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DEVELOPING YOUR AESTHETIC SKILLS - PART 2
By Vandit Kalia
October 2006

In Part 1, I talked about how the basic rules of composition are simply not enough to develop a creative vision. In this part, I am going to go over some visual exercises that *can* help in this area. My goal is to provide specific exercises that you can do to improve yor photography, as opposed to indulging in convoluted "arts-speak" verbiage that seems to grip most of the artistic community. So up, up and away....

ASSIMILATE AND COPY

A commonly-given advice to beginners is to look at beautiful photos and see what works and doesn't work. While this is certainly useful, I don't think it pushes the envelope far enough. My suggestion is to take this a step further: find photographs that you like and try to replicate them. For example, there are plenty of amazing photos on Yosemite, Yellowstone, Ladakh, Rajasthan and various other locations. It doesn't have to be too exotic either - I am sure there are beautiful photos of your local region, whereever that may be (insert New Jersey dig here). Find those photos, find those regions and try to make the same photo.

I can just hear the reaction: Did he just say "replicate"? Doesn't the dolt realize that the whole point of developing a creative vision is for it to be internal? What kind of a hokey, low-rent operation is this anyhow?

Well, let me ssure you that you will gain tremendously from this approach. It is quite common for art students to start out by copying the works of the famous painters, and I strongly feel more photographers should follow this approach as well.

Photography essentially consists of 2 parts - first visuaizing the image you want to make, and then achieving that image.

With this approach, the visualization is done for you. So now you are forced to start thinking about how to harness your technical skills in order to achieve a specific result, as opposed to some arbitrary and unplanned image. This takes your technical ability beyond the basic exposure/focus calculation into the realm of using techniques to achieve a given vision.

Secondly, and more importantly, it helps you learn - by example - how to convert the photo potential of a scene into a specific image. Imagine going to a very scenic location near sunset. You have in front of you a beautiful vista burgeoning with photo opportunities. The light is also just right. So the potential is all there. What is now needed is your creative input, which will then realize the potential of this scene. For a lot of people - including myself, when I was starting out - one of the challenges, when faced with a given scene, is figuring out what to include, how to include and what to exclude.

When you already have the resulting image in mind, it becomes easier to see what the expert photographer chose to include and chose to exclude. So now you have one example of how to convert the "photographic potential" into a "high quality image." You can see for yourself what was included, what was excluded and why.

Done enough times, you'll eventually find that you develop your own ability to convert a given vista into a suitable composition. The more time you spend on this, the more you refine this ability to "see" a photograph amidst all the potential.

As you take the replica shot, you might find that somwhere within your soul, a small voice tells you to include this bit instead - or to exclude that bit over there. Indulge that voice as well. Take the replica shot, and take the shot that your own Muse urges you to take. This is your own developing artistic ability talking.

Initially atleast, you'll find that the replica shot is indeed better. Which is ok - now you can examine the images and see why it was better. Certainly, replicating the experience in this manner makes for a more meaningful analysis than simply looking at a photo in a book. Eventually, you'll learn from your mistakes and your inner voice's suggestions will become more refined. Now, not only have you started developing your "external vision" (seeing the possibilities out there), but you are also developing your own unique "internal vision" (a view or interpretation that is unique to you).

Note that the goal of creating a replica image isn't to create a shot that looks identical - the goal is to re-create the design elements that went into the picture, such as lines, colors, shapes, etc.. If the photo is of a particular subject - such as an iconic building or monument, then yes, you need to shoot the same subject. However, if it is a more generic subject, then any comparable setting will do. For example, a shot of a tree in a field can be replicated using any tree or field, provided the main design elements are the same. A necessary corollary to this, of course, is that you need to analyze the reference image and figure out what the design elements are.

Even if you are not able to re-create the original image exactly, a comparison between the reference and your image will tell you a lot about what makes each image work, and what doesn't.

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE

One of the more useful books for the advanced photographer that I have come across has been a set of 3 published by Brooks Jensen, the editor of Lenswork Magazine - "On Being a Photographer", "Letting Go of the Camera" and "Single Exposure."

