I have been in a photographic funk of late, unable to get into the right frame of mind to shoot. Last week, in the midst of this struggle, I knew that I needed to force myself back into my photography practice. I gave myself an assignment: go out for an afternoon and challenge myself, using one lens at a single focal length.
I use this exercise from time to time, to push me out of my comfort zone and get my mind unstuck. I’m not looking for great photographs; I’m looking to practice the art of seeing. And the great thing about choosing a single focal length — whether using one setting on a zoom or a prime lens — is that it forces me to move around a scene. If I find that I’m receptive to the exercise (it doesn’t always work), it can help me see.
When speaking with students, Ben and I will often talk about the importance of projects as an element in one’s photographic growth. While we tend to talk about this in the context of practicing, projects can take on a life of their own, and can help motivate you, either when you’re out in the field, or simply to get you out shooting. It can also be the type of thing that can fine tune your ultimate photographic vision.
A project can be anything thematic, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be of tangible ‘things,’ although it can be, like Ben’s tree project, which he mentioned in Chapter 9 of Complete Digital Photography (that chapter is available as a free download from the book support page):
One way to make yourself practice, and to breathe new life into familiar locations, is to give yourself an assignment. You can choose a subject—old cars, doorways, local flowers—or maybe a phrase or a word—contentment; no pain, no gain; a penny saved. The subject matter or word doesn’t have to mean anything to anyone else, and you can interpret it any way you want. The idea is simply to give yourself some way to frame your view of your location. Having a specific point of view or photographic goal will often make you see familiar ground in a new way. I like shooting trees, so I keep an ongoing tree project. Often, going out with the idea of shooting trees takes the pressure off; I don’t have to worry about finding subject matter. The world is a big place, and limiting it can make shooting much simpler.
(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.
There are a number of psychological battles that you face as a photographer (or anyone pursuing a creative endeavor). If you’re like most people, then you’ll likely find yourself fighting, at one time or another, doubt as to whether you’re a good photographer, or whether a particular photo is clichéd or obvious, or whether there was a better shot to be had. Over the last few years, one of the annoying questions I’ve found myself facing while shooting is “why am I taking this photo?”
For years, I was quite content to simply wander about, looking for good light or interesting subject matter. When people asked me what I like to shoot, I was fine with answering “interesting light” because that was, for the most part, all that guided my shooting. But then something started to change. I began to question the point of an image that was simply a well-crafted photograph. I found myself looking through the camera, building a shot, and then thinking “so what?”
From the photographer Keith Carter I learned that one answer to that question is “Because why not?” which is a pretty good answer, and it can sometimes get me to take the shot anyway, in spite of any existential photo dilemma. But there’s another way to tend to this question, if you’re finding yourself regularly facing it, and that is to engage yourself in a photographic project of some kind.
In Chapter 9 of Complete Digital Photography I offer the suggestion of simple photo projects, and the ideas there are good starting points as well as good exercises to take on, even if you’re not finding yourself plagued by questions of whether stand-alone photos are worth shooting. The idea of a project can be intimidating because it sounds so portentous, but a project does not have to be something of National Geographic caliber. You don’t have to go make first contact with a rainforest tribe, or pursue an endangered species or stumble onto a lost civilization to have a worthwhile project. A project can start with anything that you find interesting or compelling. Read more »
Ben would really, really like you to buy the upcoming 9th edition of Complete Digital Photography, but he adds that there’s nothing that will help make you a better photographer than to practice. Specifically, to practice the art of seeing.
Get out there and practice, practice, practice!
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