Photographic vision is essential to successful photography. Many people will tell you that you need it, but very few will explain what it is. You can search the web endlessly, but you won’t find a whole lot that lays out photographic vision simply and coherently. It took me a long time to learn it, mostly from experience, and mostly from failures. And, really, I’m still learning it. In this post I will briefly explain this important concept.
“In order to be a successful photographer, you must possess both vision and focus, neither of which have anything to do with your eyes.” –Kevin Russo
“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” –Ansel Adams
My definition of photographic vision is “a vivid and imaginative conception.” There are five essential elements of photographic vision, all beginning with the letter C, and three of those essential elements are found within that definition: Clarity, Creativity and Conception. Capturing and Composing are the fourth and fifth elements. Let’s take a look at each.
In order to have photographic vision, you must have vivid clarity. You must see in your mind’s eye what it is that you want to create before opening the shutter, which means that you must pre-visualize the finished photograph. This might be a brief moment before the shutter opens or this might be something that you’ve thought about for days, weeks or even years in advance. It doesn’t necessarily matter how long that you pre-visualized, it just matters that you saw the finished picture prior to capturing it.
Great photographs are very rarely happy accidents. Almost all worthwhile pictures took some thought and planning to create, even if just for a moment before the shutter clicked open. The more clearly you can see in your mind what it is that you want to capture, the more likely you are to accomplish it. Clarity means vividly seeing the end while still at the beginning, which is the first key to capturing great pictures.
In addition to having clarity, you must be creative. Some people seem to be naturally creative. If that’s not you, don’t fret! I believe that creativity is something that can be learned and fostered. The more you allow yourself to think outside the box and look at things from different angles, the more creative you’ll become. Creativity takes practice.
You have to relax. You have to keep an open mind. You have to use your imagination. Try to channel your inner child. This all might sound cliché, but the only barrier to creativity is yourself–your rigid self–the self that says words like “no” and “can’t” and “shouldn’t” and other negative things. Think positive and throw all the so-called rules out the window. Take a deep breath; let yourself go.
Your photograph begins as a concept. You have an idea. You begin to see that idea vividly in your mind’s eye. As the thought forms, you begin to consider other ways to look at it. Your creativeness takes the concept to new places. This is a vivid and imaginative conception.
Speak some message through your picture. Show your unique perspective. You have something important to say, so say it! Photographs are a form of nonverbal communication, and they all say something. The stronger the communication, the stronger the image. Use your strongest communication in your photos. Make your concept as clear as practical so the viewer isn’t left wondering what the point of the picture is.
The next step in photographic vision is to capture the image on film or digital sensor. You’ve come up with a creative concept that you can clearly see in your mind. You’ve made a vivid and imaginative conception, so now is the time to make it a photographic reality. This is when you take what you saw in your head and make it happen photographically.
There is a lot to this, of course. You must consider gear and settings and lighting and composition and everything else. You have to know how to put what’s in your mind into something tangible. If you don’t know how, then perhaps you should learn. There are so many resources available on the internet and at the library–it’s all at your fingertips if you put in a little effort to learn. And oftentimes learning-by-doing is a good approach because, after all, practice makes perfect. The more you do, the better you’ll be. Because this step might be the most difficult, I cannot overemphasize the importance of understanding how your camera works at a deep level, and knowing fundamental photographic concepts. Capturing what’s in your mind is much easier said than done, but it can be done.
Composing probably reminds you of composition, but that’s not what I mean, as composition can be found in the previous principals. Instead, think of a symphony composer, putting everything together, placing consideration on even the smallest details. In the case of photographic vision, composing means taking account of all the little details, including editing. Especially editing.
Editing might mean post-processing your files if they require manipulation to fulfill your vision, knowing how much manipulation is enough, and knowing when no manipulation is better. Editing also means editing out the lesser exposures, deleting the bad ones and not including the mediocre ones with a body of work. Consider composing to be a synonym for curating. Additionally, it’s knowing when the vision or execution of the vision wasn’t good enough. Composing means knowing when to take it from the top and try again. It means being responsible for the finished image.
It takes a lot of work, mostly mental work but also physical work, to create worthwhile pictures. You are creating pictures, not merely taking them. Your art requires your best craft. Understanding what photographic vision is goes a long ways towards this, but more important than understanding it is practicing it. Grab your camera and head out with a vivid and imaginative concept in your mind so that you will more successfully create great photographs.