colours in an image go a long way towards determining its overall appeal. So, part of the ability to see an image before you make it, is the ability to visualize how the colours in what you are looking at will appear in the final image. Situations such as whether or not the sun is shining, will have a significant influence over the final picture. As well, contrast in the image will often be established by the colours that are in the image. Is it a more or less monotone landscape, or is it an image of a field of flowers, all bright and vibrant? Never lose sight of the fact that colour, tonal range and contrast can produce a profound end result. All you have to do is look at the scene, see its potential and visualize the end result.