These books, amidst other things, raised one very important point that I found noteworthy: the need for practice. It points out that a concert pianist has to practice daily in order to maintain, let alone improve, his abilities. A painter has to keep painting, a sculptor has to keep chipping away (sorry, couldn't resist), and we all know the amount of training pro athletes do. So why do we photographers never emphasize the value of practice?

This raises 2 important points, both of which are well worth taking to heart: one, photogrpahy is a skill that requires practice to maintain and second and more important, that it is a learnable skill. It isn't a province of the gifted - with diligent effort, everyone can get there (whereever "there" is).

For technical ability, useful skills to practice include focusing on moving objects (see my article on the Art of Auto-focus), getting familiar with the camera body and learning to meter tricky scenes. However, since we are discussing the aesthetic elements of photography, let's talk about practice which is relevant here.

What you need to do is practice how to "see." Simply look around and look at the photo opportunities present. Put the viewfinder to your eye, and look at your various options. What will you include, what will you exclude, where will you stand, which lens will you use and so on. Then after visualizing what you want to do, take that shot. See how it worked out - if you like it, why and if you hate it, why?

After a while, you'll find that you don't even need a camera. As you get familiar with the fields of view offered by different focal lengths, you'll find that you can visualize the scene without putting a viewfinder to your eye. And don't forget to look critically at your results as well. As you spend time evaluating your photographs, you'll learn how your pre-shot visualizations translate into results. This will help you refine the quality of your visualization by providing you with feedback as to which compositions have potential and which are not worth trying.

THINK IN TERMS OF PHOTO PROJECTS

Most of us are on the look-out for that "perfect" shot. We see photos in National Geographic, Nature's Best and other such places and are inspired to go out and hunt for that amazing shot as well.

That is not a very effective way to work, as it is too random, but this what most people do. They go from place A to place B, taking a few shots and moving on. Even a lot of dedicated hobbyists are guilty of walking around, looking for the perfect photo opportunity. The National Geo photographer, on the other hand, doesn't just go looking around for those 5 perfect shots - he spends weeks and weeks investigating all the photo opportunities, making a specfic list of photos that he wants and then shooting them. And the five shots that grace the magazine emerge from that body of work. In other words, the excellent photographs come about as a result of a systemic exploration of the photo opporunities present.

There is a lesson there - in order to get the best results, you need to focus your energies and work systematically. A good way to do that is by working in projects.

A project doesn't have to be an expensive, time-consuming effort that requires you to quit your job. It can be as simple as you want - in fact, when you start out, simple is better as it is more likely that you will follow through and complete it.

Working in a project involves the following steps:

  • First, define what your project is. Be specific. Also, choose a topic which you can realistically finish, given your time, monetary and other constraints.
  • Second, make a list of the photographs that you think are needed for the project. Again, be as specific as possible when it comes to what each shot is going to look like. It sometimes helps to pretend that you are an author and this is an essay project. Jot down what you'd like to tell the viewer, as text. Then figure out what photos would best convey this. That's your starting list. Note that you are not going to be limited to just these shots - they are merely a starting point. However, a good starting list will greatly improve the quality of your results, so make sure you give this stage the attention it deserves.
  • Go out and get the shots that you had planned. Sounds simple enough, but keep in mind that you want these shots to be as good as possible. So you need to get all the elements right - no "getting to the spot at mid-day, taking a shot and moving on." You'll have to spend time and effort in getting these shots, and you'll find yourself working harder to make these images.

What happens here is that by defining the shots you want to make, you force yourself to think ahead and plan on getting those shots. That alone increases your probability of getting a good image, when compared to someone who just turns up and hopes for the best. All the hard work you put into getting top qality images will improve the quality of each image. Consequently, your overall body of work is not only more cohesive, but also of higher quality as each image is the result of greater planning and effort.

While the project is ongoing, you'll also see additional shots that you did not think about initially - go ahead and add them. It's a rare project which can be planned completely in advance. In fact, in your new "heightened state of awareness", you'll very likely notice new things when shooting: things that you may have missed with a more casual approach.

And last but not the least , because you are spending more time waiting for just the right shot, you increase the chances of being at the right place when serendipity strikes. In other words, you make your own luck. There is a great quote from a photographer (whose name eludes me) that I came across a while back - "the harder I work, the luckier I get." Words to print on your camera bag.

