(This is an excerpt from the introduction to the companion exercise book for the 9th edition of Complete Digital Photography. It can be downloaded free from the CDP 9 support page on the website.)
Throughout your life you have probably been told to practice one thing or another—musical instruments, sports, handwriting, whatever. If you’re like me, you were never thrilled with the idea of practicing, and though you understood that the exhortation to practice was true and important, you also didn’t really believe it. Maybe you clung to some of the popular cultural myths that we share—the myth of the “natural” athlete or the “gifted” musician—and so skipped practicing with the hope that you would turn out to be one of those natural, gifted individuals. The truth is that, while there are people that start with a skill level above the normal baseline, those people only achieve greatness because of their extreme dedication to practicing. The same is true with photography.
It can be difficult to understand how important practice is to the discipline of photography because the camera takes care of so much of the craftsmanship of making an image. There is, of course, plenty of theory to understand, as well as technical considerations to weigh when making a photo, and learning those things takes practice. What can be less obvious is that visualizing and seeing as a photographer also requires practice. The good news is that the process of seeing is something that you can learn and improve at.
Because we are constantly looking at things during the normal course of being alive, we don’t always think of “seeing” as a skill that can be learned, but I can offer two proofs that your ability to see changes with practice:
First, in addition to seeing, most of us are also constantly hearing things. If you’ve ever learned to play a musical instrument then you know that, through practice, you can train your ear to hear pitch, intervals and rhythm. Similarly, your eyes can be trained to recognize form, light, and many compositional ideas.
The second proof is something that might sound familiar: you spend an afternoon wandering about with your camera, searching for things to shoot, only to end up frustrated because you feel like you’re repeating yourself. All of the compositions you come up with are similar to other compositions you’ve made before, and all of the subject matter that you notice is similar to other things you frequently photograph. While this kind of photographic rut can be very frustrating, it’s also evidence that seeing is a skill that can be learned, because what has led you to this rut is repetition, and while feeling like you’re in a rut can be demoralizing, it’s also a valuable step toward developing something that all photographers need.
More about how to build a photograph
In Chapter 9 of Complete Digital Photography I wrote about how an aesthetic for light is critical to the photographic process and how all photographs begin with an impulse, sometimes slight, which the photographer must tune into and explore to make the best photo. No matter how you do it, occasionally, you will “solve” a photograph in a very satisfying, successful way. Perhaps that compositional solution also requires specific exposure ideas—dropping shadows into black, for example, or depending on shallow depth of field for subject isolation. When you find those satisfying solutions you will remember them and, because they were successful, you will probably find yourself deploying the same solutions in other situations.