I have found this approach to work when I was a consultant - the best pricing or marketing strategies didn't come about as a "flash of inspiration", but as a result of hours and hours of analysis - and the best analysis was the result of a carefully planned framework and a methodical way of working. I have also found this to work very well while taking photos, and I heartily recommend this to everyone as the most effective way of working. Trust an engineering wonk to take the romance out of art, eh?

RESEARCH AND PLANNING

One theme you'll notice both the points above is the emphasis on planning your shoot beforehand. And in most cases, unless you know your subject really well, this involves doing some reearch beforehand so that you know what is worth shooting.

If you are shooting wildlife, learn about your subject - where it is found, what the best time of the year to see it, what some of the interesting behavioral aspects of that animal are and so on. If you are shooting travel photos, research your destination to figure out what defines that destination in terms of must see locations, flavor, people, culture, etc. If you are shooting landscapes, it helps to know the best time of the year to visit, the best locations, etc.

Speak to photographers, ask around in forums (and not necessarily just photography ones), soak in images made by other photographers, read guidebooks and generally immerse yourself in your subject.. Become an expert on your proposed subject, and your photography will improve.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS

Ultimately, we develop our artistic abilities through experience, and trial and error - by learning what works, and what doesn't.

I believe it was either Edison or Einstein who said (paraphrasing somewhat) - "What other people regard as 100 failures, I see as learning 100 ways on how not to do things."

To benefit from experience, you have to make a concerted effort to try to learn. If you simply shoot a lot, keep the photos you like and dump the photos you don't, you will not learn.

What you need to do is understand what makes a particular photo work or not. If possible, try to compare a successful image to a similar image that doesn't quite work. Both can be your work, or you can compare your work to that of other photographers .

It is important that you do this after every shoot. And after you've done your comparisons, try to draw out one or two lessons that you can apply for the next shoot. And from the next time on, try to avoid making the same mistakes - atleast unintentionally. Sometimes, you'll want to experiment with an approach that hasn't worked for you before, and that is fine... the main thing is to not blindly repeat the same mistakes.

For example, if your photo didn't work because the horizon was right down the middle, try to ensure that you don't repeat this next time. It is ok to put the horizon down the middle if it is deliberate - but try to avoid making this mistake inadvertently.

With every iteration of these exercises, you'll find that you gain additional insights on how to make better photos. You'll also refine and revise older insights. It takes time, true - there is no quick way to develop an artistic eye, unfortunately, no matter what the various photo books may tell you - but it will help you develop a style that is unique to you.

GET OUT OF YOUR RUT

A lot of photographers will stick to shooting what works for them, and not experiment with anything outside their comfort zone - I daresay this has happened to virtually every photographer out there.

If that is happening to you (be honest), force yourself out of your rut. Shoot something you don't like. Use a different type of camera. Use a different technique or approach. Anything works - as long as it is something different from what you do.

Not only will this expand your photographic horizons, but it will also make your ore photography better.

For example, if you notice the images in this website, you'll notice very few portraits. That is because I generally don't like photographing people - I am simply not interested in it. I take other photographers to places where they can shoot street scenes and colorful characters, but while they are shooting, I simply watch (that is something I do enjoy). However, one consequence of shooting primarily landscape and wildlife was that after a while, I found myself plateauing.

So I took a week off and forced myself to travel with only a pocket camera. That's it. I also forced myself to shoot only people scenes. And I chose to shoot in B&W only, and for pure pleasure only: not for sales, publication, or for fame, women and glory (ha!). The result - I had fun making the images, I found some new ways of working and most importantly, my core wildlife and landscape work got a boost from the sudden inflow of creative juices. I began to see some similarities in my landscape work with my street work, and that has given me a better insight into how I see the world.

The above represent my thoughts on how photographers can develop their vision. I think a cookbook guide to composition is not very useful - it stresses minor tactical details, but doesn't stress the fact that developing creative ability is a process that takes years. The goal of this article was to give you a sense of how to put together a framework within which you can work - and even apply all those composition guidelines - and ultimately, develop your own inner vision. Keep in mind that this is a process that can, and will, take a long time. But hopeully you will notice incremental changes on an ongoing basis, and that should provide the inspiration to keep at it.

Happy shooting.

 
     

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